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FAQ

The ‘short and sweet’ sort of answers to seemingly simple questions is not our forte — a fact that we hope many readers of this website have already recognized… In line with such an approach, the answers below may not be as short as some might like, but be more helpful and perhaps appreciated by the serious among the crowd.

(Click on those little arrows to the right of the questions to view the answers)

How much can a person cut with a scythe (in an hour/day/season)?

(Some folks’ version of this question involves additions, for instance: “I intend to keep a family cow and a dozen sheep; is it realistic to plan on providing for their hay needs with a scythe as the only  grass-cutting tool?)

While the scythe’s time-related efficiency may be the most frequent concern of many beginners, an accurate answer is so difficult as to be, in our view, somewhat meaningless without an attempt at qualification. Even then, not everyone’s mind will be put to rest…

A common enough response (gleaned from old books and subsequently offered on some websites) is “an acre a day” — which used to be the traditional quota per competent man in many cultures, and in regions where the use of scythes retains its importance this likely remains the case. (Still, how long, exactly, is such ‘day’ is usually left to reader’s guess.)

In recent years another measure of what is possible has been thrown around (surely more to boost the scythe’s image than to usefully answer that time-related question) — and that is something like 2-3 minutes per 100metres square (30 by 30 feet large parcel). Yes, this is what the best among the competition mowers accomplish, with blades four feet long or longer. (The official world record for that area, by the way, is 93 seconds.) But that is somewhat like saying “a person can run 100 metres in under 10 seconds”…

In any case, both of the ‘answers’ above can be highly misleading, and actually unfair to those who are seriously interested in realistic projections.

Only a few voices out there (and rarely those who sell scythes) dare to caution newcomers that, given certain conditions, a person may possibly struggle for an hour, only to end up with a garden cart full of grass. But yes, it can be that slow.

On the other hand, we know from experience that in good cutting conditions a 10 year old girl of average strength (albeit of non-average attitude to ‘work’) could keep a penned up cow in fresh-cut grass while mowing happily for an hour or two each morning. Alternatively, such a little person could, throughout the summer, cut and make into hay (a process that involves spreading, raking, turning and gathering) enough forage to keep that cow in dry feed for six (winter) months of the year.

(A perceptive person might now ask: “Are you talking of a 600 lb. Dexter or a 1,400 lb. Holstein cow? ” — and they would be making the very same point, in principle, that our strung out answer to the initial question attempts to address…)

Now, to justly balance the scenario of the happy mowers and well cared-for animals, we also know of grown-up folks whose one goat would be undernourished by their scything accomplishment (although in all the old scythe-using cultures that would be considered preposterous).

And for a good measure of initial confusion, let’s just add that both of these (the little girl with a happy cow and the person with a half-starved goat) were using what popularly is referred to as the “ergonomic Austrian scythe”.

Well, this is the range, honestly expressed. “How then”, you will now ask, “can a novice considering the practical utility of the scythe figure out what exactly to expect?”

The short answer is “they can’t”.

If short answer is all one wants, we suggest those individuals either stick to grass-cutting machines, or — to avoid being misled — not even attempt to seek ‘answers’ provided by others. Instead, they’d best go out on a limb, obtain a scythe and see what happens when they try it.

If, however, more comprehensive considerations (not necessarily a straightforward answer) interest you, here are some hints:

There are three basic reasons for the estimate discrepancies:

a) differences in people

b) differences in terrain and the nature of forage (generically referred to as ‘grass’).

c) differences in the tool itself and how the owner maintains it.

a) The difference in people plays the most significant role — and we are not talking primarily of physical strength or stamina, although these do, of course, enter the equation. It is more a question of how well can one learn a new skill. The distinction between novice/beginner and experienced mower is often very misleading — because, like with born musicians, there are natural ‘tool people’ and ‘non-tool people’. Of the former group a small portion can become what we’ve referred to as “sensible mowers” almost  overnight. A larger portion (of that same group) will ‘get it’ well enough within a season of deliberate experimenting and readily surpass, in actual accomplishment, scores of those with years long scything experience.

We’ve also known of some from the otherwise ‘non-tool people’ group, who are very determined, focused and pay attention to details. Consequently they make it to the ranks of efficient mowers in a relatively short period of time.

So these differences in attitude can already throw all estimated advice right out the door, and hint to the impossibility of accurately answering that initial question in a ‘short and sweet’ way.

But let’s continue.

b) The chances of success (or alternatively, disappointment and frustration) also hinge on what kind of plants are being cut, and in what sort of terrain. Typically, most novices do not recognize the differences, at least not initially.

