Category Archives: Manual Mowing

Honing the Argument: Continued Debate on the Virtues of the American Scythe

Or, “In Which Peter Vido Makes Many Straw Men, And We Patiently Correct Him”

 

Note: This document is an open letter as part of an ongoing discussion, and represents a response to matters posed by Peter Vido in his “Peening the ‘Unpeenable’ Blades” and “Two Scythe Tales” articles. See below the sequence to date:

 

1) Botan Anderson’s “A Tale of Two Scythes” (Removed to make way for an improved edition)

2) My own open response, “Dispelling the Myths of the American Scythe

3) Peter Vido’s above-cited articles, “Peening the ‘Unpeenable’ Blades” and “Two Scythe Tales

4) The document you’re reading now.

In Response to “Peening the ‘Unpeenable’ Blades”

 

Regarding the peening of American pattern blades, I have no outright objection to the practice if performed with intelligence on monosteel blades of overly soft temper, but would question what benefit is provided to blades of already good hardness, and at what risk–my reasons for advising against the practice (or at least doing so with understanding and caution) I shall address momentarily. Ultimately, I beg the question not if a properly hard blade may be peened, but should it be?

 

To first order, it is important for us to reference the nature of the steel mentioned. While I cannot claim to be an expert metallurgist (and welcome correction if I am incorrect in this matter) it is my understanding based on the readings I’ve encountered through my work in the cutlery industry that steel above .85% carbon content results in the excess carbon forming free cementite (iron carbide) which reduces ductility and toughness of the steel while increasing annealed state wear resistance to some degree. A carbon content of .80% is well more than sufficient to produce a structure of nearly pure pearlite–a crystal colony formation of alternating bands of ferrite (pure iron) and cementite (iron carbide). This provides the strongest balance of ductility and wear resistance in the fully annealed state, with a Rockwell C scale (RC) hardness of about 23. At full quench a simple carbon steel with approximately .80% carbon content like 1080 will be about 64.5 RC, but will have lots of internal stresses and be very brittle due to having been converted to the highest hardness form of steel–martensite. To relieve the stresses from quenching and convert a given percentage of the martensite back into pearlite to restore toughness, tempering is required. This reheating to a lower temperature dissolves a portion of the extremely hard martensite back into a tougher pearlite structure, and when properly done will strike the exacting balance between hardness and toughness required for exceptional performance.

 

Peening (and other cold processes) deforms the metal through dislocation of the crystal structure, and the more this is done the lower the elasticity of the metal. As elasticity is reduced, further strain imparted to the metal would result in cracking or chipping, as the disruption of the crystal lattice means that the grains of the steel are without support and are unable to plastically deform in response to strain above the yield point of the metal.

 

Historically one may find a fair number of references to blades advertised as “hard, but not too hard” or the advisement in selecting a blade to find one of neither excessively soft nor hard temper.  The greater the skill of the mower, the more delicate an edge may be employed, but this does not materially diminish the significance that a mechanically hardened (peened) edge will be inherently more brittle than a ground edge of equal geometry that was brought to hardness through proper heat treatment. Thusly, it would seem to me that the chief advantage of peening over grinding is that peening may produce a hollowing effect without the use of a grinding wheel (I shall speak more on the use of wheels in the following section) or that it may introduce hardness into the edge of a scythe blade that was given an inferior and soft heat treatment. Carbon content will actually have minimal impact on the hardness that may be achieved through peening because the hardening that’s occurring has almost nothing to do with the phase of the metal and everything to do with the dislocation of the lattice structure, though it will be inherently harder to peen such a blade as the presence of free cementite (or even just pearlite with heavier banding of cementite) will have lower ductility.

 

As such, your advice that a blade first be thinned through filing is a sound one as one would desire to have to peen the metal as little as possible to produce the desired edge geometry and hardness, lest fragility be introduced to an excessive degree.

 

Furthermore, while hardness is often used as a predictor of wear resistance, this is not always the case. Microstructure of the metal can have an effect on abrasive wear resistance, for good or for ill.

Lastly, as I detail later in this writing, many vintage American scythe blades are laminated, and as such, certain care must be taken to ensure that the hard steel core is what comprises the apex of the edge bevels rather than the softer cladding iron. If one attempted to peen a laminated blade, it would have to be done with both a narrow faced anvil and cross pein hammer in order to hollow both sides equally, or else the soft cladding material would be drawn out as the edge instead of the hard core. Peening in such a manner would include a risk above and beyond that of cracking the blade from excessive cold-working, but if even one blow was not squarely atop the narrow face of the anvil a shearing force would be imparted on the blade and the results would likely be catastrophic.

 

In Response to “Two Scythe Tales”

 

Allow me to first say that while you and I are conflicted on some points I am pleased to discover that we are not in as much disagreement as I had initially thought, and I thank you for taking the time to make such a thorough response to my little document. However, there does seem to have been significant confusion regarding a number of my points. This is, perhaps, a failing on my part to delve into some of these concepts in greater detail, but I should like to contextualize the reasons for my very topical style of presentation.

