Mowing with Scythes
by Sjoerd W. Duiker, Soil Management Specialist, of Penn State University, University Park, PA
Scythes were used extensively in Europe and North America until the early 20th century, after which they went out of favor as farm mechanization took off. However, the scythe is gaining new interest among small farmers in the West who want to mow grass on an acre or two, and could be a useful tool for farmers in the Tropics who do not have the resources to buy expensive mowing equipment. This becomes more important with the increasing demand for dairy and meat products in developing countries. Over the past 3 years I have visited the Children and Youth Empowerment Centre in Nyeri, Kenya with several Penn State undergraduate students. The students evaluate the agroecology of the area and identify potential small-scale enterprises that the youth can develop on a 40-acre site in a semi-arid area approximately 1 hour driving north from Nyeri, called Lamuria. The average rainfall in this area is 23 inches falling in two rainy seasons, but there is huge year-to year variability. So we thought to plant crops without irrigation would be very risky. However, we saw there was plenty of natural grass growing in the area. This grass could be harvested, baled and sold in town where the dairy goats and cows tend to be held. In a year with good rainfall (such as 2010 and 2011) there will be a lot of grass, but in a dry year (such as 2009) there would be less. However, there will not be the investment in land preparation, seed, weeding and so forth, and there will always be some grass to harvest. Additionally, the soil will be protected from erosion by the permanent grass vegetation. Some of you may be wondering why the cows are not held where the grass is grown which would mean lower transportation cost. The reason is that the small dairies need to be close to the customers who buy the milk raw. It is very common to see one or two dairy cows (usually crossbred Holstein and local race) on farms. The cows are kept in stalls and fed green fodder during the rainy season. Manure is collected and used to improve soil. In the absence of cooling the milk needs to be sold immediately in this tropical highland climate – that is the reason the cows are concentrated around the towns. In the dry season there is a need for fodder. The price of hay was very good – one 15 kg (33 lbs) bale cost about KSH 200 in the rainy season, or US $3. Many people in Kenya don’t even make that much in a day, so there seemed good potential to explore hay production for these youth.
The question became how to harvest and bale the hay – we asked around and found out there are some farmers in the area with tractors and haybalers, but these tools are unaffordable for our youth (and most people in Kenya, for that matter). Most people cut grass with machetes or slashes (a machete with a bent end). This seemed a very inefficient way to make hay. We therefore thought scythes would be a good way to improve on the slash but still be relatively affordable. This is how I started in the scythe mowing business. I got my scythe from a small business in Maine (Scythesupply). They also sell a great book called “The Scythe Book” by David Tressemer that contains all the information you need on scythe mowing. There are also several incredible videos on YouTube (search under scytheman8) which helped me a lot. Then I had the chance to visit some experts in peening in my home country, the Netherlands, who taught me a few more tricks of the trade. Unfortunately, I was not able to find anybody in Happy Valley (near State College, Pennsylvania) who had experience mowing acres of grass with the scythe. Even among the Amish the scythe is hardly used anymore except to trim brush – they tend to use sickle bar mowers pulled by horses or mules. So my knowledge about scythes, scythe mowing and scythe sharpening comes mostly from training materials and my own experience mowing grass in Pennsylvania and Kenya. I also found a manual haybaler design developed by Tillers International. This haybaler can be made entirely from locally available materials in Kenya and is operated by hand. I will not discuss this haybaler in this article, however. Instead I will focus on scythes here – types, parts, assembly, sharpening (peening and whetting), and mowing technique.
There are two types of scythes: the American and the European (or Austrian) scythe (Figure 1). Confusion is caused because both types are made in Austria. The American scythe has a thicker, narrower, straight blade made of hard steel. To allow the straight blade to closely follow the soil surface, the American scythe has an intricately curved snath (handle). The European scythe, on the other hand, has a blade that is much thinner, curved, and made of a slightly softer steel than the American scythe. Because the shape of the blade allows it to follow the soil surface, the snath of the European scythe is straight or almost straight. The American scythe is what you would normally buy in a farm supply store in the U.S. The European scythe is common in Europe. Although preferences may vary, the European scythe is more suited for extensive use. It weighs a lot less than the American scythe. An American scythe purchased in a local farm store in Pennsylvania weighed almost 6 lbs (2.70 kg), while a European scythe weighed less than 4 lbs (1.75 kg). It is clear that, when making perhaps 10 thousand cuts to mow one acre, there is a big difference in the effort needed. Second, the blade of the European scythe follows the ground smoothly because of its shape without the need for a complicated snath. Third, the blade of the European scythe can be made paper-thin by peening (hammering using a hammer and anvil or a special peening jig), and is sharpened in the field with a whetting stone. In contrast, the American scythe needs to be sharpened with a grinder or other sharpening device, which can usually not be carried to the field.
