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The blade fitting challenge

The
Blade-Fitting
Challenge

(From The Scythe Must Dance by Peter Vido, published in 2001
as an addendum to The Scythe Book by David Tresemer.)

Click the photo at right to see a larger image.


Examples of only a small portion of the various models, all made by one company. While the variation in the tang angles is not evident in this photo, it is significant and must be considered when customizing scythes.

 

Note: For a discussion and photos of blade and snath fitting, please click here.


From some of the statements I have made in this text, the reader may surmise that my opinion of how scythes are often fitted, adjusted, sharpened and used is rather low.

To express the overall picture to a farmer 100 years ago, I might have stated that the average scythe of today works somewhat like an underfed and poorly shod horse wearing a collar two sizes too large. This is only loosely descriptive because the majority of contemporary mowers, or mowers-to-be, never drove such a horse.

The analogy to a car may be more fitting, since the average person nowadays does know how it feels to sit behind the wheel of a smooth running one. Using this metaphor, I believe very few scythe outfits run as if “on all cylinders.” Most of them need a push or a pull to make it up any serious hills, and, with respect to comfort features, are like driving a vehicle without shock absorbers.

Take this as a comical exaggeration if you wish – it may lighten your heart, which alone can help with the mowing. However, I am serious, and also certain that until some elemental challenges of a fit addressed and dealt with, for many mowers to maintain their body in a comfortable position while also keeping the ideal edge-to-ground relationship, will be mutually exclusive goals.

What has not been generally considered by the scythe sellers, as well as the buyers, is the fact that no blade model’s specific tang position well suited to all mowers using the same model of snath, even if latter is “custom-sized” or adjustable. Some combinations work better than others more often or for more people.

WHY IS IT SO COMPLICATED?

Apart from all other characteristics that define each blade as a distinct model, its tang is angled simultaneously in three specific planes. The scythesmiths do not invent these angles. They have always followed the exact specifications of their customers. Each respective model was “dreamed up” by someone who had reasons of his own for wanting it one way or another. Many hundreds of models, by the way, have been conceived and made. The Styria Company alone, for example, has patents for over one thousand of them. The specifications for each are in their records and so could all be reproduced. There is no need to do this for, even though the demand for diversity here (as with anything else) is steadily dying, they still manufacture over 200 models; plenty to choose from. However, we-and I refer here to both the dealers and the mowers- need to learn what to ask for and why.

Whatever the benefits of the “Information Age” have been in some areas of human endeavour, it has obliterated much wisdom, skill, and service elsewhere. The scythe has been a prime example of the latter and it is a worldwide condition. As small regional dealers gradually disappeared, many traditional blade and snath models have been replaced by others. Adaptation of the specifications and measuring methods have not kept pace with these changes. Some of the former fine-tuning considerations have been forgotten and many casual mowers do not have their units well adjusted.

May it never come to this, but if the present trends toward less diversity – in general – continue until the world’s scythe users are offered only one model of snath and blade, and if we all mowed in the same style, then very simple formulae could suffice. At this point we are caught in mid-stream, with many models of blades and snaths circulating in a haphazard manner, sold in poorly matched pairs, and without the knowledge required to make the best use of them.

The curved metal snath – an easy one to manufacture commercially – is the biggest seller in Continental Europe and is distributed in regions which still use some of their traditional blade patterns. This snath does not fit all of these well, but many people buying them today do not realize this. The decisions as to what should be sold often come from “above” – the large wholesalers who know little or nothing about mowing. What determines their choices, above all other concerns, is what product can be had at the lowest price.

The exceptions to this are very few; the Sahli Company of Switzerland is one of them. Here, each single blade is individually matched with a snath from over 20 different wooden models sold in the respective regions where they are still preferred.

This is exemplary service, rare in today’s world. It continues in those areas of supply where obvious benefit, in terms of greater immediate profit, is to be gained by it – i.e. the customers are willing to pay for it.

Those who would buy a scythe are assumed, by the world of commerce, to belong to one of two categories:

  1. They need the tool, which must mean they are members of an “unprogressive” nation and so too poor to pay a high price.
  2. They are casual users in wealthy countries who cannot tell the difference between high quality and its substitute, or proper and improper fit. Thus, for this second group, it does not pay to carry the expensive line or many options either.

What makes Sahli special is that they would probably get the same price per snath/blade unit even if they did not pay the salary of a man who does nothing else but match them. The company’s reputation was built on “service first,” and they are sticking to it.

Today the knowledge of how to fine-tune a scythe is becoming rare. Many of the dealers have continued ordering their models, as before, in one tang angle, not considering the fact that today’s customers are a different lot.

The existence of adjustable snaths – a relatively modern invention – partially obscures the issue. Their purpose is to cater to mowers of different heights rather than variations in tang angles. A snath designed also with the latter in mind would need, in addition, a hinged joint somewhere near the bottom.

In use, the snath meets the ground surface at various angles. Attempting to keep the edge-to-grass stem relationship at its best, the mower continually compensates for changes in terrain and the blade’s distance from the feet (hopefully by altering the stance and lifting or lowering the arm, rather than bending over).

What bears consideration when matching units is that the average of this snath-to-ground angle will be higher with taller people. In a trimming stroke close to one’s feet, the difference may be as great as one degree per inch of height!

To specifically discuss each combination of snath/blade model sold in America today is beyond the scope of this treatise. Though I am hoping to inspire the individual dealers to give this matter some thought, we cancollectively begin with a few elemental considerations. In addition to the correct snath size in relation to a person’s height and for its intended purpose, there are two important features which distinguish a well-matched unit from a poor one: the ability to achieve a favorable “hafting angle” and the “lay” of the blade.

At the risk of being considered a perpetual complainer, I will say, in all honesty, that there is hardly a blade I have seen in America that is well hafted. In many cases it is neglect; the blade has moved back, the mower did not notice the change and, during subsequent use, accepted the setting as “normal.”

The bottom of a wooden snath swells with moisture when used in wet grass and shrinks again while hanging in a dry shed. Unless the screws in the ring are carefully tightened each morning before use, the blade will eventually slip. Once the back of the tang is allowed to contact the ring, we have a potentially destructive set-up. Using that contact as a fulcrum, the knob of the tang will act as an effective wood- splitting device the next time the blade is stressed (hitting a dry stub of a sapling, a rock or even a dense clump of grass). Many wooden snaths have been ruined in this manner; the ring will often be damaged at the same time. A hafting angle that is too “open” may be less noticeable or even work fine in scanty growth, tender grass, or if using short strokes. In serious mowing it will “drag” and require more energy from the mower.

With certain blade/snath combinations, it is not easy to achieve the desired hafting angle without some alterations. This is because many blade models sold in America were designed for snaths that curve to the left and/or those with one or both grips pointing away from the mower. Their tangs can, however, be ground or filed (from the front side) to make them look more like the tangs of “American” blades. It will help (albeit not in every case) with “narrowing” or closing the hafting angle. (This, by the way, is all that is required to make the “Austrian style” blades fit within the confines of the American ring. Not that I recommend this continent’s traditional snath; it is an example of a very un-ergonomic design.)

On the other hand I could tolerate a classical “American” blade. Apart from maintaining its edge with the hammer, I would make a suit able handle for it… which is why I much regret to be omitting a chapter on snathmaking here. Making your own is the ultimate way to solve the blade-fitting challenge. This alternative, if it became commonplace, would eliminate the responsibility of the dealers to provide their customers with an “individually-fitted” unit.

The Appendix sums up the issue.


Updated Mar. 2007