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Scythe Consumer Report

An Evaluation of North American Scythe-Related Service

This document had been inappropriately titled “Scythe Buyer’s Guide” for years, but whatever the name you may be expecting some more straightforward pointers than what we’ve presented here all along. Yes, the ‘short and sweet’ explanations of just about anything are popular these days. Unfortunately, scythe matters at their deepest, or best, happen to be more complex than meets the uninitiated eye; inconvenient as it may be, we are somewhat bitter-sweet folk and not ones to shove the truth under the rug…

Still, it has been ‘easy’ for us to neglect this feather-ruffling document since its previous update (2008). In addition, we had hoped that (as we expressed in the past) some unbiased but well-informed individual (or a collective of them) would take over this task. We are still hoping, though no longer waiting — and also stand to be challenged on anything posted here thus far.

That said, here is an update:

Three notable improvements have taken place since our last version of this document (which you can read further below):

1. Lehman’s have, for a couple of years, carried the ScytheConnection snath model — the one which we unabashedly consider the most ‘ergonomic’ (to use that oft misused term) of all commercially produced snaths around the globe.
Lehman’s obtain the snath, with our permission, directly from the makers (a Mennonite shop in Ontario). To their credit, they retail it for less than the Swiss-made model (the second contender for the title ‘most ergonomic snath’) sells for in North America, or for that matter anywhere else.

2. Botan Anderson of One Scythe Revolution has become the most creative scythe seller, surpassing even Scythe Supply’s ability to sell volumes of scythes to the generally under-informed, and sometimes misled, North American public. More than any other retailer, Botan fits the image of a man who can, as they say, “sell ice to the Eskimos”.
He does deserve acknowledgment for his scythe-related activism, even though he sometimes ‘forgets’ to give credit where credit is due…

3. ScytheWorks, a sort of ‘sister company’ to ScytheConnection, but operated independently by Alexander Vido, now provides a service that comes closest to our once-upon-a-time vision of what a seriously good scythe retail could be….but hasn’t been.
Depending on one’s standards, the difference between ScytheWorks and the other scythe sellers can be either subtle or substantial.

We hereby provide a list of mail-order retailers of ‘European style’ scythes:

Canada:
Lee Valley Tools – ON
ScytheWorks – BC

USA:
Johnny’s Selected Seeds – ME
Lehman’s – OH
One Scythe Revolution – WI
Marugg Co. – TN
Scythe Supply – ME

Europe:

Austria:
Sensen Verein

Belgium:
Terra Tools
Le Pic Vert

France:
Comptoir de la Faux
Faulx

Czech Republic:
Neil Dudman

Denmark:
Niels Johansson

Germany:
Dick Co.
Sensen Verein

Sweden:
email hidden; JavaScript is required

UK:
The Scythe Shop
Paul Kingsnorth

Australia:
Bladerunners
Scythes Australia

New Zealand:
Eco Show
Scythes NZ

Until we take the time for additional details, here is a brief summary:

If your tool demands are on par with McDonald’s fare as a satisfying enough meal, then obtaining a scythe from Lee Valley Tools or Johnny’s Seeds may do, with Lee Valley’s being the plain burger and Johnny’s the ‘double cheeseburger’ (though still a burger…)
To qualify further and focusing first on the snaths — the Achilles heel of of scythe retail: For people taller than 5’4″ the aluminum snath from LV is too short, period. Johnny’s is the longer version thereof and fit for up to 6′ person. (Please keep in mind that we are talking of mowing on a more or less level terrain, which in North America is most frequently the case.)
Marugg and Scythe Supply offer a considerably better selection in blades and accessories, with the latter having still more varied inventory. If only they could bring themselves to improving their snaths, I’d consider them ‘acceptable’ sources. Let me add here that Marugg snath is the last I’d want to use AS IS — for the reasons previously detailed.
(However, some of you already fate-destined to have ended up with one of those between your blade and your hands, may want to study retrofitting existing snaths — which was our attempt to help the less fortunate… The same applies to the folks with a snath from Scythe Supply, and most of the rest).
Because the grips on Johnny’s snath are adjustable, and thick enough to be somewhat re-shaped, I’d choose this one over Scythe Supply’s or Marugg’s. (The fact that these two companies claim to ‘custom-fit’ their snath is not much of a consolation; in plenty of instances they don’t get it right.)
The two snaths from One Scythe Revolution are the next best after Lehmans, and a considerable improvement over the other four companies discussed above.

