Stay tuned for tomorrow’s follow-up post on using the scythe, also from Matt Miles.
Much like the broadfork, the scythe is a human-powered alternative to mechanical and power-driven mowers that have largely displaced the scythe from the farmer’s tool shed. However, in recent years this tool has enjoyed a comeback with small farmers and homesteaders who use it for both small-scale grain production and mowing grass. In a resource-scarce future, the scythe will be an obvious choice for harvesting cereal grains, its primary use throughout history, as well as for clearing brush and mowing.
In comparison with mechanical and fossil-fuel-driven mowers and harvesting equipment, the scythe is yet another item that, when embodied energy costs of manufacture, maintenance and repair costs, and per-use costs are considered, almost certainly comes out ahead of the higher-tech alternatives.
Moreover, the scythe is a device that Ivan Illich would have considered a tool for conviviality—defined as a tool to facilitate “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment.” In other words, these tools are user friendly, are easy to maintain and repair, and do not limit the independence of their user. This is in contrast to other more advanced tools (in terms of industrial productivity), which remove the operator from direct interaction with the environment and foster outside dependency in terms of reliance on fuel and parts inputs, specialist mechanical expertise necessary for maintenance, etc., such as with a mechanical harvester, for example.
Using the scythe is a more physically demanding experience than pushing a mower or driving a combine, but like running or pedaling a bike, there is a pleasant cadence and rhythm to cutting with a scythe and the user likewise gets a healthy workout. And to paraphrase Wendell Berry, in the context of a society facing epidemic rates of obesity and diabetes, there is little point to investing in a labor-saving device [such as the lawnmower] if the labor that is saved results in the diminished health and finances of its user.
Background and History
Like the Devil’s pitchfork, the scythe is an agricultural implement freighted with socio-religious and cultural associations. It has been symbolically linked in the European folk-cultural imagination with death—in the image of the Grim Reaper or Father Time—from medieval Christianity onwards. This characterization descends from the Roman tradition that represents the god Saturn holding a sickle or a scythe, which in turn owes to the Greek representation of Cronus holding a sickle.
The image of the reaper across cultures and throughout history is a potent and enduring mythological symbol. It represents the final phase in the cycle of life, the end of the natural growing season in which past agrarian cultures were rooted. Ironically, by this reaping of the harvest, life is sustained and repeated into the next cycle.
In its practical use as an agricultural implement, the scythe first appeared around 500 B.C.E. and saw widespread and continuous use throughout Europe beginning in the twelfth century until its eventual replacement by mechanized technologies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, in various rural areas of Europe such as parts of Romania or the Basque country, it is still a valued tool for agricultural production.
Design and Production
The scythe is an iron-age tool constructed of a shaped wood shaft with a tempered steel blade attached at one end. It may be considered a low-tech tool in that the technology for its manufacture has been available for millennia. While the skills of a woodcrafter and blacksmith are necessary to produce the scythe at an artisanal level, a functional scythe could reasonably be assembled from commonly available scrap or re-purposed materials with a minimum of specialist expertise.
A scythe is composed of two major components: the snath (the long, curved wooden part to which the blade and handles attach) and the blade. Attached to the snath are two wooden grips, one at the end of the snath, and the other about 1/3–1/2 of the way down the snath, via a stem. A metal band, called the ring, secures the blade to the snath, usually with two setscrews. The blade can be further subdivided into the tang, the heel, the beard, the chine, and the toe.
There are two major types of scythes: North American and European. It is the North American model of scythe that many scythe enthusiasts blame for the historically poor standing of the scythe as a hand tool among Americans. One reason for this is that relative to the European scythe, many consider the North American scythe to be heavy, cumbersome, and ill-suited to sustained use. In contrast, the European scythe is said to be lighter, more streamlined and built of an ergonomically more efficient design. I have never tried working with a North American style scythe, so I can’t really offer an opinion based on experience.
The best scythes are produced by craftspeople knowledgeable of traditional methods of scythe making. You will probably enjoy using yours more if you purchase a good quality scythe from an artisanal maker or supplier. I bought mine from Scythe Supply in Maine, from whom I have always received excellent and prompt customer service. Other highly recommended suppliers include The Marugg Company and One Scythe Revolution. Most reputable scythe suppliers will ask for several measurements when you order the snath, although there are now some adjustable snaths that have recently become available in the US.
Every scythe should be built to suit the physique and preferences of the user. The snath on my scythe was custom built for me by the folks at Scythe Supply. When I placed my order, I sent in three measurements—my height, ground-to-hip distance, and elbow-to-fingertip distance—that were then used to craft the snath for optimal ease of use.
Handedness is another consideration. I’m left-handed, and though I can use a right-handed scythe, I prefer to use a left-handed outfit. Ultimately, if you are going to be using the scythe for any extended length of time, you’ll enjoy the experience more if the tool is designed with your unique physical preferences in mind. If you decide to go with a left-handed model, be sure to order left-handed blades for it. Most suppliers do carry blades in both right-handed and left-handed orientations.
- Tresemer, David and Peter Vido. 2001. The Scythe Book. Chambersburg, PA: Alan C. Hood. (Paperback, 208 pages. ISBN: 0-911-469-19-2)
- Miller, Ian. 2016. The Scything Handbook. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers. (Paperback, 152 pages. ISBN: 978-0-86571-832-6)
- Scythe Supply (Perry, ME)
- One Scythe Revolution (Eau Claire, WI)
- The Marugg Company (Tracy City, TN)
Matt Miles is a Low Tech Blog contributor and half of the team at Reluxe Ranch. You can find his other writing at the Way Back blog.