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Is the scythe I bought worth keeping?  RSS feed

 
Mike Frizzell
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Several years ago I bought a scythe at a local auction just out of curiosity. It is an American snath and pretty old. Is it likely to be worthy of efforts to rehabilitate the blade or should I just keep it around "in case".  The blade seems large compared to many I have seen while trying to learn the proper way to use one.  I'm 6'6" tall and it seems short for me.  Do you have any suggestions for a better scythe for me for use on a small farm?  I would like to cut hay and cereal grains, in addition to keeping the farm looking nice.
 
Ian Miller
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Hi Mike. There are differing opinions about this. In my view, American/British scythes are for robust, woody crops like sugar cane and reed (indeed, the folks at the Schroeckenfux scythe works in Austria claim they were developed for these purposes, respectively). However, there are others who are enthusiastic about American/British scythes for harvesting grass (see: https://permies.com/t/56480/scythes/Power-American-Scythe). If you're primarily looking to make hay and perhaps also reap cereal grains, my suggestion would be to get an Austrian scythe and acquaint yourself with racking techniques (several rack designs and techniques described in detail in my book).
 
Benjamin Bouchard
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American scythes were not developed for use on sugar cane, and were overwhelmingly used on grass. In my extensive research on American scythes I have yet to find a single period document referring to American pattern scythes ever being used on sugar cane, even when deliberately looking for such references.

Most vintage American scythes are definitely worth fixing up, though it can take some specialized know-how to do the job right.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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When a person refers to "an American scythe"  is that a shape / style / angle of blade?  Or does that mean it was made in the USA?

I have tons of questions about that and every other kind and shape and angle of scythe, and snath.

It is kind of off topic here, so I made this thread

https://permies.com/t/61146/scythes/overwhelmed-amount-information-don-start#520713

just for those questions, in case anyone has the time to catalog them all for me.  Otherwise I am just lost when trying to follow and learn from this kind of discussion.

Thanks, Thekla
 
Benjamin Bouchard
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Thekla McDaniels wrote:When a person refers to "an American scythe"  is that a shape / style / angle of blade?  Or does that mean it was made in the USA?

I have tons of questions about that and every other kind and shape and angle of scythe, and snath.

It is kind of off topic here, so I made this thread

https://permies.com/t/61146/scythes/overwhelmed-amount-information-don-start#520713

just for those questions, in case anyone has the time to catalog them all for me.  Otherwise I am just lost when trying to follow and learn from this kind of discussion.

Thanks, Thekla


It's a pattern. American snaths are the curvy sort with two side handles (nibs) affixed by iron bands encircling the shaft. Almost all American pattern snaths were made in the USA or (to a lesser extent) Canada, but a few UK makers produced American style snaths for their own domestic use and for export to the Australian market. American pattern blades were mostly domestically produced, but economy models were also produced for export in Sweden and Austria, with Swedish-made American pattern blades being the closest copies of the American style. Only Austria and Slovakia are currently manufacturing so-called American pattern blades, and they do a fine enough job (the Austrian ones, at least--I've not tried the Slovakian ones) but the form is way off from true American form. They very obviously look like a manufacturer of Continental European-style blades trying to copy an American pattern blade, rather than looking like the true American-made articles. The last American blade manufacturer closed its door in the early 1960's, and Seymour Midwest Tools is the last manufacturer of American snaths, though at one time there were as many as 14 different companies producing them. They have Shröckenfux of Austria manufacture blades for them, and have been doing so for many decades now. They also used to contract blades through Redtenbacher of Austria, but they closed up shop in the 80's.
 
Wes Hunter
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I wrote a blog post last spring about haymaking (https://agrarianadventures.wordpress.com/2016/05/27/while-the-sun-shines/
) (sorry--can't get the link function to work properly on my Kindle) in which I compared cutting hay with an American-style scythe to tapping a nail in the wall with a sledgehammer: it'll get the job done, but there are better tools available.  But now I wonder if tapping in a nail with a rock isn't a better analogy.

I had thought all of the Austrian-scythes-are-so-much-better thing was overblown until I actually tried one.  So I wouldn't say yours isn't worth keeping, but it might be put to better use as a wall decoration.
 
