Here’s some stuff we’ve found helpful. This is intended to be an introduction only. There is now a wealth of information on using/maintaining scythes on various websites, but if anyone particularly wants to see any resource on this site, let us know and we’ll endeavour to do it. Or you could join us one Saturday morning…
If you’re using a brand new blade, you’ll need to scrape off the coating which is applied (usually transparently) to prevent the blade rusting in transit. The back of a knife will do the scraping job – just work it along the cutting edge about 10mm into the blade. This prevents the coating clogging up your whetstone when you hone it.
With the scythe standing ‘on end’ (with the blade resting at your toe and the snath running up along your body), the bottom handle should align with your hip (the bumpy bit at the top of your leg, well below your waist). If you’re planning on serious field mowing (like hay with a longer blade), the handle should be about 5cm higher. Once that’s right, with your elbow on the bottom handle, your fingertips should align with the top handle for trimming weeds or, for field mowing, the top handle should be around 10cm above your fingertips.
Now you need to sort out the hafting angle, the lay, and the horizontal balance of the blade – refer to Peter Vido’s article or come along on Saturday morning…
Love covers a multidue of sins (or ‘keep your blade sharp’)
What many do not know about this well-known quote (1 Peter 4:8) is that the Apostle Peter was speaking in the context of mowing with a scythe. Recent historical research on the practices of the early church has demonstrated a compelling case that scything was an integral part of the apostles’ pastoral care.
Love, of course, refers to love for the scythe, or more particularly the keen edge of the scythe (look it up in the Greek if you want the details of the distinction). In short, Peter was extolling the virtue of having a sharp blade. And I’d have to agree – if your blade is sharp, you’ll get away with everything else being less than ideal, and still manage to cut some grass.
If you don’t have a sharp blade, it doesn’t matter how well you’re doing everything else, you’ll have trouble. Or, as the Apostle Paul said, “if I… have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1) As an interesting aside, we note that the Apostle shares the same first name as our very own Dinger, and suspect he too may have had an inherent rock-radar; the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to the Apostle Clanger, apparently in reference to this scythe-inspired analogy.
To sharpen the blade, stand with the sun coming over your shoulder from behind (this allows you to catch the glint off the edge when it’s honed down), and invert the snath so that the blade is closest to your head (i.e. stand the scythe on its handle). The belly of the blade (the bit that sits on the ground when mowing) should be facing you. Clean any grass off the edge, then use a curved edge of the (wet) whetstone against the front (concave) of the blade to bring the edge down – see the following sequence of pictures.
Note that the following approach is what I’d recommend for beginners. Most experienced scythers use an approach which alternates between honing the front and the back of the blade on each stroke, rather than all of the front then all of the back (for example, watch the Vido kids honing here on YouTube). El Presidente takes this more ‘advanced’ approach while I still prefer to do one side at a time, just so I can see what’s going on and treat each part of the blade on its merits. If there are any advantages to doing it ‘Vido-style’ (other than the fact that it looks really cool), I’d like to hear them.
Peening is critical for maintaining blade health, but you’re unlikely to need to do it in your first few hours of mowing, unless you do some real damage to your blade. Peening is also probably best left for a visual demonstration (we’d probably just be adding to the noise with our own video). Feel free to join us one Saturday…
Some people argue that unless you’re cutting just grass regularly, peening is not even necessary – you can achieve a similar (but inferior) end result with a file.
Here are some good YouTube videos to check out (from different people with different approaches):
Mowing with a scythe is always easiest in the early morning. Tony (he’s a botanist) tells us that’s because the grass hasn’t started transpiring at that point so there’s not the sap pressure to contend with (something scientific-sounding like that anyway). That also means you’re likely to be mowing dew-wet grass, and your snath will get wet.
There’s been some discussion in our group about whether over-oiling a snath with linseed oil can actually make it brittle. I can’t imagine that happening, having seen cricket bats oiled to saturation point subsequently clouting balls all over the ground for one season after another, but I’m always happy to be corrected, and when I heard it, it did ring some bells.
But I have seen the end of an un-oiled snath that looked more like a wet paint brush than a piece of timber – it had soaked up the morning dew and was beginning to revert to its basic carbon constituents. On balance I’d prefer to take the risk of over-oiling. I came across a rule of thumb online that suggested oiling once a day for a week, once a week for a month, once a month for a year, and then once a year thereafter. That appeals to me, mainly because I can remember it (even if I don’t remember to do it). However, following a discussion with Peter Vido (who prefers to conserve the oil), I have to admit that over-oiling probably just keeps me one more step away from pulling my finger out and making my own snath.
I stood the business-end of my snaths in a tin of linseed oil overnight to ensure that the timber would soak up a good amount of oil to exclude subsequent moisture, as well as giving the rest of the snath a wipe over with an oiled rag. Tony tells me that it’s not a good idea to oil the handles too much because of the turps in the oil. But he’s a botanist.
Oil it. After every use. With whatever oil you have… vegie oil, olive oil, machine oil… whatever. Just oil it, or it will rust before you get it out to use it next time. Well, that’s what I used to think, anyway…