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Notes on Scythe Abuse

The blade:

The best versions of tools meant to be used for hours on end are generally not overbuilt; that is, their strength is adequate for the intended task but not unreasonably greater. To increase it so as to provide additional “insurance” beyond the necessary level would mean not only the addition of material costs, but often also extra weight which in turn would reduce the tool’s efficiency (due to increased fatigue of the user). The finest axes, swords etc. are most efficient when not unnecessarily heavy.

And so it is with scythes. The lightest of blades — those without a built-in “insurance factor” — were still relatively common until approximately 30 years ago. In the realm of grass-cutting, such delicacies are made no longer. That the requisite skill to forge them has become obsolete is one very sad fact. The other is that it would simply be cost-prohibitive. (They required more careful — and slower — hands and the “time is money” motto has gained prominence as we have “progressed”.)

The other side of the coin is that many of the modern scythe users could hardly appreciate such blades–and, lacking the necessary finesse, would likely ruin them. This, I have been told by various makers, is why the contemporary models are all heavier (and of course stronger) than their former equivalents. Even though the changes in manufacturing did not happen for that reason, those using such arguments today may have a valid point.

However, even these sturdier blades are made only marginally strong enough that a person of average strength, lacking good judgment, could not break or severely damage them if they “tried”. Of course, some people do break them… Occasionally they can be excused; generally, I think, they deserve to be thumped on the head with the broken blade (so that by the time they next pick up a new one they may reconsider their overanxious and edge-neglecting attitude when working with the scythe.)

I have semi-jokingly suggested this to some scythe sellers ever since I first traveled to Europe (in 1999) and saw many of the blades returned by dealers to the respective makers. Nobody, of course, has taken my advice seriously; instead, the broken blades and/or snaths are often freely replaced in the name of peace and customer satisfaction. In whatever way it is perceived as “good for business” now, it supports thoughtlessness and, to my mind, is a poor policy regarding the scythe’s image in the long term.

Having made a point of closely studying many of the “corpses” left behind by abusive mowers, I will state categorically that in not even one instance was the edge of a broken blade in an adequately sharp condition. (As I found their edges, so were they — obviously — at the moment of breakage.) They usually have several damaged spots, (cracks, dents or tears) each justifying notice and repair — even if a relatively minor one — before continuing the work. This is evidence of lack of care and disrespect and I therefore admit to having no sympathy for those who break their scythes.

Accidents can, of course, happen to relatively careful people who do keep their blades rust-free, with edges repaired. Still, in most cases they likely misused the tool, rather than used it as intended.

What constitutes “scythe abuse”? The answer is rather simple–using more force than the tool was designed to withstand. All “comprehensive” guidelines on the use of the scythe state that using it is–or should be–easy. (The body-conditioning effect of mowing–sometimes emphasized–lays in the sustained nature of the exercise, coupled with deep rhythmic breathing — rather than forceful calisthenics.) Admittedly, “easy” is a relative term; to some people, swinging a 5 kg. sledgehammer is easy work. The difference between those who manage to break a handle of even such a tool and those who do not is not necessarily that the former are innately stronger. They just don’t understand that a certain dimension of wood can take only so much brute force…

The scythe-breakers who may have a “legitimate excuse” are those with no access to the Internet/our website or other good instruction–live or written– who perhaps gathered from some accounts that scything is “back-breaking work”. These folks, sometimes very determined to cut what they need without motorized tools, are prepared to struggle before actually learning — by trial and error — how to sharpen a blade well, and what such a blade can consequently accomplish — i.e. cut with ease!

Anyone who does read the words in this article also has the opportunity to read, on this website, many more pages of scythe-related how-to. As will be noticed by those who have done adequate research, we have repeatedly emphasized the importance of sharpening, proper hafting angle adjustment, and awareness overall. They can skim over it hastily, or study the guidelines thoroughly; then take it to heart or not.

