After attending shearing school (twice!), I was still left asking “What exactly should I buy to set up my first sheep shearing kit?” Thanks to the advice of fellow shearers and some experience, I know. Here’s my shopping list and some tips. It’s lengthy but it’s all in one place, and it’s exactly what I needed when I got started. Thanks to fellow sheep shearers Jordan Reed, Marie Hoff, and Matt Gilbert for their guidance and tips.
Sheep Shearing Starter Kit
- Shearing Machine – At risk of stating the obvious, you’ll need something to shear with. I didn’t want to shell out $1,300-$4,000 for a full-sized shearing rig (motor and drop) until I was serious about this little agricultural hobby, so I purchased the Oster portable electric shears linked to here based on advice from other shearers. I purchased mine on sale for closer to $200, so watch for price reductions. If you’ll be shearing a handful of sheep, portable electric shears will serve you well. If you’ll be shearing more than that you’ll want to look into a motor and drop (as I am currently), and you should get it from none other than Ralph McWilliams at McWilliams Shearing Supply. He’ll get you set up in line with your budget and based on your needs. Portable shears like my Osters will wear out faster than large motor-and-drop set ups. One hand piece like mine might be good for 1,000 sheep or so, and probably no more than 20 in a day (roughly).
- Kool Lube – Metal blades (combs) get very hot, very quickly on portable electric shears like my Osters. Understandably, hot blades make the sheep flinch on contact, which makes your job harder than it needs to be: an uncomfortable, freaked out sheep is not a happy sheep. Spraying Kool Lube directly on to the combs and cutters cools the metal instantly. I do this as often as needed and take breaks between sheep to let the equipment cool down (and stand up straight and drink water).
- Motor oil – Get basic Valvoline (or similar) motor oil at about $7-$10/container to drip through the holes in your shearing hand piece and onto your combs and cutters. This lubes the motor inside and keeps the combs and cutters moving against each other smoothly. You’ll ruin your equipment if you don’t oil it.
- Pro tip: Don’t open the open the motor oil as you normally would, by unscrewing the cap on the motor oil container. Instead, keep the cap sealed on and poke a tiny hole in the top of the cap while the cap is still on the bottle. This creates a perfect dripping mechanism: it drips just enough motor oil into the tiny holes on your hand piece and keeps your hands and the fleece cleaner.
- Combs and cutters – But how do you know which combs to buy? The number of teeth matters most when it comes to buying combs. The fewer teeth there are on a comb, the more wool the comb will grab (remove) between its teeth with each pass of your shears. A nine-tooth comb, for example, will grab more wool between its teeth than would a 13, 17 or 18-tooth comb. The fewer the teeth, the faster the shear and the easier it is to cut the sheep; the more teeth there are, the slower the shear and the less likely you are to cut the sheep. As with many things in life, there’s a trade off between speed and safety. I almost always use a 13-tooth comb. It has served me well for Shetland, Jacob, Shetland-Ouessant and Targhee sheep as well as Cashmere goats. I have only needed a nine-tooth comb once and that was for Navajo Churro sheep who had not been sheared in over a year and had heavily matted wool.
- Heininger is the top-of-the-line brand for combs and cutters. My first combs were less expensive (Blackhawk brand) and I bought them from Premier Shearing Supplies. I’ll probably buy Heininger in the future.
- Keep track of the combs and cutters you have and have not used, so you know which need to be sharpened or not. Don’t start shearing with dull combs and cutters: it will make you want to push your shears more to get a better cut, and when you push your shears (rather than let them “float forward” with their own electric power) you can end up cutting the sheep.
- How often should you change combs and cutters? I have to change combs and cutters every three to five sheep or so, depending on the condition of the fleeces I’m cutting. For “neglected” sheep who haven’t been sheared in a while, it’s closer to every 5 sheep; for sheep sheared on schedule, it’s more like every 8-10 sheep. Unfortunately, recognizing when to change combs and cutters is one of those irritating things that mostly comes with experience. Pay attention to things like how much wool is left on the sheep, if the shears seem to be moving through the fleece more slowly, and things like that.
- Unless you want to buy a metal (sharpening) grinder and know how to use it, you will probably send your combs and cutters out for sharpening. If you’re a professional who shears a lot of sheep, often, it might be worth investing in sharpening yourself, but it doesn’t make sense for the volume and frequency at which I’m shearing.
- How many combs and cutters should you buy? The number you need depends on how many sheep you want to be able to shear between grindings (sharpening). For a conservative estimate, figure that one comb is good for about 10 sheep and one cutter for five sheep. If you want to be able to shear all week before grinding, figure out how many sheep you’ll shear in a week and go from there. If you’ll shear 100 sheep in a week, for example, you’ll need at least 10 combs and 20 cutters. When you mail off your combs for sharpening, remember that you won’t get them back for a week at least. You may want extra combs in order to keep shearing while you mail half of yours off, for instance, or to ensure you only have to deal with a week of downtime every month or so.
- Comb Screwdriver – You must have this kind of screwdriver to remove and replace combs and cutters. Regular screwdrivers will not work (says the woman who tried when she couldn’t find her comb screwdriver). Portable hand pieces often include one of these, but check to make sure. Get one like this:
- Comb brush and scraper – Technically, I suppose this is optional. You can always use your screwdriver to scrape away gunk, but a brush like this is helpful in cleaning it off of your hand piece – and between motor oil, lanolin, vegetable matter and wool bits, there is gunk to be cleaned.