To be continued sooner or later… maybe later.

22 Apr. 2013


‘Scythe Buyer’s Guide’ – 2008

While reading these pages, please bear in mind that we have been promoting the use of the scythe since the early 1990s, and that long before we began anything like a “scythe business” we tried to assist (with technical advice and information) every company selling the European scythe in North America, plus all importers of the American-type scythe. We did all that completely free of charge with one goal in mind: to see as many people as possible use this “essential tool” and have in hand as good a version of it as possible.

Our point of reference dictating that objective was solely lifestyle-based; conventional business we knew little about and wanted even less to do with.*

Short Background Profile:
From 1976 to 1998 we pursued a progressively more Luddite lifestyle, without electricity or telephone, farming with horses as the chief source of motive power. By 1989 we managed without the pickup truck and chainsaw, cutting firewood and logs with axes and hand saws. Communication with the “real world” was via handwritten mailed letters. Then in 1998, solely to advance the process regarding scythes, we had a phone installed in a cabin at the edge of our wire-less property and acquired a vehicle (1976 1/4-ton pickup) so we could present the scythes at the Common Ground Country Fair in Maine. With that, the long-worked-toward “primitiveness” of our lifestyle was put on the back burner — for a short while, we hoped. We decided to dedicate three years to the project and then return “home”. No such luck…

In 2002 a friend convinced us that a website would help the mission we were on, and he set up this site. Two years later he gave us his old Macintosh computer and taught Kai how to operate it. By early 2006 these ex-Luddites were on their own (and sometimes lost) in the world of electronic communication. The task — especially after we became involved with the scythe developments in Europe — has become somewhat overwhelming. Suffice it to say that the side effect has been a considerable neglect of the rest of our farm existence… and on two occasions we nearly quit altogether.

 


 

In 1995, as part of an article in Small Farmer’s Journal, we wrote an informal scythe service evaluation of the North American retailers (all of whose products we were by then familiar with). Much has changed on the scene since then, and we have kept abreast of it.

The previous editions (2005/06/07) of what we referred to as the Scythe Buyers’ Guide had a format different from the assessment below. They already were not what most people expect from a conventional buyers’ guide on any product, and this one is still less so.

Because since 2006 ScytheConnection has provided a small scale mail-order service of its own, we cannot claim the kind of impartiality expected from a writer of a buyers’ guide proper. There are, however, other uncommon qualifications which essentially oblige us to write this report.

For one thing, we have given the subject at hand more than fifteen years of focused attention and are aware of the shortcomings in the contemporary scythe retail infrastructure. We also know that every scythe purveyor in North America could provide technically better service. Largely failing at efforts to inspire them to do so, we eventually decided to offer an actual functioning example — however partial a “solution” to the scene at large it may be.

Because we are dealing here with a tool most North American citizens are so unfamiliar with, much work remains to be done. Consequently, the scythe’s potential is, in our estimation, nowhere near half-appreciated. Even though the overall information on the subject (web-based and otherwise) has grown several-fold within the last decade, much of it is low-grade and some outright flawed. Most folks are still “in the dark” on some of the elementals of making purchase decisions and then making those scythes perform as they ought to.

To date, no subject-knowledgeable person has volunteered to write a somewhat comprehensive guide for those contemplating a scythe purchase. The following pages are a temporary substitute — and would be written much the same way whether we ourselves offered a retail service or not. In other words, by writing this report — which essentially gives every established scythe dealer on this continent a less-than-positive grade — we are notseeking more business for ourselves. (We have been barely keeping up — not because we sell so many scythes but because we spend so much time with each order.)

