Historic Tool on the Modern Homestead
This article was first published in the March/April 2010 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal. It was added to the site November 2, 2011.
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The growing and harvesting of grasses and other pasture plants should be at the heart of the homestead/small farm enterprise. The more we clothe our fields with grass, the less we plow, and the more we protect the soil and biological diversity. What we harvest from the sward can be the foundation of livestock feeding (hay) or of gardening (mulches and composts).
My own soil care practices become more radically no-till every season, with generous use of heavy mulches the entire growing season. Thus the pasture is not only a resource for my mixed flock of poultry, but a key resource for two large gardens as well. As I, the mower, take the place of grazers in the ecology, I stimulate healthy growth of the sward, prevent succession to forest, and even do my small part to sequester carbon in the soil rather than releasing it to the atmosphere.
Too many of us have been conditioned to believe that we need a machine to handle each of the labor intensive chores of the homestead and small farm. Thus we turn to a power mower for managing grass. I find the power mower more unpleasant all the time. More critically, the finely chopped grass clippings from the power mower quickly mat down into a putrid, anaerobic mass that impedes proper decomposition in the compost heap, and as a mulch is unpleasant and even hazardous to walk on. Long-stem grass retains much more oxygen, assisting its breakdown in compost heap or mulch—and makes for a springy surface much more pleasant to walk on.
Of course, I could get that long-stem grass using a powered sickle bar mower—but then, there’s still the noise, vibration, and stink. I turn instead to the modern incarnation of a supremely elegant tool, the scythe.
The first tool used by man for cutting grasses was the hand-held sickle, the use of which goes back to even before the Agricultural Revolution—for cutting grass or reeds for matting, bedding, or roofing materials; and for the gathering of wild seed heads. The earliest sickles were made of shaped flint—of hardened clay with inset “teeth” of flint flakes—of wood, with flint flakes set in pitch—and even of sharpened animal shoulder blades or mountain sheep horns, or jaw mandibles of animals like deer, with the teeth replaced by flint flakes. With the advent of metal working, sickle blades were made of edged bronze, and later of iron, attached to wooden handles. The impact of the sickle on the domestication of wild grains was enormous, with the resulting rise of complex cultures based on farming.
The Romans developed the earliest scythe, featuring a longer iron blade, attached to a much longer handle, which enabled cutting grasses from a standing position, rather than in the stooped position required by the sickle. Oddly, this design passed from use for about 500 years, then was reintroduced in the medieval period. The development of the scythe was pushed by the need in northerly climes to cut large quantities of grass to store as winter fodder (hay) for livestock. It was not used much in the harvest of grains, since harvesting with the scythe resulted in significant loss of grain. Later, the introduction of the scythe cradle made possible efficient use of the scythe for grain harvesting. (The cradle is a set of wooden tines, or a bent-wood bow with strings, attached to the scythe. The cradle catches the cut grain stems and enables their placement in neat windrows, ready for binding into sheaves.)
The pinnacle of scythe-making arrived when blacksmiths (from the seventeenth century on) began forging blades from bars of both iron and mild steel, folding them over each other and hammering them into numerous layers like pages in a book. The steel holds the blade’s shape, and can be honed to a fine cutting edge; the iron tempers the steel’s brittleness with flexibility, reducing the chance of breakage when the blade hits a rock.
Of course such a forging process was labor-intensive, with the result that a hand-forged scythe blade was quite expensive. There is a story of a blacksmith in New Hampshire in 1769 who made a scythe blade for a young farmer. The price: twenty-one cords of rock maple—cut, split, and stacked. When the farmer questioned the quantity of firewood to be delivered, the blacksmith assured him, “There will be a blow of my hammer for every blow of the ax.”
It is generally agreed that “Austrian” blades, forged and hammered as described above (today with hand-guided hammers driven by compressed air), are superior to “American” style blades (actually no longer made in the United States), stamped in powerful presses. The latter are cheaper, do not take or hold as fine an edge, and are heavier and more subject to cracking and breakage. The former are expensive, but are lighter and can be honed to a sharper edge. They are the better choice for anyone anticipating sustained work with the scythe.
Though it is lighter and thinner, the Austrian blade gets its strength from being curved in three dimensions: its overall crescent shape, its “rocker’’ (lengthwise curve that keeps the tip off the ground), and its “belly” (curve across the width that keeps the edge above the ground).