In any case, using a dull and maladjusted scythe is somewhat like driving a car the engine of which is low on oil or coolant: for a while you can keep your foot on the accelerator; in the engine’s last moments of life, you can press the pedal still more, oblivious to the whining and knocking. Eventually, be it a Chevy or a Ferrari, it will protest one last time and then stop with a “clunk”…

Unfortunately a scythe does not have a similar “pressure gauge”. No warning light flashes when the tool is being stressed beyond an acceptable limit. Common sense–as applied to tool use — can ultimately be learned only by experience, which occasionally may seem “expensive”. The German language has an apt and oft-used term for it–“Lehrgeld” (the cost of learning). Those lacking innate sensibility in this regard simply have to pay the price…and be glad that it is not the Ferrari engine needing replacement!


A sequel: “How strong does the snath need to be?”

This really is a companion piece to the one above, but because they will sometimes be read separately, some points relevant to both kind of damages (i.e. to snath or blade) are re-emphasized here.

As any professional hand tool user knows, the best handles are not the excessively heavy ones. For instance, the “connoisseur” handles of three- to four-pound American axes used to be, at the narrowest dimension of the elongated oval, a mere 2cm/.79″ thick. The good axmen could chop hundreds of mighty trees with such a handle, yet a stupid man could break it in one swing… As the level of axmanship decreased, the handles grew thicker. Remarking on the modern store-bought versions, our local 80- to 90-year-olds will say, “That’s a club, not an ax handle.”

Most people are surprised when they actually take into their hands some of the snaths we regularly use for real work here; particularly those made of alder or aspen feel much lighter than expected by merely looking at them. Those of them who understands the innate strength of different species of wood hardly believe that we “dare” to use such apparently “flimsy” pieces of wood as a handle for 70-90 cm long blades.

“What’s the point? Wood on this continent in its raw state is not expensive”, is what they may ask next. Moreover, when one uses (as I do) the “free” tree branches or saplings — often discarded from a logging operation or other “forest management” practices — the cost of material is not an issue at all. It may be a reasonable question, to which the answer is a two-layered one — awareness and blade protection.

For the most part my intent is to inspire everyone to use a scythe somewhat like a good craftsperson uses any delicate tool…with “feel”. Apart from getting some grass cut, I view one of the scythe’s applications in the affluent West as a means of cultivating awareness and, as such, it should never require much strength to propel it.

Deliberate overbuilding of a snath (or other handle) is often a measure of compensating for a lack of awareness, common sense and, of course, appropriate skill. The logic is, “Why not make it nearly so strong that most people could not break it even if they tried?” The success of such an approach is still an illusion, however. Practically all commercially made handles are breakable; and somewhere, someone is in the process of breaking one right now…

Nevertheless, within the circles of quality industrial manufacturing, this “customer-satisfaction-oriented” design predominates. Its aim, unfortunately, is not to educate or even honestly help the customer, but rather to prevent him/her from possibly returning the broken item for a refund or replacement.

To my way of thinking, this is an example of fundamentally skewed logic — and all along (though for the most part in vain) I have been speaking on behalf of the opposite approach: “Let’s build the snaths only marginally strong, in full awareness that the careless people may break them. In addition, do not provide a free replacement guarantee; let instead the breaking of the tool be a lesson…

Having visited various scythe factories, and understanding what skill and complex infrastructure is required to make a good blade, I feel it is the blade rather than the other components of the scythe which most deserves to be protected. One obvious way to do so is to make the snath deliberately less strong, so in case of abuse it should break before the blade is unduly damaged.

One reason why my “blade-protecting notions” have found little resonance within the circles of my activities in this regard is that the blades are generally sorely underpriced. In instances of quality blades and quality snaths, their retail price is approximately the same — another example of modern disparity. If the true cost in terms of skill and infrastructure were considered, a blade should cost several times what a snath costs (in some “poorer countries, this is indeed the case).

In any case, in line with the above-outlined thinking, I have not endeavoured to make “unbreakable” snaths. Besides, the nicest scythes to use are those with no extra weight. Designing a snath against breakage means increased dimension (more weight) at the blade end…precisely where extra weight is not desirable. To offset this “insurance”, more weight should be placed near the snath’s upper end — which in turn makes the whole unit heavier…

Should I be so foolish to break a nice snath even once per season, I would still consider it worth my pleasure to replace it just as often. The replacement, of course, does not need to cost money — just some time to make my own!

1 Jun. 2007