 

Botan’s “A Tale of Two Scythes” is a work chiefly intended for the novice, and as such it written with the intention merely of scratching the surface deeply enough in order to strongly differentiate the “Austrian” pattern of scythe from the American one. I can understand his reasoning for this, given that the average individual that has laid hands on an American scythe in the past, whether it was one of recent or vintage make, was likely to have had a poor experience with it due to lack of proper sharpening and tuning as well as (up until recently) virtually no information readily available on their proper use and the flawed product produced in the past few decades (though I’m working with Seymour to fix that.) The attribution of the negative experience would likely set up such an individual to consider all scythes universally as difficult and laborious to use, and by differentiating his product from the style that provoked the negative response it opens the door for convincing the reader that a scythe need not be a tiring tool to use if done right. While many flawed arguments and generalizations are made, the intended purpose is, to my mind, at least a well-intentioned one. Personally, due to the experiences and limited available information he had at the time the original work was written years ago, I cannot fault him in the least for the opinion presented, though my own is a very different one.

 

Because of the deliberately “light reading” nature of the document, it was my intention to place my response in similar frame. At this time it now seems that a more in depth analysis on my part is no longer necessary since you’ve taken the liberty of producing such yourself, so thanks for saving me the trouble! However, I’m now presented with another slew of misunderstandings to tackle, so I hope you’ll forgive me for the criticism and corrections I’ll make at this time. In spite of this, I hope that you and I may remain on good terms despite our differing views on the subject–it’s my hope to bring all sides of the argument closer together rather than drive us apart!

 

“When I read both of these features for the first time, back to back, I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh — both came across like snake oil sales pitches.”

 

Ouch!  At least this was removed later, but the sting of words is not so easily erased and, by pure happenstance, both Botan and I saw this before the edit. I’m sorry that the piece came across that way to you, but I can at least say that document was intended to be somewhat of a “flip side of the coin” response, although not so critical of the “Austrian” pattern. I fully feel that a good scythe is a good scythe, whether it be American, Austrian, French, English, Turkish, Spanish, or of any other regional style.  On that note, I’m fully willing to concede that as of the time of this writing I’m significantly less well versed in these styles than you are so I do value your opinion. However, I remain optimistic and open-minded about other “flavors” of scythes beyond those more dominantly represented on the Western market at present. I don’t plan on discounting them until I give them a fair shake.

 

“Regarding nomenclature, neither of them makes enough of a distinction between blades which are:

1) made in Austria but used elsewhere on the globe (besides North America)

2) made in Austria and used there

(There are also scythe blades made elsewhere but used in Austria, though that seems less relevant to the present debate)

Consequently, often when they refer to ”Austrian blades” as a blanket term for both 1) and 2), their statements, comparisons and conclusions lose much meaning, or are even completely off the board.

To allude to the ‘fuzziness’ of the term, I often put “Austrian” in quotation marks.”

 

I use the term “Austrian” to refer to the pattern of blade, as that’s what Botan references in specific. I am well aware that countless regional patterns were produced in Austria for export, but I was attempting to keep it framed in the context of the original document rather than muddying things with other patterns of continental blades. While that is also an area worthy of discussion (and I thank you for providing so much material on the subject in your “review”–I found it fascinating) it was outside the scope of what I intended to tackle.

 

“Benjamin, it would somehow feel strange to address your side of ‘The Tales’ in the formal manner as I did the other. Instead I’m taking the approach of talking as if we sat around the table or in the hayfield. That does not mean I’ll be easy on you.

 

Please don’t be! I’m a fellow that actively welcomes the challenge. Free and open debate is my goal with this little endeavor with the hopes that we all find some benefit in the process.

 

“However, a disclaimer may be in order: I’m unfamiliar with the blade-making process of North American scythe industry, nor have I used the American blades extensively enough to know by experience if any of them “hold a keen edge all day”, as you state. What I do know is that I wouldn’t last at the end of an American scythe even half a day…”

 

I hope to help shed light on some of those aspects. For instance, I’d clarify that the holding of that keen edge is of course dependent on not force-feeding dirt to the blade, and that touchups from a stone in the field are to be considered as normal, but in most conditions the span between even those touchups is considerable. A light American scythe, if admittedly heavier than a light continental blade on a snath of Vidonian make, is nonetheless not a tool that should be physically exhausting to use.

“That said, it seems to me that one of the major obstacles to a meaningful debate may be your lack of knowledge (or acknowledgement?) of the incredible diversity when it comes to the “continental European” scythes blades, snaths as well as styles of the mowing movement. On one hand you ought to perhaps not be blamed for it because there is no single handbook on the subject that has, in a clear and concise manner, even attempted (never mind managed) to lay it out. However, our website IS a source of a good portion of related information, even if it requires some digging. You appear to have done some of that concerning the American scythe — even if I’m moved to question the validity of a portion of what you found thus far…”

 

I am at least modestly familiar with the diversity of global blades, snaths, and techniques–though I’d love to learn more! For the purposes of the document I kept things limited exclusively to those being specifically compared directly against the American pattern.