The back of the blade is flanged—that is, made heavier and more rigid than its plane surface. On the right, the thicker spine of the blade ends in the sturdy tang, with a knob on the end that locks into a hole in the end of the snath. Note that the tang may be angled in three separate dimensions, each having an effect on blade angle and hence on ease and efficiency of use.
And for you lefties reading this: Do note that the tang is on the right—meaning that the scythe will be swung to the left, powered by the right arm. There is no inherent reason a left-handed scythe should not be made—but traditionally, they never were. When mowing large fields, mowers typically worked in teams, all of whom had to swing in the same direction for greatest efficiency and safety. (Today, though, there are a few left-hand blades available. See sidebar.)
Note that shorter, heavier “bush” or “brush” blades are available, which can cut saplings and brambles up to half an inch in diameter.
The ring is a semi-cylindrical piece of steel with two set screws. When the screws are tightened, they clamp the tang securely into place on the end of the snath. The angle of the blade to the snath is approximately a right angle, though there is sufficient room to move the tang under the ring to allow some adjustment of this angle before the screws are tightened.
The long handle or snath is the part that allows the scythe to be used in broad sweeps from a standing position, its great advantage over the sickle. Snaths are made of wood or tubular metal (either aluminum or light steel), and may be either straight or curved. Ambitious scythe aficionados make their own snaths, from selected saplings or branches.
The grips or nibs are additional pieces (almost always of wood) attached to the snath for a more ergonomic grasp. The earliest scythes lacked nibs—the mower simply grasped the snath and swung the blade in an arc. Later a nib was added for the left hand, midway down the snath. There are some areas where one-nib scythes are the norm, and some mowers choose them by preference. Most modern scythes, however, feature a grip for each hand. Some snath designs allow for adjustment of the lower nib up or down (and sometimes the upper nib as well), and some nibs can be rotated on the shaft, all of which allow for a greater range of adjustment to the mower’s own body dimensions and preferences.
There are a number of sources of Austrian scythes in North America. (See sidebar.) Keep in mind, however, that there may be no other hand tool requiring so precise a “fit” with the user’s body, intended use, terrain, and work style. The more you assume a scythe is a “one size fits all” tool, the more likely you are to buy an expensive, high-quality tool that will not give high-quality results for you in the hayfield.
In earlier times, the village blacksmith would have forged the blade with reference to the individual mower standing before him—who might well have then custom-made his own snath. “Fit” becomes problematic in the age of wholesaling and mass manufacture. Seek out a supplier that offers a number of blade and snath models, and takes seriously the challenge of custom fitting you and your new scythe—especially with regard to blade length and tang angle, snath length and style, and your body dimensions. Getting the “fit” right—both before and after purchase—is likely to be challenging to the novice. But experienced users insist that even small variations in dimensions and angles in relation to your own body have an outsized effect on ease of mowing.
When you order your scythe, remember to buy as well the essential accessories: peening hammer, either anvil or peening jig, and one or more whetstones. (See below.) Many users will want as well a whetstone holder (attaches to the mower’s belt), a blade cover (for protection of the edge and for safety), and a good hay rake.
It is of course impossible to describe something so complex and dynamic as proper scything motion in words. I strongly encourage seeing some of the videos of proper mowing technique available online. (See sidebar.)
To generalize: The stance when mowing is upright, not hunched over. The blade remains parallel to the ground in all parts of the swing—and during the return to the beginning position. On unobstructed ground, the “belly” of the blade—its convex bottom side—actually rides on the tips of the cut-off stems, saving the energy expenditure of lifting the blade at any part of the swing. Lifting the tip at the end of the swing is perhaps the most common error, resulting not only in an uneven cut—longer standing stems on the left side of the swath (the area cut by a single swing)—but again in greater energy expenditure as the blade is lifted, then lowered. (Another place where the novice is likely to lift the scythe is at the end of the swing back to the right, in preparation for the next forward swing.)
On ground with obstructions such as rocks or orchard trees, mowing technique will have to be altered. It is amazing, however, how delicate can be the control of both tip and edge around such obstacles.
When you watch videos of experienced mowers, it is astounding how relaxed their upright stance is, and how easily the grass is falling. Other mowers take a more aggressive stance, leaning out for a wider swath. In these cases, however, the back is still not hunched—it remains straight, with the rear “planted” leg extended in line with the spine.