The Parts of a Scythe
A scythe has a blade and a snath (Figure 2). The blade parts are the point (or toe), edge, back, heel, beard, knob, and neck (Figure 3). The heel, knob and neck together form the tang. The American style blade does not have a beard but instead the neck is immediately connected to the blade. Blades come in different lengths, varying from 12” (30 cm) to 50” (125 cm) long. The short blades are fit to work in tight corners and around obstacles, while the longer blades are useful for wide open fields or lawns. Bush blades are made heavier than grass blades to accommodate the increased stress exerted by brush and stems of one- or two-year old trees. Ditch blades are intermediate between bush and grass blades. The snath of the American scythe is bent, while the European scythe has a straight snath, or sometimes a slight upbent end. The grips of the American scythe are adjustable. The lower grip of the European scythe may be adjustable but the top grip is fixed once attached. Both grips may also be fixed on the European scythe, in which case they have to be mounted at the right place on the snath to accommodate the dimensions of the mower.
Mounting the Blade on the Snath
The straight blade of the American scythe is mounted on the snath with a U-bolt that is fastened with two nuts at the backside of the snath. The tang is inserted through the U-bolt and the knob is inserted into a hole in a metal plate. The different holes allow the blade to be positioned at the desired angle to obtain best cutting action. The tang of the European scythe is inserted through a scythe ring so that the knob fits into a hole 3 1/4 inch from the end of the snath. The blade neck can be moved from side to side to adjust the angle of the blade with the snath (the ‘hafting angle’). The scythe ring is tightened by fastening two set screws with the square scythe key. If the hole wears out, a metal plate can be attached to the snath with a 5/16 inch hole through which the knob can be fitted. Normally, the correct angle is acquired as follows: stand the snath up-side down with the blade hanging loose in the scythe ring. The tang should hang towards the blade. Now tighten the set screws on the scythe ring (Figure 4). A method to check proper mounting of the blade on the snath suggested in “The Scythe Book” is this: Hold the snath straight up with the upper handle resting on the ground against a wall. Make a mark at the lower tip of the beard. Now move the snath to the right (for the right-hand mower) or the left (left-hand mower) while leaving the upper grip in the same position until the point of the blade reaches the same vertical position as the mark on the wall. The point should be three fingers below the mark on the wall. If not, adjust the angle of blade with snath (the “hafting angle”). On my own scythe the distance between the mark on the wall and the point of the blade was only one finger, but the angle between blade and snath could not be narrowed any further. It happens occasionally, especially when mowing in rough conditions, that the hafting angle changes. The mower will immediately notice the effect because the scythe, instead of cutting the grass, will lay it over. The initial reaction is usually to start hacking to cut grass. Instead, the hafting angle needs to be adjusted by loosening the set screws, correcting the angle of the blade to the snath, and fastening the set screws.
Proper Placement of Grips
The grips of the European scythe should be mounted as follows:
- The lower grip should be at hip height when the mower stands upright holding the snath parallel to the body and the blade resting on the ground. The hip is defined as the top of the femur or thigh bone.
- The lower and upper grip should be spaced apart as far as the elbow and the index fingertip.
- The scythe should balance with the blade parallel to the ground when resting the middle of the lower grip on a single finger.
As explained in the appendix of “The Scythe Book”, these measures can be adjusted depending on body shape and main mowing tasks (trimming or field). A trimming scythe could have a snath 4” shorter than a field scythe, and the distance between lower and upper grip could be 2” less. When purchasing a scythe provide the supplier with the distance between index finger and elbow and the length of the sole of your foot and the top of your femur bone. The supplier will then send you the proper snath and grip positions to enable you to mow in the most relaxed posture. When mounting grips, find a comfortable position for mowing before gluing them on. It is helpful to drill a small hole in the upper grip and hammer a steel nail through the grip into the snath to avoid it from coming loose (don’t use a screw because it will snap off).
A properly sharpened scythe makes the difference between frustration and satisfaction. It is very important to sharpen the blade and keep it sharp while mowing. It is also important to obtain the right angle of the cutting edge with the grass. If the edge is not sharp, or the right angle is not obtained, the grass will be pushed flat against the ground instead of being sliced by the scythe. It is also important not to overdo sharpening to avoid weakening the blade to the point where it easily dents when hitting a rock, stump or other obstruction.
