Scythes?

A quick introduction to the tool and its use.

What is a scythe?

My Great Grandpa’s scythe

There are quite a few scythes around the place. My great grandfather’s is still hanging up in a shed here, and a neighbour recently told me that there’s one in her shed too. My father-in-law tells me that scythes were on the Victorian Department of Education stores list when he was a teacher – he ordered one to mow around one of the schools at which he was posted. But the first thing to realise is that these old scythes are almost always going to be an English-style scythe, rather than an “Austrian-style” scythe, which is where the action is these days.

My grass-mowing Austrian-style scythe

Austrian (or, more correctly, continental European) blades are forged from a single lump of metal, and are fastened to the snath (handle) by a simple clamp. The English-style scythes I’ve seen are two-piece blades – a thicker metal “bacbkone” to which a thinner piece of steel is riveted. Traditionally (at least in my neck of the woods) English-style scythes were ground to achieve a sharpened edge, while European blades are hammered, while cold, to draw out a thin edge of metal (this is called “peening”) which can then be honed further with a whetstone.  However, Peter Vido has informed me that he’s yet to come across a blade that could not be peened – it just requires more skill.

The handle, or “snath”, of a European scythe is also of a design which can make the entire setup more ergonomic. The end result is that, all factors being reasonably close to ideal, mowing grass with this tool can be surprisingly easy and enjoyable.

We wouldn’t suggest turfing an English scythe, but we’d also recommend giving an European-style scythe a try before scoffing at the weirdos you may see mowing with a stick and a hook.

Which reminds me… a scythe is also not to be confused with a “slash hook” or a “bush/brush hook”. These are comparatively crude and brutal tools (each of which have their place – there are a few of these in the shed too), and using them is harder work, usually due to the nature of the chosen target, relying chiefly on the force of the swing rather than the keenness of the blade (while a sharp blade will, as always, help a great deal).

There are different types of European-style scythes as well, basically governed by the length of the blade. Shorter blades are better for working with heavier brush or around cutting where there’s less room to move (but Peter Vido informs me there are many short and ultra-light blades designed for trimming fine-stemmed grass in tight spots), while longer blades are more suited to genuine grass mowing. Once you get used to it, you can manoeuvre a longer blade quite well, but the longer blades usually have a slighter build (presumably to reduce the weight) and won’t stand up as well to the hard knocks of a shorter, stouter blade.  My grass blade pictured above is a 75cm blade, and this is measured from the tip of the blade to the outside edge of the tang (the bit that fastens onto the snath/handle); so the length does not represent the cutting edge (which in the case of my blade is actually only around 66cm).

How do you use a scythe?

Having explained how I use a scythe to a few people, I’ve settled on two key points which seem to quickly divest the hearer of their preconceived idea of scything, if not their preconceived action, which is much harder to address. These are really only rules of thumb that I use as a starting point – the best actions seem to deviate slightly from this basis.

  1. Imagine that your legs constitute one leg of a drawing compass, and that your arms and the snath are the other leg – and you’re trying to draw a large arc.
  2. Don’t lift the blade off the ground – on either the cutting or return arc.

The first point is rather subtle until you try to ‘watch’ your own action, and then you realise that you’ve still got a bit of a tree-chopping action going. The second point is the hardest to get your head around. There are times when you have to lift or tilt the blade a little, but lifting it entirely should certainly be the rare exception.

The reason for these rules of thumb is that with a scythe, you are slicing grass, not hacking it. Rather than an action more akin to trying to chop into a tree trunk, a length of the blade should run along the stem of the grass you’re cutting, more like the way you’d slice tomatoes – more of the blade’s edge passes over the ‘target’, rather than trying to force one small section of the edge through the target.

I was always quite tentative about advising people to put some pressure onto the snath just to be sure that the blade was on the ground – it worked for me but I was never sure if it was ‘standard procedure’, but then I came across this passage in Anna Karenina, where the mowers give advice to Levin as he embarks on his first full day’s mowing:

“It’s not set right; handle’s too high; see how he has to stoop to it,” said one.

“Press more on the heel,” said another.

“Never mind, he’ll get on all right,” the old man resumed.

So, yeah, press a bit on the snath to get the belly of the blade down – it will keep the blade in the right spot and the grass will cut better down there.

Other than getting the scythe set up well, and getting your action right, keeping the blade sharp is the remaining task.  Honing with a whetstone can be done every few minutes to every 10 minutes or so, and on a well-maintained blade, need take no more than 30 seconds or less. My personal view is that once it starts to take longer, that’s when the blade should be peened. That’s usually daily or half-daily or whatever is evidently necessary based on how your blade is performing.

Peening can be done ‘freehand’ with a hammer and an anvil, or with a peening jig, which is designed to compensate for inaccurate hammer blows which could otherwise impair or damage the cutting edge in a freehand situation.

Is it easy to use a scythe?

Yes and no. In most situations I personally find it easier on my body than using a brushcutter, and I much prefer using a scythe over a lawn mower (hand or petrol powered) for mowing our lawn. In some situations I’m faster with a scythe than I would be with a brushcutter, but in others the brushcutter would win, and in others still, a slasher on the back of the tractor would seem the obvious choice for most people. And it can be hard work if you’re trying to get a certain amount done before the sun gets too high.

Regardless, in my admittedly limited experience I don’t know of anyone who has just picked up a scythe and started mowing really well, and that’s the main reason for the “no” from my perspective. There is a bit of an art to using one and maintaining one, and a little bit of mucking around involved in that as well – while, as opposed to a brushcutter, you don’t need to wear earmuffs, a harness, goggles, boots (half the time some of us are in bare feet and topless), or get your fuel ready, or make sure you’ve got the tools for changing the saw tooth blade to a weed-whacker or line trimmer… you do have to carry your ring key in case you need to take the blade off, and a whetstone and water, and you may want to bring your peening tools in case you or someone else needs them, and you need to remove and dry the blade when you’re finished. None of it is neuroscience (just ask Derek), but it’s not like you can just grab a scythe, mow for an hour, put it away, and expect it to be up to the task again the next day, without a bit of TLC.

But that’s the thing… carrying around tools and gear for a brushcutter drives me bonkers, whereas I actually enjoy the art of using and maintaining a scythe.

Where can I get a scythe?

Tony and Marshall are now trading as Bladerunners.

You can also check out Peter Vido’s listing of scythe retailers to find one in your neck of the woods. Their own ‘scytheconnection’ retail service is currently closed at time of writing – but do check if you’re in their area as you’re unlikely to find anyone with knowledge as extensive and as hands-on as theirs.

Marshall lives near Glen Huon on a 440 acre mixed enterprise farm. You can read more about Southern Scythe Squad members here.