 

“Among your own counter-productive generalizations is referring to the North American “mowing conditions” as requiring relatively heavy blades and the fact that you tend to throw the multitude of European blade pattern and weights, as well as that continent’s snaths and style of mowing movement all into one bag. You then proceed to compare them — as one representative you (mostly) call “Austrian” — with the American scythe’s everything (blades, snaths, attachment hardware and style of movement).”

 

I would disagree that I stated that a heavier blade was required but rather that it was found advantageous for a number of reasons. If I made an absolute statement then that was an accident and I’ll gladly correct it to bring it in line with my actual assertions.  I do agree that I made a number of strong generalizations, but given the context I felt it appropriate. Whether it was or not is a matter of debate I suppose. Bear in mind that I am not tackling specific points of all scythes that follow the continental European branch of the evolutionary tree, but limit my discussion to those more representative of what is both recently manufactured and commercially available on the North American market. Vintage blades, while available through ScytheWorks and, to a more limited degree, through One Scythe Revolution, are otherwise not nearly so common in the USA as good quality restorable American blades and snaths of almost countless variation. As such, a comparison of “what was” in the American market against “what is” in the continental scythe market is, to my mind, a wholly appropriate comparison.

 

“Here is, so far as I can decipher, a brief pre-summary of the case you present on behalf of the American scythe:

1. It was designed, and then made with the rugged North American mowing conditions in mind.

2. Its blade is more complex regarding both design and metallurgical skill to produce than belies the uninitiated eye. As such it can withstand the challenges of heavy growth and variegated terrain while also retaining a better edge all day (than an Austrian-style blade).

3. The snath is an epitome of ergonomic principles, and outfitted with the blade described above can be used in a relaxed manner for extended periods (though it must be swung in a very specific pendulum-like motion powered by principally the mower’s arms).

4. American farmers did have a chance to purchase and try out the “Austrian”/”Continental” version of this tool but concluded that it did not stand up to their challenges — which is why it is the American scythe that can still be found in nearly every old barn across this great nation.

Did I get that right?”

Yes, for the most part.

 

“However, it was less clear to me IF you were (only?) making a respectful case for what once was, OR (also?) suggesting that it should be this scythe version that the present generation of American mowers-to-be should embrace as the cat’s meow for tomorrow’s needs. If it is the latter, I think you may be ‘out to lunch’. However it will be the years ahead, rather than you or I, that will settle that with certainty…”

 

The former, chiefly. I think it is a perfectly viable tool worthy of continued manufacture and adoption, but while I am pro-American pattern I am decidedly NOT anti-continental. If that’s what you want to use I think that’s fine and dandy. I just feel that the American pattern is a well designed and useful pattern that deserves open-minded study in spite of its stylistic differences.

 

“To begin with, I’d appreciate if you do NOT refer to me as an “expert”. Thank you in advance!

Now we can begin to untangle the tale.

Your “putting words in my mouth” — without qualification — was an unintentional ‘communication-shortcoming’. While I had once told you during a phone conversation that the production of American style blades is actually more costly for the Austrian company today, I did not say that it is because the American blades are “more complex” to make.

It is true that to fill the same sized order of American style blades these days is more ‘trouble’ (and therefore more costly) than many others. However, the reason is NOT the inherent complexity of the American design, but rather that this is not Austrian scythe industry’s specialty, and since the heyday of scythe use in America it is even more so the case.  Every  person down the line of the progressive steps of making it has to re-program their mind and hands for that short spell it will take to fill today’s relatively small and infrequent ‘American style’ blade orders — which may be at most 2000 pieces per year. (To put that into perspective — their present capacity is about 1000 blades of the ‘continental’ style per day, or usually a bit more, depending on a specific model.) Hence the overall output of the American blades per day is smaller and most among the workforce are not looking forward to it. (Nor can they figure out why anyone would want to use such an odd-looking creature; to ease their mind they’ve been told that these are ‘sugar cane blades’ — the ones with the “sugar syrup groove”…)”

While I thank you for the information and it all makes sense, I removed the quoted section very shortly after the document was first made public after direct consultation with you, so I have already recanted the assertion here–a fact of which you were well aware. In terms of the matter of the term “expert”, however, the old saying “if it looks like a duck…” is appropriate. There is a difference between being a self professed expert and being considered by others as one. By their very nature, true experts are actively engaged lifelong students!

 

I fully agree that the SFX “American pattern” blades are an odd looking creature indeed. They are much less a truly American pattern blade but rather a confused Austrian interpretation of them. They are lacking significantly in their overall form although the steel itself seems to be good and the heat treatment at least acceptable. They’ll get the job done with a bit of elbow grease but pale significantly when compared to even economy models of yesteryear. I can’t think of a single feature of the blades besides base steel quality that could not be improved with relative ease. I hope to at least exert some small influence in that respect, though I’m certain it will be an uphill battle and I’m not holding my breath.

 

“I don’t understand why you feel compelled to argue that if the Austrian blade has (to paraphrase) “3 curves which give it strength”, the American blade has them too.”

 

I wouldn’t argue that all of those curves are expressly to impart strength to the blade (strength is only one aspect of performance) but I think it’s important to note that 3-dimensional complexity is by no means a unique feature exclusive to the Austrian scythe.

 

“Yes, the “trough” and “beads” certainly do stiffen the blade, but referring to THAT a “curve”?”

