Antique Tool Bleg

To our readers here at Chicago Boyz – I am looking for some information about a tool. For those not in the know, I am the proud owner of a working hobby farm. We now have five cows, three horses, six chickens, three cats, and a partridge in a pear tree.

We are raising our cows on pasture grass and hay only, no grain. I have been noticing a lot of thistles and burdoc out there in the pastures and I hate looking at it. The burrs also cause problems with my cattle as the breed we are raising is Scottish Highlands and they have a lot of hair.

I have been contemplating going back to the future and buying a scythe to cut this crap down. I cut a bunch of burdoc with a hand snips and it was drudgery – from what I have read a scythe would be a great tool for me. Our pasture is very uneven with a lot of rocks and dips – not good for a mower. Also, I like to exercise so the actual work doesn’t scare me at all, and my obliques could use the work. On top of this we have electrified fence that is constantly being grounded by high grass/weeds so I would use the scythe for that maintenance as well.

My question is to all of our readers – have you ever used a scythe and is there a particular design that I should look for? Any particular blade style that would suit this sort of work better? Most that I have seen have adjustable handles on the snath (the snath is the long handle part) so that should make most models fit my six foot frame. Is there a better wood for the snath? I plan on purchasing a wetstone to sharpen the blade while working, as well as a peening jig to peen the blade when needed. Any comments/advice are appreciated, especially from some of our readers who may have actually used a scythe back in the day for hay harvesting.

21 thoughts on “Antique Tool Bleg”

  1. OK, I’m *not* an expert, but… I do own and use my great grandfather’s scythe on a regular basis. I also used my grandfather’s until one of the horses stepped on the snath and broke it.

    So, call these observations rather than advice, and I hope you get responses I can learn from too.

    1. My grandfather’s worked better for me than my great-grandfather’s does. I’m not sure why but the better one had a shorter and wider blade by a bit and the snathe was shorter and heavier. This may be a set up issue, grandpa was 6″ taller than me, great grandpa was over a foot taller than me…

    2. I find it works better to take small “bites”. I cut into the grass or wheat or what have you only a few, maybe 4-6, inches at a time.

    3. I find a “shearing” action works best, no chopping, which is to say you want the point of the blade moving left to right in front of you, not starting in front and pulling back, nor starting off to your side and coming up to meet you.

    4. Mine doesn’t like heavy weeds, stuff like young trees coming up, or honeysuckle, is really beyond it, or maybe me.

    5. Use hips more than arms and don’t rush. I find a rocking action distantly akin to hitting a baseball in slow motion won’t wear me out as fast.

    6. Very light grass tends to kind of get out of the way, there may be some trick to that I haven’t learned yet.

    I hope that helps a little, and I hope someone who *really* knows answers you too, I’d sure like to hear all about it.

    I spent several hours earlier this summer, in the cooler weather of a few consecutive evenings, cutting wheat with my great-grandfather’s scythe, not much sound except a bob-white and the sound of the scythe, watching the swallows eating the bugs I was stirring up… I’m afraid it was down right Idyllic…. ;-)


    ps. I bet someone here: knows all about it, question is how to ask politely… John

  2. A few ideas based on personal experience, but no claim of formal training or expertise.

    Number one use tip – sharpen far more frequently than any other blade you have encountered.

    I believe the classic recommendation is to run a file over the blade every five minutes of use or so. Nobody I know follows this, as it slows down your work greatly. However, sharpening every time you use it would be a minimum for best results.

    You should purchase a high quality scythe – similar to other tools, there is a marked difference in quality once the initial price shock is overcome. The $80 job at your local big box store will never make your life as easy as a decent model from a specialty manufacturer – easily google-able.

    I would also highly recommend a good pair of tight fitting work gloves to cut down on abrasion. Loose fitting gloves will similarly cause discomfort.

    In terms of motion, the above comment is a decent summary of technique. The execution should be almost rhythmic, get into a groove! If you are expending to much energy, your are probably attempting to cut a bit more than your blade can handle.

  3. Thanks guys – I have seen what I think are good custom ones for $180 on the web and I agree with getting a good one right out of the gate. I was hoping to maybe get a cheap one on ebay or at a farm auction (there must literally be millions of them sitting in sheds and barns collecitng dust) but the adjustable handles would be essential.

    I have also seen different types of blades that would do better in grass vs. the heavier weeds like burdoc. The five minute rule on sharpening sounds about right – not sure when to peen the blade though.

  4. get a weed a whacker. The previous poster was right about sharpening – figure 10 minutes sharpening for every 5 or less minutes of cutting (depending on the thickness of what you’re cutting). It may sound fun or even cool – but it is very hard and tedious (sharpening) work.

  5. Unless you have a philosophical objection to motorized tools, I’d get and use a brush cutter. I have used scythes and used weed whackers (i.e., the ones that use nylon line) and settled on a brush cutter that can have its blade exchanged for a nylon line canister for light work.

    Using a scythe is very hard work, very time consuming, and they take more maintenance (i.e., sharpening).

  6. Wow. I’m actually in the process of replacing my weed whacker so I definitely see the value in them, but the assertion that *anything* let alone a scythe is higher maintenance challenges my imagination.

    I definitely use much less time and hassle sharpening my scythe (or doing all the maint on my chainsaw, mower, tractor, or truck) than on a weedeater.

