'learning to shear' Series

Which shearing machine is right for me?

There are a lot of options when it comes to shearing machines. This article will help demystify this complicated world and help you make the right decision for your farm.
There are a lot of options available to new shearers when it comes to equipment. At times, it can be overwhelming. Dozens of different types of combs and cutters, overhead shearing machines, handheld machines, etc. The list goes on.

Over the years, I have tried just about everything. In my opinion, at this present moment there is no one perfect machine for specifically shearing alpacas. All of them have their advantages and limitations.

In this article, we'll go over the myriad of machines available, and talk about he pros and cons of each. If you're interested in how to maintain your machine click here for a shearing machine troubleshooting guide.
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The Overhead Shearing Machine
These machines are primarily used by professional sheep shearers. They set up on a hanging bracket or are suspended above the shearing station, and a flexible or stiff driveshaft connects to a slim handpiece.

The big advantage of these machines is their reliability. They keep on ticking for years and years and will shear tens of thousands of animals. The fact that the motor isn't inside the handpiece also gives you a few big advantages. The handpiece is slimmer and lighter, and unlike the handpieces with a built in motor highlighted below, they don't overheat or vibrate nearly as much

They are, however, not ideal for shearing alpacas. Even professionals like myself tend not to pull out the overhead machine much these days. It is tricky to set up, and the driveshaft makes it difficult to achieve the reach necessary to shear an alpaca stretched out on the floor. You're shearing at different angles than with a sheep, and the driveshaft has a tendency to twist the machine in your hand when you reach maximum range.

They're also much more expensive, with a setup starting in around the $1000 range. All that being said, if you have one available to use, they get the job done and will rarely let you down.
The iconic shearing shed, both old and new, runs on overhead and shaft-driven machines. However, for shearing alpacas, there are better alternatives for the small-scale farmer/shearer.
(photo credit: sheepcentral.com)
The handheld machine
This style of machine has become standard in the industry for most professional alpaca shearers. The motor is housed inside the machine, and plugs into a regular wall outlet or extension cord. If treated right, they are a dependable and efficient shearing machine that will serve a small herd shearer for many years.

There are several different brands available, and start around $400 for a quality brand. Beware, however, the Chinese imitations available on Ebay and Amazon. They may seem like a good deal, but the last thing you want to be dealing with when you're starting out is an unreliable piece of junk, and that's exactly what they are.

There are a few drawbacks with these machines, too. First, they are bulky. The motor housing makes the machine girthy and heavy, which can tire out your hand and arm after a long stretch of shearing. The constant vibration of the machine and the noise can also be quite annoying and bad for your health if exposed to it all day every day (carpal tunnel and hearing loss are two things I struggle with).

Second, they are finicky. Tensioning these machines is tricky, and incorrect tension will cause your blades to dull quickly, the machine to heat up, and parts to wear out. Some shearers (myself included) have had issues with internal gears getting chewed up or the tensioning system crapping out.

They are however, relatively easy to work on and parts are readily available. In future articles I will show you exactly how to service and replace the most common part failures on these machines.

My personal recommendation is for the Heiniger Xtra. This machine has become the standard bearer for the professional alpaca shearing industry. It's not perfect, but they are work horses and built to a high standard of quality. The patented floating fork tensioning system is easier than most to adjust and hone in for the perfect blade tension, an important factor when starting out.

The wattage is one of the highest in the industry, giving them the power they need to push through dense or sweaty fiber. They are somewhat bulkier than other machines, so if you have small hands, it may be worth considering another brand, such as the Premier 4000s.

I have tried several other brands and models over the years, but I always come back to the Xtra.
There are a number of shearing machines on the market, but for shearing alpacas, the Xtra is the boss. It's been around a long time, and has a large market share through consistent quality.
The 'hybrid' handheld machine
This style of machine has only been around for a few years, but they have the potential to become the industry standard for alpaca shearers. The machines are a kind of hybrid between the overhead and the handheld machines. A slim handpiece has a small 12v motor housed at the rear of the machine, with a cord attached to a small transformer that is then plugged into the outlet.

The machines also have an option to attach to a 12v car battery or a small battery pack attached to your belt, which is incredible for those that may have their alpacas in a remote location without power.

The advantage of these machines is that you get the slim, streamlined handpiece, without the bulk and difficulty of an overhead motor and driveshaft. The weight distribution is a little funny, as the motor on the back tends to make the machine feel unbalanced, but you get used to that fairly quickly. They run about the same price as the handheld machines, and are a little more expensive for the 12v systems.

My big issue with these machines has been their quality. Right now, there are only a couple of brands available, and the big companies such as Heiniger and Lister haven't started offering their own version. I was an early adopter of this style, and used the chinese brand that first made them for a couple of shearing seasons.

While I love the concept, the motor and wiring on the machines were very poor quality, and I found myself replacing parts much more frequently than with my Heiniger machines. Eventually, it just became too much and I made the switch back.

In the last year or so, more models have come out that address these issues and I am strongly tempted to give them another go, as the advantages of a slim, quiet, reliable machine could make them the perfect camelid shearing tool.
hand shears
Finally, we get to the OG shearing machine. The hand shears. I'll admit, it was several years before I ever attempted to shear a full alpaca with a pair of hand shears. I have a pair that I kept close by to quickly trim any stray pieces that I may have missed, but I was always hesitant to go for the full shear.

However, in 2015, I was hired by an organization in Peru to work with the Quechua communities on developing new shearing patterns. I worked in some of the most remote villages in the altiplano, and hand shears were the only way to get the job done.

Once I got over the learning curve, I found them to be incredibly appealing. There is something very peaceful about quietly shearing away the fiber with nothing but what is essentially a pair of scissors and a sharpening stone. I found that without the machinery noise, the animals were calmer, and shearing outside under the big sky with quiet animals felt very...right.

After I came home, I thought about the benefits of small breeders using hand shears. There is no tricky machinery to figure out, no parts to wear down, no combs and cutters to get sent off, no tensioning systems to learn, and no big upfront cost associated with the electric machines. A small breeder or pet owner could reliably shear their animals for very little cost and upkeep.

They do however, present their own problems. First, they can be very dangerous. Potential for cuts exists with all shearing tools, but these sharpened shears could gouge or very seriously injure a struggling animal if the shearer wasn't on his game. Dulling the tips can help with that, but the risk is still there.

Second, they are slow. It took me about 11 minutes to hand shear an alpaca. That is compared to the 4:30 I normally take to shear them with a machine. An amateur would probably be slower than me, even.

Finally, it is difficult to get the fiber off in a manner that makes the animal look good. Even the old boys I was working with left the alpaca looking pretty rough. If you're presenting them for show or sale, then hand shearing probably isn't for you. In a later article I will highlight some of the tips and tricks I learned to hand shearing alpacas. But for now, know that there isn't a lot of advice out there.
People have been shearing their sheep and alpacas with hand shears for hundreds of years. Just because there are faster options out there today, doesn't mean the simpler one isn't better.
Now that you've got your hands on the right shearing machine, what else do you need to do to prepare for shearing day? If you're looking for next steps, then check out this article on how to set yourself up for success.

I hope this has helped you narrow your search regarding which machine to purchase. Please tell us what machine you like to use and why in the comments below. Happy shearing!
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