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Snath and blade fitting

The Snath, the Blade and the Mower in Perfect Harmony…

(Not a simple equation, but an achievable one that is certainly worth the effort!)

A Discussion on Snath/Blade Fitting.

The process, at its best, should take into consideration all three angles of the tang:

  • the steepness, which affects the lay of the blade
  • the haft, which affects the blade’s hafting angle
  • the sideways tilt, which affects the horizontal balance of the scythe. We will address these one at a time in the following pages. Click each image for a large version.

    1. The Lay

    Regardless of regional mowing styles, there is a nearly universal agreement among mowers with respect to the blade’s lay.

    (Blade viewed from tang to point.)


    A.

    B.

    C.

    Under most mowing conditions, the blade should move over the ground as pictured in A.

    B and C are both “wrong”–although under some conditions a certain amount of deviation from the “ideal” is acceptable or even desirable.

    For instance, the lay shown in B is fine for areas of tall vegetation especially if shortness or evenness of the stubble is not an issue. Surfaces strewn with relatively small rocks often require that the blade be adjusted by means of a wedge or the snath held so the blade edge is somewhere between A and B. (Rocks fist-size or larger must be worked around and then removed from the field; no amount of blade adjustment will compensate). However, one cannot mow a lawn or similar short grass very well with a scythe blade positioned this way! (By the way, the edges of many commonly-sold scythes point still much higher upwards than does the one in “B” above…)

    As for usefulness and/or shortcomings of position C: A defiant patch of short dry grass may bend away from the edge shown in A (particularly if it is not as keen as it could be), and yet be cut by the same blade angled downward, as in C. Though it may seem that the blade in C cuts well, such a setting is not advisable because:

  • mowing requires considerably more energy; i.e. to mow in this manner over a period of time is needlessly tiring
  • the blade will need more frequent honing;
  • the edge is more prone to damage (because some slicing into the ground is inevitable).

 

Thus we recommend that the lay shown in C is used only momentarily when one wishes to trim something very close to the ground (perhaps a clump of larger-diameter woody stems which, if cut off too high, may damage a thin-edged blade during subsequent mowing); or in an “emergency” in order to compensate for a dull edge, in short/soft/dry grass. The “adjustment” is made up by tilting [lowering] the scythe as needed.
If you have been using a scythe this way, i.e. with the edge needlessly eating grit, try inserting a wedge as shown in Fig. 2 below; you may be in for a revelation….


Some options of adjustments regarding the lay. Click for large versions.


Fig. 1
Fig. 2 Fig. 3 Fig. 4
  • Fig. 1: snath’s lower end “unaltered”. The blade is attached to the flat underside of a snath made from 1 1/4″ x 1 1/4″ sawn lumber. This, for instance, is likely to be a good arrangement for a six-foot-tall user: the Eastern-style snath and a blade with approx. 35-degree tang (i.e. most Belgian and Dutch models, some Italian ditch blades as well as many bush blades).
  • Fig. 2: Snath’s end is the same as in Fig. 1, but in order to elevate the blade’s edge away from the ground surface, a wedge is used. This alteration, with any snath/blade combination, will have the same effect as if the person now holding the unit is somewhat shorter. For instance, a blade that works well on a straight snath for a six-foot-tall user will, if wedged, be suitable for a mower of five feet eight inches or so.
  • Fig. 3 shows a snath’s end which is slightly tapered. A six-foot-tall mower using the straight snath may be fine using this arrangement with a blade of approximately 25- to 30-degree tang.
  • Fig. 4: A snath with a very acutely tapered end. For this arrangement the common set-screw type rings do not work well. However, the simple ring in the picture, held in place by a thick wedge, is a very common way of attaching a blade; many East European and other mowers prefer this method. It is in this manner that most Russian-made blades (the tangs of which are approximately 23-24 degrees) have been used on the straight one-grip snath in Slovakia by tall mowers. For this ring/wedge to hold better, the upper side of the snath’s end remains square, i.e. flat on top, instead of rounded as it would be in order to take the set-screw ring.

All of the above alternatives can, of course, in principle be applied to fitting of blades to any style of wooden snath.

 


Tang steepness

Read Steve Leppold’s blog at: http://scytheconnected.blogspot.com

Dear Vido Family:
I have studied the material on your website and have a pretty basic question. As an upright 6’5″ tall man (with tall sons), I should be considering blades with a tang steepness of 30 degrees plus?
Thanks,
Mike H.

Hello Mike,

Peter Vido asked me to address your question, as I am 6′-8″ tall and have faced the same issue.