Unlike some “politically correct” statement designed to be easily digested, this appraisal tackles the status quo. To us, such an approach seemed most imminently useful already early on in this project, and it still does. We feel that by shoving under the rug the difficult aspects of scythe service, the improvements necessary in order to make the potential become the commonplace may take forever…

That is our opinion and it presents a dilemma: sharing the truth about scythe service inevitably means criticizing, and critics are often considered peace-disturbers. One of our readers likened the approach to a “nasty American political campaign”. Here is his letter, dated June 12, 2007.

Your negative approach to putting down other scythe outlets does nothing to endear you to me. It sounds to me as if you’re saying everyone else sells junk. I have been using a specific blade and snath that you claim to be among the worst and I am getting good results.
Maybe I’m a freak. Maybe I just got a good one from a very bad supplier. Maybe I don’t know what I am talking about, but the grass falls cleanly and effortlessly when I swing my scythe, and I can peen and whet the edge to razor sharpness with little effort.
I’m happy with my choice and even happier that I didn’t purchase tools from you.
The scythe community is small and should work to buoy support for the concept of the tool for all those involved and interested. I find your approach to be not unlike a nasty American political campaign. I always thought that if a man was good enough, he could find plenty of positive things to say about himself without having to put others down. Consider trying that approach. I know I am not the only one put off by negative advertising.
Respectfully,
Larry

And Peter Vido’s reply, dated June 14th:

Larry,

Your admonishment is taken in stride and some of the points you make are certainly valid. Yes, yes, I have been critical and negative (actually much in the style in which your letter was written…) I’ve discussed the usefulness or lack thereof of such an approach with numerous friends and associates over the years, and some of them did share your viewpoint. Although yours is the first letter in such a tone we’ve received from the public (among a whole slew of very positive ones) there are no doubt many people who think I could or “should” proceed with this scythe mission in a more positive and less critical manner.

You deserve credit for speaking up. However, there are presently more pressing matters for me to put my energy into than responding in a somewhat comprehensive way. I shall do that at some point — also for the benefit of all the “Larry-like-minded” folks who have not yet troubled themselves to express their views.

…Interim, by all means, use and promote the use of scythes in whatever exemplary and positive manner you can muster!

Sincerely,
Peter Vido

We never heard back from Larry, but we hope he has been busy promoting hand mowing in a kind and quiet way. Nevertheless, we pursue the sticky topic further, because it is a pertinent one. And (assuming his critical feedback does indeed represent the opinion of more than one upset reader) we also specifically address the questions pertaining to our sometimes feather-ruffling manners.


Larry,

First of all, the bulk of our writing is for the attentive rather than the hurried readers (even if a majority seem to belong to the latter camp). It appears that you also zoomed through the “Buyers’ Guide”, settled on a quick impression and sent us your reprimand. You also seem not to have read most of our website’s technical sections– especially the Blade-Fitting-Challenge and snath-design-related parts, which in themselves ought to have substantiated the disapproving tone of what you call “nasty” campaigning..

Because we have chosen to make your letter somewhat of a centerpiece of this article, we will first address the points you made.

1. We did not state or even imply that “everyone else sells junk”; rather we emphasized that the innate quality of most scythe-related items (snaths excepted) presently available is just fine. If anything out there is junky, it is the willingness and/or competence of the sellers to provide the kind of service we consider good. As a result, many snath/blade/user combinations are poorly “mated” and do not merit the kind of exaltation the “Austrian” scythe has often received. This we not only implied but in some instances pointed out specifically. We cannot do otherwise in good conscience. Saying nothing we would consider a disservice; only a few scythe buyers end up as lucky as you claim to be.