Benjamin Bouchard
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Wes, was your American scythe properly sharpened and tuned? I've actually had a fair number of people switch over to "the Dark Side" after getting set up with an American scythe that's set up as it should be. Most people who have a bad experience with the American pattern have it together all wrong, with the blade dull, the tang not adjusted, the nibs in poor positions, and the snath left thick. That combination is sure to disappoint! But slimmed down to more reasonable dimensions with the nibs properly sized, spaced, and oriented, the blade ground as thin as it ought to be and properly honed, the tang angle adjusted, and wielded with American--rather than Austrian or Vidonian--technique, it can certainly hold its own in performance, and should be quite far from your sledgehammer analogy. If one were to use an Austrian scythe with the edge badly dulled, the grips the wrong distance apart and twisted at odd directions, the tang angle wrong, and the snath made from a 2x4 they'd not have a fun time either.
 
Wes Hunter
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Isn't that just it, though?  The differences between an American-style scythe and an Austrian-style one boil down to the thickness and weight of the blade, heft and curvature of the snath, position of the nibs, and the angle of the tang, no?  You could adjust all those things, sure, but then I don't know that you still have an American-style scythe.

I could take a sledgehammer, cut the handle down to 12" or so, shave off a good deal of the handle's thickness, spend a fair bit of time grinding 4 pounds of metal off the head, and that "properly adjusted" tool is going to do a much better job tapping a nail in a wall.  But then I no longer have a sledgehammer, do I?

In my case, the blade was sharp, the nibs were at least well enough adjusted, but the angle that the blade attaches to the snath was off (because that's how they're made), and the whole kit was just so damned heavy that it was not pleasant to use.  It did the job, in a pinch, but it was far from the best tool for the job.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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Wes Hunter wrote:Isn't that just it, though?  The differences between an American-style scythe and an Austrian-style one boil down to the thickness and weight of the blade, heft and curvature of the snath, position of the nibs, and the angle of the tang, no?  You could adjust all those things, sure, but then I don't know that you still have an American-style scythe.

I could take a sledgehammer, cut the handle down to 12" or so, shave off a good deal of the handle's thickness, spend a fair bit of time grinding 4 pounds of metal off the head, and that "properly adjusted" tool is going to do a much better job tapping a nail in a wall.  But then I no longer have a sledgehammer, do I?

In my case, the blade was sharp, the nibs were at least well enough adjusted, but the angle that the blade attaches to the snath was off (because that's how they're made), and the whole kit was just so damned heavy that it was not pleasant to use.  It did the job, in a pinch, but it was far from the best tool for the job.


And here is one of my problems too, all these adjustments are difficult to impossible for someone who does not know what a properly tuned and adjusted scythe and snath should feel like, or fit like.  And if there is no one around who does know, or who can help them chose the one that is best suited to my needs and the job I am going to do, then I just have to blunder forward, take what ever option I can find, see if I can get along. 

The year I had to mow my orchard with a scythe and snath  it got mowed.   It was a frustrating process, the orchard was a mess, but a mowed mess.  I was able to get the apricots harvested. 

The scythe and snath has been cumbersome and awkward a few years ago someone on Permies pointed out it was probably the wrong length/size snath, which does not make the tool work any better.  I have adjusted the nibs countless times, and they don't really stay where I put them any more.  I've held on to the end of the snath.  I have held on to the end of the snath as a means to keep the blade paralell to the ground and give me more pull/swing, all to no avail.  I would like to sell this one before I buy another one.  I've listed the one I have,  to sell on craigslist, and had no inquiries. 

Unless I know what to buy, I'm not going to buy another one.  I would have loved the scythe if it would work for me.  I bought a sickle bar mower last summer.
 
Benjamin Bouchard
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Wes Hunter wrote:Isn't that just it, though?  The differences between an American-style scythe and an Austrian-style one boil down to the thickness and weight of the blade, heft and curvature of the snath, position of the nibs, and the angle of the tang, no?  You could adjust all those things, sure, but then I don't know that you still have an American-style scythe.

I could take a sledgehammer, cut the handle down to 12" or so, shave off a good deal of the handle's thickness, spend a fair bit of time grinding 4 pounds of metal off the head, and that "properly adjusted" tool is going to do a much better job tapping a nail in a wall.  But then I no longer have a sledgehammer, do I?

In my case, the blade was sharp, the nibs were at least well enough adjusted, but the angle that the blade attaches to the snath was off (because that's how they're made), and the whole kit was just so damned heavy that it was not pleasant to use.  It did the job, in a pinch, but it was far from the best tool for the job.