Peening is the hammering of the edge of the blade to bring steel to the edge, to harden the steel, and to make it thin so it will slice through grass without much effort. There are two methods to peen a scythe blade: the first is using a specialized peening jig available from supply stores of the European scythe, and the second method is to use a peening hammer and anvil (a third method uses a peening apparatus which will not be discussed here because I am unfamiliar with it). It is recommended to remove the blade from the snath before you start peening, because it is much easier to balance the blade without the snath attached.
A peening jig comes with three parts: a base, and two caps (Fig. 5). The base has a tapered end which should be inserted into a slightly undersized hole drilled into a block of wood. Ideally, the block of wood is tall enough to allow you to sit on a chair, rest the blade on the base, and provide further sup- port to the blade by your legs. If you cannot rest the blade on your legs you will have to keep the blade at the proper position by supporting it otherwise. The caps are distinguished by being circled by one or two bevels. The cap with one bevel is used less frequently than the one with two bevels. The first cap brings out the steel from the blade to the edge. The second cap will flatten the edge of the blade, making it very sharp. You should peen the blade approximately every day of use. Do not overdo peening to avoid weakening the blade too much. It takes 5-15 minutes to peen a 26 inch blade. It is important to have the blade lay flat on the base, gently pushing it against the center of the base, with the edge under the cap. Use a normal carpentry hammer, nothing heavier. Using the hammer’s weight, uniformly hammer the blade, moving it slowly from the beard to the point as you go. First use the cap with one bevel, then re- peat the job with the cap with two bevels. You don’t have to use the cap with one bevel as frequently as the one with two bevels. Finally, it will be necessary to use the whetting stone to remove the burr that you created while peening.
Despite the ease of use of the peening jig, the experienced scythe mower will want to learn how to peen with peening anvil and hammer. The hammer has a flat head that is slightly rounded. To bring the steel from the blade to the edge, make a slight arc with the hammer, hitting the steel a small distance from the edge. The edge of the blade should be a fraction of a millimeter off the anvil for this pass. The hammer movement should bring the steel towards the edge. After peening the entire length of the blade in this manner, make a second pass in which the peening hammer moves straight up and down on the very edge of the blade to harden and sharpen the edge. The experienced scythe mower will be able to create a perfectly uniform blade edge that is razor sharp. However, it takes a lot of practice to reach this level of perfection. Do not worry, even if the edge is slightly wavy. The most important is to make the blade edge strong and sharp. Slight irregularities will have a minor effect on mowing effectiveness.
Whetting (also called “honing”) is done with a stone with proper grit. Natural and synthetic whetting stones are available (Figure 6). The coarser grit takes off more steel, while the finer grit leaves a smoother edge but takes longer to whet the blade. There are natural and synthetic whetting stones.
The first whetting operation after peening takes a little more effort than whetting in the field. You can either hold the blade up-side-up with the cutting edge facing away from you, or you can hold the blade up-side-down with the cutting edge facing towards you. Swirl the whetting stone in water, which you keep in the stone holder attached to your belt. The water removes any fine particles from the pores of the stone and enables the stone to do its job. Hold the whetting stone in the palm of your hand. Whet with the narrow edge exerting considerable pressure against the upper part of the blade. The stone has a shape allowing you to sharpen a very penetrating edge on the blade. If cutting bush vegetation this may not be desirable, because while making the blade sharp you also make it very thin and hence, weak. Start at the beard and move toward the point. Move the stone away from the blade’s edge while whetting, and make sure the passes of the whetting stone overlap as you move closer to the point. You will feel a slight burr developing on the blade. Once you are done, you need to remove this burr by gently whetting the underside of the blade. You should apply approximately half the pressure compared with whetting of the top of the blade. The purpose of this whetting pass is just to remove the burr and should be accomplished quickly.
Another whetting technique is to use the stone in a swiping movement along the entire edge of the blade, alternating between top and bottom. This technique is common with the use of the synthetic stone mounted on a wooden stick.
When in the field mowing, whet the blade approximately every 15 minutes. You will quickly notice when the blade loses its cutting power and needs to be whetted anew, because instead of cutting the grass it will be laid over by the blade. Turn the scythe upside down with the upper handle resting firmly on the soil. It is recommended to secure the snath by placing a foot on the upper handle, which rests on the floor. The point of the blade may be positioned against a tree or post if that is available. Hold the beard of the blade firmly with your left hand (if you are right handed). Using the narrow side of the whetting stone, whet the top of the blade (facing down) first, trying to keep the angle of the stone close to parallel with the blade. Once finished whetting the top of the blade take off the burr from the bottom (which of course is now facing upward, since you hold the scythe up-side-down). Once more experienced, you may wish to alternate whetting the blades’ top and bottom as you go down the blade. You should apply about twice as much force when whetting the down-ward facing top of the blade than the up-ward facing bottom. Use the water holder to rinse any steel parts that may clog the pores of the stone.
