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Two Scythe Tales

American versus “Austrian” scythe pitches

— A review by Peter Vido

 

Note: This document refers to the originals of A Tale of Two Scythes from Botan Anderson of One Scythe Revolution, and Benjamin Bouchard’s “Open Letter” response to it. Both of the articles have since been updated (Botan’s only recently), so check the respective links for the most current versions.

 

Some critics appear to enjoy their job; I don’t. Instead, I wish to live in a convivial world where there is nothing to criticize, where corporations and capital interests don’t predominate.
Interim, I’ve tried to fulfill my self-selected ‘watchdog’ role as best I can, and still not die prematurely as a result of both head and heart ache. I have learned, up to a point, not to become furious when I perceive a major correction within the scythe scene is called for, because that proved self-destructive. Now, more often than not I just shake my head. That helps with the mood momentarily, but the actual task remains; I know already then, that sooner or later I will loose some sleep over it…

The intent of the following critique is to dispel a number of scythe-related misconceptions, many of which are ‘conveniently’ (for me) presented within Botan Anderson’s A Tale of Two Scythes and Benjamin Bouchard’s energetic rebuttal to it.

On behalf of newcomers to my voice on the scythe scene it may help to explain that:

1.  I have been a decided fan and ‘missionary’ of the European style of scythe blades (which includes the “Austrian” lot). However, my advocacy of scythe use is rooted in a 40 year conviction that whenever human bodies can replace machines with relative ease and for reasons of *conviviality* or ‘sustainability’, they ought to do so. From that perspective, the classical American scythe is a hand tool, and whether or not I consider it very body-friendly (and thereby ‘energy-efficient’) its use deserves my endorsement.

2.  I have had more of an issue with the American snaths rather than the blades per se, and in The Scythe Must Dance had stated the following: “… I would like to leave you with one suggestion. Practice the peening (even with the jig) on used “American” blades. They can often be obtained for a few dollars and may save your new blade from abuse. I have yet to come across one that could not be peened; some, in fact, respond better than blades of contemporary production.”
Thirteen years later I’m of the same opinion. In addition, I’d say that a relatively light version of an old USA-made blade on a snath of my own design, may, given an emergency, keep me happy enough.

3.  Because of the world situation and increasing challenges I perceive up ahead, my take is that every scythe blade — be it made in USA, Austria or China — ought to be collected and fixed-up to its potential usefulness. Whether the snaths these are eventually used with are as ‘ergonomic’ as a snath could be may be secondary to that fact that they (the blades) will all cut grass, if well-maintained. Between when the flow of cheap oil is reduced to a trickle and the time that a truly convivial and sustainable way of living is ‘discovered’, those blades may help feed us, whereas lawnmowers and whipper-snippers won’t…

That is my bias laid out. Whether I qualify as a fair reviewer of the respective arguments is for the reader to decide; I’ve taken on this task because nobody else had volunteered and these ‘tales’ DO call for corrections.

Botan’s original has apparently been posted on his website for a couple of years now, but it was Benjamin who drew my attention to it by sending his own rebuttal to me, saying “Thought you might find this of interest”.

When I read both of these features for the first time, back to back, I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh — both came across like snake oil sales pitches.
In Botan’s view the American scythe is primitive, heavy, “hard”, and flat — while the “Austrian” is sophisticated, light, “malleable”, full of floating curves and with a decidedly better-cutting edge. Benjamin, on the other hand, in his haste to dispel some of the stated nonsense, trips over himself while trying to counter points of ‘The Tales’ that do not call for it, and in turn comes up with what I perceive as some nonsensical statements of his own.

Nevertheless, in view of all the bad rap the American scythe has received in print, I find it fitting that a dedicated voice on its behalf would materialize. Whether Benjamin’s efforts will significantly help aspiring scythe users, I do not know, but at least a sensible dialogue on the subject might ensue. Confronting Botan’s “Tale of Two Scythes” was probably a good place to start.

The misconceptions regarding both scythe ‘styles’ are numerous indeed, many of them making their official debut with 1981 publication of The Scythe Book by D. Tresemer, a writer with flair but only a half-baked student of the subject.
Botan adds extra fuel to some of them, plus dabbles in aspects of the theme for which he appears poorly qualified. While doing so is his prerogative, he inadvertently diminishes his position as a fair and knowledgable voice on scythe matters.
Perhaps his ‘tale’ was meant for elementary-school level of scythe readers? Well, given the fact that such intent was not made plain — coupled with my notion that it is about time we grow up — I attempt to take the theme a couple of notches further. (You see, I have long perceived that a chorus of Tresemer-trained parrots has been keeping the new generation of potential scythe users in a certain rut.)

As you may notice, while responding to Botan’s unabashedly promo-oriented piece, I take the position of sticking up for the ‘underdog’ (in this case the American scythe). The main reason, though, is that it allows me to easier expose the overwhelmingly one-sided humbug.
On the other hand, in my response to Benjamin’s rebuttal I attempt to balance the scale and temper his also one-sided enamourment (albeit one devoid of commercial bias) with the American scythe.
However (while attempting to meet my objective as a clarity-enhancer, albeit a ‘troublemaker’) in neither case do I knowingly exaggerate or misrepresent facts in the least, be they of technical or historical nature. Please bring it to my attention if I failed.

Now, it may appear to some readers that, throughout both critiques, I quibble over semantics. Maybe so. But both authors are somewhat sloppy in how they use certain terms or phrase their explanations, and I believe that accuracy is of importance while discussing technical concepts.

Regarding nomenclature, neither of them makes enough of a distinction between blades which are:
1) made in Austria but used elsewhere on the globe (besides North America)
2) made in Austria and used there
(There are also scythe blades made elsewhere but used in Austria, though that seems less relevant to the present debate)
Consequently, often when they refer to ”Austrian blades” as a blanket term for both 1) and 2), their statements, comparisons and conclusions lose much meaning, or are even completely off the board.
To allude to the ‘fuzziness’ of the term, I often put “Austrian” in quotation marks.

While sorting through it all, it was natural for me to become sidetracked by explaining concepts or clarifying historical facts that for pragmatic purposes of today’s scythe-using generation are quite irrelevant.
For instance, how much will it help scythers today to know if the Northern Europe’s blacksmiths way back a thousand years ago had access to some good steel or not? And whether or not it could be settled if the American scythe-smiths of old were as skilled as their Austrian equivalents could possibly be of some merit to patriots on the respective sides of the fence, but to few others.

However, I am neither a historian nor a metallurgist. I have dabbled in these disciplines only to the point that satisfies my amateur grasp of the overall picture. I therefore invite respective specialists to correct my current level of understanding wherever they see pertinent.

While my words may seem to come across as from a “know it all”, I honestly see myself as scythe-student. One with probably more scythe-cut grass under his belt than either Botan or Benjamin, and a few more years worth of dedicated learning, but a mere apprentice nevertheless. (Truth be told — I’ve never wanted to become an ‘expert’, on any subject, and by virtue of that alone I never will.)


 

 A Tale of Two Scythes – The One Scythe Revolution

What is an “Austrian” Scythe Blade?

Pictured here are two 28 inch long scythe blades. Both of these blades were made in Austria. The top blade, however is actually an American-style scythe blade. It was made in Austria, but It is not an “Austrian” style of blade. The bottom blade is an Austrian-style scythe blade, plus it’s made in Austria. Both of these types of blades are often sold as genuine Austrian scythe blades here in the USA. While that’s true in a sense, it often creates confusion for new customers. There aren’t any scythe blade manufacturers in America, anymore. They went out of business a long time ago, so American-style blades are now only being made in Austria.

With the exception of an insignificant detail, the above paragraph is a clearly presented representation of the facts. The detail is that a factory in Slovenia has long been making blades of the ‘American style’ and still does (primarily for distribution in Western Canada).

 

Blade Design: Austrian vs. American

The American style blade on the right, is thicker and is made out of a harder steel that must be sharpened on a grindstone. 

It has a pointy tang, that’s in line with the blade. The American style blade only has one curve, and that is it’s crescent shape. If you lay the blade on a table, it will lie as flat as the table. 

The Austrian blade on the left, is the product of a much more sophisticated metalworking process. It is made of a somewhat softer and thinner steel,…

I shall address the “must” of grinding (of American blades) further below.
For now — with due respect to this remarkably flexible substance — I wish to point out that before it becomes a scythe blade (or any other article) steel is neither ‘softer’ nor ‘harder’, thicker’ or ‘thinner.’ It is ever ready to shape-shift and (within certain limits of each respective alloy) take on final properties at the whim of the various metalworkers.

 

…and gets it’s strength from its THREE curves

1. The obvious CRESCENT shape.
2. The ROCKER- a curve that runs lengthwise and lifts the tip off of the ground. 
3. The BELLY- a curve from side-to-side, that has the effect of lifting the cutting edge slightly off of the ground. 

If you lay it on a table, it floats on it’s belly, and all four sides are lifted slightly off the table. It is light weight and has a wide tang that is raised. The steel is malleable enough to sharpen it by cold-hammering the cutting edge thin, with a peening hammer and anvil.

The hero of Hasek’s famous novel, The Good Soldier Svejk, might now exclaim: “Sir, I humbly report that THE WAY this pro-Austrian blade’s strength case is presented, reads overall like partially-informed semi-humbug to me”. Well, my own take on the matter at hand is similar…

To begin with, what sort of ‘strength’ is the author talking about?
Frankly, I fail to understand how the ‘crescent-ness’ has much to do with strength, but perhaps I’m stuck in reflecting on all the strong swords, machetes and knives which did a bloody lot of tough work, straight as they were. Or, I’m confused by the fact that, though some scythe blades made over the centuries were straighter than the green sample profiled here, many (if not most) were still more crescent-like. Haven’t all their users and designers wanted strength as one of the blade’s attributes? IF crescent shape indeed equates with strength, why weren’t all scythe blades curved like those in the photos below??

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Commentary: The narrow blade shown second from the bottom is a rather unique example of both curvature and hardness. It was made approximately a century ago, by the Redtenbacher co. of Austria for one of the regions of the ex-Soviet empire. The Rockwell scale hardness of this ‘soft’ Austrian blade — tested a few years ago by a competent technician at the Schrokenfux factory few years ago (three times over, just to be sure) — is 62 Rc. Not only that, but it is a consistent hardness throughout the whole length of the blade; a rare accomplishment indeed!)

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Anyway, what we are told here is that the “rocker” lifts the point, and the “belly” lifts the edge. The whole thing “floats”, is “light” and “malleable enough” to have its edge hammered thin in a cold state. But strength?
I mean, do lifted point and edge, plus lightness and malleability endow this blade with the ability to stand up to abuse (for instance driving the blade’s point into the earth, rocks and other solid obstacles) OR to cut tough mature plant stalks, tree saplings or other scythe edge-challenging material? OR is it the resistance to flexing when large amount of heavy green matter needs to be both cut and pushed sideways into a windrow, specially when such cutting is done (as it often is) with a relatively long blade?

Of course, everything else being equal (that is, same material, its weight and distribution as well as its final hardness) convex/concave shapes can certainly add to the factor of steel article’s strength — and is precisely the reason why this principle has been incorporated to the technique repertoire of European scythe industry.
However, the strength-related features of the blade model profiled here are not really explained, not in any case so that the average reader will grasp the basic concept.
So let’s take this a little further: Scores of models of the common all-purpose/”grass blade” category (to which the green blade belongs), traditionally used in Italy, Eastern Europe, the extended ex-Soviet Union as well as the Near East have so little “belly” and “rocker” that they more accurately could be described as “flat”. Not quite as flat as the American blades, but nearly so. Yet (unlike the American blades) some of their bodies are very thin, and with the overall weight per length ratio less than the green sample profiled here. A portion of these are surprisingly stiff and stronger (in my estimate) than any of the “grass” blades Botan Anderson presently sells. We have dozens of such blades in our collection, and have used many of them, so I’m not simply ‘shooting blanks’ based on hearsay.

Hence, the soldier Svejk might now ask: “supposing what we have been told thus far is true, how do the blades below appropriately fulfill their working function without pronounced “bellies” and “rockers”?