2. Now, regarding sharpness: For many decades the vast majority (95+% to be sure) of scythe blades sold on this continent — or worldwide, for that matter — have arrived with edges which no experienced mower, be it an Austrian, Italian or Turk, would consider ready to use. Yet most customers proceed with them straight from the package to the field…

That your blade is “razor sharp” attests to your sharpening skill and is not related to whether a dealer sold you a “good” or “bad” scythe. To repeat what we have put in print before: all scythe blades found on this continent, be they the European/Austrian-style or the Anglo-American, old or new, can be sharpened so they will cut with ease.

Therefore, who you purchased your blade from is irrelevant as far as “razor-sharpness” is concerned. (We suspect that you did not mean it literally and have never actually tried to shave with it. It probably wouldn’t work, nor does it need to in order to cut grass; simply for this reason we do not use that analogy with reference to scythe blades unless quoting someone else.)

In any case, all contemporary-production blades presently on the American market, including the American pattern sold by chain hardware stores, are made in the same Austrian factory out of the same steel. There is nothing innately special about “Marugg Special” nor the blades Scythe Supply says are “…made for us”. Due to differences in the weight and/or length, some are better suited for certain tasks and users. In addition, because of the angles of the three planes in which their tangs are set, certain blades are a better match for some snaths than others. But herein lies the crux of our critique of the overall scythe service — many good blades are sold without consideration for some of those parameters, and virtually all are sold with inferior snaths. We know darn well that even within the ergonomic limitations of most snath models, the matching of blade/snath/person/mowing task can — and ought to — be done better.

3. Your “buoying support” comment, Larry, suggests that you may have just “fallen off the turnip truck” — because that is precisely what we have put a significant portion of our energy into during the past decade! If you know of someone else, anywhere, who has in recent times done more to buoy support for the scythe, please tell us who it is. We have long been looking for just that person or group so we may join efforts with them. Unfortunately, some of those “involved and interested” are members of the “scythe community” mainly because it makes them money.

In the Appendix to The Scythe Must Dance (2001) we briefly described the attitudes of the North American scythe dealers, and our solution to it at the time: the Co-operative Scythe Network concept. One of the unintended results of trying to implement that vision was the birth of the ScytheSupply company of Maine. READ MORE

Still, one of the few pages with which this website went “on the ethers” in 2002 contained a complete list of all the mail order sources — yes, even Scythe Supply — without a negative comment about any of them, and remained intact until our first edition of the Buyers’ Guide. In retrospect, had we been more critical back then, at least some positive changes may already have taken place and at least a portion of new scythe owners alerted to the fact that all that glitters is not gold.

So much for the American “scythe community”…

4. “Endearing” ourselves to readers has not been an objective of anything we have written. Rather, in order to tell it like it is on the scythe retail scene, it is necessary and even fair to cover the whole range. To only write about what we are doing would be somewhat like Fox News reporting on some government project to feed hungry children in one African country while keeping quiet about how the White House’s power- and resource-oriented policies are causing genocide and many times more hungry children in another African country. The deception is abhorrent– but it works to keep the masses placid…

Our role is far more that of a “watchdog” of the scythe scene than a scythe retailer. We have also functioned as the cog which has, within the last decade and a half, driven many improvements (both in the realm of technical developments and instructional-oriented improvements). Given that mandate, to report what the other retailers are doing (and in many instances not doing!) is our obligation. How much eventual good or bad this approach accomplishes remains to be seen… and whether some readers would send us straight to hell for it does not really matter.

Our activity — critical in nature as it may be — has born notable fruit in terms of benefits which many now take for granted. Yet there is a certain complacency on the mail order scene, both in North America and internationally, that impedes the rate of further improvements. Sources in Austria, the UK, Germany, and Denmark have since 2004 been distributing snaths which are a couple of notches better than previous ones, and some blade models with edges more ready-to-mow than ever before. “People are happy with these new scythes” — meaning no one is complaining. How nice. Well, this was precisely the answer I received from the first company (in Austria) when I addressed the shortcomings of snath design and edge readiness. That was in January 1999; the response was the same in every other factory or distributorship. The logic evidently is: “If nobody is complaining, it means everyone is happy.” So I took on the role of complainer, albeit one who also persuaded several technicians to mow with prototypes I made. It was four years before significant changes began to happen, initially in Austria where I visit twice a year.

