The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

How to choose a scythe

Austrian scythe"Scythes are cool!" our readers admonish us every time we talk about our weedeater.  I used to be in love with the idea of scything once upon a time...and then I was given a scythe.

At the time, I didn't know much about the tool, so I wasn't wise enough to turn down the bulky American scythe and to save my pennies for a quality Austrian scythe instead.  I also trusted my father when he told me that one size scythe fits all.  That may be true if you're a normal-sized man, but as a short woman, I spent all of my energy just trying to keep the scythe blade from digging into the earth.  I gave up on the tool in disgust.

But then I stumbled across Harvey Ussery's scything page, and was tempted once more.  Ussery explained that Austrian scythes cut with blades curved in three dimensions, so they glide over the surface of the ground.  In contrast to the traditional American scythe blade --- which is stamped out by a drop-forge press and has to be heavy to keep from breaking --- Austrian blades are hand-forged by a blacksmith, so they are sharp, light, and dent rather than shatter if you hit a rock.  In fact, The Scythe Book explains that "over half the [Austrian scythe] blades which begin the twenty-six stages of manufacture are rejected along the way", which is why the blades are of such high quality (and cost so much).

Then there's the handle, known as a "snath" in scything circles.  Austrian snaths are typically very light, and both types of snath can be fitted to your unique body.  If you're an absolutely raw beginner like me, you can order a scythe from The Scythe Supply that's suited exactly to your proportions since you give them your height, your handedness, the number of inches from ground to hip, and your cubit (the distance from your elbow to your out-stretched middle finger).  The company will be sure the handles go in the right places so you're not straining anything as you mow.

Grass scythe bladeWhile you're making your decision, you'll also need to choose a kind and length of blade.  Your main choices are between bush/brush blades, which are short and thick so they won't break when you whack at young saplings, and grass blades, which are lighter and won't wear you out when you're cutting softer plants.  (A ditch blade is a bit of a hybrid, halfway between the graceful grass blade and the hefty bush blade.)  Grass blades can be long or short, with longer blades being handy for harvesting vast fields of wheat and shorter blades being more useful when mowing small lawns with lots of edges.  I think the raw beginner could do worse than picking a middle of the road grass blade --- I chose the 24 inch grass blade pictured here.

With all of that in mind, I begged Mark to let me splurge on a hunk of wood and metal, and he did.  I'm here to tell you that the difference between an American scythe that doesn't fit an an Austrian scythe that does fit is like night and day.  But this post is already too long, so you'll have to wait to hear more about what scything feels like and how to maintain a quality scythe blade in later posts.  If you want to learn more now, I highly recommend this video my mom tracked down, which somehow manages to be inspiring and hilarious all in a two minute time frame.

Our chicken waterer makes care of your flock so easy, you can go out of town for the weekend...or pick up scything in your spare time!

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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In the early '70's I had a secluded mountain home on 77 acres mostly wooded but with some open places with an abundance of wild oats caused by seeding valleys nearby for cattle. I had horses and a couple of feeders so I needed a way to cut the oats and use it for feed. I bought an American scythe. In my ignorance I was lucky and the scythe with one minor adjustment fit me perfectly. What a joy it was to use. To me cutting the oats was the greatest dance I have ever experienced. The horses would come to the fence when they saw me with the scythe. I threshed and winnowed the oats for my breakfast and I have been disappointed with store bought oats since.

Recently I decided I needed another scythe and the search was on. This time I actually studied the scythe so I could buy one with confidence and competence. After searching for a while it came to me that on this half acre I really needed one to work in close quarters and around plants I really did not want to cut which meant that a regular scythe blade was to long. I finally decided on a long handled grass hook. When I was a kid we called these a "sickle". It has an Austrian blade of 12.5 inches and an American snath, I believe, of 44 inches. It works perfect. I have only cut myself twice, Once in the neck and once in the top of the head (don't ask), but since I didn't bleed to death I eventually learned to treat it with respect.

In the more open areas I swing it like a scythe and even with a short blade it will cut a lot of grass and weeds. The blade is magnificent.

Comment by Oldfool Sat May 12 10:11:20 2012

Almost nobody does hand-forging any more these days, except for demonstration purposes. Most use a power hammer, because shaping steel is hard. The difference between open forging and stamping is mostly wether one uses an open die or an impression die, and there is nothing inherently low-quality about the latter.

On the contrary. Things like crankshafts and connecting rods for combustion enginges are usually stamped (die forged) because it is cheaper for large runs and because die forged parts have a significantly higher strength to weight ratio than cast or machined parts.

I suspect that even the "Fux" blades (made by schröckenfux) start out as stampings, because of the stamped markings on the tang. It it then probably finished in the end by cold hammering to take advantage of work hardening.

