Scythe: Intro Essay

An introductory article by Elliot Fishbein that appeared in Mother Earth News Feb./Mar. 2002.

The scythe is simply the most efficient and graceful tool for mowing. It cuts heavy weeds and tall grass with ease, and with practice can be precise enough to cut and trim your lawn. It will silently out-cut your string trimmer and venture where a push or gas lawn mower becomes useless. The scythe does all this with little physical effort and no noise or pollution.

Fastolf Mater's Book of Hours (c. 1250)

There are two styles of scythes, the European and the American. The European scythe blade is made light, thin and strong without excess material. Its strength comes from the curves and tension of the skin-like structure. This design has been refined through the centuries to be efficient and minimal. The blade is fitted to a light weight wooden handle called a snath. The grips are comfortably positioned permitting an upright, stress-free stance, and the blade is adjusted to skim parallel to the ground. For maximum performance and enjoyment the snath should be customized to fit your body proportions .

To mow, the blade is drawn from right to left in an arc. Only the leading third of the blade enters the uncut grass. This shearing action slices the grass like scissors. Falling grass caught by the blade and snath is deposited in a tidy pile at the end of each stroke. A stroke takes about as much effort as paddling a canoe and has a rhythmical dance-like quality. The mower can set a pace that is sustainable and not exhausting. The European blade has a curved back that allows it to ride in close contact with the ground. The blade remains in contact with the ground in both the cutting and return stroke. There is no reason to lift it.

The stroke does not require great physical strength and does not rely on blade speed. It is not necessary to quickly rip the scythe through the grass. The stroke is deliberate and accurate. Shifting your weight from side to side and the twisting of your torso powers the blade. Occasionally you stop to hone the blade and look behind to admire the precision of the windrow that's formed. In a good stand of grass even a child can cut a 7' wide swath with each stroke. For full details on how to use and maintain a scythe, see the workshop pages of

Sharpening a European scythe is a combination of hammering (called peening) and honing with a whetstone. The cutting edge is occasionally drawn out thin by using a hammer and a small anvil. In the field the blade is frequently and quickly honed with a water-soaked stone to maintain the sharp edge.

The American scythe is the type commonly found in tool sheds, antique shops, and hardware stores. This scythe is harder to use and less efficient than the European style. This American pattern is mostly responsible for the scythe's reputation as a backbreaking, hard to use tool.

The European scythe is an elegant combination of simplicity and competence. The rewards of using the tool are worth the effort in learning.

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