Supporting Shearing Gear
- Disinfectant wash – I keep a small bottle of Nolvasan on hand though I’ve not yet had to use it, because I have been able to wash my combs and cutters in hot, soapy water between shearing jobs. While they are soaking, I scrub with a brush if needed; dry with a towel; and spray with a little oil to prevent rusting. As a shearer, you should be mindful of cross-animal/within farm and cross-farm contamination. Use fresh, clean combs and cutters on each job. You may have sheared a sheep with an abscess or other issue and neither you nor the owner may even know it. Don’t bring bacteria and viruses with you. Something like Nolvasan is good to have while on the road, when you may not have a set up for soap-and-water washing.
- Extension Cords – Best is 100 ft. or longer on one of those fancy rollers on wheels. I’ve had to put four cords together in order to get power from the nearest house or garage out to the shearing area.
- Garbage bags – Keep a whole roll in your car. I need them all the time, whether for fleeces people may want to give me, or for me to set fleeces aside for customers to keep, to contain a stinky tarp, or to hold your stinky clothes and shearing slippers. (I often change clothes after a job and before I drive home, especially if I’m super stinky.)
- Sheep crook – Yep, just like Little Bo Peep had. I almost never use mine (I catch sheep by hand in the pen) but it’s nice to have for the rare times I do need it. The goal is to hook the crook around a single rear leg of the animal and that’s enough to get it to stop so you can handle it. A crook comes in handy for the occasional extra ornery or wild sheep that I have trouble catching in the pen. Primitive breeds and/or sheep that haven’t been handled much by their owners during their lives can be harder to catch than others.
- Plywood or mat – Required. You must have a non-slip shearing surface, and that means a sheet of plywood or a mat. If you have a pick-up truck or similar and can fit it, I recommend a minimum 4′ x 6′ sheet of plywood though 4′ or 5′ x 8′ is even better. If your car is too small (like mine), a shearing mat is more portable and flexible. Industrial kitchen ones are easy to clean, as well. Remember to wash the mat well and disinfect it between jobs. I use a diluted bleach solution.
- Tarp – I prefer cloth/canvas tarps and use them to skirt fleeces for customers. Canvas can absorb urine and whatnot, and I can wash them on hot with Biz between jobs and not worry about contamination.
- Please take my word for it: Don’t shear on a tarp. Use a mat, plywood or bare ground before you shear on a tarp. I almost always find myself shearing on an unshaded patch of dirt, but a tarp doesn’t help matters any. It moves, it gets tangled up in your feet and/or the sheep’s, and you end up spending more time dealing with the electrical cord on the shears and the tarp bunching up beneath the sheep as you do shearing. You may think you can stake the tarp but then you have to remember where the stakes are. You can flip a sheep over near a stake and forget it was there, hurting the animal, or trip on one with shears powered on. Dangerous stuff. Use the tarp for skirting fleeces and removing vegetable matter, if you’re doing that or if the owner wants to.
FIRST AID + VETERINARY
This is your worst case scenario stuff, for you and the animals. Keep first aid items nearby: don’t leave them in the car. It can be a lot to carry, but you’ll want them in quick, easy reach if an accident occurs.
- Tecnu wash – If you’re in poison oak or poison ivy territory, Tecnu really helps. I have, on more than one occasion now, sheared sheep that previously spent time luxuriating in poison oak thickets. Put the Tecnu on as soon as you’re able and before you wash your hands (yes, even when they’re filthy and full of lanolin): Tecnu works by “drying out” the poison oak oil from your hands, so don’t spread the oil around with soap and water before applying Tecnu.
- Disinfectant/fly strike spray – If you come across a sheep with fly strike, you still need to shear it and then treat it for fly strike in order to give the poor sheep a chance of recovering from this really horrible affliction. You can search online for various sprays to treat fly strike and choose any one of them, but the important thing to know is “shear, then spray.”
- Blood clotting powder – We all try very hard not to nick sheep, but self-explanatory blood clotting powder is nice to have on hand if you do. I haven’t used mine yet but I still carry it with me.
- Unwaxed dental floss – The “unwaxed” is important. This is what you will use in case you have to stitch up a sheep. The unwaxed dental floss will dissolve nicely over time.
- Baseball stitch – Know how to do this. Practice on some fabric. This is the stitch you should use if you cut a sheep, because it is flexible and can move along with the sheep, thereby leaving the stitches in and making it less likely that they will rip out. This is another thing I haven’t had to use yet, knock on wood, but I know how to do it.
- Curved needle – This makes stitches much easier.
- Clean gauze and a few bandaids for you, just in case.
- Neosporin – Antibiotic ointment (any brand) for you to smear on any cuts you may have.
- Cycling or gardening gloves – Optional. I’ve seen some shearers wear a fingerless cycling glove or two when shearing sheep with a lot of poison oak exposure, burrs or pickers. I have not worn gloves while shearing as I’m too afraid of them getting caught in my shears, but I highly recommend gloves for catching sheep with horns. It’s not just the tips of horns that can be sharp: sometimes horns appear round and smooth but actually have some sharp edges and lines running the length of them. I learned that one the hard way, in a “Wow, I just clasped on to a dull pair of scissors” feeling.
- Clean clothes and comfy shoes – You’ll be so tired after shearing that you won’t feel like changing clothes, but you’ll be a lot happier on a long drive home if you do. I like my Birkenstock Madrids for the long drive home after hours of hot shearing.
- Food and water – Bring LOTS of ice water and oranges to eat after shearing. Do not eat much beforehand; you spend too much time bent over and will be uncomfortable. This means you don’t have to feel guilty about that post-shearing drive-through burger.
- Salon Pas pain relief patches – My luxury at less than $4/generous pack, these are very effective applied immediately after shearing to your back muscles, especially if you have a long drive home. I often drive 90 min – 2.5 hours each way for shearing jobs and I can really stiffen up on those long drives home.