No one enjoys the sound of a noisy lawnmower. I hated it, along with the vibration shaking my hands, and the smell of gasoline and engine fumes filling the yard. When I started researching other options for keeping the yard under control, I kept coming across references to scythes.
Time and time again I’d start shopping, only to get confused by the terminology. How on earth do you pick out a scythe if you’ve never even seen one in person? How do I know if it’s adjusted for my height? What blade do I need? Am I strong enough to use it?
When I finally took the plunge and ordered one, I found it remarkably simple to use. I could clear a 50×50 foot section of the yard full of thistle and buckthorn saplings in as little as 20 minutes. This thing works better than my lawnmower ever did, and it’s a brush hog too!
Now that I’m a scythe convert, I hope to make it easier for you to put down the lawnmower and pick up a much easier option. Why on earth we ever put down this wonderful historical tool for noisy lawnmowers boggles my mind!
Types of Snaths (Sythe Handles)
The first thing you need is a snath or the handle of a scythe. There are two main options, a European Style Snath and an American Style Snath. Both come in different lengths to accommodate users of different heights, and the American Style has movable handles for fine-tuned adjustments.
American Style Snath
The American Style Snath is made out of a piece of ash wood that has been steam curved. There are two adjustable handles that attach around the curve of the snath. The user holds this snath right up against the body, and the curve helps the handle move fluidly as the user twists at the hips.
This is the style I’d always seen in pictures or hanging on barn walls, perhaps because I live in the US.
It’s difficult to manufacture steam-bent wood, thus these handles tend to be a bit expensive, but they’re meant to last a lifetime. I purchased mine on here for about $100.
There is also a more modern aluminum curved American Style snath. It’s lighter weight, but that light weight comes with some downsides. It’s not recommended for use on saplings or brush, and you cant use it near electric lines or cables, obviously. It is quite a bit cheaper, and if you’re just mowing the lawn it might be a good option. They start at around $60.
A standard American Style Snath is made to accommodate someone between 5’8” and 5’11”. I’ve read other users note that the handles should be adjustable to accommodate anywhere between 5’2 and 6’2”. I’m 5’8” and it fits me well enough, but I feel like it was designed for someone ever so slightly taller.
The curved design is beautiful and ergonomic, but it comes at a cost in weight. The handle has to be thick to keep a good bend in the wood, and small diameter (lighter) wood won’t hold the curve. Larger framed scythe users may not mind this extra few pounds, but it’ll wear on you after a long day.
I found another snath at a thrift store, and I’m excited about restoring it along with the antique blades. Here are both curved snaths laid out on my driveway.
European Style Snath
The European style snath is a bit harder to find in the US. It’s a straight handled piece of wood with a long lower handle and shorter upper handle. The differences in handle lengths make it so that the blade aligns properly to the ground even with a straight handle.
The author of the scything handbook swears by this style, and I hope to acquire one soon so I can try it out. The only place I’ve seen these sold is at Lehmans. They have a 59” handle for users under 5’10” and a longer 66” handle for anyone over 5’10”.
European style snaths are much lighter than the American style, and if you intend to clear land or harvest your own grain, invest in a European style snath. I start to feel the weight of my American style snath after about 45 minutes, and at that point, I have to put it down or my form (and back) begin to suffer.
Regardless of the type of snath, the blades all attach the same way. They have a short tang that inserts into a hole on a metal plate at the end of the scythe. This makes blades interchangeable between different scythe handles, and it also means that any style blade can be used with any style snath.
Types of Sythe Blades
Similar to snaths, scythe blades come in two main types: American and European. These days, just about every blade is made in the European style and for good reason.
American Scythe Blades
The American types were made out of stamped metal that was cheaper and easier to manufacture in a developing world. The American blades were heavy and difficult to sharpen. It takes a lot of time on a grinding wheel to sharpen an American stamped blade, so much so that Robert Frost actually wrote about his experiences in his youth helping spin grinding wheels for scythes.
The only reason American style blades were made was the high cost of a handmade hammered European style blade. Now that modern air hammers are used in manufacturing scythe blades, the American style is no longer produced, but you can still find them in antique shops.
European Scythe Blades
Often called Austrian scythe blades because the very best are made in Austria, European style blades are hand hammered in a 26 stage process. There is one historical account from 1769 in the book Look to the Mountain that describes a farmer trying to buy a scythe blade. The price was set at 21 cords of rock maple, cut, split, delivered and stacked. The blacksmith promised that there would be at least one strike of the hammer on the scythe blade for every strike of the axe cutting that much wood.
European blades are sharpened with a very fine stone in the field and periodically brought in for “peening” which is a specific hammering process that draws out the edge and reshapes the blade. The metal is a mix of iron and steel so that the blade is hard enough to maintain a good edge but soft enough not to shatter if and when it contacts a stone or stump.
Scythe Blade Lengths and Uses
Beyond the distinction between American and European blades, there are also various blade lengths designed for different uses. A standard grass scythe blade is often about 30”, but there are larger lengths available (or slightly shorter as well). They’re all great for quickly mowing down large expanses of grass.
A weed scythe blade is a good bit shorter, some as short as 25” long, and is better for thicker weedy perennials and cuts right through goldenrod and very small saplings. The weed blade is what I use most commonly around here because I’m often cleaning up the forgotten weedy edges of our land.
There’s also a very short ditch blade that’s used in tight quarters. They come as short as 16” or as long as 23” depending on the shape, design, and use.
How to Sharpen a Scythe
A scythe should be sharpened in the field about every 15 minutes. It only takes a moment to pull a fine stone out of a hip holster and give the blade a few quick swipes. Since the inferior and difficult to sharpen American blades aren’t really made anymore, what’s commonly sold as a “Scythe Stone” at hardware stores is much too abrasive for practical use. Try using it on a finely hammered scythe blade and you’ll gouge the metal. Trust me, I did it. A few swipes and I knew something was very wrong.
Use a stone with very fine grit, like this one. It’ll help keep the blade performing well in the field between peening.
Peening is a process of cold hammering a blade to draw out the metal and thin the edge. Once a blade is peened, it’s then sharpened with a fine stone to finish the edge. Since the metal needs to be a bit soft to prevent shattering, it has to be peened periodically to draw the metal back out and reshape the edge.
Historically, this was done freehand by eye. The blade would be put into a gig to hold it, and then the user would hammer three strikes moving toward the edge. Imagine striking a few millimeters from the sharp edge, then slightly closer, then all the way at the edge. The idea is you’re moving the metal down ever so slightly, drawing it from the thicker midsection towards a thin but strong edge.
Peening by eye takes a good bit of practice and skill, and if you’re not careful the blade edge will be drawn out unevenly. Over time it’ll begin to look like a wave.
There’s now a peening jig for scythes that makes the whole process much easier and allows novices to put a smooth razor sharp edge on a scythe. The jig guides the hammer stroke and places it precisely where it needs to be. If you’re going to be using a scythe, a peening jig is well worth the small investment.