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What is a grass blade?

With respect to the blade class divisions, we had on this website (especially in our catalogue’s previous version) also fallen into the pattern of using the established terms. The purpose of this short essay is to point out that the classifying of scythe blades into “types” is somewhat arbitrary; an approximate guideline at best. At worst it can cause confusion and limit the potential versatility and usefulness of the “common” scythe. Many scythe sellers are themselves “in the dark” on the issue, not having really used the tool enough or under diverse conditions — so they merely repeat someone else’s terminology. Brief catalogue descriptions inevitably communicate only a small picture of what each respective blade can be used for.

Those in the English-speaking countries, for most of their scythe-use history, had known this tool in two distinct versions: a short-bladed “bush scythe” and a long-bladed “grass scythe”. In The Scythe Must Dance (2001), we drew attention to “ditch” and “forest-culture” blades, these lighter cousins of the bush blades. ScytheSupply of Maine began selling some so-called ditch blades. Adding them to the selection caused the weight at the end of the snath to be less for some folks, yet more for others. The first group have purchased a “ditch” model where previously they may have chosen a bush blade. The second group, perceiving their terrain consisted of “ditches with weeds” have bought ditch blades – and many of them have consequently been using a heavier tool than is necessary to do their work. A light “grass” blade would serve them just fine.

Firstly, if accurate definitions matter, the term “grass blade” is only partly descriptive. A large percentage of herbaceous plants which have been cut with the average scythe for centuries are botanically not grasses at all. Some, with respect to stem dimension and/or toughness, are plants for which a North American or British mower, guided by contemporary catalogues’ descriptions, acquires a bush blade.

Secondly, in many cultures there were no blade class divisions.
If I translated “ditch” and “bush” into my native tongue (Slovak) and added the prefix to a scythe blade, people would stare at me blankly because in that country, ditch and bush blades were completely unknown. The same “grass” blade was–and still is–used for the cutting of everything from the fine lawn grasses to the so-called “weeds”, brambles and small tree saplings (i.e. “bushes”).

Thirdly, any blade’s specific function can be significantly affected by appropriate shaping of its edge and the common sense of its user.
Within the range of its innate strength, the common scythe blade can “shapeshift”, so to speak, by:

a) a change in its edge geometry (effected by the user’s intent when sharpening);

b) the technique with which it is used.

Regarding a) —

For the cutting of a very dense lawn or other areas of fine-textured plants, the most penetrating (i.e. thinly-shaped) edge is called for. Even the heaviest of “bush” blades (though not intended for such work) can be equipped with such an edge by peening, grinding or filing.

Conversely, a “grass” blade with an edge already shaped for lawn work can be prepared for “ditch” or “bush” work by filing 1-2mm. of its outermost edge’s thinness back to a slightly thicker profile, affording it more damage resistance. However, even a “bush edge” should still be well honed because in all cutting situations the very edge opens the way into the cut and if it indeed is sharp (not necessarily thin) the rest of the blade is subjected to less stress.

Regarding b) — observe the following guidelines:

  • Pay attention and be selective. Many areas of growth contain a mixture of plants varying in toughness. To cut the toughest of them, whenever possible, use the middle-to-beard portion of the blade (rather than point-to-middle).
  • Do not attempt to take down several tough (large and/or woody) stems growing close together with a single swing; instead, slow down and take deliberate aim at each stem. This will also be good practice in accuracy.
  • When cutting the toughest material, make an upward-slicing cut: press the back (rib) of the blade to the ground so that the edge is aimed more skyward than for general cutting, and move the blade in a slicing motion at the same time. The so-called “hacking”, i.e. chopping strokes as if the scythe blade were a machete on a long handle, are less effective in severing fibres and put considerably more strain on the tool and user. (And, by the way, no scythe is meant to be used in the manner demonstrated by Marugg’s bushwhacking video.)
  • Additional hints:

    Regardless of its “type”, the shorter the blade of any given model, the more suited it is for cutting “tough stuff”. A 45-55 cm “grass” blade can well be used as a “ditch” or “forest culture” or in sensible hands, even a “bush” blade. Simply keep the first 2-3mm of the edge a little thicker than on a longer blade of the same model. In addition, pay more attention to the technique discussed above (angle of cut, number of tough stems taken at once) than you would if you use a heavier blade for the same job.

    All this was once common country knowledge in Europe. Perhaps not in North America, though: here, one of the first tasks for a scythe was close on the heels of the ax, harvesting grain or forage in the recent clearings among rocks, stumps or roots. I think it was during that period (lasting many decades as this land was gradually “developed”) that Americans became enamoured of the bush blade — along with the world’s heaviest snaths. The initial source of those blades was England, although why the Brits continued to make predominantly heavy models until the last days of their scythe industry is a puzzle to me.

    The mowers of Continental Europe were all either physically weaker, lazier, … or smart enough to have figured out that certain ruggedness is superfluous. For instance, the majority of scythe blades available in the former Communist-bloc European countries were a narrow and relatively light model (somewhat roughly) made in the Soviet Union. All city lawns, oddly-shaped or very steep hayfields, ditches, as well as edges of encroaching forest were cared for with these blades for several decades. Most scythes used in Slovakia for all these purposes are still equipped with these same “grass” blades available in four lengths (from 60 to 90cm). Someone mowing in tight spaces or weedy ditches will use a 60cm; for production haymaking 80cm is preferred.

    During all my scythe-education-related travels in Austria and Switzerland I never saw anyone actually using a bush or ditch blade. Of the many Swiss models I’m familiar with — old and contemporary — all are essentially grass blades but, as in Slovakia, the Swiss would not prefix them with “grass”. They are all simply scythe blades, even if some are heavier per cm of length than others. In Austria one of those lighter cousins of the true bush blade, which they call the “Streu Sense” (Streu is German for animals’ bedding) intended for the annual cutting of less-than-prime meadows, is available to farmers in specialty retail stores. I have worked alongside older Austrian mowers in such terrain during the past few seasons, and not one of them used such a blade. They routinely cut encroaching young ash tree saplings with their ordinary blades, many of them lighter than modern grass blades… The examples cited are only a few among many; all are living proof of what the common scythe blade, in capable hands, can accomplish. Admittedly, for a considerable amount of bramble- and bush-like cutting, a sturdier and/or shorter model is more suitable — and for overzealous users possibly necessary.

    I would like to close with a couple of analogies to help sum up some points made above; as I see it, the difference between using a “safely strong enough” blade as opposed to one testing the understanding, skill and appreciative faculties of the user is somewhat like the difference between industrial food production and organic agriculture… or between the culture of fast food and Slow Food…

    It appears that many scythe users have something in common with the mainstream North America’s attitude to eating. And while the McDonald’s’ proliferate, the nuances of good food preparation have largely been left behind. A similar scenario, you see, is at stake with scythes. Is that what we all want?


    Jul. 2007
    Updated May. 2008