Besides, the quality has more to do with using modern alloys than by the mythical qualities of hand-forging. Before the invention of the Bessemer process, steelmaking was not a continuous high-quality process, to put it mildly! Forging was a way to literally hammer out the impurities.

And about the manufacturing process, if you have to reject half of your products in the course of processing, you're not doing a very good job! The end products might be high-quality, but the process quality sucks. Anyone who is in manufacturing could tell you that a 50% reject rate is not something to be proud of, but rather a reason for concern.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sat May 12 10:47:25 2012

Oldfool --- My mom loves her hand sickle too. I may eventually try one --- it would probably make more sense for certain of my applications (like cutting back comfrey to take advantage of its dynamic accumulation). Try not to cut yourself on the neck and head!!!

Roland --- I think there's a big difference between a crankshaft and a scythe blade, though. The latter needs to be able to be kept extremely sharp, and at the same time merely dent when hit with something hard. That's why there's such a complex method of sharpening them, which I'll go into in a later post. Whatever the technical reason, I could definitely tell a huge difference between the high quality blade and the low quality blade.

Comment by anna Sat May 12 11:34:59 2012

Keeping an edge well and denting instead of breaking is not the contradiction that you seem to imply. It is a question of material, processing and geometry.

E.g. 5160 or 9260 spring steels are often used in creating modern knives and swords because they are good compromises between ductility and sharpness when properly (heat)treated. (Heat)treating is absolutely critical in determining the properties of a steel tool.

As for the influence of the sharpening method (like peening, which is essentially work hardening), see this hardness report on scythe blades. The reported hardness of the blades is about 45 Rockwell C, with not much of an increase over the width of the blade. The aforementioned 5160 can be hardened up to 60 Rockwell C. See this FAQ.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sat May 12 14:27:05 2012
If you compare it to power tools like a weedeater or other manual tools like a reel mower?
Comment by Roland_Smith Sat May 12 16:16:05 2012
Roland --- Comparison to other tools is an excellent point, and I actually plan another post on that topic. I haven't really used the scythe long enough to know about longevity, but I've got some thoughts on uses, which I'll regale you with next week sometime. :-)
Comment by anna Sat May 12 17:16:03 2012

American scythes are great. Most of the disdain is initiated by the retailers who are pushing Euro scythes, which is ironic. Usually they can be obtained for next to nothing as well. The whole shabang for a Euro scythe and the peening jig etc from scythe supply is probably 250 dollars or so. I paid 10 for my American and can outmow a Euro. They are not used the same way, this is what reinforces the negative opinions of them. They are not swung in an arc like the euro is, attempting to cut like that will kick your butt. Once you get the technique down, the extra weight and bulk which the Euro pushers find so horrifying is actually very much advantageous. You can just pull the scythe through the swath and if its sharp it will cut with little effort. If you try that with a Euro you will feel like you are swinging a pie tin clamped to the end of a long stick.

Comment by Ricson Tue May 29 20:08:10 2012
Ricson --- I'm sure you're right that American scythes can be good in certain circumstances (or, presumably, there wouldn't be so many of them around). My experience with them was very bad, but maybe it would have been different if I'd been able to find one that fit my short stature.
Comment by anna Tue May 29 20:34:52 2012
You can adjust the nibs on the american scythe to fit height, posture etc. Distance from the first to second nib is also important and mostly preference. When you buy a Euro, they usually measure it to fit you, whereas most people don't work with American scythes enough to get it fitted right. The nibs are also tricky to keep tight, usually requiring some cut up garden hose or wood shims. Once they are tight they are fine though, and the adjustability is awfully nice. They also have to be REALLY SHARP, as sharp as can be. But that is true for Euro scythes as well.
Comment by Ricson Tue May 29 21:18:48 2012
Ricson --- Yep, I adjusted the nibs. They only adjust so far, and that wasn't far enough to make it fit a woman's height....
Comment by anna Wed May 30 06:11:14 2012

Hello, Anna! I strongly suggest reading this guide with regard to American scythes:

The American pattern isn't for everyone, but easily 99.99% of all complaints people have with it are the result of misinformation and improper tuning and use. I own both American and European scythes and find myself using the American for virtually all of my mowing. They are heavier tools, yes, but perhaps the document will be of help when it comes to understanding why. Many snaths are, indeed, overbuilt, but they can be shaved down slimmer and the nib bands hammered to a smaller diameter so they grip tight again. Your problem with adjustment was probably due to not heating and adjusting the tang--one of the most common and fundamental mistakes folks make with American scythes. The tang angle is still much more shallow than with European scythes and their run is still more upward, but a blade with an unpitched tang can make awful unpleasant work!

Comment by Benjamin P Bouchard Tue Jun 25 08:55:56 2013

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