As a brief summary:

i)  Some plants are several times more difficult to cut than others — and what is often confusing during the process of learning is that they may not look like it. (An example: Thistles, unless very mature and “woody”-stemmed may look like tough edge-threatening plants, but their thick stems are actually rather juicy and easily cut with only a mediocrely-sharp blade. On the other hand, scores of fine-stemmed grasses will easily recoil like a Tai-chi master confronted with a punch, and stand straight upright laughing at one’s effort, as soon as the less than truly ‘sharp’ and well-wielded blade passes over them.

ii) An area not cut or, alternatively, ‘bush-hogged’ the previous season (inevitably containing the old dry/semi-decomposed “thatch”), may also initially take several times as long as the mowing of a well maintained stand, or the very same area the next time you do it.

iii) Obstacles (trees, small bushes, rocks, fence lines, etc.) can significantly reduce the theoretical output per hour. It is really beneficial to survey the terrain to be mowed before the growth begins in the spring and remove rocks, stubs of dead dry saplings left after a rotary tractor mower, etc. In the long run this is a worthwhile time investment, period.

One can, of course, do all that simultaneously with the ‘first time over’ mowing (and if that had not been done earlier, it ought to be done now), but it will take longer and some (otherwise unnecessary) damage to the edge is likely.

iv) Not understanding that when the forage is trampled, by foot or wheeled traffic, or is seriously leaning due to the effects of wind and rain, there is always one best and one worst direction (with 2 in between) from which to approach it.

c) As for the difference in the tool itself — an adequately sharp as well as appropriately adjusted blade can lead to doubling or tripling production (or even more) in terms of both time and energy expenditure. Unfortunately, a ‘sharp’ scythe and a ‘well-adjusted’ one are often hazy concepts  — and not only among those prone to ask that initial question…

(Much has been written on this topic already, though likely not enough yet. Also, some of the ‘how to’ is oversimplified and/or misleading. All we can suggest is seriously exploring that material and putting the various bits of advice — found on the internet, in print or received verbally from others — to test.)

Now, in terms of mowers comfort (which may or may not effect hourly output) the difference between using one scythe as opposed to another can be like ‘day and night’. The comfort element is effected by the snath design and how people learn to use the tool’s potential to their advantage.

How REALLY physically demanding is it to operate a scythe?

(An example of additional info that accompanies similar questions: I’m a 70 year old woman, healthy but not very strong).”

Well, back in the ’90’s we had named our venture “Dancing with Scythes Unlimited” — and this website’s practical guidelines are focused on how to make the experience equivalent to “play”. Of course, many games, including some dances, are considerably more energy-demanding than the swinging of the scythe under average conditions ought to be.

But leaving it at that we’d be only reiterating the already stated (and not well qualified) rhetoric that is growing in popularity. So let’s try — though this is yet another theme difficult to communicate accurately.

As a sort of classic baseline, here is an inspirational tidbit for thought from the time when country dwellers in much of the ‘old world’ understood the potential of this tool:

“If you can’t rest yourself while mowing, there is something wrong with how you are doing it.”

Of course, that maxim should not be taken out of context of the existence of those who coined it. What is likely meant here is that compared to felling trees with an ax, carrying rocks or other heavy loads, swinging a pick ax, wielding a shovel or a spade, and many other routine activities of country dwellers of those days — mowing with a scythe ought to be restful.

On the other end of the (21st century) spectrum, a few people have written to us that they find it exhausting, with one young man claiming that it was such a work-out he “almost retched”. Hmm… that is rare. This man may have not been used to physical labour to begin with and/or both his blade’s edge and his technique likely screamed for a serious improvement.

New scythe users who have yet to learn good technique and the maintaining the blade in an adequately sharp condition, yet are determined to stay with it, can certainly overwork themselves.

Many of the factors already discussed on the topic of time-related accomplishments (question 1.) apply here as well. That is, whenever the use of the scythe is not a ‘relaxing’ experience, the combination of specific conditions of cut forage and/or the mower’s skill and/or the tool’s design, blade adjustment and edge quality are responsible.

That said, a feeble person could be equipped with a version of a scythe not readily available on the commercial market, but still (if due effort is put forth) within reach. For instance, a blade under 400 gm in weight and a balanced snath no heavier than 800-900 grams.

Provided our ‘not very strong’ lady will carefully study what is available here (meaning this website) on how to maintain her blade in fine cutting condition and then learn how to put the theory to practice, well, then she can easily dance as the grass also falls.

Can a short lawn be cut with a scythe?

Of course. Watch, for instance this video.

However, lawns are not all the same.