 

Absolutely! It sure isn’t a straight line, now is it? It is, in a certain respect, a compressed version of the “belly” in the “Austrian” pattern blade being discussed, with flat span of the web coming thereafter. I would have thought that to be self evident. In fact, should a bead or even a double bead be present then there is not merely 1, but 2 or 3 curves.

 

“More power to the gently smiling blades! Yes, a slight elevation of the tip on otherwise a relatively flat blade is a nice, user-friendly feature. I believe that the intent of the blade designers to incorporate that “gentle upward curvature” was to make the tool easier to maneuver, rather than to contribute to the blade’s strength. Alas, I note so little of this “crown”, and only on a portion of American blades as to understand why most people think of them as “dead flat”. Of the samples we have, even the one with the biggest “smile” is not smiling quite enough, in my view, to make it as easy to use as it could be — without adequate training and/or paying of attention. (At that, my Austrian comrades consider me a flat blade-oriented man.)”

 

I do not assert that the crown is for strength, but rather to increase comfort, reduce likelihood of inadvertently sinking the toe in the dirt, and increasing the ability of the blade to cut on the interior of dips and valleys. I find a crown on probably 3 out of 4 blades if not more, although the signs of it can sometimes be disguised by bends introduced through abuse. I personally find it surprising that you have encountered it so uncommonly.

 

“Well, I’ve never heard of this. However, I won’t argue, since I know that a plethora of stupidity has been manifested in designs of all sorts… The reason I think it foolish for blade designers (who, as a rule, are not the makers) to intend additional “smile” to be put into a scythe blade by each user is that most people could not do it well. Consequently, any tool quality guarantee would (justifiably) be made void by a sloppy attempt. Besides, doing so while still in the factory is many times easier.

With that opportunity missed, I think that the European way to increase the “smiles” — by way of a hammer and an anvil (as mentioned above) is decidedly a better way to do it than by bending in a vise. Still NOT a job for the uninitiated, however!

Oh, and could you please explain to your readers when is a “scythe blade smile” NOT desired?”

It’s quite easy to introduce a crown to the blade either via a vise or by hammering the top of the chine (or “back” to use vintage terminology) on an anvil. A vise being a more commonplace tool, and the work actually done quite easily (due to the lack of a dished form like on a continental blade) this was the method that I listed in the document. The vise method is very simple–just open the jaws enough to fit the blade easily between them, with the edge up. Position the blade so that the edge of the vise jaw is where you want to produce the curve. Then gently but firmly push the blade against the jaw  until the blade is flexed. Ease off your pressure and sight down the blade to see if the bend was produced as desired. If it hasn’t then increase your pressure, paying attention to the tension on the blade to ensure it isn’t strained in excess (it’s pretty easy to tell by feel) and once you get the desired bend, work your way incrementally down the blade until the full gentle curve is produced. It’s even easier to hammer it in if you have an anvil available, though.

 

A flat blade is desirable in open level “clean” mowing conditions where a very uniform stubble is required. Lawns, for instance, are one such instance, but there are plenty of other circumstances as well. I find it useful for situations where I’m making precise cuts with the toe of the blade. It’s a lot like the difference of shaving with a square point vs. a round point straight razor. One is arranged for a greater margin of user error while the other is geared towards  higher precision, though at greater risk. Bear in mind that my reason for mentioning DIY crowning is so that if you were to purchase a blade that was flat and you wanted a crown, you could put one into it.

“(Whose eyes?)”

 

Sorry but this strikes me as silly. Why does this even need to be asked?

 

“I’m beginning to lose you here, because I don’t know what you mean by “complex balance of the blade”.”

 

A well-balanced blade will balance close to the heel. Depending on length and width, the true center of gravity will either be along the edge or actually out in space beyond it. This is a matter into which I am devoting further research, as initial experimentation with blades of good design and execution seem to present hints of some common tenants when it comes to this dynamic. I do concretely know that this was an aspect that was given emphasis and attention by manufacturers, and my initial comparisons and experiences have acted to confirm that it was more than just marketing jargon. Even on blades greater than 30” from heel to toe (not including the tang) balance not more than a foot from the start of the heel. Most 48” cradle blades balance about 16” from the heel.

 

“That is another mind-twister, at least for an immigrant hillbilly farmer like me. But I asked a friend with an engineering degree, who is also a scythe user, what his interpretation of this ‘explanation’ would be and here is what he wrote:

“It seems like the “counter-rotational” benefit (as described) would be negligible to nonexistent. The entire weight of the blade (including the tang) is attached directly to the end of the snath. There is neither an intermediate support point (like the fulcrum of a see-saw) nor an axis of rotation that passes through a support point (an example being the handle of a felling axe held in somebody’s hands, with the poll weight countering the rotation due to the cheek weight)”.”

This is an effect most noticeable during what I refer to as “tillering” the scythe. “Tillering” is the adjustment of the lay of the blade in use through the upward or lower tilting of the snath. As noted, the center of gravity for most blades is either at the edge (common for short wide blades) or somewhere out forward of the edge, causing the blade to desire to rotate forward somewhat. This shifts the balance back on the tool relative to the most distant point of the spine. A forward balance is maintained but it’s easier to both tiller and rotate during the stroke.