Just like European scythes, American scythes came in a range of weights, both snath and blade, and after the 1920's most folks using scythes were using them for bush work so that's what you see a lot of. Most nice light grass snaths are from the late 1800's, but some continued to be made up until the post-WW2 era in smaller numbers. Light American scythes existed, and were used. While American blades in general were heavier than Euro style blades due to the tradeoff of edge retention vs. weight (and weight is not a disadvantage when you work with it and that weight is within a reasonable range) there were certainly Euro blades out there that were heavier than light American blades, and American snaths that were lighter than Euro snaths. The thing with light scythes is that while they're easy to get moving, they're easy to stop as well, and so thick growth really slows them down. Since most of the work with any scythe is not in moving the scythe itself but in carrying the cut material into the windrow, the load on the end of the scythe is greatest at the end of the stroke, and lightest at the start. A heavier scythe (again, within reason) produces a flywheel effect whereby the input energy at the start of the stroke is higher, but that energy is stored as inertia that is then expended on the end of the stroke when the load is greatest, and this equals out the force requirement over the stroke, helping to keep you within the aerobic zone and reducing the need for any sharp spike of input at the end to finish out a stroke. Mowing thick growth, even if easily cut, will cause a lot of shoulder strain when done with a light scythe. Now, if doing a lot of square footage of light growth like maintaining a lawn, going light can make sense because there's only so fast you can comfortably advance anyhow and if the load at the end of each stroke is light, the scythe may be light without getting bogged down. But in thicker growth one must slow to a snail's pace, taking very narrow strips to avoid overloading the overly light tool. There are some places in Europe where a very long snath is used that extends well above where it's gripped in order to produce a similar flywheel effect.

If the angle of the blade was off then either the blade was damaged or your scythe was not set up properly. You do not use an American scythe with the same stroke as a European one. While they're more similar to one another than they are different, those differences are important ones. Working with the tool is critical, and the lore and methods of the American scythe were largely lost by the time Tresemer came along and "poisoned the well" with his marketing book. The thing was, Tresemer sold Euro scythes, but also instruction. And proper use and tuning are critical in a scythe performing well. Most folks who have used American scythes have done so with almost no knowledge of their proper use and tuning, and often are using bruised and battered equipment. It's no wonder that they have a bad time. And so when you show a neophyte a shiny scythe that looks strikingly different and is properly set up, then give that person instruction on how to use the tool, they experience much better results and it's easy to blame the old scythe rather than its state of disrepair and poor technique on the part of the operator...

I find it a shame that so many feel the need to pile on and blame the tool when they haven't had the opportunity to use one that's actually set up right. I can tell you that every single American scythe I've come across needs at least several hours of restoration work to get it back in ready to mow condition. The same goes for every vintage Euro scythe I've come across. Scythes are like giant straight razors, and much like how a small ding in a razor that would be trivial in a knife is a major issue, so too is it the case with scythes. They're tools of finesse and have to be in tip-top shape to yield good results.

To use your sledgehammer analogy...this is more like the difference between using an American vs. Austrian sledge hammer and an American vs. Austrian carpenter's claw hammer. Both styles exist within the hammer repertoire of both nations and have some identifiable visual differences. But to use an American sledge hammer and Austrian carpenter's hammer to drive a nail and then declaring that because the Austrian carpenter's hammer drove the nail more effectively that all American hammers must be inferior would be a serious logical misstep, yes? Horses for courses. Just like with Euro scythes it's also important to buy new ones from specialists so that you can be provided with a scythe that's properly tuned and ready to mow, with access to proper educational material on the subject. Generally mucking around with restoration work is something to be left to those already with some experience under their belt so they have known benchmarks to shoot for.
 
Wes Hunter
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That is an interesting history.  My understanding (from multiple sources) has been that Austrian scythes have a thinner and lighter blade, a narrower and lighter snath, and a tang angle that makes the blade run parallel to the ground, thus making it far preferable to the American scythe with its thick and heavy blade, stout and heavy snath, and tang angle that made the blade point more upwards.  In other words, those differences were taken as a given and had significant implications for the work at hand.  Apparently I was hoodwinked by Tressemer (et al.).

In any case, it seems that the comparison is still apt, for scythes AS AVAILABLE.  If one buys an American-style scythe (whether used at a farm or antique auction or new at a farm/feed store), it is almost certainly going to be as described above, and if one buys an Austrian-style scythe (most likely new, I'd assume), it too will be as described as above.  And in my experience--and apparently in the experiences of many others--the one is far preferable to the other.  This isn't to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I expect that for the vast majority of folks who just want to buy a scythe to do some mowing, the Austrian scythe is going to be the clear tool of choice.
 