The scythe can mow different types of vegetation. It is best to start practicing with green grass that has gone into head in a smooth field without obstacles. It is preferable to avoid bunch grass, at least for the beginner. The stems of heading grass provide more resistance than lush, green grass, making it easier to cut. Additionally, start practicing when the grass is covered with dew. Stand firmly on two legs, with the left leg slightly in front of the right leg if you are right-handed. Now move the scythe backwards to the right, by swinging your upper body to the right. Make an arc with the back of the blade resting on the ground. If the field is rough because it has holes or old wheel tracks in it, it may be necessary to keep the blade slightly off the ground. When the back rests on the ground, the cutting edge will be slightly off the ground, cutting at a height of 1/4 to 1/2 inch height. It is better from a biological point of view to cut grass a few inches above the soil surface to stimulate regrowth, because in many species of grasses the lower part of the stem contains starch reserves that it uses to generate new growth. However, the scythe needs the resistance offered by the part of the plant that is anchored in the soil. The need to mow close to the ground is a disadvantage of mowing with a scythe. Cut a thin slice of grass. If you try to cut large slices at a time, the scythe tends to get stuck halfway, and much effort is needed. Instead, cut small bites at a time. The blade should move easily through the grass and deposit it at the end of the arc on your left hand. Do not make a hacking movement. Move the scythe back, having it rest gently on the soil surface to avoid carrying the weight of the scythe. A swath will form as you mow a section. Move forward a little and take the next cut. You will move one foot a step and then the other foot a step, making like a dancing movement as you cut the grass. Start making a pass around the outside, moving clockwise around the field. This way the swath will always be deposited in the recently cut grass instead of on the grass that still needs to be cut. When mowing in teams, the front mower will be ahead of the second mower, etc. If the blade does not cut smoothly the tendency is to compensate by starting to hack. This makes cutting grass with the scythe laborious. The reason for hacking is usually that the scythe is not sharp, or because the hafting angle needs to be readjusted. When you notice you are starting to use more force to cut the grass, it is time to sharpen the blade with the whetting stone and check the angle of the blade with the snath. If you notice the blade dulls easily, it is time to peen it because the edge has become too thick.
When to Mow
The right time to mow grass with the scythe is early in the morning when the grass is covered by dew. From the standpoint of quickly drying hay, and preserving its quality, it would be better to mow later after most of the dew has evaporated. However, the dew offers mass making it easier to cut grass. In addition, grass that is under some drought stress loses some of its turgor (internal pressure of the water in the cells) and that makes it also more difficult to slice through the stems and leaves. It is important to spread the grass immediately after it is cut. At that time the recently cut plants still photosynthesize, the stomata on the leaves are still open, and moisture is pulled from the stomata on the leaves through the xylem from the stems. Since the plant is severed from the roots, moisture is lost right from the base of the stem, the most difficult part of the plant to dry after the stomata close. In addition, sugars are still produced shortly after the grass is cut which makes the hay more nutritious because these sugars stay in the grass leaves and stems instead of being transported through the phloem to the roots. It is important to dry hay as quickly as possible. Once photosynthesis shuts down the stomata close and the moisture needs to pass through the cuticle of the grass leaves and stems instead. The best time to mow hay is therefore on a sunny, windy and warm day. When the grass dries slowly, there is potential for loss of biomass through bacterial action. Sugars are the first to be used by microbes, and hence the quality of the hay degrades quickly. Thus it is best to mow hay and have a second person behind you to spread it right away. After a few hours when the top of the hay is dry, it is time to ted the hay, which is turning it with the fork and loosening it so the bottom of the spread grass has the opportunity to dry. In my experience in East African highlands it was possible to mow grass from 6-11am and collect hay at 4pm on a bright sunny day with low humidity and a slight breeze. In humid climates it may take a few days to dry hay.
Mowing with scythes is a skill that can greatly facilitate mowing and hay making on a small scale. Skill is required to operate and maintain scythes as described in this fact sheet. Once properly trained, scythe mowing can be a satisfying and profitable experience. The young men we trained in Kenya caught on quickly, although they often tended to hack or bend over too much for comfortable mowing. With time they will certainly improve their mowing technique.