 

In general, you could say that the taller you are, the steeper a tang you need, but the tang steepness you need depends mainly on the snath you will be using.

For example, the first scythe I got was from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  The blade’s tang angle was about 25 degrees.  The snath was woefully too small for me.  I modified it as shown in a photograph on this webpage:
http://www.scytheconnection.com/adp/docs/retrofitting.html

The snath modification now allowed me to mow with a straight back.  With this modified snath, 25 degrees was the right tang angle for someone of my height (but the ergonomics of the snath were far from ideal).

I later made a one-grip snath for the same 25 degree blade.  I followed the instructions listed here:
http://www.scytheconnection.com/adp/snathmaking/index.html

To make the one-grip snath work for me with a 25 degree blade, I had to use a piece of wildwood for the shaft (instead of sawn lumber) which was specially selected to have a curved bottom.  (The wood was from the prunings of an ash tree in my backyard.)  I sawed the curved bottom at just the right angle to accommodate my height and the 25 degree tang angle.  With this snath, a 25 degree tang is the correct one for me, and it works remarkably better for me than the same blade with the modified Johnny’s snath.  (For example, with the Johnny’s snath, I can’t get a full swing with enough control to cut well at the end of the stroke.)
Without a curve at the bottom of the one-grip snath, in other words with a straight shaft, the tang angle would have to be much steeper.  Exactly how steep can be calculated by the method quoted from the following webpage:

“To estimate the required tang angle [for a straight-shafted one-grip snath] for anyone, regardless of height, a scale drawing can be made on graph paper, or a bit of trigonometry can be applied. Assuming the person is right-handed, measure the the height of the right hand in the mowing stance (usually with the right arm almost completely straight), and divide this number by the theoretical distance between right grip and end of snath (following the instructions for making the one-grip snath), and find the arcsine (or “inverse sine”) for this quotient. The result is the approximate tang angle required for both the one-grip snath and the Oregon snath.”

from http://www.scytheconnection.com/adp/toolmaking/index.html#oregon

I wanted to make a straight one-grip snath and this method resulted a tang angle of about 50 degrees!  Luckily for me, Peter happened to have some suitable blades in stock (he has many blades not listed in the catalogue).

I later wanted to try these same blades with a two-grip snath (homemade from straight lumber), so I designed the “Oregon Snath”, as shown in the above link.

If I had a two-grip snath with curves in the right places, I could use a less-steep tang angle.  How much less of an angle depends on the specific snath design (the location and amount of curvature, the grip arrangement, etc.)
The adjustable two-grip snaths that are available from various sources are only adjustable for a certain range of heights, and this doesn’t really address the blade fit.  Each adjustment of the snath might change the angle the snath makes with the ground, theoretically requiring a different tang angle.

For a given user/snath combination there is an optimal tang angle.  (The desired use for the scythe can be reflected in the snath design and influence the optimal tang angle.)  The available blades may not match this optimal tang angle.  There is some leeway possible since the user can adjust his/her stance and arm positioning a bit to make a blade work, up to a certain limit.  Beyond this, a wooden wedge can be used between the tang and the snath, to simulate a decrease in tang angle, up to about 5 degrees less than the actual tang angle. Modifications are sometimes made to the bottom of the snath, tapering (cutting a wedge off) the snath to simulate an increase in tang angle.

The use of wedges and tapering to affect the lay of the blade is explained in this webpage:
http://www.scytheconnection.com/adp/snathmaking/snath2.html

A recap of the last couple points:  A snath can be fitted to the user.  The resulting snath will need a blade with a certain tang angle.  The curvature of the snath affects the required tang angle of the blade.  A blade with a tang angle that is too high for the user/snath combo (up to about 5 degrees too high) can still be used with a wedge. A blade with a tang angle that is too low (up to a couple degrees too low) can be used if the snath end is tapered.

With the Oregon snath, I took a different approach by starting with a given blade. The Oregon snath is then made to fit the user (and blade) without the use of wedges or tapers.
The blade/snath/user each have an influence on the other two factors.  For example, you cannot determine the tang angle for a given height user without considering the specific snath.

The maker of the snath should have this all figured out, but this isn’t always the case.  I think that there is some fudging done, such as one or two tang angles used for a range of users, instead of having a wider range of tang angles available to properly fit the range of users.

So I hope that you now understand how a 25-degree blade and a 50-degree blade can both fit the same tall person, and how the answer to your basic question depends on the specific snath.
-Steve Leppold


The Hafting Angle

The question of what is the “proper” hafting angle is somewhat less straightforward than the lay of the blade. Two factors, either singly or in combination, are responsible for the variety of opinions and how they prove out in the field:

  • 1. the particular mowing style. Note 1.
  • 2. the stem density of the sward. Note 2.

