RogerBW's Blog

Don't Fear The Reaper 10 August 2014

Yesterday I did a quick course in the basic use of the Austrian scythe. These are my notes and recollections. Do not mistake them for an actual scything course! Images follow: cc-by-sa on everything.

The course was taught by Clive Leeke, who explained that the traditional (heavy) English scythe had mostly in fact been used by itinerant Irish farm workers, and had pretty much fallen out of use in the 1890s with the advent of the horse-drawn mower. The Austrian scythe saw some popularity in this country with the self-sufficiency movement in the 1970s, but really came into its own more recently as the favoured tool of anti-GM crop protesters and has taken off from there. The Eastern European style is still seen as far west as Poland, and is rather simpler than the Austrian, but also less adjustable.

The wooden bit is the snath (probably derived from a German or Anglo-Saxon word for "branch", which it originally was). The end of the tang of the blade slips into a hole in this, and the tang is held to the snath with a retaining bracket and two Allen-keyed screws. (Care is needed with removing, as you can easily find you push your fingers into the blade.)

Blades come in various thicknesses (lawn, standard/grass, ditch, brush); a thinner blade is also flatter and straighter. A heavy blade can get through thicker vegetation, but is more likely to bend rather than cut the thinner stuff. The blade is curved in three dimensions, and (if it's any good at all) is hand-made, usually in Austria. Big competition blades go up to 160cm, but we were using 60cm blades and it was recommended that we buy no more than 75cm.

A Size 2 snath is for people 4'6" up to about 5'6"; size 3 goes up to about 6'4". When setting up the snath, put the blade end on the ground, and set the first handle so that it's at or slightly above the height of the greater trochanter (the exposed "crest" of the femur). Once that's done, the second handle should be slightly more than a cubit from the first (i.e. you should just barely not be able to touch it when resting your elbow on the first handle). You can set this further away for a larger arc (but less power).

The blade should be attached loosely, then set at the preferred angle. One can go into an awful lot of detail about this, but the easiest version is to have it more or less centred within its retaining bracket. A more "open" blade (more obtuse angle to snath) gives you a wider but weaker cutting area, while a more "closed" one gives you a narrower but stronger one. Particularly if the blade is fully open, the snath can snap if the blade's stopped suddenly, for example by an anthill. The Allen-keyed nut can work loose over time, so watch out for that.

Although the blurb for the course had recommended steel-toed boots, and I was wearing them, most scythers apparently prefer lighter-weight footwear such as sandals, or go completely barefoot, to be more aware of the ground conditions. Being fair, the blade didn't come anywhere near my feet during the day.

When one's using the scythe, one doesn't hover it over the grass: one rests it on the ground, even with a slight downward pressure. The contact point along the curved blade should be roughly a quarter to a third of the way along its length for a simple lawn, but this varies a lot, and one has to adjust it to the lie of the grass. (Vertical grass is best; if it's lying down, it should be pointing away from one.) The blade should be making contact with the ground at the far (blunt) edge, with the cutting edge tilted slightly upwards towards one; this way it can get under flattened grass. (Too high and it skates over grass clumps; too low and you dig into the ground.)

Grass is best cut when wet: immediately after rain, for example, or within a couple of hours of dawn when it still retains water from the night.

One has to re-sharpen an Austrian scythe blade quite often. This is done with the blade edge down, rib pointing away from one, from the far side: the wet stone fits to rib and edge to give the right angle. One strokes diagonally to the right and a little downwards, pulling quite hard, aiming to cover the whole blade in about five strokes. Four or so of these sequences should be enough. One then runs the stone horizontally along the lower face of the edge (the side towards one) to flatten any burrs that have appeared. (American-style blades don't need as much sharpening, but they're vastly heavier.)

Through the course of the stroke the load should be even between left and right arms (and ditto the legs). The left arm should be straight at the end of the stroke, keeping the blade pressed to the ground. In light grass, a 180° stroke is the ideal, but in thicker vegetation, one can drop this to 90° or so. As in most things, keep the back straight and don't stoop, but bend the knees as needed. If one's getting cunning about it, one uses the whole of one's leg and torso strength, and exhales on the stroke, very much like a slow version of a proper punch in any of the martial arts. (Apparently there's an Austrian course in Tai Chi plus scything.)

The blade ends up meeting the grass at a fairly shallow angle; one might only cover a few inches front-to-back per stroke, even though the blade's moving much further. This helps it to slice through vegetation rather than knock it down as it would if it came at the stalks straight-on.

The cut grass ("risings") should be raked and removed rather than left in the meadow, apparently; it's good for spreading under fruit trees or as animal fodder, but if left behind it can produce too much soil nutrition and encourage weeds. If one's shifting the cut grass about, the scythe works surprisingly well for gathering and rolling a bundle of loose vegetation.

The cleared area is the swath; the small pile of cut grass is the windrow (because if left it will be dried to hay by the wind).

While one can sharpen a blade more or less indefinitely, it's best if it's peened once in a while (Clive recommended once per two acres or so, so that'll be once in a hundred or more cuttings of my meadow at home.) Apparently "Welsh Phil" is the master of this art: there's competitive peening even more than there is competitive scything. And it's much louder. One can get fancy with a table anvil, but a basic peening jig with a couple of dollies (movable parts with the bottom carefully shaped) is perfectly adequate. The blade must be flat to the jig, and hammering should be as consistent as possible; the metal will be cold-flowed into the gaps. (And then file both sides to get rid of the inevitable burrs.)

If mowing on a slope, move across the slope keeping the downhill side on your left (and probably put the handle a bit closer to the blade than usual).

When ending the session, scrub the blade with cut grass, and particularly make sure the Allen screw heads haven't got clogged up. Over winter, grease or WD40 the blade.

Because of the vast popularity of the things (Simon at The Scythe Shop has seen his sales triple this year), Clive wasn't able to sell us scythes; he's out of stock. But I hope to have one soon.

Inspecting the Austrian scythe. (Michael and Phil, the owners of the Two Cocks Brewery, were among those attending the course. Most of the people there had an acre or two of woodland or meadow which they wanted to keep up without power tools.)

Austrian scythes.

The Competition. It does get more area mown in a day, but it's louder, harder work to operate, vastly more expensive, and much less fun.

The haymakers.

Ten of us novices cleared all this, and probably twice as much again, in just an hour's work.

I was a little tired and a little stiff, but I definitely want a scythe of my own now.

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 10:28am on 10 August 2014

    Peening the blade will also harden the surface slightly.

    My dentist polished all my amalgam fillings a few years ago. He knew I'm a technical chap so asked if I knew why he was doing it, he seemed genuinely surprised that I knew it hardened the surface. It also removed the slight stuck up edges next to tooth enamel from the gradual flow and creep of the amalgam, that one I didn't know. He retired a few years ago, the new chap does white fillings and freely admits as fairly recently trained he doesn't know much about amalgam fillings and doesn't do them.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:32am on 10 August 2014

    Yes, the blades will come pre-hardened when new, but that will get worn away with sharpening. I assume that this hardening effect is why peening extends the life of the blade; otherwise one's just sharpening through the softer material.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:19pm on 10 August 2014

    Hardened material holds an edge longer also. So if you're just sharpening the soft inner material, you will find you will need to re-sharpen more often. Which accelerates the wear even further.

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