 

“Here you butt heads very square on with Botan, who claims that “because the tang is completely flat, you would have to practically bend over far enough to touch your toes!”  You are both exaggerating, as far as I’m concerned. The American snath’s curvature is not enough to convivially accommodate blades with such flat tangs for work on level terrain. But perhaps what you mean by “most cases” is hillsides. Is that so?

You also forgot to explain and/or specify what a “large” tang angle is.”

 

The curvature of the snath does not fully eliminate the need for the tang to be pitched in level mowing conditions (I never made such a claim) but rather the required angle is significantly lessened by this curvature. An unpitched tang may be fully appropriate for mowing on bumpy and rocky ground or for bush work, and even when working level ground the required tang angle is almost always under 30°, usually being more in the order of 10-20°. This keeps more of the metal of the tang in direct opposition of the forces acting upon it, as the more out of line with the vector of force it becomes, the greater a “twisting” action is imparted to the tang. Reducing tang angulation lessens this effect.

 

“Heating tangs in order to affect a more personalized fit was a common practice in many areas where scythes were used — and this with blades that already had them factory-set to regional dealers’ specs. Although I think it would have been a good idea for more people in North America to have done likewise, this seems to not have been the case.

On this note, I am reminded of the words of Wayne Randolf of Colonial Williamsburg who, perhaps 20 years ago, wrote to me (and I paraphrase from memory): “I’ve argued against the concept of the ‘malaise of agricultural traditions’ (meaning the tendency to follow traditional ways of doing things rather than being innovative/creative), but perhaps we see it here” (with respect to scythes). He also told me that he mows with an American scythe, but had the tang of the blade raised, with the application of heat, so it lays better. Also that during his long career as an agricultural tool curator and historian he has only seen very few examples of raised tangs on American pattern blades. He suspected that the alterations were done mostly by immigrants already accustomed to blades with elevated tangs, which were unavailable in whatever region of America they then lived.”

With the greatest respect, Mr. Randolf must not have inspected many scythe blades. While it is true that it is much less common (though not even close to unheard of) to find American scythe blades where the tang has been properly angled, it is exceptionally common to find examples where adjustment had, indeed, been imparted by the user. The most common method of adjustment seems to have been produced by locking the blade in a vise with about ⅓ of the base of the blade protruding, then cold-bending to the desired angle. This has the undesirable effect of putting a twist in the blade so that while the first ⅔ of the blade entering the grass will have a proper lay, the bottom ⅓ will lay overly high. I suspect this was done as a “cheapskate” method of not having to pay a metalworker to do the job. Those blades which do have the tang properly adjusted tend to be of high-end brand and manufacture, and are often found mounted on top-quality snaths. This makes sense to me, as a fellow willing to buy a top-class blade is also likely to get the thing tuned the right way rather than taking cheap shortcuts.

 

Also bear in mind that during the latter period of scythe use in the United States one of the largest purchasers of scythes were the railroad companies for keeping their rights of way clear of weeds and overgrowth. In many cases this means that the mowing would be taking place on slopes, and even if it wasn’t I find it doubtful that the fellow using a borrowed tool would pay to have the tang adjusted to fit him–an unfortunate circumstance, but one that I can imagine was likely quite common. Scythes continued to be useful to farmers, of course, but were most commonly used in areas that horse-drawn mowing devices couldn’t go, or by those who could not afford such newfangled contraptions.

“Yes, UP TO A POINT. It would be helpful, though, if you were more specific; to one person “upward” can mean a 5 degree edge elevation, while to another it might mean 45 degrees…”

 

A snath mounted with an unpitched tang will present that blade at an offset equal to the “natural” lift angle presented in the neck of the snath. This varies from snath to snath, with grass snaths typically exhibiting more angulation and bush snaths less so. The angle presented in use with the tang unpitched would be the difference between the angle formed between the lower nib and the end of the snath when in use, and the angle formed by the end of the snath and the lower nib when the end of the snath is laid flat on the ground (the “natural” lift.) For instance, a fairly average Derby & Ball snath I regularly use has a natural offset of 24°. I’m 5’ 9”,  and when the snath is mounted with a bush blade with an unpitched tang and held in the ready position, the blade presents itself at an upward angle of 15° (technically 14.9° by the digital protractor but who’s counting–eh?)

 

And yes–obviously there is a limit to how upward a lay is desirable. However, one may still mow with a scythe with a blade riding above level–not so with one riding below. It is better to my mind that a blade as supplied from the factory be biased towards too upward a lay rather than too great an angle being preset.

 

““Somewhat similar” might be a more apt way to put it. Besides, as I point out in reviewing Botan’s tale, many European blades — including some rather wide models — do NOT have any bellies to speak of.”

Even those shown that were without full-blown continuous curvature to the edge still exhibited lift at the edge itself, and I would be curious to know what the tang angle was on those models and their intended method of use. Without such information the manner in which it is intended to lay is left unclear, though even if laid flat the edge is still upturned, which is the chief point I am getting at. Furthermore, again, I was limiting my discussion to the particular style of blade presented in Botan’s article, which does feature a belly.