IMGP1591  IMGP1350

IMGP1434  IMGP1583

There were also blades (made in Austria for Scandinavia, particularly Sweden) with an inverted belly, but of course we would’t count these among the good “Austrian-style” lot.  We merely show a few samples to add some color to this dry document…

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IMGP1427   IMGP1426

 

 …We sell Austrian-style blades, and they are hand-forged in Austria by a factory that has been making them since 1540.

Let me begin with a couple of questions:
Having collectively embraced ‘progress and development’ as we have, do we wish to perpetuate the bubble of belief that we can ‘have the cake and eat it too’, that is, easily (i.e. cheaply) enjoy, if we so choose, the charming leftovers of the (sometimes over-idealized) past? OR are we instead willing to accept the present for what it is and appreciate its gifts, bittersweet as some of them may be?
Assuming that most of this readership opts for the latter (though I can’t really know what ‘hand-forging’ means to them) here is some food for thought:
In the age of obsessive mechanization “hand forged” has acquired a romantic ring, and can now function as buyer-bait for tools made by industry (which does little ‘by hand’, as we affectionately think of it).
The truly hand-forged scythe blades of old — that in German language were referred to as “Faustsensen” (meaning “fist-made scythe blades”) — became obsolete in Austria between late 16th century and a few decades afterwards. A scattering of gypsy smiths in the Balkans supposedly continued the tradition until World War II or little after, and in remote regions of the Near East some scythe blades are still truly hand-forged.
Under present-day industrial settings only one of the many steps (the final fine-tuning) that even the best of scythe blade-making involves is done without the aid of a machine. However, because at every other step but two, there are a person’s hands guiding the blade under the various mechanical hammers, shears and grinders, it is still a process which could more accurately be referred to as workmanship of risk* — as oppose to one of “certainty” (for instance stamped and ‘drop-forged’ blades or other articles produced by near complete automatization).
(*term coined by David Pye, the late British professor of design — and craftsman extraordinaire.)

“… making them since 1540.” 

This also seems to be a popular historical tidbit with many sellers of the Austrian-made scythes, perhaps because like “hand forged” it appeals to the nostalgia for the old crafts in the minds of some potential customers. I don’t know how many of them would be willing to pay a fair exchange value for the time of a skilled and sweating hand hammer-swinging smith if, like in 1540, the output of an already specialized ten men enterprise in Austria was still between a dozen to 20 scythe blades per day, but my guess is that very few eco-conscious citizens in America would presently own a truly “hand-forged” Austrian scythe…

As an additional note: EVERY industrial-scale enterprise dating back that far (or even just 50 years) has HAD TO change the way of production in so many aspects that a reference to its beginnings has little meaning today. A more relevant question may be what quality of work they presently do, and — as a further concern to some of us — how ‘stable’ they now appear to be. In other words, will they still be here (making a product of similar quality) a year, or a decade from now? (My more extensive reflections on this subject can be read here.

 

Snaths: Austrian vs. American-style

The scythe on the left is an Austrian-style scythe; the scythe on the right is an American-style scythe. The scythe on the right is the type that has given the scythe such a bad reputation in this country. Whenever I mention to people that I sell scythes, they often say “Oh, my grandfather had one. He used to make me mow the tall grass and weeds with it. It was SO MUCH WORK! I hated it!”  The style of scythe that they are referring to is the American-style scythe on the right. Being very heavy, and awkward to use, (and seldom sharp), it made mowing a very labor-intensive process, indeed!…

While “sharp” remains a relative term (and same goes for “very heavy” and “awkward to use”) how, for heaven’s sake, were the millions of acres of hay and grain fields that were harvested in America’s history cut with “seldom sharp” scythes? As a 63 year old I can only guess, but I assume that during the complaining comrades’ grandfather’s generation the average scythe was usually sharp.

 

… I think it did much to contribute to the great enthusiasm Americans now have for powered mowers!

This culture’s present infatuation with motorized tools has far more complex roots than is implied here. How can we explain, for instance, the notoriously growing popularity of mechanical wood-splitters all across North American countryside, never mind a chainsaw on nearly every green/sustainable/perma-cultural homestead? And this in the very part of the world where axes reached, in my view, the pinnacle of their design evolution…

 

… The logic behind the American-style design, quite frankly tries to “fudge” the laws of geometry. Since the blade is crescent shaped, it should move in a half-circle in front of you, in the same plane as the ground. Yet because the tang is completely flat, you would have to practically bend over far enough to touch your toes, to do so! 

Quite frankly, that is a gross exaggeration.

 

… The American-style scythe blade is actually designed to slide over the ground on the back of it’s rib, but this tilts the crescent shape up and out of the plane of the half-circle that it should move in, on the ground. Hence most people, swing it in the plane that it’s set at, at an acute angle to the plane of the ground! In other words, they swing it like a golf club or a hockey stick.This means that they only cut a small patch of grass in front of them, with every heavy stroke of the scythe!

It might have been specified that those are the uninitiated people of today’s generation — rather than the old-timers for whom this tool (whatever its shortcomings) was made. In addition, the hockey stick/golf club stroke is also common with many uninitiated individuals in every European country I’ve been to. And, lo and behold, they are doing it with the “Austrian” style of scythe!

 

… Yes, it is a lot of work to mow like that! Even more so with a dull blade.

There goes that “dull” issue again!

 

… The true “Austrian” scythe, on the other hand, weighs much less than the American one. The blade is lightweight, and has a raised tang, so that you can remain upright while moving the blade in an arc (in the same plane as the ground), and the snath can be less curved, and much lighter than the American-style snath. 

This sounds like an echo of David Tresemer — who gave all the uninitiated readers of his book an impression that — in words of one popular company’s catalogue selling them — “[the Austrian blades]…hover perfectly above the ground”.
Had the concept been presented something like: ‘With the “Austrian” scythe it is inherently easier to arrive at an adjustment where the blade lays on the ground with the edge well-tilted while the mower can stand comfortably erect’, I’d have agreed and kept my mouth shut. But instead here is a repeat of the promotional rhetoric that has worn objectionable grooves in my mind’s ears.

I don’t think, for instance, that the majority of the very tall folks (6′ 2″ and up) can take the wooden snath sold by this company, along with any of the blades they sell and without alteration (to either the snath or the blade, or both) “remain upright while moving the blade in an arc (in the same plane as the ground).
Conversely, such a unit would be of little use to scores of old Austrian farmers whose mowing terrain was so steep that a blade with tang angled parallel to blade’s body was called for. That means zero degrees of tang elevation — just like the ‘flat’ American blades have them, except that, (as with all of continental models) the tang is lifted above the plane of the body. Blades like that were once common in Austria (as well as other mountainous regions) and, though to much lesser degree, they are still used.

Here are some examples of such models:

talestangs01

IMGP1344  IMGP1384 IMGP1386  IMGP1387

 

In any case (as I have both politely stated, and ranted about) when it comes to scythes there is no such convenience as “one version fits all” (for people and mowing terrain). The subtleties of blade adjustments — and importance to communicate them to broader public — is what the chapter “The Blade-fitting Challenge” in our addendum to The Scythe Book attempted to address. Alas, it appears that the author of this ‘tale’ hadn’t read it. But he did attend the hands-on course on our farm during the 2006 Scythe Symposium! Hence I am stumped…

 

… With the 3 curves of the Austrian scythe blade, you don’t even have to hold it up off the ground, while mowing.

Whosoever, once experienced, would want to do that in normal field conditions– regardless of what style of scythe they used?

 

… You can just let it slide over the ground, and cut a swath of grass in a full arc in front of you. An arc 1.5 times your body’s height, in length! The true Austrian-style scythe is a much more efficient, and effective mowing tool than most Americans can even conceptualize!

I have often pointed out the many ‘shortcomings’ of “most Americans”, but to put it like this? Could the author be possibly underestimating his compatriots’ conceptualizing abilities?

 

The “Austrian” and the “American” Scythe in Action:

The Austrian scythe in action: Above is a video of me mowing with an Austrian scythe. I am using a 32″ antique scythe blade made by the Redtenbacher factory of Austria, for the Pennsylvania Dutch, here in the USA. For scale, I am 6’5″ tall, and have a 10ft wide scythe stroke. I’m mowing fully mature orchard grass and heavy red clover, that has all gone to seed. It’s brown on top, and green at the base, and storms have blown it over, and flattened it somewhat.

Yes, this man can use a scythe!

 

The American scythe in action: Here is a link to a charming video of some highly skilled, old-timers, using “American”-style scythes (or Canadian or British, all very similar). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=no_M7Wubo1A Their blades are actually sharp, and they are mowing very effectively, under somewhat difficult mowing conditions. The mature grass had been flattened down by a storm, requiring more finesse to mow. If you have an American style scythe, this video gives you an idea of how they are supposed to work.

Nice of the “Tale” to let people know that the American scythe can actually function well! The scene is from salt marshes in Nova Scotia, by the way, and the grass was flattened by sea. I mean really flattened. (I was mowing a similar stand in the clip shortly after the opening scene of the Living Lightly documentary, in case some readers here want to see how an Austria-made Hungarian pattern blade — which is rather ‘flat’ both widths and length-wise — performs in that situation.)

However, I can’t help but note that the infatuation with the dullness of American style blades continues… Namely, what is meant here by “actually sharp”? Why wouldn’t they be sharp?

 

Sharpening: American vs. Austrian

Grinding

The American-style of scythe blade originated in England, and is the result of the very simple metal working capabilities of old northern Europe.

Hmm…? I think the ghosts of the old British and Scandinavian blacksmiths might declare a bounty on the mind of this statement’s author…

An additional comment: a friend recently wrote that while in England he saw a documentary claiming that “excavations under a building in York had turned up Viking steel implements that were of a quality of steel as good as anything made anywhere with today’s technology”…

 

… It’s design is based on the simple crescent shape

And the “Austrian” blades’ design is based on what? A complex crescent shape?

 

…that a common blacksmith could pound out on an anvil, and grind to a sharp edge. 

For the first 2000 years or so of their estimated history, ALL scythe blades, the Austrian included, were “pounded out on an anvil” by common blacksmiths. The transition to specialized small scythe-shops only took place, in Austria, during the 15th century. The title of the men working in them changed to scythe-smiths, yet they continued to forge the blades with hand-held hammers upon an anvil  for another century, in some regions (of Austria) a bit longer.

 

… It is a design used throughout the northern European countries from Ireland to Scandinavia. They did not have very good local steel,

No region of the world HAS local STEEL. Though varying in quality, the deposits of IRON ORE are widely distributed throughout the globe, northern Europe and Scandinavia included. Among that continent’s sources, some of the purest (manganite) ore was in fact found in Sweden, and enabled good tool steel to be made by process of “cementation” long before it was discovered how the impurities of otherwise good ore can be burned off in relatively efficient way on a scale that would lead to volume production of usable steel so as to propel the Industrial Revolution. Many of Europe’s tool makers made significant use of that “not very good” Swedish steel — with Austrian and German scythe industries of 20th century among them.

tales01

(Numerous models of German-made blades, and to lesser extend also those made in Austria, used to sport a promotional and quality-professing ‘Swedenstahl’ labels. And yet it is a known fact that Germany has long exploited their fine deposits of iron ore and had the know-how of processing it.)

As for the British Isles — How would the greatest colonial empire been able to do all that dirty work without their (also famous) Sheffield steel? Could the “Austrian” style blades NOT have been made from it as well?

 

… and they didn’t have mechanical trip-hammers, …

Prior to nearly the end of the 16th century, no trip-hammers were used in Austria to actually forge tools either.

 

…and so needed to make the blade thicker, harder, and simpler than an Austrian blade.

All sorts of blades and other thin-bodied tools have been forged by hand-held hammers. (How “simple”, for instance, were the samurai swords, or the Turkish scimitars?)
As for the “harder”, there is NO correlation between lack of mechanical trip hammers and the tempering of steel — that is, bringing the tool to its final hardness.
What enabled the “Austrian” style scythe blades to withstand more strain relative to its body thickness/weight/dimensions is the process of TENSIONING (in a cold state). That is a fact of significance mentioned nowhere in this ‘tale’…though it might have, to the advantage of the case it attempts to make.

 

… The harder the steel, the sharper an edge could be ground, and the longer the edge would stay sharp. 

…”could be achieved by grinding” would be a more accurate way to express what is stated here.