As I see it, we collectively have left some long-accepted plateau at the base of a mountain and climbed partway up. It has been tempting to establish a camp from where we can point to the lowlands, pat ourselves on the back and maybe even pretend we are at the peak… Well, we are not; and without more “barking” the ascent will be slower.

The job of a watchdog, however, is a tiresome and awkward task. Many people in similar roles have burned out or lost motivation, only to leave the gates wide open for “criminals” to sneak in. The environmental, political, human rights etc. scenes are scattered with crosses marking former activists. Leaving the battlefield is an easier path to take, and we too have contemplated various options. For instance, what if we change to being “nice” to everyone and consider the attained level acceptable. Would that be more constructive?

Hmmm… We already know that praising people’s deeds is far more pleasant and less energy-demanding than disparaging them. Back in 1993, more idealistic and naive, we started on a decidedly positive note, and all along continued to praise some scythes and some people’s actions. As we learned more about the technical/design aspects of the tools, as well as the business attitudes on the scene, we became more selective with commendations. The goal, however, remained unaltered — to inspire questions and hopefully changes.

But suppose we nevermore say anything negative about the scythes we consider “less-than-good” or the people who are selling them. Who might benefit? The sellers would welcome the change of tune. Anyone else? I do not think so, yet broadly speaking that is not easy to answer. For instance: Provided we forsake the constructive input regarding the technical aspect of the scythe’s potential and join the simplified chorus (“The Austrian scythe is a wonderful tool”), more scythes would no doubt be sold. Thus indirectly perhaps the makers of the products presently sold would — albeit in the short run — also benefit. Our concern, however, is that many of the blissfully ignorant folks out there might never learn that they could be using a better tool. Does it matter? In the universal scheme of things, probably not. On the pragmatic level there is, however, much at stake… To our mind, more scythes sold today does not necessarily equate with more grass scythed tomorrow. To put this in another way, we have long been convinced that if all scythes were sold in as fitting a version as is technically within reasonable reach, SEVERAL TIMES as much grass would be cut with them as is the case now.

 

CASE STORY:
Among our customers are a number of folks who already own tools from Scythe Supply and/or Marugg. The unanimous opinion of all who have given us feedback amounts to “This is a revelation!” During a phone conversation with Daniel in Washington State, to whom we had sold a “wildwood” snath and a #102-75 blade, he opined, “This is a thousand times better.” I said, “You are exaggerating.” “Well, maybe a little”, he replied, “but I know that if I had this scythe all along I would have cut at least four times as much grass”. He had owned a Scythe Supply snath and three blades for the past few years.

 

More of the friends and neighbours of the scythe users would see what accomplishments are possible with a human-powered tool. Consequently, each season, additional hundreds of string trimmers as well as other polluting implements (rototillers, for instance) could be retired — because anyone thoroughly satisfied with the performance of one hand tool — be it a scythe, a good garden fork or an ax — is more likely to gravitate to the use of others. And thus the availability of a good scythe will help reduce the use of motorized tools in general. A compromise scythe version will not effect the requisite transformation nearly as fast. And, like it or not, such a transformation is not only essential — it is inevitable!

What then shall we do?


Taking an approach different from the format of our previous Buyers’ Guides, let us explore a plausible scenario in which Mr. X is an aspiring scythe owner.

Let us suppose he does not know anything about this tool and simply believes whatever he reads or hears. If he is a typical bargain-hunter, he might choose one scythe over another based on the price tag alone. In this regard the snath/blade unit sold by Johnny’s Selected Seeds of Maine is presently the cheapest. The aluminum snath is also the only adjustable one of the Austrian style sold by an American company. Lee Valley Tools’ (Ontario, Canada) snath looks similar but is somewhat more expensive. What is the distinction between them? They sell it with only a 70cm/28″ blade while Johnny’s offers only a 60cm/24″ blade.