 

“I don’t think it is that ‘massive’. Are you sure your eyes are not deceiving you? As you have surely noticed, many of the leftover old American scythes hanging around old barns as well as those still occasionally used, have their blades massively out of whack that is, with the hafting angle now so open that to operate them, as they are, in any kind of serious (but not extra challenging) cutting is, or would be, as you say below, “torturous”.

And please, must you use terms like “biometrics”, which instead of clarifying the discussed concepts tend to obfuscate things for us common folks?”

 

If the hafting angle is out of whack, perhaps it should be fixed, no? Bear in mind how many scythes that were once good have been injured by the clumsy and untrained hands of laypersons long after the demise of the original owner. I had one fellow pick up some horse manure from our place once, and he told me about how the old farm property they had just moved into had a great big grain cradle hanging in the barn. He apparently took it out to the field and (in typical Hulk-meets-golf club fashion) plunged the tip into the earth and broke the thing in one blow. Catastrophic damage to a well designed scythe almost always results from abuse, though some units hold up to it better than others. I do run across what I consider to be ludicrously thick bush snaths from time to time and I suspect they were made with the unskilled in mind. I have yet to encounter a circumstance where a snath realistically would have been destroyed even in skilled hands. More important, to my mind, is the hardware choice dependent on intended primary use. Pass-through loop bolts are less commonly seen on bush snaths and units that use rings with tapped set screws or double ring and wedge arrangement seems to have been the preferred means of attachment for such rigorous purposes.

 

On an off topic note I find it humorous that you think that folks that wouldn’t understand the word “biometrics” (or at least have the sensibility to Google the definition) would find the word “obfuscate” any less of a challenge to their reading comprehension.

 

“This may be so IF by “the Austrian sort” you mean ONLY the blade models used IN Austria.”

 

As I’ve previously stated, that is indeed what I mean.

 

“Otherwise, scores of rather heavy general purpose blades (plus bush blades that were heavier than the USA-made equivalent) were forged by factories in Austria and elsewhere in Europe, some for use on that continent, others for Latin American or Australian markets.)”

 

You do not specify–are you arguing that these are good designs? And what is your reasoning behind the design of those heavy pieces?

 

“There is no doubt in my mind that to make a scythe blade STIFFER was far more of a reason for making it ‘automatically’ also heavier[…]”

 

That is only one aspect, and an oversimplification. What is the direction of force you’re trying to counter in this instance? Increasing the x axis of a bar being flexed in the y axis yields a linear gain in rigidity, but increasing the y axis thickness in direct opposition to the y axis force would yield a cubic gain in rigidity. As such, the increased thickness of the web of the blade (to my mind) is to act as a backstop for chips or dings to prevent them from migrating back into what represents years of useful working life for the blade. The rib and bead (if present) resist vertical forces, with the web of the blade being set in direct opposition to the resistance experienced during mowing.

 

Tensioning does not increase durability as far as I see it–it increases rigidity of a thin bodied arch, allowing extremely thin blades not to crumple in use due to being stretched tight like the head of a drum. However, this same tension worsens damage during accidental impacts, compounded by the reduced ductility of the edge resulting from peening. An increased chance of brittle failure at the edge of a thin web of steel under expansive tension does not sound like an inherently more advanced design to me, though it makes for a very light blade. Perhaps this is why those heavy continental blades with the fairly flat webs were designed the way they were? A reduced belly would better resist compressional forces during the cut but the loss of the belly would generate more vertical vibrational forces in such thin steel–hence the thick backs?

 

“The Finns, for instance, took an uncommon approach to meet this weight/strength challenge. They opted to increase the strength factor by making their (un-tensioned) blades — in relation to overall weight — with very thick backs and bodies, BUT in order to keep the weight to minimum were evidently satisfied by using extremely narrow blades. (I can’t presently put my hand on two still narrower blades I have, one of them a very old original sent from Finland to Austria as a sample to duplicate, but the three below ought to suffice to illustrate the concept.)”

 

Perhaps you don’t realize, but those blades are not far out of line, proportionally, with the weight of common American grass blades. Although examples of the same short length as the bottom two aren’t common, I have plenty of grass blades that are of similar weight and length as the top one. I’m actually already aware of those style of blades, however, and actually own one, though it’s seen more use than those shown here. A 30” grass blade (32” in overall length end to end) averages 1lb 10oz, for 0.8125oz per linear inch, compared to 0.7190oz per linear inch for the uppermost Finnish blade.  That’s only a difference of 0.0935oz (about 2.65 grams) per inch. This is for a blade that has a 2” heel and spans 1 ½” along most of the length.

 

“The only USA-made cradle blade we have is this 44 inch long specimen (found 20 yrs. ago on an earth floor of an abandoned cabin). Yes, it is under 3 lb. — by 2 oz. to be exact.”

 

That’s a short and heavy one. Grabbing an Emerson & Stevens model I would consider of good average build, and measuring 48” from heel to toe (not including the tang) the weight is 2lb 11oz.