A percentage of the blades used in the Alps and some other regions of Europe are hafted “in circle”, that is, with the blade’s point as well as its beard both at the same distance from the upper end of the snath. A quick way to check this without a measuring tape is shown in Figure 1.


A. The beard of the blade in line with the upper line marked on the wall.

B. The scythe rotated to the right upon its axis, with the end of the snath remaining at the same place on the block of wood, until the point of the blade crosses the same point previously met by the beard. This blade is hafted in circle.

This adjustment works well only if the stem density is not too high. Accordingly, many classical Austrian blade models mounted on common snaths will automatically provide a hafting angle “in circle”. They were designed for the cutting of the typical Alpine meadow (which is not excessively dense). It was also a given that the mower would maintain a thin and well-honed cutting edge. Within these parameters –along with the very circular stroke–such a hafting angle works well. (By “very circular” we mean that the mower’s body movement consists principally of rotation in the waist, with little or no additional side-to-side motion of the legs.

However, within each region of “in circle tradition” some mowers prefer a setting with the point of a 70cm to 75cm blade approximately 5cm/2″ below the upper line shown in Figure 1. The hafting angle is then more acute, or more “closed”. See Figure 2.

Figure 2. Blade hafted 5cm./2″ below the circle. This, we think, is generally a far more useful setting.

 

For the cutting of an extra-dense and/or tangled sward, or one containing “thatch” (an accumulation of cut or uncut material of previous seasons’ growth) or if, in addition, you shift your weight sideways (in the manner we teach), the point of a medium to long blade could be nearly 10cm./4″ below its beard. See Figure 3.

Figure 3. A blade hafted even more acutely.

 

It may also be noted that, under the same cutting conditions, the longer the blade the more acute the hafting angle should be. For instance, an old Slovak once told me his formula: The point should be in from the circle (below the beard) by:

  • 1 finger for a 50cm. blade
  • 2 fingers for a 60cm. blade
  • 3 fingers for a 70cm. blade
  • 4 fingers for an 80cm. blade

None of the guidelines are set in stone. Our advice is that you try different settings, pay attention to the results and the respective effort they require in use, and then decide what is best for you.

Even though there is some latitude within most attachment rings or other mounting hardware, certain blade models on the market do not afford the hafting angle described above. In other words, the blade can be moved back and forth slightly when the set screws are loosened; still, some blades will not haft that way even if they are moved all the way forward. There are several ways to compensate for this:

a) A wider (40mm.) ring is sometimes enough to solve the challenge.
b) Some metal can be ground or filed from the tang as pictured in Figure 4. Removing up to 6mm./1/4″ depth from this part of most tangs will not affect their strength significantly. (If you break the blade after doing this, we maintain that you were employing FAR too much force while mowing.)

 


Note 1: Possibly the two extremes are the very semi-circular movement of the Alpine regions and the nearly straight-across stroke of the Basques.

The respective “correct” hafting angles of these are such that if an Austrian or Swiss mower hafted the blade according to the Basque formula, he would have to use one of the Basque blade models and the same traditional movement, or the blade would cut virtually no grass. If on the other hand a Basque would mount on his snath the most typical Austrian blade and try to mow in his usual style, he would either get “stuck” halfway through the stroke or–strong as the Basques are–break the blade or the snath, because he would be asking the blade to “bite off more than it can chew”.

For the Basque movement and blade pattern, the correct hafting angle is a very acute one (I refer to it as “closed”); not recommended for most mowers reading this…

 

Note 2: Mowers probably never know the actual number of stems per square area; various stands are judged as “sparse” or “dense” by a visual assessment, and blades may be adjusted slightly whenever an unusual stand is encountered.

Besides, even if one knew the exact number of stems per area, real life is often more colourful than an arbitrary classification based on head counts. Are the stems young and juicy, or are they old and tangled? Equally important, how sharp is your blade?

 


The Horizontal Balance – Part 1

The “sideways tilt” is the third (and least obvious) plane of a blade’s tang, inherent in the design of each model. Very few tangs (the American pattern being one example) are laterally level when the blade is viewed edge-on. The vast majority tilt to the left, i.e. toward the point of the blade. The angle of this tilt (indicated by the straight piece of wood) will usually cross the blade somewhere along its edge.

Even within the range of so-called Austrian pattern blades, there are many variants of this tilt. If they are not considered while matching blades to snaths, an otherwise perfectly good scythe can “misbehave”, with much of the potential mowing comfort unrealized. Unfortunately, very few who sell scythes today–even the so-called “customized outfits”–pay attention to this particular slope of the tang. Most do not even notice that there is a difference between blades in this respect, and if they do notice, they don’t really know why it is so or how to take it into consideration.

