My first experience with the North American style
scythe came at sixteen when the 80 year old man I worked for tried
to teach me to mow. He wanted to clear a back swath around the edge
of a hay field I’d recently cut with a horse drawn mower.
The scythe was heavy and seemed dull even though we used a sharpening
stone on it. As I swung the scythe, constant cries from my mentor
to “keep the heel down” didn’t help as the blade
first cut air then plowed dirt. The grass mostly remained standing,
some bent over and very little of it was cut (I believe the grass
even laughed at me). This exercise lasted about half an hour before
we both gave up in frustration. The next time I picked up a scythe
twenty years had passed. It was a life changing experience.
In 1983 I purchased a 50 acre homestead with a house and large,
attached barn. The farm had about 20 acres of fields much of it
overgrown to brush, mainly meadowsweet, fir and poplar saplings.
The brush was scattered about the fields and the saplings were edging
into fields from the adjacent woods.
Planning on livestock and needing to use the fields for pasture
and haymaking, I looked at ways of clearing the fields to bring
them back into production. Neither being able to afford nor desiring
to use gas or diesel driven machinery I looked into low-tech methods
for clearing the fields.
It occurred to me that a scythe might be just the tool for cutting
back the scattered brush and milkweed around the fields, and putting
up hay for a recently acquired herd of milking goats. The idea of
using a scythe again was not appealing but the price and environmental
considerations compared to machinery won me over.
Out of pure happenstance, I received an unsolicited catalog from
the now defunct Green River Tool Company of Vermont. It advertised
a European style scythe outfit for mowing grass. The package consisted
of snath, grass blade, sharpening tools, and instructions. The price
was reasonable and the descriptive text with a photo convinced me
to buy. Along with the grass blade for making hay, I purchased a
bush blade to tackle the brush and saplings.
After work, throughout that summer and fall, I mowed a bit of grass
or tackled brush in the overgrown fields. Going at it for an hour
or two each evening, and longer on the weekends, I managed to clear
the fields as well as put up four ton of hay in the barn loft. I
found that I could mow a third acre of tall, thick timothy in a
bit less than three hours. That worked out to be about an acre a
day, historically considered the area a one person could mow in
After mowing, the grass was left in the field to dry for a day
or two. With the help of family and several old, wooden hay rakes
we gathered the dry hay into long windrows that we heaped into conveniently
spaced piles, pitchforked into a cart then carried to the barn for
This experience with the European style scythe was so much different
than my encounter as a teenager. To my delight, this hard work was
actually enjoyable. Years later, with no animals or fields of my
own to maintain, I enjoy mowing for its own sake. The mown grass
used as garden mulch or compost.
Mowing grass with the European scythe is a meditative experience.
As the mower picks up the rhythm it quickly becomes second nature
and nearly mesmerizing; step and swing, swing and step, working
your way down the field. You stop from time to time, take the stone
from the holder on your belt, whet the blade a few strokes to resharpen
it. You look over your shoulder and admire the neat, straight line
of mown grass you have laid down, the empty row of stubble beside
the tall grass waiting to be cut, breath the aroma of fresh cut
hay, give a prideful sigh, and joyfully return to mowing.
The European scythe is as easy to maintain as it is to use. You
sharpen the blade by peening the cutting edge with a hammer on a
small anvil or jig, then honing with a whetstone. Using a grindstone,
either hand driven or motor powered, overheats the steel, removing
the temper from the thin blade. Hammering the blade draws out the
steel, hardens it, increasing the life of the edge. A manufactured
peening jig makes it simple and accurate to hammer sharpen a blade.
For the experienced user this process may take as little as five
minutes and usually no more than ten.
Peening may be required once or twice a day depending on how hard
the scythe is used. Between peenings sharpen with a few, quick strokes
of a whetstone kept handy in a water-filled holder attached to the
mower’s belt. When honing no longer maintains the edge, it
is time to peen.
A scythe is an excellent tool for mowing hay fields, maintaining
lawns, cutting grains for human or animal feed. Use it to clear
the edges of fields, mow along stonewalls, under and around fences,
and on steep or wet ground impossible for heavy machinery. The scythe
clears brush and rank growth along roadsides, in fields and ditches.
It is perfect for mowing grass in orchards, around rocks, between
garden beds, for cutting old corn and asparagus stalks. With a bush
blade remove saplings along woods roads as well as clear woodlot
undergrowth and culls. For this, the scythe is easier on the back
Blades come in a variety of styles, weights and lengths to suit
different tasks and mowers. The most popular are grass blades used
for mowing hay fields, grain harvesting, and maintaining lawns.
Convenient lengths range from 22 to 36 inches. Length selection
depends on the area to cut, ground conditions, the type of grass
among other considerations. The shorter sizes work well for small
areas and in tight quarters, such as cleaning around garden edges
or between garden beds. The longer grass blades cut a wide swath
for mowing grass in large fields or harvesting grain. Grass blades
are beautifully formed, graceful, thin and light, strong and resilient.
A 36-inch blade weighs only 21 ounces. Grass blades are a joy to
use and once you begin, are hard to put down.
Bush blades are built short, stocky and strong for the hard work
of cutting woody plants. The lengths run from 16 to 20 inches. Use
them to thin saplings in a woodlot or to keep back small trees encroaching
on a field, for clearing brush and heavy weeds. The weight of these
blades, as much as two pounds, provides momentum to slice through
A third category, ditch blades, falls between the grass and bush
blades in heft and sturdiness. Stronger than grass blades and slightly
heavier, ditch blades mow grass, heavy weeds and light brush. They
will not stand up to the abuse of thick woody stems like the bush
blade. Ditch blades are versatile and used in places where the mower
encounters a variety of plants. Lengths range from 18 to 30 inches.
The European style scythe, with a straight or bent snath, is a
well balanced tool, simple, inexpensive to purchase and maintain,
a pleasure to use and with proper care will last many years. Quieter
than a power scythe or string trimmer, the scythe does not destroy
your hearing, will not sling rocks through your window, nor fill
your lungs and the environment with noxious fumes. It does not leave
your body exhausted, or quivering from engine vibration. The scythe
provides a pleasant physical workout at the end of which you feel
good instead of beaten.
The European scythe has a beauty, an aesthetic appeal, a gracefulness
that speaks to centuries of development and refinement. It has redeemed
the scythe’s reputation as a clumsy, exhausting tool.
This article appeared in the June issue of Countryside Magazine.