Without much apparent difference, the choice between these two may be simple: if Mr. X is already a customer of Johnny’s, in the process of ordering garden seeds, he will buy their scythe; if on the other hand if he considers the well-known Lee Valley Tools trustworthy, he may purchase his scythe while buying other gardening or woodworking tools there. Shopping with either company is convenient, and both (especially Lee Valley) mail out plenty of enticing catalogues.

Another company which three times a year reminds its previous customers that still more good stuff awaits to be bought is Lehman Hardware of Ohio, and if Mr. X happens to be pursuing self-sufficient country living, he likely already knows of this 45-year-old company. Similar to Lee Valley, which is the source in Canada for a diverse selection of woodworking tools, Lehman’s assortment of non-electric tools and appliances is impressive. With respect to many of these, they carry the best available in North America. In scythe matters, however, they have so far left much to be desired. The snath is described as “European Style Wooden Snath (handle). Classic curved design used all over the world for 120 years. Hickory handle fits European-style blades only. 59″L, 3 lb, USA made.” It’s not “adjustable”, but $50 seems a reasonable price for a piece of American craftsmanship. The “Marugg Special” blade is claimed to be “carefully hammered – not stamped – by skilled artisans in an Austrian mountain factory that has been making scythes since 1540. Tang precisely angled so that the blade hovers perfectly parallel to the ground when the user stands upright – ensures even and efficient cutting.”

If Mr. X stumbles upon Lehman’s before purchasing from Lee Valley or Johnny’s, he may go for the more aesthetically pleasing wooden snath and the choice of four blades. (He has no idea that the “Marugg Special” blade is no more special than the other two, or that the blade’s “perfect hovering” is a complex, and in mail order scythe service, often unachieved equation.)

A scythe seller whose printed catalogue is circulated among far fewer people than the three above is The Marugg Company of Tennessee, in business since 1873 and until about 2001 offering the “Largest Selection of European-style blades in America”. Carefully comparing Lehman’s offerings with Marugg’s, Mr. X will probably settle on the latter after noticing that Lehman merely resells some of Marugg’s products at higher prices. Besides, the snath at its source comes in two models (curved and straight), the company promises to custom-size it and offers six lengths of grass blade and three of bush blades.

Of course, the World Wide Web has made printed catalogues somewhat superfluous. If Mr. X is not allergic to computers, he can conveniently explore scythe sources in the ever-expanding bowels of the Web. Although the above-discussed companies all have websites, if his quest for a scythe begins via the Internet, he will likely find the online-only catalogue of Scythe Supply of Maine ahead of the others. If after discovering Scythe Supply he purchases from Marugg anyway, it will be probably be due to one or more of the following:

a) they sell the lowest-priced wooden snath;
b) their reference to Swiss design (which seems to automatically command respect)
c) the “Marugg Special” blades “made by hand using 460-year-old forging methods”;
d) he read the widely circulated essay by Wendell Berry — A Good Scythe –(published in The Gift of Good Landand also printed in Rodale’s Organic Gardening Magazine, 1980) which became Marugg’s single most significant advertising tool. They quote excerpts from it and send a reprint of it with each order. Mr. X might buy their scythe simply because Wendell Berry once declared that it was “clearly the best that I had ever seen.” Whether Berry knew of any other European-style scythe doesn’t matter now; his word still carries weight.

Berry’s endorsement notwithstanding, Scythe Supply’s founder’s marketing skill has now pushed Marugg into the comparative backwaters of the U.S. scythe market. Their user-friendly web catalogue offers a Maine-made white ash snath in straight or “curved” version, also “custom-fitted” — plus a wider variety of “grass”, “ditch” and “bush” blades than Marugg ever had. As a business plan, the website is well-designed and will likely make Mr. X believe that whoever runs this company is indeed “The Specialist” (rather than it being a venture specializing in the retailing of European style scythes).


