See yesterday’s post on the scythe’s background, also from Matt Miles.
Using a scythe is straightforward enough. The user lifts the snath and brings the blade down in a circular, sweeping motion to cut grass or grain close to the ground, aiming to cut as much as possible with each swing of the scythe blade, known as a swath. To do this, the cutter works from the outside of the field in, starting behind the first row to be cut and working through the row, swinging the scythe in a 180-degree arc from one side of the row to the other. The cut grass or grain falls to the side at the end of each stroke—to the mower’s left if they are right-handed, and vice versa—forming a windrow outside the path of travel when the next row is cut. These rows form a concentric spiral, working in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction, with each successive row converging on a center.
The motion involved in scything is a little like swinging a golf club, and though it seems simple, the best way to learn how to use a scythe may be to watch an experienced user cut with one. Workshops or training sessions where an experienced user can take you through the motions and offer feedback on form are a very good way to quickly develop technique. Many of the suppliers previously mentioned offer workshops. Failing the availability of hands-on instruction, there are many videos available online as well as books and graphics that detail how to cut with a scythe.
Cutting grass with a properly fitted scythe just feels good. The major muscle groups involved are the core (the muscles of the abdomen and lower and middle back) and the hips and thighs. The arms and shoulders support and guide the scythe, but power is transmitted through the user’s trunk. When the mower swings the scythe down from the top of the stroke, there is a pleasant springiness to the motion as the spine twists. I have found that though my hands will sometimes get tired from holding the wooden grips, my core and legs rarely fatigue and I don’t usually feel any soreness, even after hours of scything.
Time spent mowing will vary by the material being cut and the proficiency of the user. For example, cutting a field of slightly dewy, knee-high green grass will usually go significantly faster than hacking through brambles or stands of dried out broom straw at the end of the growing season. Terrain is a factor too. It is much easier to mow on flat ground than to work on steep inclines or in areas with large rocks or stumps, which can easily damage your blade.
Blades and Sharpening
Blades differ by intended use, though there are three main types: 1) the grass blade, 2) the ditch blade, and 3) the bush blade. The grass blade is the lightest and longest of the three, and this is the blade most often chosen for cutting cereal crops or mowing grass. The ditch blade is a medium-duty blade suitable for cutting mixed grasses and weeds as well as brambles and woody brush. The bush blade is a short, thick, heavy-duty blade useful for clearing saplings up to 3/4 in in diameter.
Most quality European-style scythe blades are handcrafted by Austrian or Italian blacksmiths who follow a time-honored process in manufacturing them—Falci and Fux are the major manufacturers available in the US. Their blades are made from durable steel that holds a good edge, yet is soft enough to be spot-sharpened with a whetstone.
Sharpening the scythe blade is necessary after every few row lengths, and can be accomplished with a hand-held whetstone that the scythe user carries in a pocket or sheathe. Sharpening takes only a minute or two, and is done by running the edge of the whetstone diagonally across the blade from heel to toe, on each side. I have a copper sheathe that holds the whetstone submerged in water and which attaches to a belt or stands upright inside a pocket.
After any period of significant use, European scythe blades will accrue nicks and dents that will bend the blade and make it difficult to retain a good edge after sharpening. At this point, the blade may be reconditioned through a process known as peening. For this, the blade is removed from the snath by loosening the setscrews that hold the ring in place.
Peening is accomplished with a flat-edged peening hammer or with a hard steel peening jig. I have only used a peening jig, which is a kind of micro-anvil surface in which the scythe blade is re-flattened in two dimensions between a base through which the blade travels and a cap that sits on top of a post on the base, and impacts the top side of the blade (see photo). The user strikes the cap with a hammer, which then re-draws the edge of the blade as it is worked through the jig, from heel to toe.
The sickle is the low-tech equivalent of the weed-whacker or power-driven edge trimmer. It is a smaller curved blade attached to a handle that allows for greater control in confined spaces where it would otherwise be difficult to swing a scythe. I use mine in our vineyard to trim close to grape vines that I do not wish to accidentally damage with a scythe blade.
A sickle blade is usually made from the same material as a scythe blade and is easy to clip to a belt and carry with you as you scythe. The blade can be sharpened with a whetstone and a file.
Using the scythe to harvest grain or mow grass is an enjoyable and viable alternative to using mechanical and fossil-fuel-driven equipment to achieve the same end. In a fossil-fuel-scarce future, raising grain crops will likely occur on a much smaller scale than in current practice. Likewise, low-tech harvesting solutions using simple, easily maintainable equipment such as the scythe will be in high demand, as grain crops and grasses represent staples in the human food supply and are necessary for feeding animals—for example, hay for horses and cows. Having a scythe on hand and the experience and knowledge of how to use and maintain it may prove to be a vital skill.
- Mowing, Sharpening, Peening, Blade Repair
- Mowing, Trimming with a Sickle, Bushwhacking, Honing, Peening