 

… In more modern times, …

(In ALL times.)

 

…good blades were advertised for the hardness of their steel. But this also made the blade somewhat brittle,…

While there is definitely a relationship between steel’s hardness and brittleness, a “hard” tool (be it a knife, a chisel or a scythe blade) — if well-made — is not necessarily too brittle to perfectly fulfill the function for which it was made.

 

…and you often see old American scythe blades with the tip snapped off.

That happens with the ‘Austrian’ blades too, and is usually the result of abuse by the user.

Sometimes, though, blades (of either ‘style’) defy the user’s shortcomings. Here is one example:

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talesbent04 talesbent03

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Commentary: This three foot long blade’s point was obviously driven into ground (whether once or repeatedly, I don’t know) and still sported some earth up to 4 inches from the tip when I found it in a neighbor’s shop. His 250 lb. son supposedly uses it to cut burdocks around the farm buildings. It is slightly bent near the point. In two other places the edge is aimed somewhat downward from where I think it once was. Additionally, the tang is twisted approximately 30 degrees out of its original alignment to the right — something that typically happens when the point fetches up (whether below or above ground level) and the blade’s body does not snap off or bends before the stress is put further along towards the neck/tang region. Breaks in the neck area, either partial or complete, are not that uncommon. In any case, there were no cracks detectable anywhere on this American-made blade. What does all this tell us? Bending a tang of those dimensions (more than twice the material in the neck than contemporary Austrian blades) WITHOUT bending the point any more in the process (or snapping it off) is a definite statement to that blade’s toughness, period.

 

…With industrialization, more efficient means of mass-production were developed, but the basic design was not changed a whole lot. Contemporary American scythe blades that are now only made in Austria, are made of the same steel that the Austrian blades are, and they are also hand forged. But they are still made thick and flat, according to the American pattern. It is made of such thick and heavy metal,that it should be sharpened by grinding the edge on a water wheel grindstone. 

Although that is the traditional method, scythe blades of the American style CAN be peened.

 

… The edge is ground 2/3 on the top side, and 1/3 on the bottom side. This creates the correct bevel. 

Matter of opinion and/or preference.

 

… Not many of these grindstones are around any more. Not many American scythe blades are sharp any more, either!

Sharpness, or lack thereof, has little to do with the availability of ‘those’ (old) grindstones. How do today’s wood-workers sharpen their ‘thick and heavy’ mortising chisels, for instance? Besides, what once was accomplished with those old grindstones can be done with only files and hand-held stones and, (depending on the respective quality of both) sometimes faster. The lack of ability to sharpen many tools is rather a cultural dis-ease of modern times.
Perhaps nowhere else on the globe is this entropy as widespread as in USA and Canada, although there are also scores of dull scythe blades of the ‘Austrian’ style all over Europe.

 

… But even a sharp one, can not get as sharp as an Austrian scythe blade.

Without further qualification this is an exceedingly silly statement. And, wasn’t it stated — just a few paragraphs above — that “the harder the steel, the sharper an edge could be ground…”??

 

Peening

The Austrian scythe blade is produced by a much more sophisticated metal working process

… Austria is renowned for it’s high quality steel.

This would have been a more accurate way to put it: “Historically, Austria was one of the countries well-known for good phosphor-free iron ore deposits, and the skill to process them into high quality steel.”
(And, as much as I regret to dispel the illusions of those who might think that the “hand-forged” blades they purchased, new, for the equivalent of a few hours of average American wage were made of “the best Austrian steel” — Austrian steel has not been used by the scythe industry for decades…)

 

… Austria was also influenced very early, by the sophisticated metal working skills of the Ottoman empire. 

I can imagine that happening, but far further back in history.
By the 15th century the Austrian smiths were busily pounding iron rather than journeying into far away lands in order to apprentice with more accomplished masters, especially those living in such a dangerous territory. The ever-expanding Ottoman Empire was then already considered a serious threat to Europe’s royal powers, with the Turkish swords poised way too near to the Austrian doorstep for relaxed excursions…

Anyway, I’d like to know where this bit of information comes from — IF other than from The Scythe Book, where the actual reference is equally brief:
“The better blades are stamped on the tang with the trademarks of the manufacturers which can be checked in the directories of Franz Schroekenfux and Josef Zeitlinger. These references match the trademarks with the methods of manufacture of the particular company as well as with the genealogy of the master smiths, leading back to the influences of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. In recognition of these Turkish origins one brand has the name Turkensensen, or Turkish scythes.” (emphasis mine)

Who  knows where David dug this up… I have both of the texts referred to above, of which only one (in Austria’s scythe circles referred to, for short, as “Die Kronik”) is a directory proper. However, it contains NOTHING with regard to “matching the trademarks with the methods of manufacture of the particular company”. And NO reference to Turkey or Ottoman empire. It is a genealogy alright, but one of scythe enterprises’ owners rather than “master smiths”. Yes, the initial owners were often also “Essmeisters” — a very respected title for a man who had mastered all the steps of the blade-forging craft. A few rare examples of Essmeister/factory owner under one hat’ lasted until about a generation ago, but over the centuries most of them traded their hammers for the pen of a business director.

Jozef Zeitlinger’s (1944) book is much more interesting. It does discuss manufacturing methods, though more within the context of the Austrian scythe industry’s equipment and technique evolution in general. The author (and factory owner) takes the reader though the step by step process of the scythe blade-making at the turn of the 18th century and discusses the (archeologically documented, not written) beginnings of scythe history. But again, no reference to “Turkish origins”.

There is also no mention in any of the in-depth sources written by Austrians or Germans (that I’ve read) with regard to “influenced very early, by the sophisticated metal working skills of the Ottoman empire.”  Nor do any of my scythe history-oriented German speaking friends heard of anything like that even as a speculation, never mind a documented ‘fact’.
I might add that The Scythe Book’s author, whom I questioned, could not recall where he ever heard that…
In view of the above, I’m prone to conclude that he hardly read those two referenced books. Also, that “in recognition of these Turkish origins” is a bit of ‘history’ pulled out of his hat. The label “Turken Sensen”, I’m quite sure came about in recognition of potential markets in the Near East instead.

 

… Austria had lots of hydro-power, and utilized water-powered, mechanical trip hammers, as early as  the 1400’s for their scythe factories.

Streams suitable for ‘hydro-power’ (provided somebody was willing to build dams and the appropriate setup) were/are plentiful over much of Europe.
Secondly, while the water-driven hammers were earlier used by the steel-making enterprises, it wasn’t until 1584 that Konrad Eisvogel, an Austrian scythe-smith, conceived how the striking surfaces of trip-hammers could be modified to actually replace the men forging scythe blades with hand-held hammers — and thereby ignited a version of an industrial revolution within the scythe-making craft. The daily output of enterprises that could afford (or didn’t buck) the transition more than tripled very quickly. This was undoubtedly one of the chief competitive edges that put Austria on the world map regarding their scythe blade production.

… All this enabled the blacksmiths to use a more malleable steel, and work a scythe blade to a much higher degree, and to develop very sophisticated blade designs, and to mass produce them. 

The scythe-making enterprises did not, as a rule, “develop” blade designs. What they were continually in the process of developing were the methods and equipment by means of which to more efficiently reproduce the samples sent to them by customers. Although the process was generally very slow, designs evolved (continent-wide) as progressively more people used the tool and came up with different regional snaths as well as styles of movement. The design-prone individuals in each region conceived of improvements/alterations to the blade’s shape or its tang position and passed the request via the dealers to the factories, who dutifully (and unquestioningly) implemented the changes. The result was literally hundreds of models.

 

… The genius of using a more malleable steel, and giving it strength by curving it in 3 planes, is that the metal at the edge is thin enough and malleable enough, to cold hammer the edge thin, to sharpen it. 

Most common tool steels are “malleable” enough to be shaped in the cold state, that is ‘peened’. Just exactly what method it takes to do so with respective tool’s edge is another issue, and besides thickness is much related to what final hardness the tool was tempered. The 45-47 Rc ‘Austrian’ scythe blades (given their relatively thin primary bevel) are a piece of cake. However, the Japanese manage to periodically (somehow?) cold-shape, with a hand-held hammer, the classical hollow on the bottom side of their very hard (60+ Rc.) chisels…

In any case, many tools that were traditionally not peened CAN be peened, usually to advantage in terms of the tool’s life-span and (provided the skill is well learned) also the time it can take to ‘bevel’ the tool. Certain knives, machetes, garden hoes, shovels and spades are some examples. And, of course, all ‘Austrian’ bush blades, as well as American blades

 

… This process is called peening the scythe blade. This thins out the metal at the edge so fine, that a very fine, hand-held whetstone can do the final honing. 

Is this to imply that “very fine, hand-held whetstone” can NOT do the final honing of edge tools which are thick and hard, rather than peened? If so, HOW (to use same example as above) did the traditional Japanese woodworkers maintained their rather thick and hard chisels in efficient working condition?
Also, it is not made clear if the ‘tale’ is referring ONLY to cases when the “thinning out” is done WITHOUT the aid of a peening jig. It so happens that far more people in North America (as well as several other countries) who peen their blades DO use the jig, rather than the freehand method.
And, as a follow up step to jig-peening, “very fine” stone is poorly suited. Actually, choosing to do so would be outright stupid, in my view.

 

… It also work-hardens the cutting edge, so that the cutting edge is made simultaneously, both extremely sharp and durable.

Peening is only half of the scythe blade sharpening process, and alone does NOT constitute “extreme” sharpness. Besides, some folks can make an extreme mess of it…
To tie this to my comment above — most of us learning to freehand peen would arrive at a well-functioning edge quicker if the first honing following peening was done with a synthetic stone (though not necessarily as course as a jig-peened edge calls for)

 

In conclusion:

… For curiosity’s sake, whenever I teach a scythe workshop, I let people try out my American scythe with a brand-new blade. 

Now, that is a curious ‘trial’. To put into uninitiated hands an American style scythe with a new blade is, in my view, hardly an honest way to promote it’s “True Austrian” counterpart. Those (American-style) blades leave the factory in nothing like ready-to-mow state (a fact that a ‘scythe teacher’ ought to know). Is it fair to compare them with for-the-course- suitably-prepared ‘Austrian style’ blade equivalent? Hmm…
Their edges could, however, be made sharp in exactly the same manner as the others and consequently cut more or less equally well. (Wasn’t it stated above that “Contemporary American scythe blades … are made of the same steel”? — to which I might add “and heat-treated the same”.)
It is true that, as a rule, a new factory edge on an American style blade is decidedly thicker, but that’s nothing that an initiated (and practiced) person cannot change with a hammer, file or a grinder of one sort or another.
All in all, the apparent insinuation of what’s communicated here is humbug; the overall impression a novice will be left with upon reading this tale is that an average American style blade is dull while an equivalent Austrian style blade is sharp, period.

While I can’t claim to know the actual percentages of respective dull/sharp blades, the fact is that both “styles” of blades CAN be well-sharpened, by either grinding or peening and — provided the person doing the sharpening is competent — both can cut with ease.

(As a related trivia — plenty of Europeans sharpen their blades by means of various electrical grinding gadgets nowadays. The traditionalists (including myself) scoff at this ‘shortcut’, and it would not have been done in the past, especially on those yet-thinner blades than the “grass” blades of contemporary production.)

It might also be of some merit to point out that — going by my experience to date — at least half (to be conservative) of the “true Austrian” blades currently in use are NOT suitably sharpened for their respective tasks. And that in spite of the fact that somewhat comprehensive guidelines have been available for the last 4-6 years, free to download for anyone with a computer. Even to the confirmed ‘Luddites’ —  a portion of all that is ‘at their fingertips’ for the mere price of the 2nd edition of The Scythe Book. In the addendum of said book we DID outline the principles of sharpening. Back then we did the best we could, and later on our website continued to expand on methods/techniques by which those already explained principles can be variously applied.
The whole subject is still not as comprehensively laid out as it ought to be, but as the ‘collective’ of the new generation ‘guides’ on the subject — which now includes individuals in several countries — we’ve made considerable strides. Instructions are now presented in many versions, both written and as videos, and in several languages. Unfortunately, even the best of instruction on any subject (be they written or visual) — can take only so much of a place of self initiative and adequate amount of practice.