Regardless of which source he decided to trust the most, Mr. X may — depending on his luck — now be the happy new owner of a good scythe. “Good”, as we all know, is only relative… Five thousand years ago a forage-harvesting man was probably very happy with a stone sickle. Then came its bronze version, later the iron scythe and, by the 17th century, yet more efficient all-steel blades were swung by their even happier owners…

The fact is that a scythe can be better still than Mr. X obtained. But, since he does not know that, he is not likely to complain… And indeed, if he learns how to maintain his blade in adequately sharp condition, his grass will be “falling cleanly and effortlessly” just like Larry’s apparently does.

Actually, if we disregard the concept of ergonomy (i.e. the comfort/body posture/strength of hands required) and consider only the issue of “grass falling cleanly”, the American scythe is capable of like accomplishments. Have you, Larry, not read what Robert Frost wrote about his experience with it? Here may we ask: Why did you did you spend your good American money on an “Austrian style” scythe instead of just picking up one like Frost lauded, at a flea market or garage sale, for a fraction of the price? Has someone told you, or have you read that a “better scythe” than the traditional American one exists? Well, you evidently ended up with a scythe which is nicer to use, but you are only partially along the learning path in this respect.


We now continue with “The Adventures of Mr. X Trying to Acquire a Good Scythe”, and why this seemingly simple matter is often a complex one.

Even if he has grasped (by reading the five companies’ catalogue information) that proper fit is a necessary feature of the new scythe, he, naturally expects the sellers to adequately take care of that aspect. Unfortunately, in many instances this has not been the case…

All related rhetoric (plus the half-hearted attempts at meeting that goal) notwithstanding, the prospective mower’s primary challenge is still to obtain a suitable snath — one which more or less fits the person as well as the blade. Another way this could be stated, or another approach Mr. X might take, is to first select a blade which suits his mowing purpose and then find (or make) a snath which matches the blade and his body.

These (the mower/snath harmony and snath/blade harmony) are really two distinct but inseparable concerns that even singly could be referred to as the Achilles Heel of the contemporary scythe service. Often enough they manifest as a combination of two flaws laid in the lap of an unsuspecting novice.

To have the uninitiated really understand what exactly we are trying to convey by means of written words requires a whole lot of them! In a live demonstration this could be accomplished in 15 minutes far, far better. However, as we move through this tangled subject, we hope to substantiate (by showing examples of dis-harmonious units) some of our concerns.

As things are, two tendencies have fogged up the clarity of the “good fit” issue: One, with respect to the snath specifically, is the frequent misuse of the terms “adjustable” and “customized”; the other is the notion that the Austrian blades (as opposed to the ones of the American style) will automatically “hover perfectly above the ground”. Already David Tresemer’s The Scythe Book (1981) helped establish and perpetuate these myths.

Chapter 10 of our Addendum (2001) to said book was an attempt to compensate for the neglect of this issue in the original text. In it we stated that a truly adjustable snath would need to have an angle-adjustment joint near its bottom end. We also gave the example of Sahli, a large Swiss farm tool distributor who supplies the country’s approximately 4000 retailers with the locally-preferred snath and blade models. Catering to the many respective needs or wants, the company stocks about 20 snath models. While snaths or blades can be obtained in the stores separately, a portion of the total is sold as units only. In order to match a scythe blade to its very own snath, they proceed as follows: The tang of a (new) blade is heated and bent so as to meet the regional specifications of thethree planes (see The Blade-Fitting Challenge). The tang and approximately 4″/10cm of the body is then repainted. Sahli is, by the way, doing this with blades which already come from Austria with specified tang angles… In a way, it is a compensation for the fact that no maker of wooden snaths builds them all exactly the same and no batch of blades coming from a factory has the tang set exactly in all (three!) specified angles. Whoever initiated this process of blade/snath fitting understood the importance of well-set-up tools; most scythe dealers do not.