 

“That said, I much appreciate the privilege of being able to use the tensioned blades, especially those old and extra light models. I also believe that it would have taken considerably less time to train the average American scythe smith 100 years ago than his equivalent in Continental Europe or the Near East — although (as I mentioned in the introduction) that is not an issue to loose sleep over today. But if you wish to settle it, perhaps find a Ouija board and ask the ghosts of the American scythe-smiths if they could indeed forge blades of those weights in relation to overall dimensions. Then we will know, and won’t need to argue this one any longer. Amen.”

 

While the above might have been written in good humor (goodness knows the internet as a medium likes to strip away such details of conveyance like tone, inflection, and body language) it comes across to me as needlessly dismissive. It also completely ignores the differing structural requisites between an Anglo-American blade and a continental or tensioned style. The tensioning method will inherently enable a lighter build–although not without sacrifices. If the same approach were to be taken with an untensioned blade the resulting piece would likely not exhibit a desirable prioritized profile of performance properties (say that three times fast!) in any respect except weight. This needs to be taken into account when comparing build dimensions.

 

On a further note, period descriptions of the apprenticeship period for production line scythe forgers is indicated as being 5-7 years.  The long tenure of laborers in those days was impressive–I’ve seen mention of a fellow who worked tempering scythes for the New London Scythe Company of New Hampshire for some 34 years.

 

“I’d be tempted to ask if you possibly meant to say “challenging attitudes of the mowers”, and/or those involved in the blade making and/or selling circles (who did not want too many of them coming back damaged, calling for a replacement).”

 

It was the prerogative of the retailer whether or not to offer any sort of warranty on their wares, so if a fellow back in the day bought a blade and destroyed it he was usually out of luck. Tool manufacturers that warranted their products often had, like manufacturers today, disclaimers against abusive use. Most typically if a fellow destroyed a blade he had no recourse unless he had purchased a top-shelf model and hadn’t done something stupid with it. I don’t see this as being a likely motivating factor given the conventions of the time.

 

“Well, Benjamin, try to do that with construction paper!

(A heads-up to the readers — later on in this feature the edges of the ‘continental’ scythe blades are likened to, believe it or not, construction paper…)”

 

This is either a misreading or a deliberate distortion of what I wrote. I stated that in abusive hands that a continental blade is just as easily damaged as an American one, the tearing caused by the tensioned blade giving way under such abuse yielding a visual effect not unlike torn construction paper.

 

“In any case, having used many other (relative to length) similarly light blades for serious work, I have some difficulty in conceiving what on earth were the American farmers cutting with their long blades that required them (and the average snath) to be so heavy right across the board from East to West and North to South. I mean, for cutting trees they had axes, and knew how to use them they did.”

 

As I’ve mentioned before, the weight is used to advantage when proper technique is employed.

 

“Once most of the land slated for agriculture was ‘subdued’, the design could have been altered. (Perhaps it was; as I stated earlier, my understanding of American scythe’s history is only low grade.)”

 

It was, though perhaps not in the direction you expect. When the midwest was being developed there was a call for heavier blades with larger heels compared to those being used in the more developed eastern hayfields.

 

“[…]you know, we live in North America too…”

 

The quoted section seems to sum up the lengthy passage neatly, so I’ve trimmed it for length. I never stated that continental scythes cannot be used in North American mowing conditions, so I’m not sure why you insist on such a against an assertion that no one has made.

 

“And a 14 year old girl can only have so much strength, eh?”

 

Perhaps, but not less so than a 14 year old boy, and nothing save lack of experience prevented them from mowing well with an American scythe. The muscle groups used, while specialized, are rapidly developed and are endurance-driven rather than high exertion explosive strength muscle. Much of the power generated during the stroke, while primarily generated in the arms, is greatly facilitated by the natural action of the body “falling” when stepping–”falling forward” as the stroke is opened and “falling back” as it is closed.

“Yes, BUT there is a price to pay. Namely, there is no momentum without the initial energy expenditure of the person operating the tool. Plus, once the blade runs out of momentum at the end of the cut, someone has to bring it back in order to begin the next wave of momentum…IF the job requires it, the mower’s energy (to do all this with “heavier” blade) is justified. Often that isn’t the case…

And, blades become “bogged down” far more often because the person guiding them has a poor grasp of how much a blade of certain length AND condition of its edge can handle at a stroke, rather not being heavy enough.”

 

This is where the variability of strokes with the American pattern comes into play. Momentum is easily generated by the lever action formed by the pivot of the right hand and the drawing action of the left. A tighter arc may be used when restarting a cut to finish out the swath becomes necessary.

 

“I don’t follow what you mean by the “choked” and “light” and “more energy” and “finishing out”  correlation, nor why the use of a light blade would lead to an “un-smooth swath cut”.”

 

Weight alone will not a clean uninterrupted swath make.  What I am arguing is that if one were to clear a given swath with a single mass-assisted stroke, it would take less energy than producing the same swath with a light blade where the stroke is botched and has to be restarted. If using a heavier blade then a deeper swath may be taken per stroke in compensation for the extra mass but one must, of course, still be mindful not to take too much and ensure that the edge is well maintained. When I state “choked” I mean a stroke where the blade’s travel is interrupted mid-swath due to the resistant pull of the vegetation. I do not state that the use of a light blade would lead to an “un-smooth swath cut”. Rather that if attempting to take a bite of equal depth to that achievable by  means of a mass-assisted stroke with a heavier blade, ceteris paribus, the lighter blade will be more easily choked in the cut.