The action is in the waist and hips, not in a powered drive from the arms. The waist swivels like a well-oiled ball-and-socket joint, with the arms and hands active just to maintain the proper angle of the blade and its alignment to the ground. Think of pivoting at the waist to say hello to a friend, not of making a chopping swing with a sling blade or machete.
The blade meets the grass stems in a forward, slicing motion—not a hacking motion in which the blade attacks the stems edge-on—reducing enormously the energy needed to make the cut. This aspect of scything cannot be overemphasized: Hacking at the grass puts unnecessary strain not only on the mower, but on the delicately engineered scythe. Excessive force can split the end of the snath or, worst case, break the blade.
In addition to cutting the grass, the well handled blade tends to gather it is it falls, sweeping it into a tidy windrow on the left side of the swath, ready for gathering.
The mowing is rhythmic: Walking along the edge between the cut and the uncut grass, take a step—swing the blade in its cutting arc—make the return swing while stepping forward the width of the swath—and make the next cutting swing. The breathing becomes synchronized with the mowing, with the exhalation on the cutting swing, and the inhalation on the return.
Mowing with a scythe is like no cutting work you’ve ever done with a powered machine. The absence of the machine’s roar is the first thing one notices: It is replaced by the pleasant swish/crunch of the blade in the grass—and the songs of birds or perhaps the lowing of cows between strokes.
Those who have practiced tai chi will recognize the same release of coiling energies in the body. The mower enters what some describe as “mower’s trance,” and others as “heightened awareness”—in either case, the experience of relaxation in the midst of exertion of the body, and getting past the mind’s habitual chatter, entering a state where the mowing and the mower are one. Others use the image of dance, and indeed perhaps the best instruction for effective mowing technique is Die Sense muss tansen (“The scythe must dance”).
The description above of the effortlessness of mowing with a quality, custom-fitted scythe is appealing, but achieving that effortlessness requires careful attention to a key requirement: The blade must be honed to a keen edge at all times. Maintaining sharpness is a two step process. All experienced mowers agree: Taking the time to frequently peen and hone for the sharpest of edges pays big dividends in the hayfield.
The village blacksmith—or today, the air hammer—has hammered the blade out to an edge that combines the best balance of durability and sharpness. But with use, that fine edge is blunted by the silica-rich stems of grasses. Cutting the grass requires more force, putting unnecessary strain on both tool and user.
The first step in restoring that keen edge is to do exactly what the manufacturer did initially—use hammer and anvil to draw out (thin) the metal of the blade along its edge. Knowing that he must become a bit of a blacksmith himself to renew his blade’s edge can be a bit intimidating, but with care and practice the mower will find that the blended metal is quite malleable, and cold-working to a thinner edge is not difficult. As with any skill, focus, practice, and patience are required to approach perfection. (Some beginners may prefer to peen with a peening jig, a substitute for the anvil which guides the placement of the blade edge and the striking of the hammer.)
There are peening methods that manage the work of peening with the blade still attached to the snath. Most experienced users prefer to take the blade off the snath (the work of a moment only), allowing for easier and more precise alignment of edge, anvil, and hammer blow.
Recommendations for peening intervals vary, from three to twelve hours of mowing. Perhaps the best guide is the traditional practice of peening every “day’s worth of mowing” (which would have been every four to six hours, given the traditional preference to mow in the early morning hours only if possible). In any case, efficient mowing requires that this essential maintenance not be neglected.
Once the metal of the blade has been thinned by peening, the final edge is created by honing with a whetstone, either cut from natural stone or manufactured from composite grit. (Some experienced users prefer to use one stone following preening, and one with a finer grit during mowing.)
Once mowing begins with the freshly peened and honed blade, the whetstone is used frequently in the field to “sweeten” the edge. Again, recommendations vary as to how often to hone while mowing. David Tresemer (The Scythe Book) recommends every fifteen minutes or so (or “as often as I can break the trance of mowing”); while Peter Vido (of ScytheConnection.com) prefers a honing interval of just five minutes. But all experienced mowers agree that frequent honing is the key to ease of mowing.
Do not leave your scythe exposed to the weather—store it out of the way in a dry space. Use an emery cloth or sanding block to prevent build-up of rust on the blade. If the snath is wood, occasionally rub it down with a 50/50 mix of linseed oil and turpentine.