By August 22, 2012 Read More →

Do scythes really work?

Do scythes really work?

Are these human-powered pairings of wood and steel as efficient as a whirling blade and a 6-horsepower gas-fueled engine?

One dewy summer morning, about six years ago, I was moments from finding out.

In my office-softened hands was a curved hickory handle, called a snath, attached to 30 inches of the meanest, wickedest, most lethal piece of metal I’ve ever seen up close.

I headed to a patch of pasture to see for myself what this minimalist baby would do. Goal No. 2 was to actually cut some knee-high prairie grass.  Goal No. 1 was not to become the subject of the newspaper headline: “Man loses legs in antique farm implement mishap.”

I found a spot far removed from small children and slow-moving animals, took a couple of practice swings, stepped up to the plate and let her rip.

Readers may be wondering at this point why a relatively sane man, in his late 50s at the time, would consider a scythe.  I had been using an old but functioning walk-behind string trimmer.  What possible reason would I have for giving serious attention to a technology that a Bronze Age pastoralist would instantly recognize?

The trimmer produced hay for our farm animals, the number of which I prayed had stabilized.  But one afternoon, it fractured a crucial part that caused a catastrophic failure in the mechanism that makes the string whirl like a dervish.  Parts for this vintage model had long since gone out of production.

So, I could spend a small fortune on another, or, being the cheap fellow that I am, spend a fraction of that on a scythe.  Research convinced me a scythe could do the job.

I ordered one from The Marugg Company, Tracy City, Tenn.

The hammered Austrian blade was shipped, for obvious reasons, unsharpened.  It had been peened, but not whetted to the required razor’s edge.  I also ordered the whetstone, the whetstone holder that clips to the belt and a peening hammer and anvil.  The total bill, as I recall, was about $120, with shipping.

I’ve sharpened enough knives to be confident of my honing skills.  I did not fear becoming the subject of the newspaper headline: “Legless man loses fingers sharpening antique farm implement.”

I gave the blade a few licks with the stone and headed out for my tall-grass showdown.  Perhaps the vegetation would take one look at the nasty blade and break off, fall over and windrow itself into tidy piles.  Unfortunately, my pasture proved more resistant and wasn’t going down without a fight.

My initial efforts were less than satisfactory because of poor technique.  The proper movement, I quickly discovered, is vaguely akin to swabbing a kitchen floor with a spaghetti mop (My wife would wonder how I know this.)  My other problem was a dull blade.

I scraped the stone across the edge a few more times and swooshed the scythe back and forth until I found a comfortable rhythm, and every 10th swoosh or so, I gave the still-too-dull blade a few licks with the stone.

Then it happened. Swoosh went the scythe . Rip went the grass.  I’d discovered the sweet spot!  Swoosh.  Rip.  Swoosh.

Rip.  Swoosh-rip-swoosh-rip-swoosh-rip.

The scythe didn’t cut the grass as evenly as the trimmer.

The spot I’d just mowed resembled my head after a friend gave me a free haircut in second grade!

After a half-dozen seasons behind me, I’m getting better at it but not nearly as good as a true scythemaster, who can probably use one of these things to shave in dim light.

Still, I’m satisfied with the results, ragged though they may be.  I’ve since learned that the blade must be peened after about two hours of use to maintain its required sharpness.  One surprise has been how little effort is involved.  The amount of exertion is similar to a brisk walk.  And it actually outperforms the gas-powered trimmer in tall, dense grass.

And unlike the trimmer, this is a true multi-fuel machine.

Mine starts right up on whatever I eat for breakfast.  The other morning it purred along on one bowl of oatmeal, two pieces of whole wheat toast and a pint of tea.

It’s crowning feature is its immunity from irritating breakdowns.  No plugs to foul, no oil filter to unclog, no priceless fuel to add.  It only shares one similarity with the string trimmer:  Sometimes, the operator is cranky and hard to start.

[guest-author]Gordon D. Fiedler Jr.[/guest-author]

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16 Comments on "Do scythes really work?"

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  1. Holly says:

    I love this article!  Thank you for making me laugh and also giving great, useful information about using this tool.  Since I am someone’s wife, and quite accustomed to mopping floors, I wonder if it takes the same amount of effort, or is it more of a work out?  Thanks again!

  2. Bob says:

    LOL! I knew who wrote this a few lines in… only the Prince of Breadville possesses this comedic style!
    Dude! You need to go out and get yourself a 3 foot bow saw to cut your firewood with. You want an exercise in terror? That will do it! If you live, write a post!

  3. I hope so, because otherwise I don’t know how farming worked for all those centuries…

  4. Works like a charm at my place.. Love it.

  5. I’ve been using them previously – they are great tools – but to use them is almost a lost art today :(

  6. 'Jesse Banke says:

    ive used a couple types of scythes when I was younger, yes they work.

  7. They work. We have 2 of them!

  8. Didn’t read the blog but I use one many times a year and by the looks of it it may be the same one that was used way back when. Oh yeah it not only works but is a workout as well.

  9. Alex Stiner says:

    I just used mine from Marugg to clear out an overgrown lot. Whole lot faster than weedeating, no noise, no gas, and I got my exercise in for the day. I’m an out of shape fat guy and I get tired quickly and have to take a lot of breaks, but I always feel better when I use my scythe instead of the weedeater.

  10. Very well written and enjoyable article!

  11. I hope so… I have 2 in my garage!

  12. scrambo says:

    that was an awesome article. we use to have one of those laying around on the farm and no one to my memory ever even touched or spoke of the relic. it just hung on the wall in the barn. the technique sounds similar to the old sling blade which i spent many hours perfecting… i sense that the scythe may make a come back…

  13. We may need this kind of tool soon. If you see one, buy it!

  14. Alex Roubo says:

    They work great as long as they are sharp.

  15. Mtnhooch says:

    Great article!! We used several of these for years to cut cane when we made molasses. One person to gather the stripped cane together abd another to cut it with the scythe. We also had one that my grandfather and father called a “cradle”. It had a wooden catch basket on top of the blade that would hold the grain after you cut it down. Once it was full you dumped it out and went again. Worked great as long as you kept it sharp.

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