In The Blade-Fitting Challenge (The Scythe Must Dance) we alluded to the existence of this often-ignored tang angle but stayed away from a comprehensive discussion of the concept. The reason was simply that so many words are needed to “lay it out” well enough… words that were too numerous for that short mowers’ guide. With the help of digital photography we are now attempting to fill that void and take the matter of blade fitting a few steps further.

Part 1 of this discussion is written specifically for those who are willing to make their own snath–be it the simpler one-grip “Eastern” style or one of many two-grip snaths. In the latter case, if the grips point toward the mower–and they don’t have to–we recommend that you attach them at an angle less than 90 degrees to the snath body. A 75-80 degree angle will provide far more freedom as you play with the horizontal balancing, and will be generally more user-friendly, regardless of what blade model you use. Nevertheless, the principles outlined below apply to all snaths regardless of their grip positions.


 

The purpose of the tang’s tilt is to affect the scythe’s horizontal balance–a desired characteristic. Some snath models, however, are innately more balance-prone than others; one reason we suggest making a one-grip straight snath is that the balancing of the snath/blade unit is simpler. Below are the steps to that end:

  • 1. Before mounting the blade, take the snath into your hands. Lightly drag its end across the ground in front of you in an arc from right to left, simulating the full mowing movement, but slower. Without the blade you can “tip” the snath easily one way and then the other. Tilt it repeatedly throughout the stroke while paying attention to where it it feels best in your hands. Do this until you determine your preferred wrist position.
  • 3. Fix this grip position in your mind (or have someone observe from the front to help you remember).
  • 4. Mount the blade. At this point the bottom 10cm/4″ of a new snath will, from the underside, still be level laterally.)

5. Close your eyes (so you can easier ignore the blade’s position) and lightly touch the ground surface in front of you with the blade, while maintaining your wrist in the predetermined comfort position. Ideally, the belly of the blade (its underside near the middle) should contact the ground before the beard or the point. More often than not it won’t. (Note 3)

Steps 1 to 5 above are very seldom carried out by those who commercially “customize” scythes–or, for that matter, by most of their new owners.

Nevertheless, this “balancing guide” is here to help you avoid at least some of the body discomfort often associated with mowing. It is possible to start with the parameter of body comfort and adapt the scythe to it rather than vice versa. So if the blade does not lay on its “belly” (though with the point slightly lighter-feeling than the beard) while you maintain that personal wrist comfort, follow with the steps below.

 


If while maintaining the wrist-comfort grip position you find
that the blade contacts the ground with its point first:

remove wood at the end of the snath as indicated:

The blade will then “ride” thus:

 


Much more frequently this condition will be encountered–the blade’s point
“floats” about 15cm/6″ off the ground.

In this case you can either tilt the grips (and thereby also the snath and blade) forward
and forsake the wrist comfort, or you can remove wood from the end of the snath as shown:

For this demo we deliberately chose a blade whose tang tilts leftward more than the average
and a snath with ample wood to work with. In many instances, less drastic wood removal
than shown will remedy the point-too-high condition.

After the angle is cut, the blade will “ride” much better. You should now be able to, while
holding the scythe with most comfort, glide the blade in front of you with closed eyes
and it will cut grass evenly without the need to “compensate”.

While makng the adjustments above, “measure twice, cut once” is an appropriate rule. In many instances very little wood needs to be taken off; 3mm. or one-eighth inch at a time is enough between re-testing.

NOTE 3: If you do the test above with the average “Austrian-style” scythe, its blade will likely contact with its beard first and the point will “float” some distance above the surface. A bit of floating is OK (and–depending on mowing style–desired in some regions) but you obviously cannot cut an even stubble with the point of the blade riding 10cm/4″ higher than the rest of it.

The mowers using such outfits simply have to rotate the grips forward until the point moves evenly through the stroke. This takes an additional “touch” which comes naturally with a little experience, but many novices don’t get it right away. They are already concentrating on several other dos and don’ts of the movement (don’t keep lifting the blade, don’t take too much of a bite, do keep the blade hugging the ground through the cutting movement, do finish the stroke completely, etc.). Consequently they either:

  • a) leave the point of the blade riding too high–and because its elevation will become more exaggerated as it move to the far left–tufts of grass will remain uncut along the left side of the swath, or
  • b) compensate for this high point too much, with the result of digging it in the ground.

Oct. 2006
Updated May. 2010