Benjamin Bouchard
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Wes Hunter wrote:That is an interesting history.  My understanding (from multiple sources) has been that Austrian scythes have a thinner and lighter blade, a narrower and lighter snath, and a tang angle that makes the blade run parallel to the ground, thus making it far preferable to the American scythe with its thick and heavy blade, stout and heavy snath, and tang angle that made the blade point more upwards.  In other words, those differences were taken as a given and had significant implications for the work at hand.  Apparently I was hoodwinked by Tressemer (et al.).

In any case, it seems that the comparison is still apt, for scythes AS AVAILABLE.  If one buys an American-style scythe (whether used at a farm or antique auction or new at a farm/feed store), it is almost certainly going to be as described above, and if one buys an Austrian-style scythe (most likely new, I'd assume), it too will be as described as above.  And in my experience--and apparently in the experiences of many others--the one is far preferable to the other.  This isn't to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I expect that for the vast majority of folks who just want to buy a scythe to do some mowing, the Austrian scythe is going to be the clear tool of choice.


As a specialist in the American pattern, I supply ready-to-mow properly tuned American pattern scythes to those wishing to be set up with a good example. I hope to have others join me in this endeavor, but the revival is yet young, as before I came along there was almost no written material available online regarding their proper care and use. The bulk of the information online for many years was only for Euro scythes, and much of it parroted from Tresemer's "The Scythe Book" which isn't quite so authoritative as it is often chalked up to be. In fact, both Peter Vido and Botan Anderson have expressed dissatisfaction with how it addresses the Austrian style of scythe that it was written to promote, let alone the American. I've actually had quite a number of people come to me after expressing dissatisfaction with the commercially available Euro-style scythes and were delighted with their results using the American, so you may find that they're quite pleasant to use if set up and used as they ought to be.

If you're actually interested in learning about American scythes and how they should be tuned and used, check here. The choice between styles is far less clear-cut as Austrian scythe promoters would have you believe, and while both have a lot of functional overlap, they take different routes to attain the desired end results. One method is often more compatible for some folks than the other, largely as a matter of personal preference. However, I'd hasten to add that North Americans have known about Continental European scythes for well over 100 years but they never really caught on with serious users to the degree that the domestic version did. American tools were famous the world over, and so it would be strange indeed if that one commonly used and essential tool was somehow poorly engineered...American scythes were designed and constructed for American mowing conditions, and they're very fine tools when set up and used as intended. Poor experiences are almost universally a case of user failure, and this can be said of European scythes as well. If a user is having a bad time mowing, they either need to adjust their equipment or alter their technique--very often a little of both.
 
Peter Ellis
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Apparently there was a hundred year or more period of time in North America when a great many people had lost track of how to make or use a scythe, yet this was still their first tool for a number of crucial tasks.

Perhaps, just maybe, it makes more sense to think that since that time, much about how these American pattern scythes were meant to be used has been forgotten.  I think it is much more likely that we are doing something wrong when we find they do not work well, rather than presuming that generations of people that relied upon the tool were working with a poor quality version.  I'm inclined to think that there has been a bunch of bad press regarding American pattern, partly from  genuine misinformation, partly from biased marketing.

 
Dale Hodgins
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I read the whole thread. It was a laborious experience. Not at all pleasant like most of my time spent on this site. I think photographs or video might help when explaining the differences between various tools. I don't have a bias one way or the other, as I have never used a scythe for more than a minute, and it was an old yard sale find. A video showing exactly how to sharpen and tune the blade, would be useful.

I do have a bias concerning where tools are made. All of my best landscaping tools, both power and hand-operated, come from Europe. I have never found a high quality, well-designed demolition bar, made in North America.
.........
I have a long reach, cordless hedge cutter made by Stihl. It works really well as a sickle bar mower , on my rocky terrain. I have some grass, mixed with weeds and small trees, on the side of my road. If I hit a rock or other obstacle, it bounces off, with no damage to the teeth. The guard teeth protect the cutters. I often make my cut in several passes, at different heights, so that the material can be chopped short and allowed to rot in place.

I watched a video where two guys competed as they cut hay. It would seem to me that if both tools were pitted against one another, cutting grasses and grains, a winner could emerge. Or, we might find that one is better at heavy grass and one is better at harvesting oats. These short races, don't show how tools are really used. It might be better to show a marathon. Let's see how it works, when they have to harvest an acre. Not super exciting, but this would force them to pace themselves. Most operators are not going to be elite athletes.
 
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