The ‘American’ version (which due to such frequent trimming schedule, often coupled with generous application of fertilizers, is usually very dense) ranks among the most challenging of scything tasks. To meet it successfully, the tool as well as the technique must be up to par — which means very sharp edge, suitably adjusted blade and application of some down-pressure during the slicing movement. Mowing before sun-up is an additional aid, well worth experiencing.

On the other hand, the ‘poor man’s lawn’, which may be an area of some semi-wild green cover, cut no more than 3-4 times per growing season and not before it is 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) tall, can (unless trampled too much) be ‘child’s play’. Still, we suggest you get out there very early in the day or alternatively just an hour or so before dark.

Can a scythe be used so as to leave 4-6 inch high stubble?

(Questions similar to this come from people in regions with hot climates and periodic shortage of rainfall; the concern (a very valid one) is that to completely remove the green cover results in subsequently scorched surface which is slow to recover.)

Yes, but only if:

a) there is, preferably, a foot or more of grass to cut off (above what one desires to leave). With other words, cutting 8 inches (20cm) of total growth down to 4 inches (10 cm) is unrealistic.

b) the blade is even sharper than required for the conventional lawn — that is, thinly peened and very well honed.

Doing this sort of mowing actually requires more skill (because no solid surface provides easy horizontal reference for the blade’s path) and can be noticeably more tiring (because the weight of the blade must be carried throughout both phases of the movement).

Can two people of different heights use the same scythe?

(An additional half of this question is sometimes posed by perceptive individuals who suspect that the prefix ‘adjustable’ is only so true.)

The short answer is yes, they can. Human bodies, as we know, are relatively flexible and we can bend, stretch and work in all sorts of less-than-comfortable positions. Thousands of acres of grass have been mown with less than well-sized scythes, by the way. (Most of it, of course, with suitably sharp blades!)

That said, it is preferable if the scythe and person ARE well matched.

However, note that:

a) the term ‘adjustable scythe’ is a misnomer; all it usually means is a snath with adjustable grips.

b) some ‘adjustable’ snaths are simply too short for people of average height who wish to mow on level terrain. (The model sold by Lee Valley Tools, designed long ago for work in steep Alpine terrain, is one of them.)

c) most ‘adjustable’ snaths can have their grips moved only so much; 15-20cm is the common limit.

d) in addition, going from the shortest to longest snath’s grip adjustment can unfavourably affect the ideal ‘lay’ of the blade’s edge.

So the longer answer is this: It is far better to have the scythe be fine-tuned to each person, AND the work expected of it. Once you experience the difference, you will never regret having spent ‘good money’ on such a purchase (in most people’s case, this involves buying, rather than making, an additional snath). A far more future-oriented alternative is to SELF-MAKE a snath that meets your specific requirements.

Among the various blade option-related questions, this one is by far the most common:

What is the best 'all purpose' blade for a beginner?

We sympathize with your dilemma; especially the diversity presently still offered by ScytheWorks (and to lesser degree by a few other mail-order sources) can be mind-boggling. What prevents a straightforward answer are several facts:

a) most scythe blades are somewhat multipurpose

b) the differences between close candidates are often subtle

c) the differences have not been adequately explained (not on this website nor anywhere else), and if you investigate the descriptions provided by various sources, you will end up with conflicting impressions.

Though not ‘an answer’, we think that the most comprehensive piece of written information on this topic thus far is What in the world is a ‘grass’ blade?

(We also made a short video to show that “brush” can be cut with lightest of scythe blades still available, though mostly gone… However, we DO NOT recommend that you try to imitate the crazy girl in that demo, not in any case until you gain considerable practice. Then you may have fun ‘breaking the rules’!)

Simply put — the more skill and scythe-related understanding, or even just that general ‘tool sense’ a person has, the greater is the diversity of situations in which she/he can use any blade (both length and weight wise) with relative success.

A digest of what we expound on in more detail elsewhere:

A 60 to 70cm blade of between 450 – 550 gm should fill the need of most folks in ‘average’ situations — that is cutting some grass, a considerable amount of “weeds” and some “brush”.

I have a limited budget and purchased for a few dollars (or found in my grandfather's barn) an old scythe. It seems to be the American style (not the one you evidently promote) and I haven't been able to cut much with it. Is it worth restoring? Or is it as worthless as some websites suggest?

In our opinion ANY scythe is worth restoring. Old snaths, if termite eaten or partially fungi-digested, may be beyond restoration; a scythe blade, however rusty or abuse-damaged can mostly be repaired and used again.

More on this topic in: On the Myths of the American versus European Scythes (Coming soon. How soon? Well, God only knows.) 😉