… They are always astonished by how much more work it is to use the American scythe. If you mowed with an American scythe and then switched to an Austrian scythe, it would be like switching from a heavy, discount-store, one-speed bicycle, to a top-of-the line, 18-speed bicycle from a specialty bike shop. 

And One Scythe Revolution is that specialty shop, right?

Well, IF both scythe versions were equally well serviced — meaning with blades beveled, honed and adjusted according to each style’s respective tradition — ONLY THEN could a fair comparison be attempted. Then, I believe, this bike analogy would be found to be an exaggeration.)

 

… Sure you have to wear toe clips, and learn how to shift the gears, but in terms of energy expended, versus work accomplished, the 18-speed bike is worth it. If you were to start a commute-to-work by bicycle program, the success of your program would be determined by the quality of bikes that were used, and the distance of the commute. The better your bike, the further you can easily commute. This is a good analogy for using a scythe for small scale ag. If you just want to whack down some weeds, an American scythe, or a dull and/or poor quality Austrian scythe might suffice. 

Concerning the “sufficiency” of a dull edge tool — ANY edge tool — I wish to add here a note on behalf of beginner tool users:
1) There is often greater difference in performance between well and poorly serviced edge of two tools of exactly same make/quality than there is between equally well-serviced edges of a cheap and expensive versions of same.
2) Only ignorance would have a person put up with a dull edge on any tool, for any job. (The temporary inefficiency is smaller part of the price paid; the more unfortunate side-effect of such choices is that they easily lead to lowering one’s standard of the tool’s potential.

 

…If you seriously want to use a scythe to make hay for a couple of family cows, or small flock of sheep, etc., or mulch for a large garden, you need some good equipment, and you need to learn how to use it properly.

Definitely a good piece of advice; in fact the best of this promo essay!

However, while I generally advocate quality over low price, an expensive, ‘quality’ scythe does NOT guarantee hay-making success. I’ve said it on this website over and over again. Learning how to properly use a scythe, any scythe, ought to be the first concern. Of course, starting with a GOOD version of it (and I’ve also explained what I understand under ‘good’) does expedite the process of learning.

 

….This is the niche that I hope to fill with this One Scythe Revolution website. 

Hmm…

 


 

Dispelling the Myths of the American Scythe — Benjamin Bouchard

An Open Response to Botan Anderson’s “A Tale of Two Scythes”

Preface: What is this all about, anyway?
Our friend, Botan Anderson of One Scythe Revolution has done much excellent work to popularize and promote the use of the scythe in the United States through his various writings, workshops, and videos, and has provided the great service of making available a reliable USA-­based source of quality scythes and accessories of the continental European style. However, the article entitled “A Tale of Two Scythes” comparing the Austrian and American patterns contains many common misconceptions regarding the American pattern scythe and, in our eyes, draws many unfair and unfounded conclusions about the venerable tool. The purpose of this document is to tackle some of these myths and bring to light the true nature of what the American scythe is really all about.

 

Benjamin, it would somehow feel strange to address your side of ‘The Tales’ in the formal manner as I did the other. Instead I’m taking the approach of talking as if we sat around the table or in the hayfield. That does not mean I’ll be easy on you. Considering my forthright manner, the old adage “what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” comes to mind; I already have the impression (from your scythe thread on BladeForums) that you have ‘several lives’ and will likely bounce back with some other version of rebuttal to what I have to say here on the topic…

However, a disclaimer may be in order: I’m unfamiliar with the blade-making process of North American scythe industry, nor have I used the American blades extensively enough to know by experience if any of them “hold a keen edge all day”, as you state. What I do know is that I wouldn’t last at the end of an American scythe even half a day…
That said, it seems to me that one of the major obstacles to a meaningful debate may be your lack of knowledge (or acknowledgement?) of the incredible diversity when it comes to the “continental European” scythes blades, snaths as well as styles of the mowing movement. On one hand you ought to perhaps not be blamed for it because there is no single handbook on the subject that has, in a clear and concise manner, even attempted (never mind managed) to lay it out. However, our website IS a source of a good portion of related information, even if it requires some digging. You appear to have done some of that concerning the American scythe — even if I’m moved to question the validity of a portion of what you found thus far…

The other basic obstacle lies in the tendency to over-generalize. Summing up averages is sometimes a useful approach to grasping the nuts and bolts of any given subject — but it can also skew the picture, which, in the case of BOTH of these ‘scythe tales’ is precisely what I see happened.

Among your own counter-productive generalizations is referring to the North American “mowing conditions” as requiring relatively heavy blades and the fact that you tend to throw the multitude of European blade pattern and weights, as well as that continent’s snaths and style of mowing movement all into one bag. You then proceed to compare them — as one representative you (mostly) call “Austrian” — with the American scythe’s everything (blades, snaths, attachment hardware and style of movement).

 

Here is, so far as I can decipher, a brief pre-summary of the case you present on behalf of the American scythe:

1. It was designed, and then made with the rugged North American mowing conditions in mind.

2. Its blade is more complex regarding both design and metallurgical skill to produce than belies the uninitiated eye. As such it can withstand the challenges of heavy growth and variegated terrain while also retaining a better edge all day (than an Austrian-style blade).

3. The snath is an epitome of ergonomic principles, and outfitted with the blade described above can be used in a relaxed manner for extended periods (though it must be swung in a very specific pendulum-like motion powered by principally the mower’s arms).

4. American farmers did have a chance to purchase and try out the “Austrian”/”Continental” version of this tool but concluded that it did not stand up to their challenges — which is why it is the American scythe that can still be found in nearly every old barn across this great nation.

Did I get that right?

However, it was less clear to me IF you were (only?) making a respectful case for what once was, OR (also?) suggesting that it should be this scythe version that the present generation of American mowers-to-be should embrace as the cat’s meow for tomorrow’s needs. If it is the latter, I think you may be ‘out to lunch’. However it will be the years ahead, rather than you or I, that will settle that with certainty…

 

Blade Design: Austrian Vs. American

While the point is made that the Austrian­ pattern blade is of made through a more sophisticated metalworking process and is of more complex geometry, nothing could be farther from the truth. On the authority of Peter Vido himself, the world expert on European scythes, American blades are actually more difficult and costly to manufacture. 

To begin with, I’d appreciate if you do NOT refer to me as an “expert”. Thank you in advance!

Now we can begin to untangle the tale.
Your “putting words in my mouth” — without qualification — was an unintentional ‘communication-shortcoming’. While I had once told you during a phone conversation that the production of American style blades is actually more costly for the Austrian company today, I did not say that it is because the American blades are “more complex” to make.

It is true that to fill the same sized order of American style blades these days is more ‘trouble’ (and therefore more costly) than many others. However, the reason is NOT the inherent complexity of the American design, but rather that this is not Austrian scythe industry’s specialty, and since the heyday of scythe use in America it is even more so the case.  Every  person down the line of the progressive steps of making it has to re-program their mind and hands for that short spell it will take to fill today’s relatively small and infrequent ‘American style’ blade orders — which may be at most 2000 pieces per year. (To put that into perspective — their present capacity is about 1000 blades of the ‘continental’ style per day, or usually a bit more, depending on a specific model.) Hence the overall output of the American blades per day is smaller and most among the workforce are not looking forward to it. (Nor can they figure out why anyone would want to use such an odd-looking creature; to ease their mind they’ve been told that these are ‘sugar cane blades’ — the ones with the “sugar syrup groove”…)

 

…The American pattern scythe is curved in all three planes like the Austrian pattern, but in an entirely different manner. 

I don’t understand why you feel compelled to argue that if the Austrian blade has (to paraphrase) “3 curves which give it strength”, the American blade has them too.

 

…These curves are:

1) The obvious arc of the blade in PROFILE. 2) The arch or trough created by the RIB, and any bead(s) if present. These stiffen the blade, eliminating “chatter” when mowing heavy growth.

Yes, the “trough” and “beads” certainly do stiffen the blade, but referring to THAT a “curve”?

 

…3) The CROWN­­ a gentle upward curvature (resembling a smile) of the blade as it approaches the tip. Similar to what, in Austrian pattern terminology would be called the “rocker”

More power to the gently smiling blades! Yes, a slight elevation of the tip on otherwise a relatively flat blade is a nice, user-friendly feature. I believe that the intent of the blade designers to incorporate that “gentle upward curvature” was to make the tool easier to maneuver, rather than to contribute to the blade’s strength. Alas, I note so little of this “crown”, and only on a portion of American blades as to understand why most people think of them as “dead flat”. Of the samples we have, even the one with the biggest “smile” is not smiling quite enough, in my view, to make it as easy to use as it could be — without adequate training and/or paying of attention. (At that, my Austrian comrades consider me a flat blade-oriented man.)

“Rocker”, by the way, may well be a Botan-invented term. While not an inaccurate description of how many Alpine blade models are shaped lengthwise, I had never heard anyone in Europe using a ‘rocker’-equivalent term. Within the industry that curvature (which does not always follow the whole length) is talked about in terms of how high (in cm) the blade’s point is from a flat surface against which the beard is firmly held. Every model’s worksheet has this indicated so that each person along the production line performing the respective step which influence that feature can take it into consideration. The last of the actual blade-making steps (before the cosmetic finish) is performed by a man referred to as the “Richter” whose task is to fine-tune the already adhered-to model-specific geometry. Using a 3-4 lb hammer he can (among numerous other corrections) lift or lower the point half an inch or more in a few quick strokes. Every single European style blade carries, for duration of its lifespan, at least some of the prints of the Richter’s hammer. Occasionally they can be found on the back (rib) only or along the body only, but most generally both.
(This ‘fine-tuning’, by the way, is that true hand-production step — the one performed without aid of any machine — that I referred to in Botan’s tale).

 

 … Most blades will have this forged in, but some examples require that the user introduce it through gentle graduated bending in a vise if it is desired (it is not always!) 

Well, I’ve never heard of this. However, I won’t argue, since I know that a plethora of stupidity has been manifested in designs of all sorts… The reason I think it foolish for blade designers (who, as a rule, are not the makers) to intend additional “smile” to be put into a scythe blade by each user is that most people could not do it well. Consequently, any tool quality guarantee would (justifiably) be made void by a sloppy attempt. Besides, doing so while still in the factory is many times easier.
With that opportunity missed, I think that the European way to increase the “smiles” — by way of a hammer and an anvil (as mentioned above) is decidedly a better way to do it than by bending in a vise. Still NOT a job for the uninitiated, however!

Oh, and could you please explain to your readers when is a “scythe blade smile” NOT desired?

 

…If you lay the blade flat on a table, your eyes will be deceived.

(Whose eyes?)

 

…While the blade will lay fairly flat in stock configuration, this is partly due to the complex balance of the blade,

 

I’m beginning to lose you here, because I don’t know what you mean by “complex balance of the blade”.

 

…the edge will likely be nearly touching the tabletop. If you were to hold a well­balanced American blade on your fingertip at its balance point (with the edge covered or blunted for safety, of course) it will commonly attempt to rotate on its edge to that it hangs downward, often with the tang pointing to between the 4 and 7 o’clock position. 

This aids in the overall balance of the scythe when mounted, providing a counter­rotational force against the natural balance of the end­weighted design of the tool. 

That is another mind-twister, at least for an immigrant hillbilly farmer like me. But I asked a friend with an engineering degree, who is also a scythe user, what his interpretation of this ‘explanation’ would be and here is what he wrote:

“It seems like the “counter-rotational” benefit (as described) would be negligible to nonexistent. The entire weight of the blade (including the tang) is attached directly to the end of the snath. There is neither an intermediate support point (like the fulcrum of a see-saw) nor an axis of rotation that passes through a support point (an example being the handle of a felling axe held in somebody’s hands, with the poll weight countering the rotation due to the cheek weight)”.

 

…The in­line orientation of the tang is two­fold: first and foremost, the curvature of the American snath eliminates the necessity for large tang angles in most cases, 

Here you butt heads very square on with Botan, who claims that “because the tang is completely flat, you would have to practically bend over far enough to touch your toes!”  You are both exaggerating, as far as I’m concerned. The American snath’s curvature is not enough to convivially accommodate blades with such flat tangs for work on level terrain. But perhaps what you mean by “most cases” is hillsides. Is that so?

