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 Lehman’s. 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.
Hi Ashley, I appreciated this article on scythes, and I have been doing some research into scythes, trying to understand how they work, what to look for… I only have an untamed acre+ but would love to learn to scythe; I have no interest in getting on a riding mower and my little battery-powered push mower can’t tackle some areas very well. Looking into costs, it seems the custom-made scythes being sold these days are $200+ with all the accessories etc. I was debating taking my chances on an old scythe via resale. (I rummaged through my garage and stable to see if I might stumble upon one but only found an antique rusty hand sickle). I came across one scythe recently for sale that was manufactured in Indiana a long time ago so I assume it is American style, with a curved wood snath, adjustable handles, and it has a 24″ “hay” blade; it stands 59″ tall. I’m 5’2″. Do you know if the American blades can be sharpened with a whetstone made for kitchen knives? Do you think it is worth investing a couple hundred in a scythe made to order with all the accessories (jig, whetstone, etc) or taking a risk on trying to work with a vintage (American) scythe for about $65?
I found a similar vintage curved handle scythe at a local thrift store for $24 recently and I haven’t yet tried to restore it, so I can’t say from experience what it takes to bring one back to good condition. I would think a stone for kitchen knives would work well on an American blade, though depending on how dull/abused it is you might need to start with something coarser.
The height thing might be an issue since you’re 5’2” most scythes are made for someone taller. Reading reviews online for the scythes in a standard size, I see a number of people in the just over 5-foot range saying that it’s definitely not built for them, but they make it work. Since they have that one at the store, I’d try to hold it and see if it’s comfortable. If you can’t get the blade as sharp as you need, buying just a new blade is about $45. If it were me, I’d try it out and it it was comfortable, I’d get the antique one if it’s in good condition (especially the handle), try to sharpen the blade and if you cant, attach a new blade.
Welcome to the world of scything. There is a ton of information out there on both American/English and European/Austrian style scythes. There are even some articles on Scottish and eastern European scythes. Most of the info you will find is on the European/Austrian style as that seems to be the more popular at the moment. Just don’t believe all the hype that they are “better”. When properly sharpened and adjusted either style will work well. (I have and use both.) More on this later.
Before you pick up the used scythe, check both the blade and snath for cracks. Make sure the nibs (the handles on the snath of American scythes) work properly. They have reverse threads, so be aware of that. They should be able to be loosened, moved and tightened. If not, and you are handy with tools you may be able to get them to work. The beauty of American scythes is that the nibs can be adjusted to almost any position. They will work fine for your height. You just may have a bit more of the snath to the left then a taller person.
For American/English style scythes, take a look at http://www.baryonyxknife.com/scac.html. Benjamin (the man behind Baryonyx Knife) has several videos on utube under the user “FortyTwoBlades”. Here is a good starting point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=6&v=DjKjciIIDbs. His website is a good starting point for information on American style scything.
He does a much better job at explaining how to sharpen an American style blade then I can here. In short however, a used blade is more then likely VERY dull. So using a simple stone meant for maintaining kitchen knives will take a very long time, and more then likely ruin or wear out the stone. You are better off getting a good file from the hardware store to get the blade close to where you need it to be. Don’t use a bench grinder please. It will easily ruin the temper of the blade. While you are at the hardware store, pick up a wet stone. It won’t be as efficient as a nice scythe stone i the field, but you will want to touch up your blade from time to time while cutting. Keep the blade sharp and honed and you will enjoy the experience much more.
Be aware that American style scythes are usually not adjusted properly. Adjusting these blades properly entails heating and bending the tang slightly. This adjusts the angle so you don’t have to bend over as much. You can use it as is, it’s just a bit nicer with the tang adjusted. See the above website for more information. In this, your height may actually be an advantage as you may not need to have the tang adjusted at all.
Ashley: Your bio says you are in rural Vermont. I hope you are enjoying the winter we are currently having! 🙂 I live/work in the Addison/Chittenden county area. I recommend looking up the Addison County Fair and Field days. (August) They have a hand mowing competition each year where even if you don’t compete, you can talk scything with other enthusiasts. There is a smaller hand mowing event as part of the North Haverhill fair as well if you are closer to New Hampshire.
I appreciate these replies/info/advice! I did end up purchasing the antique scythe and the blade on it seems to be a brush blade (it’s about 23-24″ on the blade length), quite heavy. Is fantastic for cutting down thick weeds and such, but despite sharpening with a whetstone (cut my finger so it’s pretty sharp), it won’t catch grass unless the grass is quite tall and thick. I am shopping out a grass blade now, and am really excited about learning more as I go! I did look at the FortyTwoBlades video and reading other sources for advice on adjusting the nibs for my height, which was really helpful, and watching the general technique.
p.s. even though I ticked the box to get notification of responses, I did not get them a few months back, but happened upon this blog post again this afternoon and saw you wrote back — thanks again!
I couldn’t get mine to cut when I first started too. It just laid the grass down. There’s a trick to holding it at just the right angle and sweeping just right. I’m sorry I can’t describe it better than that, but if your blade is sharp as yours seems to be then keep at it. At some point you’ll accidentally adjust to the right stroke, everything will come together and the grass will cut cleanly. It’s pretty magical when it happens the first time. Then you get it and it’s easy to re-create. Now it’s all muscle memory and I rarely slip up and fail to cut on the first stroke.
Fun to read–thank you!
Thanks for the article – quite informative for a beginner such as myself.
One possible correction, though (and I could be mistaken), but it seems to me that the American style scythe has a tapered tang that only fits American style snaths, while the European scythe tang is more rectangular. I recently bought a used snath (Seymour #8) with two scythes, and the tangs are different, and one of them is incompatible with the snath. I’m now tempted to buy a European style snath to match the other scythe, but will probably hold off until I get a bit more experience and learn a little of what works for my situation.
You’re welcome. So glad you enjoyed the post.
No. European scythe are NOT superior to an America style. In the western U.S. a European scythe is totally useless to mow bunchgrass species. The European blade and snath is too weak to mow anything heavier than bluegrass and other light grasses. Broke multiple snath handles and twisted a half dozen blades. Stamped blades are stronger and easier to maintain than a European blade; daily and over the life of the blade.