    Having said that, if you go that route, the brush cutter blade is a great idea (watch out for rocks and fence posts) and they make a string holder that doesn’t hold a spool, you just cut the string and put it in through slots, that is *much* better than stopping every couple of minutes to disassemble the “self feeding” head and extract a few inches of line.

  7. The main issue I have with weed wackers is that they can’t get through the big stuff like burdoc. I should probably take a gander at more industrial models. But I only have a couple of acres of spread out weeds to hack down (the rest of our property is hay field), and as I mentioned I don’t mind the exercise so I will be sticking with the manual way – don’t get me wrong I certainly don’t have any problem with power tools. I think I will swing by the farm store tonight to see if they have one of those cheap weed cutters from Peteys link and give it a go. I don’t have a problem with trying out a $25 tool but at that price I have a bad feeling that the blade won’t hold an edge for long and may be a bear to put an edge back on.

  8. Robert Frost’s only recommendation is to leave one tuft of flowers in place:

    I went to turn the grass once after one
    Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

    The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
    Before I came to view the leveled scene.

    I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
    I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

    But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
    And I must be, as he had been,-alone,

    “As all must be,” I said within my heart,
    “Whether they work together or apart.”

    But as I said it, swift there passed me by
    On noiseless wing a bewildered butterfly,

    Seeking with memories grown dim over night
    Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

    And once I marked his flight go round and round,
    As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

    And then he flew as far as eye could see,
    And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

    I thought of questions that have no reply,
    And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

    But he turned first, and led my eye to look
    At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

    A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
    Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

    I left my place to know them by their name,
    Finding them butterfly-weed when I came.

    The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
    By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

    Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
    But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

    The butterfly and I had lit upon,
    Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

    That made me hear the wakening birds around,
    And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

    And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
    So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

    But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
    And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

    And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
    With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

    “Men work together,” I told him from the heart,
    “Whether they work together or apart.”

  9. I have dim memories of a scythe from the age of 14. Sharpening and a motion that slices the grass along the blade in a saw-like motion, not a cut across, are all the advice I can offer. My son, who is a forestry fire fighter, advises against the “industrial strength” weed whackers with wire, rather than vinyl cord for cutting. He says the metal cord weed whackers are a very common source of brush fires in the dry California hills.

  10. Michael – I had thought about the wire cutters as those are the only ones that will work on burdoc – vinyl has no chance. But frankly I am a bit scared of the wire. If I went power it would be with a brush hog or something similar.

  11. DR makes a very nice walk behind brush cutter that uses a heavy duty nylon rope. It also can be purchased with a round blade that has a chainsaw like edge and that can cut brush up to 3″ thick. You can get push or self-propelled. They have large wheels so uneven ground is not a problem. Expensive though.

  12. I second the recommendation for a Brush Cutter/Weed-Whip instead of a traditional scythe.

    Scythes have two disadvantages for the rocky conditions you describe: (1) The scythe works best in a long sweeping arc which can really only be accomplished on flat, even ground. (2) The edge of a scythe must be very sharp which by the laws of metallurgy mean the edge of the blade is brittle. The blades are very easy to knick on rocks or even brush or small trees. Once nicked, they never work as smoothly until the nick is ground down.

    Scythes are really specialized tools for efficiently cutting cultivated plants planted tightly together on flat, even, rockless fields. For any other task, they don’t work well.

    The weed whip is actually a very old tool that was used in parallel to scythes. They were designed specifically for cutting wild plants in irregular terrain.

    We used to use them to clear the Johnson grass out of irrigation ditches in the days before weedwackers. They work very well but it is tiring work. You have to develop a rhythm. I don’t look back on those days with much fondness.

    Cutting weeds in a ditch in 90F+ Texas summer made me appreciate motorized agriculture a whole lot.

  13. How about this for technique and theory?

    I’ve got to ask–if you need to sharpen every 5 minutes, just what is it you’re cutting through? A scythe is designed to cut grass and wheat. Anything else, you need another tool.

    And back problems are more probably due to a poor technique.

    Although you don’t mind the exercise your time is probably more valuable than anything else. Use a power tool.

  14. All I have to add is that if you do use a scythe, pay attention and don’t chit-chat while sharpening it. I speak from experience.

  15. Speaking from experience, you can get a hand-held string trimmer with a very tough grade of line to take on burdock and thistle. If the plants are too tough, you can get a saw-blade implement for the hand-held gas-powered weed wacker and take out brush — that is one version of a brush cutter. The next step up from that are the DR products for walk-behind string trimmers and brush cutters, and the next step from that is a light utility tractor with a “bush hog” brush-cutter blade type mower implement.

    A scythe? You are going to wear yourself out.

  16. Burdock and thistles have very large taproots though – they come back as often as you cut them. We used to get rid of them by waiting until the ground had frozen completely and then yanking them up by the roots (with thick leather gloves of course). But that does not help you much during the growing season and it is labor intensive.

  17. “Scythes are really specialized tools for efficiently cutting cultivated plants planted tightly together on flat, even, rockless fields. For any other task, they don’t work well.”

    That makes perfect sense. I’d never really thought about scythe mechanics except to note they did not work too well for me when scrub clearing. The tip would catch and twist on thicker stems at the extremes. Now I know why, Doh! I use a weed cutter similar to the one shown in the Amazon link. For weeds & even small saplings, it is devastating.

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