You also forgot to explain and/or specify what a “large” tang angle is.

 

…and secondly it was intended for the user to heat the tang and bend it to the desired angle themselves or with the help of a local metalworker. 

Heating tangs in order to affect a more personalized fit was a common practice in many ares where scythes were used — and this with blades that already had them factory-set to regional dealers’ specs. Although I think it would have been a good idea for more people in North America to have done likewise, this seems to not have been the case.

On this note, I am reminded of the words of Wayne Randolf of Colonial Williamsburg who, perhaps 20 years ago, wrote to me (and I paraphrase from memory): “I’ve argued against the concept of the ‘malaise of agricultural traditions’ (meaning the tendency to follow traditional ways of doing things rather than being innovative/creative), but perhaps we see it here” (with respect to scythes). He also told me that he mows with an American scythe, but had the tang of the blade raised, with the application of heat, so it lays better. Also that during his long career as an agricultural tool curator and historian he has only seen very few examples of raised tangs on American pattern blades. He suspected that the alterations were done mostly by immigrants already accustomed to blades with elevated tangs, which were unavailable in whatever region of America they then lived.

 

… The intended uses of the blade will determine the most appropriate angle for the blade’s lay, and in many common field conditions an upward lay is actually desirable. 

Yes, UP TO A POINT. It would be helpful, though, if you were more specific; to one person “upward” can mean a 5 degree edge elevation, while to another it might mean 45 degrees…

 

… The belly of the Austrian style blade produces this same effect, though it is often overlooked. The arc of the belly causes an upward­hooking orientation of the edge not at all dissimilar from the commonly upward lay of the American pattern.

“Somewhat similar” might be a more apt way to put it. Besides, as I point out in reviewing Botan’s tale, many European blades — including some rather wide models — do NOT have any bellies to speak of.

 

… The thick and tapered style of the American tang provides both great strength as well as massively increased range of adjustability of the blade’s hang to match the preference and biometrics of the user.

I don’t think it is that ‘massive’. Are you sure your eyes are not deceiving you? As you have surely noticed, many of the leftover old American scythes hanging around old barns as well as those still occasionally used, have their blades massively out of whack that is, with the hafting angle now so open that to operate them, as they are, in any kind of serious (but not extra challenging) cutting is, or would be, as you say below, “torturous”.

And please, must you use terms like “biometrics”, which instead of clarifying the discussed concepts tend to obfuscate things for us common folks?

 

This may be so IF by “the Austrian sort” you mean ONLY the blade models used IN Austria. Otherwise, scores of rather heavy general purpose blades (plus bush blades that were heavier than the USA-made equivalent) were forged by factories in Austria and elsewhere in Europe, some for use on that continent, others for Latin American or Australian markets.)

Here are a few examples that I could quickly pick up from what is not packed away (in many-layered boxes…) At those length these are obviously not “bush” models. Their bodies are not excessively thick, but the necks and backs certainly are. Relatively little “rocker” on most of them, and only two have much “belly” to speak of.

IMGP1439

From top to bottom:

1. 100cm, neck thickness 6mm 34 oz/ 950 g  Made in: Austria
2. 95cm   7mm                    30 oz/ 840g       Made in Germany, for North Germany
3. 95cm    9 mm                   40 oz / 1120g      Made in Austria, for Spain
4. 93cm   8 mm                   33 oz / 930g       Made in Austria, for Denmark
5. 92cm 10mm                   45 oz / 1250g      Made in Austria, for Spain/France
6. 75cm  8 mm                   31 oz / 870g       Made in Germany, for Holland

 

… it is not wasted mass.

As a blanket statement that is up for debate; not one easy to settle.There are several concepts pertaining to this ‘appropriate weight’ issue, but I doubt we’ll manage to sort that out during this ‘stand-off’ alone…

Some food for thought: Adding material (and thereby weight) is the simplest way to increase the strength of a tool, and both the European and American scythe designers and makers long made use of that fact. There is no doubt in my mind that to make a scythe blade STIFFER was far more of a reason for making it ‘automatically’ also heavier, rather than some of the other reasons commonly offered for justifying the extra weight (like “a heavy blade aids the momentum of the swing” or “it better hugs the ground”). Yes, “hugging the surface” is often helpful, even necessary, but that alone would be a poor reason for making heavy scythe blades. (A slight downwards pressure is more effective in this respect than an extra pound of weight to be moved in both directions).

The Finns, for instance, took an uncommon approach to meet this weight/strength challenge. They opted to increase the strength factor by making their (un-tensioned) blades — in relation to overall weight — with very thick backs and bodies, BUT in order to keep the weight to minimum were evidently satisfied by using extremely narrow blades. (I can’t presently put my hand on two still narrower blades I have, one of them a very old original sent from Finland to Austria as a sample to duplicate, but the three below ought to suffice to illustrate the concept.)

IMGP1228

All of these are in original, unused condition.

From top to bottom:
81cm 650g (forged in Austria FOR Finland; very old)
57cm  460g  (forged IN Finland until about 2007/8)
53cm  490g  (“drop-forged” in Finland; most contemporary)

Incorporating tension was an additional and very significant evolutionary step in techniques of scythe smithing, no doubt a more ‘sophisticated’ way to increase strength relative to blade’s weight. And this, as far as I’m concerned, is the primary production difference between the ‘continental’ blades and those of the American, English and Scandinavian approach. At its best (especially in the case of very thin blades) it was “not a thing to learn inside a day”. In that sense, yes, the European blades are the result of what Botan Anderson refers to as “more sophisticated metal-working process”.

 

American manufacturers were fully capable of producing thin and light blades. 

Had you phrased the sentence above something like: “American manufacturers were also capable of producing relatively light blades” — and then followed with the theme of your second next paragraph, for instance “but, to meet the once-upon-the-time challenging mowing conditions of this country, opted for making most blades heavier and thereby stronger” — then we may have focused on discussing what exactly those ‘American mowing conditions’ were, which alone is challenging enough topic. But to throw the ‘skill’ issue into the mix?? Holy smoke!

Your abiding respect for the American smiths of old is a nice gesture and I have NO intent to belittle their innate capabilities. They did what they were trained and asked to do — which was to make scythe blades of a certain sort and do so by methods of a certain tradition. That those methods were not sufficient to produce what by the old Austrian (and some other countries’) standards were really ‘thin and light’ blades, is nothing to be held against them. Your present definition of “thin and light” different.

I suspect that you have not held in your hands that which I’m referring to as really light scythe blades. This is not an accusation; they haven’t been made since before you were born. What you get to inspect today of contemporary production is what the old Austrians, Italians, Greeks, Turks (among a few others) would undoubtedly call HEAVY.
Below is a small sampling of blades they would appreciate. However, I must point out that there are no longer any scythe-smiths on the whole continent of Europe capable of forging, that is, by the traditional methods (rather then reducing the body’s thickness by grinding) products similarly ‘thin and light’. The bodies of some of these blades, my friend, are no thicker than 6/10 of a millimeter, perhaps even tad less…

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(All of these were made in Austria)

From top to bottom:
100cm (Turkish model)     470g
95cm (Hungarian model)  620g
90cm (Austrian model)      500g (exactly the former Austrian scythe industry’s striven-for length/weight relationship; not easy one to live up to even back then.
85cm (Hungarian model) 475g
80 cm (Austrian model)    440g
75cm (Bohemian model)   380g
70cm                                305g
65cm (Greek model)           320g
60cm (Austrian model)     280g
50cm (Russian model)      265g

 

… Most American grain cradle blades measure 48” from heel to toe (tang not included) and spanning 2 & 1/2” in width, and yet weighed under 3 lbs., meaning that each linear inch weighed less than a single ounce. 

Here is an old Austrian-made grain harvesting blade, also four feet long, but 3 1/4 inch wide at mid-body and 5 1/2 inches at the beard, weighing 2 lb and 2 oz. (I suspect this to be a model once used in Bohemia and eastern parts of Germany.)

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The only USA-made cradle blade we have is this 44 inch long specimen (found 20 yrs. ago on an earth floor of an abandoned cabin). Yes, it is under 3 lb. — by 2 oz. to be exact.

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Below it are two Austrian made blades of equivalent length. The red blade is a grain model and at 2 ¾ inch at mid-body is 1 lb. and 11 oz in weight. The other is a typical Austrian grass blade model (actually identical pattern – #201 – as Botan’s green sample) of same width weighing exactly one and a half pounds.

As for my opinion, I do consider the non-tensioned blades of more “primitive” design. I might add that primitive, to my way of thinking, is not necessarily ‘bad’; in fact more ‘primitiveness’ of certain kind would do our ‘developed’ culture a whole lot of good…

That said, I much appreciate the privilege of being able to use the tensioned blades, especially those old and extra light models. I also believe that it would have taken considerably less time to train the average American scythe smith 100 years ago than his equivalent in Continental Europe or the Near East — although (as I mentioned in the introduction) that is not an issue to loose sleep over today. But if you wish to settle it, perhaps find a Ouija board and ask the ghosts of the American scythe-smiths if they could indeed forge blades of those weights in relation to overall dimensions. Then we will know, and won’t need to argue this one any longer. Amen.

 

…While heavier blades may have sometimes been forged thick through lack of skill, it was much more common for it to be through deliberate design to produce a blade to meet challenging mowing conditions. 

I’d be tempted to ask if you possibly meant to say “challenging attitudes of the mowers”, and/or those involved in the blade making and/or selling circles (who did not want too many of them coming back damaged, calling for a replacement).

I do know, however, that here is that tricky-to-resolve-gracefully issue — one that in principle is again hanging like a gray cloud over the present scythe scene, partially obscuring the experience of both mowing pleasure AND a person’s energy-efficiency.

One of the several ways we (ScytheConnection/Vidos) attempted to address it on behalf of folks that may mistrust the usefulness of a delicate looking tool in capable hands, was making this video.

That specific scythe blade model (especially at 65cm length) was NOT made for the sort of cutting tasks we put it to. What we wanted to show was the reserve of strength/toughness that a well-made “grass” blade can have. Ashley didn’t baby it during the demo, there were no tricks or pretense involved, yet that blade suffered NO damage whatsoever! (Of course, I did prepare the edge appropriately, that is, not have it as thin as I would for cutting a lawn, yet penetrating enough to not strain the whole unit upon hitting a target.)

Well, Benjamin, try to do that with construction paper!
(A heads-up to the readers — later on in this feature the edges of the ‘continental’ scythe blades are likened to, believe it or not, construction paper…)

In any case, having used many other (relative to length) similarly light blades for serious work, I have some difficulty in conceiving what on earth were the American farmers cutting with their long blades that required them (and the average snath) to be so heavy right across the board from East to West and North to South. I mean, for cutting trees they had axes, and knew how to use them they did.

Concerning the density and nature of grass cover, North America is an incredibly diverse territory. But so is Europe. Some regions of both continents (as well as some other parts of the world into which blades were exported to from Europe) no doubt called for stiffer or thicker than usual blades. I can also appreciate that during the tough early period of this continent’s colonization, when fields were being wrestled from the forest and the first crops cut among decaying roots of trees, very sturdy scythes would have had their place. But that was long time ago. Once most of the land slated for agriculture was ‘subdued’, the design could have been altered. (Perhaps it was; as I stated earlier, my understanding of American scythe’s history is only low grade.)

But can you name ONE species of plant which was cut anywhere in North America with a scythe, anytime in the past, that you think the Austrian scythe industry didn’t make a suitable blade for?

All in all, this topic deserves some extrapolating, not just because you keep returning to it throughout much of this presentation (and nearly every other scythe-related discussion) but more so because the factors involved are generally so poorly understood. Instead of gnashing our teeth over it here, I suggest that you be patient still for another spell. We are presently asking a number of thoughtful contributors from different parts of the world to write a feature on just this theme.

Until then here is a comment I wrote to accompany the photo of the 10 light blades above, but it seems to fit better in this section:

We included  the 95cm (Hungarian model) blade in the group as a weight reference, not because it is extra light but because it travelled with me back and forth to Europe several times and, as well as much else, easily handled the heavy English grass — without any of what you refer to as ‘chatter’. (It also was the blade used in the Nova Scotia salt marshes, mentioned in my review of Botan’s tale). I believe that blades of this length/weight relationship, if well-made, would more or less serve to cut a path across all of the grasslands on the globe.