What Sahli does today was done for centuries by every village blacksmith throughout Europe and the Near East. The smith could do still a better job because the future user of the scythe was standing in front of him. If the person was 150cm tall, he would set the tang differently than for someone 180cm tall. Sahli, strictly a wholesaler, cannot be equally accurate because they do not know who each unit will be sold to. (The blades are all set so as to layproperly for the man who is doing this work. This is one slight flaw of their earnest attempt at good fitting. Thehafting angle as well as the horizontal balance they can take care of, though.) For more on this subject, please see our article on “Snath and Blade Fitting”.

I only know of one attempt (by a North German scythe supplier) at bringing into production a truly adjustable snath — one with a sort of “toothed ball joint” near the blade end. The angle could be adjusted (within limits) to accommodate blades with steeper or flatter tangs as well as different heights of people. The snath chosen for this commercial experiment was of curved metal tubing with adjustable grips, the most common model sold in Germany in the last few decades. The new edition was a commercial failure because the joint was too shoddily made to stand up to modern tool abusers.

The company reverted back to the widespread notion that one snath and some universal blade model ought to satisfy most casual mowers. The critical factor in all of this is low price, a mandate met by various means. The fact that this economy version of the scythe, available in all farm and garden tool chain stores, is no doubt the country’s “best seller” indicates that there are fewer Germans who understand the shortcomings and are willing to speak upin order to inspire improvements than those who are too complacent, too dumb (or too nice?) to complain.

Here in North America we are not doing a whole lot better. Among the five sources discussed, there are three snath models to choose from — none of them truly adjustable and no dealer showing the concerns implemented by Sahli of Switzerland. One model — inaccurately called “adjustable snath” has adjustable grips. (Sold by Lee Valley Tools and Johnny’s Selected Seeds). The intent of this design is to accommodate people of different height and/or specific mowing conditions (slopes versus level terrain, for instance). The problem is that the range of grip adjustability has limits and on some models the limit renders the snath simply too short for a person of medium height.

The one sold by Lee Valley is a case in point. If Mr. X makes his scythe purchase there, he had better not be taller than 5′ 6″ — and that is stretching it! For generally level fields or large lawns, he would be better off at 5’4″ or less. (If on the other hand he is mowing a steep slope and working straight or diagonally uphill, this snath would fit even if he is taller. It is specifically for such use — on steep Alpine terrain — that this model was created.

No one in the European scythe-wholesale circles seems to have given the matter enough attention to notice that for most users that snath is a fundamentally poor design. The Lee Valley folks are rather clueless about this aspect of their “traditional Austrian scythe”. They probably don’t know or forgot that Peter Vido harped about this via letters and phone calls more than ten years ago. They have since sold well over of 5000 of these snaths to their loyal Mr. and Mrs. Xs, many of whom do not mow steep slopes and are also taller than 5’6″.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds was selling this very snath between 1999 and 2002. They were more receptive to our input than Lee Valley and switched to a taller size of the same model. Now Mr. X could be up to six feet tall and receive a more-or-less well-fitting snath from this company.

That snath size limit has been a tradition with the Marugg Company, which is one reason I think they are in the dark on the issue of proper customizing. (There are other reasons we will get to below.)

So if Mr. X is say 6′ 2″ (not uncommon in well-nourished cultures today) he may end up with a customized snath the top grip of which is … ” from the ground (2″ or so too short already) and the distance between the grips of …”, which is way, way too short — even if David Tresemer stated that “in easy cutting that distance could be as little as 16″. This is what we would refer to as one of The Scythe Book’s nonsense statements. *NOTE

*Note: David does not, in the slightest, address the fact that no snath — European or any other, “adjustable” or not — can accommodate a single blade model in such a way that if a person of any height wants to “stand erect” while mowing, the blades will ride “with the edge no more than 1/4″ above the ground”. (More detailed discussion of this — as well as many other nonsense statements from The Scythe Book — in the forthcoming Review of Written Instructional Material on how to Use and Maintain the Scythe between 1981 and the present).

TO BE CONTINUED

October 2008 / 17 Mar. 2013