The 85cm blade is one that Ashley used as her favorite for general haymaking since 2006 until two seasons ago, and all of our grass here on the farm is not exactly buttercup-like; you know, we live in North America too…

The 80cm blade is a duplicate (from the very same lot) as the one you see in the Rise of the Scythe video. Watch it sometime and pay close attention at what rate that sizable windrow is accumulating. You’ll see that in what justly can be termed “reedy grass”, and it is very mature at that (first cut in October!) she is NOT merely picking a “shallow swath”. And, I may be wrong, but somehow doubt that an average American old timer swinging a unit about twice the weight would be making his way through this stand at an appreciably faster rate. And a 14 year old girl can only have so much strength, eh? If she had to swing that man’s American scythe, even in the “desired” pendulum-like manner, if need be, she’d no doubt tire much sooner. The snath she used was made of aspen and weighs 2 lb 3 oz. If it, along with 80cm blade which is just under a pound fully suffice for the job, why swing anything heavier?

 

…A heavier blade carries more momentum through the cut, allowing for deep,  swaths to be cut even in very heavy growth without becoming bogged down. 

Yes, BUT there is a price to pay. Namely, there is no momentum without the initial energy expenditure of the person operating the tool. Plus, once the blade runs out of momentum at the end of the cut, someone has to bring it back in order to begin the next wave of momentum…IF the job requires it, the mower’s energy (to do all this with “heavier” blade) is justified. Often that isn’t the case…

And, blades become “bogged down” far more often because the person guiding them has a poor grasp of how much a blade of certain length AND condition of its edge can handle at a stroke, rather not being heavy enough.

 

…Choked cuts with a light blade require more energy and effort to finish out than a smooth swath cut with a heavier blade. 

I don’t follow what you mean by the “choked” and “light” and “more energy” and “finishing out”  correlation, nor why the use of a light blade would lead to an “un-smooth swath cut”.

 

…Match the blade to the conditions, heavy or light, and energy is saved rather than squandered.

Thank you; that’s EXACTLY my point!

 

…The American scythe is swung in a manner more similar to that of a pendulum, with the motion of the scythe being balanced by the motion of the body. If simply trying to muscle the blade through the stroke one will quickly become tired­­, Indeed, many remember their fathers or grandfathers handing them a scythe to “teach them a lesson” and unfortunately many did not learn the lesson that they were intended to. The lesson that mowing with the American scythe tries to teach is that it is far more important to use brain than brawn. 

Hmm. I thought this precisely has been the argument made in contemporary American (and British) scythe circles on behalf of the “Austrian” blades and snaths…

 

…Balance, finesse, and intelligence cut far more hay than brute strength, even when driving a powerful tool. 

Yes, thank you again!

 

…As a saw should be allowed to do the work, so too should the American scythe. Set the pendulum in motion, keep it in balance, and give the little push needed to keep it going, and the work becomes light and pleasant. 

The difference between pendulum and a scythe blade is that the latter (unless given a “little push” while suspended in mid-air on a string) does NOT come back on its own. I am all for pushing only as little as necessary, but if only “little push” is needed to pleasantly operate a scythe, I do not understand the rationale behind such an overall rather heavy tool.

 

…When you get poor results the first question should be “why?” and the tool should be listened to carefully so it may tell you how it wants to be used. 

Is this a variation of Tresemer’s “grass will teach you”, or are you implying still a more ‘magically’ personal relationship with our tools? Ah, it sure would be nice!

Meanwhile, I have to admit to a rather rational approach to answering the “why?”. And after more than 20 years of asking that question — while trying out dozens upon dozens of various scythes — I can usually answer it in less than one minute. Actually, I can predict with a relatively high degree of certainty how the unit will behave before I even begin the cut. There is no magic involved; anyone endowed with some ‘tool sense’ and opportunity for good guidelines (which I did not have when I started… and why it took me so long to catch on) can learn that in an afternoon. My own ‘system’ involves a combination of: feeling the tool in my hands  (which immediately reveals the ‘horizontal balance’ of it), checking the hafting angle and the lay (a few seconds of a task), testing the edge with a thumbnail (for profile of the first mm or two) and with the ball of the same thumb (for keenness) — a task of another few seconds. Satisfactorily meeting those parameters, an average blade in average field conditions ought to cut acceptably well. Yes, but what about ‘non-average’ conditions — of which there are plenty? THAT would be a more time-consuming task to explain to someone who hasn’t mowed a lot — so more on this some other time, on our website or in a comprehensive book on the subject of scythes…

Interim, a quick digest of my ‘first-stage method’, for beginners, I shared here.

 

… To attempt to use an American scythe like it is an Austrian is like attempting to neck­rein an English riding horse. It simply does not respond to those commands, as it is of an entirely different discipline. The end tasks may be the same or similar, but they are accomplished through different means.

If I dare to contradict you first (and explain later), that horse analogy, as neatly-fitting as it may sound to some readers, is… hmmm… well, you know what comes out of the back end of the horse…

First of all, it is evident that you underestimate the diversity of mowing styles within Austria alone, never mind all of the continent. Many of them are actually quite ‘American-like’ when it comes to scythe “discipline” and the visually pendulum-like motion.

Perhaps you base the Western/English metaphor on having watched videos demonstrating the movement style with an “Austrian” scythe that really is quite un-Austrian-like — regardless of what their authors call them. The majority of the scythe course formats (generally the better quality Youtube demos) are also variations of traditionally non-existent style as far as the ‘official’ dictum goes. They are based on the body-shift approach, the origin of which (and reasons behind) I described here — a piece of this website you may have read long ago. By “‘official dictum” I mean that, although I kept my eyes wide open on this one, I have never been to an area where — with the exception of the very odd individual — this principle was noticeably applied.

To simplify the immense detail-diversity of the whole ‘Continent’, including Scandinavia and Russia plus the Near East, — it could be lumped into two basic camps. One where the mower stands with both feet equidistant from the cut crescent, and the other with one foot (right one with right handed scythes) slightly forward — just as you tell us the Americans did it. The latter camp, I am sure, is a lot more numerous. While all traditional styles rely primarily on the ‘leading’ arm as the chief power train (ones using the Swedish “overarm” snaths are somewhat of an exception) — the folks mowing with one foot forward are essentially doing variants of the “pendulum-like” motion you describe. How many of them could appreciate the American scythe, I don’t dare say, but it may not be many; most would likely find the overall unit simply too heavy to dance with.

One more thing: to possibly temper your notion of snath design and mowing technique being SO intertwined that an open-minded stranger to either couldn’t begin to appreciate the other, here is something to chew on:

Within its respective parameters, each traditional unit can be optimally set. If a competent mower from a different tradition (regarding the tool and/or the movement) picks up such a fine-tuned scythe, feels it for a moment (without yet mowing) then tries a gentle stroke or two, he/she can subsequently perform close to as well with it as the one to whose tradition it belongs. I’ve seen it demonstrated many times as I let seasoned mowers in Austria, Germany and Switzerland try out my very un-traditional snaths. The blades that I often had on them were those with low points, quite unlike what those men were used to. Yet they always nodded in approval and their action confirmed the timeless words of Tony Bieler, my Swiss mentor: “A good mower can mow with any scythe, a poor one with none.”

Here your horse analogy — albeit turned on its head — could perhaps be applied. Wouldn’t a really good rider be able to guide a well-trained horse (with legs and body shifts only, while disregarding the intended function of Western/English bridles) and consequently evaluate how fine a horse there is under him/her? Still, I have no idea how many grass-cutting cowboys/girls will come to appreciate the American scythe for “the venerable tool” it is, but I presume you will keep us informed.
In the meantime, could we turn both of those horses of yours out to graze? 😉

 

Snath Design: Austrian vs. American Style

The American pattern snath, while inherently of heavier design than the Austrian type, is by no means inferior. The curves assist in proper presentation of the blade and give ergonomic clearance for the snath to pivot around the body while being able to be held close and relaxed, minimizing strain on the body during extended use.

That second sentence attempts to portray a very lofty accomplishment indeed!

However, it is not quite clear if you are implying that the same could NOT be said about the traditional (mostly straight) Austrian snaths, or the rest of the ‘continental’ lot.
As the great diversity of ways among scythe-using cultures attests, there is a multitude of ways that a connection can be made between human hands and a blade so it may be “properly presented” — a concept I’ll return to further below.

“Ergonomic clearance” is a new term to me, and to be honest, a confusing one… so I’ll leave it be.

As a bit of trivia related to that “held close and relaxed”: Among the Slavs the customary way to start a young man mowing was to put something (usually a hat) under his left armpit, the object being to follow your suggestion above while in action, mowing a field — without dropping it. In some regions of Poland they add a more challenging twist; instead of a hat they use a raw egg… Try it next time you get out on your lawn with the American scythe before breakfast and let us know how large an omelette you’ll produce ingredients for by the time the lawn is mown!

As you must already know, the American snath design and my ideas (quite extensively ‘peer-reviewed’ by mowers of different traditions) regarding a body-friendly version of this tool part company in some fundamental features. I have already discussed them in various places on this website, so I won’t repeat myself.

However, provided the blade is well-fitted, I can perform, at least for a short spell of time, the same bodily movement with a wide array of scythes, including the American. Of course, for an extended use I far prefer that certain design principles were kept in mind while the snath was made. As you can see from our wildwood snath portfolio, what I refer to as a ‘good” scythe can come with snaths of nearly ‘endless’ variations, but are never thicker (and thereby heavier) on the bottom than on top. For the same reason, as you can see from my communicated take on the issue, I have long considered the American snath (weight distribution-wise) as completely upside down.

Besides, I’m an advocate of home-made tool handles, snaths included. The American snath is a design for production line; its nearly every feature makes an owner, or even village-made substitute far more difficult than is the case with the vast majority of other snath designs. On that count alone I might relegate it to a museum. Its virtues (if perceived) could be preserved ‘live’ by finding a way to incorporate them into a more convivial-to-make design.

Ah, yes, I nearly forgot those curves. I observe that there are four of them; two with a good purpose, and two without (as far as I can see). The useful two are the up-turn on the bottom and the curve in the middle (about the region of the lower nib). But why the potential comfort of the left shoulder (and sometimes the back) that was created by the good middle turn — should be ‘canceled out’ by having the uppermost portion of the shaft turn upwards, I have no idea. The second puzzling turn is the leftward sweep in the bottom half of the shaft. You see, instead of the leftwards bend I prefer just the opposite.

And please don’t tell me that the snath was made curved (to the left) in order to accommodate the blade’s tang. That would be a preposterous reason for such an arrangement. As you can imagine, while the tang is red hot, still in the factory, it can be turned into any desired position far easier (and less costly) than it is to steam-bend a piece of wood to make the American snath — so it that it can assist in “proper presentation of the blade”.
For that very reason, as a rule, tangs in Europe were set in factories to specified angles dictated by the regional snath design and terrain — NOT the other way around. They may have additionally been adjusted (either cold or by heat application) but they more or less already fit when purchased in the respective local stores.

But perhaps the Americans are not to blame for the mix-up. Perhaps it was some influential Scot returning home early morning after a long night in the pub over many glasses of that fine scotch, and (understandably) was seeing double. Perhaps he was a mower at heart and, in high spirits as he was, he stopped by his house, picked up a scythe and headed straight for a hayfield. Likely still seeing double while swinging it, and from that perspective the original triangle-like Scottish snath was shifting shapes, appearing like a snake. Perhaps he had a vision that if that snaky shape was incorporated into a snath design, everybody would be happy. And eventually the concept immigrated to America… where now we have Benjamin enthralled by it, and we can debate with him.

 

…The nibs, or side handles, may be moved and rotated in a wide range of positions to suit the preferences and dimensions of the user in a very precise manner­­ 

I agree; the only rival in this respect is the traditional Russian snath. You know, the one that a man could make for himself out in the woods at the edge of a beckoning meadow, with a knife as the only tool, if necessary…

 

…–a key feature since a small problem in the tuning of any scythe (regardless of pattern) can mean the difference between mowing being euphoric vs. tortuous.

Agree here as well. I’ve often said and written that with a well-tuned scythe an experienced mower can nearly ‘fall asleep’ while at work in blade-friendly terrain.)

 

The only advantage offered by a straight snath is that it is cheaper and easier to manufacture,

True to a point. It is easier and (if made on the production-line scale) usually cheaper.

 

…which is why so many European/Austrian snaths are ­­you guessed it ­­curved!

Are you implying that the Europeans were as smart (and willing to pay for complexity, if perceived helpful) as the Americans? If so, thank you for the complement, but the guess above was wrong. While the whole of USA was still mown with curved snaths, the majority of scythe blades around the globe were mounted on straight snaths.

However, as of the last few decades (and progressively more as years roll by) there is one exception which defies both of our statements above. It is the proliferation of the tubular steel snath model with adjustable (wooden or plastic) grips. It is produced in numerous countries, and so cheaply that regional wood-using snath makers can’t even begin to compete. For instance, a Slovak man I know who a decade ago used to make (in a 2-3 man shop) over ten thousand of the straight one-grip snaths per year is now faced with the reality that a Ukraine version of that curved metal thing, complete with grips and ring, retails on par with the cost of the wood (1st grade ash) before he even touches it. Such is “progress”…

 

…The snath itself is end­heavy to facilitate the pendulous action referred to prior, but is also to provide a sufficient surface for the more developed hardware of the American pattern. 

You wouldn’t be saying that there is yet another thing the otherwise so ingenious Americans did ‘backwards’? (The first one being steam-bending the snath to fit the flat and ‘open’ tang instead of factory-setting the tang to fit an easier-to-manufacture snath.)

So, in this case, instead of manufacturing attachment hardware of a size that would fit an adequately strong snath dimension, they designed the hardware first and then made the snath to fit it? Consequently, both more wood and steel is used in making a snath than necessary. I suppose, in the ‘land of milk and honey’ wood and steel were cheap. Yet somebody still had to swing the extra weight…

My lack of ‘respect’ for the most common version of the American “more developed hardware” stems from:
a) it more or less dictates the dimension of the snath’s bottom end;
b) it is a contraption too complicated to be self-made;
c) it is heavier than needed.

These three strikes against it are, of course, grounded in my aforementioned stand regarding the concept of local self-reliance in everything considered ‘essential’. (However, we may be talking over each other’s head here, because of having different sub-goals in mind.)

With the blades it is different because so few people could make one for themselves. I do expect that eventually the easy delivery of scythe blades from Europe will cease (whether for good, or temporarily; and how temporarily is somewhat irrelevant). At that point many of the old rusty leftover blades will probably be resurrected. But will it be enough?  If some enterprising (and skilled) North Americans decide to supply that demand, it will be time to return to the way of forging blades resembling either the old Scandinavian or the American style. They’ll likely be forged out of one grade of steel, not three. And hopefully have a more elevated tang as well as a bit more “smile”.
We’ll see; that may just be the second golden era for the blades you so value, so hang in there!

 

…While many styles of mounting hardware existed historically, the majority of them are both more secure and more adjustable by far than the traditional Austrian type. 

“by far”? Just HOW far?

If by “traditional Austrian type” you mean the ring that came with your Scythe Supply outfit, then we again come back to my initial ‘warning’ that this debate is incomplete because you have not yet learned how misconstrued and partial the term “Austrian” has become. ONLY IF the variables of “continental” attachment hardware designs are to be included in the discussion, could we come to some sensible conclusion on this one.

…That being said, all manner of individuals made use of scythes back in their heyday, and with all manner of skill (or lack thereof) and so many more snaths were produced with a surplus of wood on them than ones of properly slim dimension ­­the reasoning being that if a thinner one is desired it is trivial to shave it down a bit. Some of the finest snaths were of excellent stock dimension, but this was because they were designed for the skilled mower rather than the larger scythe­buying market. Then, as today, that sort of individual was of a rarer class.

The American design does NOT try to fudge the laws of geometry, 

Here I agree.

 

…but should one attempt to use it with the same stroke as an Austrian scythe they would be met with poor results­­ simply because they would be trying to use the tool the wrong way. 

I hope to have covered this theme adequately above.

 

…There are a number of reasons why the complaints made with regard to the American pattern are fundamentally flawed:

1) The stroke of an American scythe is generated primarily from the arms rather than a twisting action of the torso (though the torso is still used.) Such a stroke will want to create a tilted arc rather than one that is in­line with the ground, and the crown of the blade directly counters this. 

Let me get the (already-addressed) crown-function out of the way. The amount of crown on the average American blade obviously did fulfill its function, but at the cost of mower’s luxury of being able to ‘fall asleep’ while at work, in my view. As I expressed above, a bit more smile would have helped…

It is on the merits of “…generated primarily from the arms…” where you and I differ in a major way. That much, of course, can be gathered from the document linked to earlier, but for those who didn’t read it here is a summary:
My central question regarding the bodily movement has been: how can the demands of operating a scythe be distributed as equally as possible between ALL of the body’s potential power trains (arms, torso, legs plus lungs and ‘belly’) so that none of them is unduly strained. The concept is older than the human race, manifested by Nature-design in countless forms of how animals move to assure their survival whenever every kcal of energy matters — as is often the case within the natural world.

The “Eastern” cultures had long ago grasped, and never quite let go of, those principles to a far greater depth than “we” (the Westerners) have.

Those Yoga-like/Tai-chi-like/the Zen of (sometimes bastardized) cliches we’ve incorporated into the contemporary English language nevertheless hint at the concept that has been little understood in America, or Europe. I mean, only a tiny % of the populace grasps what yoga/tai-chi/zen as a “way of doing” imply. At the risk of coming across as one presumptuously belonging to that tiny group, let me just share that since my early 20’s (when I began to read about and practice those disciplines) I’ve embraced those principles within the depth of my being — even if I’ve failed, for the most part, to ‘put my money where my mouth is’, on a daily basis. Nevertheless, I did continue my martial arts training, off and on, until past the period when I began to use scythes. What you now seem to perceive as the “Austrian style” of scythe movement are slight variations of what began, sort of semi-automatically, right here on this hilly  piece of “America”.
In retrospect, it quite unintentionally flew right in the face of the “American style” of mowing and, for that matter, also most of the traditions of the old Europe.

 

…A subtle lateral rocking or scooping action is used through the cut, which causes the blade to have the toe to the target and the heel lifted at the start of the cut, the heel and toe equidistant from the ground at the middle of the cut with the middle region of the blade doing the cutting  

And what ARE the front and back regions doing just then?

 

…and the heel of the blade presented at the end of the cut with the toe lifted. This maintains the edge at the proper presentation to the target at all points along the length of the stroke. See the rocker of an Austrian blade and ask the same question. 

Are you implying that the edge of an “Austrian” blade is NOT “properly presented”?

As for …”ask the same question“, I certainly have, and believe that here you are addressing a concept, that not only you but many others, including majority of those who sell and those who use the “rocker”-featuring blade models, do not understand. But that is a topic for another time.

 

…2) The targets being cut are incredibly thin, the effects of a blade being out of flawless alignment. So long as the edge catches the cut will be made. If an uncrowned blade were used with an un-angled tang a less smooth stubble will be left, but the vegetation shall still be cut.

incredibly thin in relation to what? Russian sunflower stalks?

Here is a suggestion: perhaps this growing season you could take a walk out there into the zone of the “challenging mowing conditions” with a razor, a loupe, an accurate (preferably metric) ruler and a notebook. On that ‘optimal upward’ angle carefully and close to the ground, cut with the razor a fairly representative stem of each species in the area which you may consider an intended target of the so-called “grass” blade. After each new stem get down very close with the loupe and the ruler, and measure the longer diameter (of the slightly elongated oval). Jot it down in the notebook. When all done, go back home to your favorite thinking chair, have a drink of your preferred beverage and study the notes. (A little more on this below)

“…So long as the edge catches the cut will be made.” 

That may be so with the hair on your arm; there is a WHOLE LOT MORE to efficient performance of a scythe blade than ‘edge catching’. Even if the cut be made, the accompanying question ought to be: how much energy did it take??

A scythe blade’s edge on the move is in the process of not only ‘catching’ hundreds of stems simultaneously, but also forcing its shape through the created openings. The thicker the shape of the bevel over the width equalling the diameter of the stems, the greater is the required force generated by the mower’s body. If the average stems were, say 1mm thick the task would be closer to play then what most people experience today. But perhaps we can pick up this theme again after the study I suggested above.

 

When mowing wind­flattened tall grasses just such an arrangement is actually ideal, since the blade is used to reach beneath the bent stalks and lift them into the edge rather than cutting a broad swath as one would do in more ideal mowing conditions. 

Actually NOT. It seems that you haven’t cut enough flattened grass with any scythe, never mind having a good “continental” version of it, one with a fittingly low-laying blade as a reference for adequate comparison.

 

…Unless mowing a lawn, a perfectly uniform stubble is not necessary to accomplish the tasks of most scythe users.

Ah, we’re in full agreement again! Isn’t that nice?

 

…3) An upward orientation of the edge is more desirable in heavy growth, as it will cut across the grain

EVERY time a scythe blade cuts a plant stem it is making a “cross-grain” cut. To clarify this concept you ought specify which of the angle/s between zero and ninety degrees is/are desirable.

 

…Any experienced woodsman will tell you that it is folly to attempt striking square across the grain of a tree with an axe; it is much more effective to make your cuts at an angle to cut with the grain of growth.

folly“? How then did all those dove-tailed cornered cabins — with the men having axes as the only tool — ever get built?

“with the grain of growth” is an useful ax-orientation for splitting (firewood, or logs lengthwise) and hewing/squaring timbers. For felling a tree…well, good luck!

Of course, you do know all this; what I quibble over here (and other places) is a case of an intelligent man being sloppy with terminology. Anyway, it would be clearer to uninitiated ax-considering folks if you had phrased this something like : “An ax penetrates easier if the angle of cut is not too large; 45-50 degrees may be a good functional compromise”…
To sum up: while penetration is easier at, say, 45 degrees there are numerous reasons for other angles, including near straight-on cuts, with both ax and the scythe.

 

… So, too, is it with scythes and tough reedy grasses. While the more upward the lay of the blade the less close-­cropped a swath shall be left, the more aligned it will be with the grain of growth. 

But Benjamin, as pointed out just above, there can certainly be “too much of a good thing” with respect to the concept you are talking about here.

 

…This also causes tension in the fibres of the plants, as it holds them taut against their anchored root structure. Much like cutting a rubber band, it is MUCH easier to do so when it is under tension. Again, this is a reason why in almost all circumstances any scythe blade (regardless of pattern) will have at least a slight upward orientation to the cutting edge. 

Or rather ‘ought‘ to have.

 

…It is worth noting that the heavier the profile curvature of the blade or the greater its width, the lower the lay of the blade should commonly be. Nearly straight and/or narrow blades can be appropriate at more upward angles since there will be less drastic variations in edge height during the natural stroke.

Good point, except I’d suggest you change the “straight” to FLAT and “edge height” to edge ANGLE.

 

4) It is a logical fallacy to fault the entire pattern of scythe simply because many individuals unwittingly do not hone it finely enough. It is equally challenging to mow with a dull Austrian scythe, and if anything exposes it to greater risk of tearing the thin, soft, tensioned blade like an inverted orange peel if a hidden target is accidentally struck due to the greater force required to get a dull blade to cut.

Are you not getting carried away? At least my intent here is NOT to indulge in some pro and con debate on behalf of total beginners (who may have to be told that it is not a good idea to mow with a dull scythe — and then have it explained what “dull” and “sharp” means). In ALL considerations discussed here, an adequately sharp blade (which includes honed) is, to me, a GIVEN.

And, let’s leave the oranges out of it until the the main course is more or less done…

 

Sharpening: American vs. Austrian Style

While Austria is now the last country producing American pattern scythe blades, Sweden was the predominant manufacturer of imported American pattern blades, and for good reason. 

“…last country…” One of two…(last countries).

And where did you learn that “…Sweden was the predominant manufacturer …”? 

Though it may be another one of those somewhat irrelevant issues, I’m making an attempt to bring to light the fact that much of what we read or hear ain’t quite so… You may still be right, however (especially IF you were referring to the late 19th or very early 20th century) although I was under the impression that it was Austria instead. (As you may know, the Swedes gave up on their scythe industry in 1966, that is only a few years after the last of NA scythe-makers hit the dust.)  Anyway, to double-check, I called a friend who for many years was the director and co-owner of the leading Austrian enterprise supplying North America with scythe blades and sickles, and also made all “Made in Sweden” blades until they ceased production in 1987. He also couldn’t imagine that what you state is true. Knowing that all the archives are at his fingertips I asked for some concrete figures. Next day he emailed a detailed breakdown from World War 1 on. To extract a few numbers regarding North American sales of Austrian blades (by this one company only):

1939 31,276 scythe blades (their best year; demand began to slowly drop off then)
1960 26,485 ”
1980 14,302 ” (plus still 30976 sickles!)

The Swedes surpassing that? I don’t think so, but by all means and for whatever reason, engage in more research.

 

…Their native style of scythe blades were more similar in design and construction to American blades than those of the Austrian style,

Definitely.

 

…and they were familiar with the extremely challenging process of laminating scythe blades­­ a technique commonly used by the best manufacturers in America. A hard, high­carbon steel core was clad in a sandwich of low­ carbon steel for support during accidental impacts, and a medium­carbon spring steel used for the spine. 

“…extremely challenging…”

Not to imply that welding together steels with different carbon content is child’s play (between 1977 and about 1990 I had done some blacksmithing as a farrier and a farmer, making tools and general repairs) but let me just share that using low carbon steel (for the back proper and portion of blade’s body) and high carbon grade (for the edge) — welded together, not riveted — was a standard method in Austria still during most of the19th century — chiefly due to the high cost of the latter. The “Bessemer” process of steel processing eventually ended that challenge by making high carbon material considerably more affordable and the Austrians switched to making the complete blade out of it.

In any case, my hat off to the smiths willing to so complicate their task; I didn’t know that they actually used THREE DIFFERENT GRADES OF STEEL to make a scythe blade!

 

…The result was extremely tough blades that could hold a keen edge all day without having to maintain them with more than a whet stone or a rifle hone, as compared to the Austrian type which requires periodic peening throughout the day in addition to the use of a field stone.

Pardon me, but “hold(ing) a keen edge all day” is one of those phrases I’d expect from salesmen or other folks either confusing in how they use certain terms, or those that know not what they are taking about. You are an acclaimed sharpening man, so I can assume that making the statement above, you were not merely (mis)guided by the label on the box of old blades which claims them to have an “ALL DAY EDGE”.

But can I also assume that you used the same blade for say 8 to 10 hours (which would be a short day in old American farm jargon), consecutively and kept and kept good track of those hours, even if it was but one hour a day? Also that you were mowing serious grass and not patches of buttercups. Then, at the end of such a simulated day — and before you possibly turned that Grizzly onto it again — how EASY DID the blade pull, periodically whetted to keenness as it was. (I know this is a silly question because how accurately can one describe “easiness” in words.) Yes, but was it still cutting:

a) as easily as in the morning
b) slightly less easy but not so that taking time for re-beveling could be justified
c) given the increased whetting frequency it was still acceptably ‘keen’ at the end of the day.

Before you’d answer these or similarly posed questions further debate on this topic is pointless.

As for your “the Austrian type which requires periodic peening throughout the day” — I would phrase this as ‘benefits by’ rather than “requires”.)

 

…This video shows a good deal of the manufacturing process, though it is for the slightly less complex English pattern of scythe blade. Observe that water power drives the entire operation­­. This was standard for the scythe industry in general, and most American scythe manufacturers (including the famous Oakland, Maine companies) relied principally on water wheels for their manufacturing processes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqV3jtkQSe4

Regretfully, our level of technological set-up does not allow us to easily watch it, but we’ll try someday when closer to civilization.

 

…Once the edge of an American scythe has been rounded or thickened through repeated field sharpening it is reground thin. While the bevel produced will usually appear to be wider on the top than on the bottom, the edge itself is kept centred to maintain the hard core steel as the edge rather than the softer cladding. The American pattern can be honed just as sharp and thin as the Austrian type, and if the blade is of good quality it shall hold that edge longer while being more resistant to damage. Traditional grinding on a water­cooled wheel produced a hollow grind 

You wouldn’t just be pulling data out of a hat, would you? IF there is some comprehensive scythe edge-comparing thesis (even one of the empirical farmer-style kind) to be found in writing, I don’t know where. If you do, please let me know. In the absence of it I might trust your own version thereof, though I’d expect something more specific. For instance, how many “Austrian type” blades have you put through this test, made by whom and when? And peened by whom?? What were you cutting? etc…

As for a perceptively ‘hollow grind’ (as we’d normally expect to see when using that term) — for that the old wheels would have had to be of a much smaller diameter.

 

akin to that found on a straight razor­­ incredibly thin, keen, and able to approach the target at shallow angles without glancing. 

Now, now, Benjamin, let’s not get carried away by drawing an analogy between the very low-beveled, hard, but (in relation to most other edge tools) brittle edges of razors, whose toughest expected duty is to cut human hair, AND those tools intended for cutting vascular plants of various species and stages of maturity (from juicy and tender to dry, tough and possibly ‘woody’).

 

…Water cooled grinders share something in common with scythes: they may not be so commonplace as they once were, but they are still easily found thanks to the internet. Grizzly, Tormek, and Jet are some common makers to consider. Our preferred model is the Grizzly No. G1036 “Viking Grinder” since it gives the greatest clearance for comfortably grinding long blades.

On this note a question: how many of those Americans (never mind the rest of the globe’s citizens) who by ‘stroke of destiny’ are the unaware ‘beneficiaries’ of the countless lifeforms’ deaths — so that theoretically they could own a Grizzly grinder, can readily afford one?

Similar questions have been of concern to me, ALWAYS, whether I was promoting a horse-powered agriculture, axes or scythes. In contrast to the perceived benefits of the said machine, please consider the approach here — a short document on the theme of sharpening, long overdue, and which we now put together on these Two Tales readers’ behalf. As you see, all that it takes to shape (not make ‘keen’) scythe blade edges by this oldest of all methods, regardless of style, is nearly any old relatively hard common flat-faced hammer (albeit suitably prepared for the task) and a chunk of scrap steel (also suitably prepared).

I find the concept extremely worthwhile to contemplate, and that for at least two reasons:
1)  The curious satisfaction (that a scythe-wielding poet might know how to adequately express) gained by performing an act of such primal simplicity, yet utterly applicable and efficient still in 21st century.
2) On the more rational level, ‘making do’ (yet relatively well, if we are lucky, meeting our needs) while consuming or requiring as few resources as possible — is very likely our future-to-be.To begin practicing the skills useful in that regard is simply sane — sensible, practical, advisable, responsible, realistic, prudent, wise, reasonable, rational,.

Regardless of how long you perceive the “Oil Party” may still continue, do you actually think that your Grizzly can beat my grandfather’s old hammer, (used in those on those American blades) in endowing a scythe edge with a very efficient geometry?

 

…With regard to many American blades being found with “the tip snapped off” I can say that I have never seen the tip literally snapped off on any American blade. I have seen many that have been shortened, but in almost every instance it has been because the toe of the blade had either become catastrophically damaged from abuse or had been sharpened away to the point that the form was no longer suitable and the damaged or malformed region was then cut or ground away to restore a more functional profile to the tool (if perhaps an ugly one compared to a whole blade.) I have seen many more blades bent into all manner of awful shapes resembling the ritualistic “killing” of a viking’s sword upon his death and burial­­, the blades twisted into iron pretzels or zig­zags­­ but a surprising number of these can be bent back true without permanent damage. In cases of severe bends, hairline cracks may form, but compare this to the number of vintage Austrian pattern blades found on this continent with their edges torn like a child’s construction paper project does little to reinforce the idea that the American pattern was in any way delicate by comparison. 

Let’s sum up the ‘metallurgical magic’ portion of what you claim on behalf of this venerable American tool thus far. (Bracketed are my clarifications):

1.The primary bevel of its edge is/can/ought to be shaped (on a grinder) to 9 – 11 degrees per side (that is 18-22 combined angle, which is low and potentially very penetrating). So far so good…

2. …and (thusly shaped) it will hold a “keen edge all day” “with only whetting….”

3. …while used in “… where bumps and valleys abound

4. Now you add that (perhaps as a consequence of #3?) it might be “twisted into a pretzel or zigzag” and yet “can be bent back true without permanent damage”.

IF all this is true, I suggest you try to ferret out the secrets of how exactly the American steel mills made those three kinds of steel, how the smiths forged a blade of it, and then heat treated it so as to have it posses the combination of the above-claimed qualities. If you manage it, I think that every edge-tool making company would send a representative to your door, begging you to accept a distinguished position in their metallurgy-related department.

As for “… Austrian pattern blades found on this continent with their edges torn like a child’s construction paper…”, their owners evidently disregarded the advice you offer just below. You ought to know that an edge which can cut grass with ease is ALSO one prone to get damaged. Furthermore, I want to remind you that equating a scythe blade’s edge (in this case the “Austrian style”, of course) with child’s construction paper, you cross the line between an attempt at being constructive and being silly, even belligerent. The spill of your poetic license may come across humorously to some, but what is such smear doing within the context of a serious, education-oriented debate with a technical slant? (Had I thought it to be otherwise I’d be sleeping right now instead of writing…)

“… delicate by comparison.”

What? I don’t recall ANYONE making that argument. Heavy and/or brittle, yes. “Delicate”, NO.

 

… The scythe is a tool that requires finesse, no matter the kind, and abuse will destroy any blade or damage any snath. 

In FULL agreement here.

 

…Rather than comparing the American scythe to a discount store one­speed bicycle and the Austrian pattern to a top­of­the­line 18­speed, I deem it much more appropriate to draw an analogy between mountain bikes and road bikes. 

Yes, that is a somewhat more fitting analogy, IF accurately presented.

 

…There are both poor and excellent examples of each style, and while a mountain bike will almost always be heavier than a road bike, it is because of their different intended range of use. If racing on paved roads the road bike is the certain winner given cyclists of equal fitness and skill, but the second that you have to travel on grass or dirt, or in other less than ideal conditions the mountain bike pulls ahead. In similar fashion the Austrian scythe is the fastest, easiest, and best method for the cutting of lighter growth in more well­groomed fields (like those found in much of continental Europe) while the American pattern is much better suited to denser or heavier growth in more challenging and variegated mowing conditions, where bumps and valleys abound and hidden obstacles are liable to strike (like those found in much of the United States.)

You are AGAIN not careful with your statements, and thereby keep ‘putting your neck under the guillotine’… It appears that you have not traveled though Europe. While there “well-groomed fields” certainly comprise a portion if its land mass, the same can be said of USA, not just now, but long ago. BOTH continents are incredibly diverse territories and in ratio of really steep mountains to flatland Europe probably leads. People occupied those slopes and derived a significant portion of their (livestock-dependent) sustenance, with the aid of scythes, for centuries before America was ‘settled’. The period when scythe-making was gaining on importance was also when Europe was recovering from the Dark Ages, and former fields (interim re-claimed by forest) were urgently needed again to feed the growing populace. With other words, the specs for the “continental” scythe design were were being written when Europe was far from being a territory of “well-groomed fields”.

 

…The Austrian style of scythe could be found in most of the larger hardware catalogs throughout the golden age of the scythe in America, to such an extent that the American “Sta­Tite” Snath Co. even made a snath intended for use with Austrian blades,

I don’t know if you are referring to that funny thing that Seymour used to wholesale (or still does?) — the mostly straight shaft, little upturned near the bottom with one ‘peg’ for a grip and called it “German style snath” — but if so, I’m not surprised. I would NOT want to use it either.

 

….but the selection was always much smaller than that stocked for the American variety and simple economics should tell us why the American pattern hangs in nearly every old barn in the nation­­ most American farmers found it a more suitable tool for their mowing conditions.

Nothing “simple” about this. In spite of your darn hard attempt to convince me otherwise, I’m still left with the opinion that most of the American farmers never really tried an alternative, so ‘didn’t know better’ and consequently worked harder for their cut grass than many of their European and Near Eastern comrades — the respective “mowing conditions” taken into account.

 

— Peter Vido

Posted: February 2014