 

“Hmm. I thought this precisely has been the argument made in contemporary American (and British) scythe circles on behalf of the “Austrian” blades and snaths…”

 

It is a universal precept for all edged cutting tools. This is not at all to say that a certain amount of “oomph” is not a useful thing, but rather that it is best employed with intelligence rather than foolishly thinking that you can simply overcome problems through nothing more than the application of more force. Consider a fellow using a splitting axe splitting minimally knotty (though not dead clean) cordwood without such strategies of intelligence as reading the grain to orient the blow in line with the knots and splitting along pre-existing checking. Instead, he meets with difficulty due to his poor technique and opts to use a heavy maul when a splitting axe would do just fine with the application of better method. An intelligent fellow, by contrast, will recognize the circumstances where switching the axe for the maul is legitimate and justified, and will apply both tools with sensibility under the proper circumstances. While “less is more” is an often astute phrase, it is not always wholly true. While intelligence should always receive greater emphasis than raw power, sometime less is less and more is more, and the intelligent application of raw power is of great benefit.

 

The intelligence over strength issue is more naturally realized by the beginner when using a light tool, but that does not mean that it doesn’t apply to heavier tools as well. The heavier tool, however, is more prone to be used like a crutch by the beginner. It is for this very reason that in modern sport fencing (the “sword fighting” variety–not picket fencing) that beginners are first instructed in the use of the French grip foil. The rules of the foil are the most exacting and requiring of precision, and the French grip is a deliberately “weak” one that forces the wielder to use finesse rather than muscle. Once sufficient skill is demonstrated the student is then allowed to learn epee or sabre and also given the option of using an orthopedic “pistol grip” rather than the French grip, which affords the ability to employ far more muscle in its action. In competition virtually every foil fencer uses a pistol grip, but in practice sessions the use of a French grip is still encouraged lest they begin to rely too much on muscle and lose a delicate touch. “An iron hand in a velvet glove” is one way to think of it. The American pattern is such a tool–the comparative heft and balance of the style are more likely to encourage over-application of force when it should still be used with dexterity and intelligence.

 

“The difference between pendulum and a scythe blade is that the latter (unless given a “little push” while suspended in mid-air on a string) does NOT come back on its own. I am all for pushing only as little as necessary, but if only “little push” is needed to pleasantly operate a scythe, I do not understand the rationale behind such an overall rather heavy tool.”

You are isolating the scythe from the user when both must operate in tandem. While the scythe may be resting on the ground, the act of walking is a state of controlled falling (as mentioned previously.) The return of the stroke comes on the advance into position for the next stroke, and this energy is captured and translated through the arms in the “opening”  pivot of the stroke.

 

“Is this a variation of Tresemer’s “grass will teach you”, or are you implying still a more ‘magically’ personal relationship with our tools? Ah, it sure would be nice!”

 

Consider it a broad extension of the concept. It is not only the grass that will teach you, but the terrain, the season, and the tool itself. Every variable of the the experience has something to tell the mower–including the mower’s own body and attitude!

 

“Meanwhile, I have to admit to a rather rational approach to answering the “why?””

 

As well you should! The communication of the tool, as “magical” or poetic as it sounds, is nothing more than studious observance of biofeedback and its interpretation.

 

“hmmm… well, you know what comes out of the back end of the horse…”

I dare say I do. ☺

 

“While all traditional styles rely primarily on the ‘leading’ arm as the chief power train (ones using the Swedish “overarm” snaths are somewhat of an exception) — the folks mowing with one foot forward are essentially doing variants of the “pendulum-like” motion you describe.”

 

Hmm…with most American strokes the left arm is actually the one providing action to the stroke. The right hand is chiefly acting as the pivot point and providing some degree of lateral motion in tandem with the left arm to create an arc of the proper desired radius. While the stroke may bear visual resemblance to other styles that drive from the right hand, the left hand is the one doing the greater degree of power generation.

 

“One more thing: to possibly temper your notion of snath design and mowing technique being SO intertwined that an open-minded stranger to either couldn’t begin to appreciate the other, here is something to chew on:”

 

That is not my notion.

 

“Within its respective parameters, each traditional unit can be optimally set. If a competent mower from a different tradition (regarding the tool and/or the movement) picks up such a fine-tuned scythe, feels it for a moment (without yet mowing) then tries a gentle stroke or two, he/she can subsequently perform close to as well with it as the one to whose tradition it belongs.”

 

Therein lies the problem. I doubt that many people in the modern era have experienced an optimally set traditional American scythe, yourself included.

 

“Wouldn’t a really good rider be able to guide a well-trained horse (with legs and body shifts only, while disregarding the intended function of Western/English bridles) and consequently evaluate how fine a horse there is under him/her?”

 

Once again, there’s part of the issue. Unless the unit has been well tuned (“trained”) then you will have very little capacity to evaluate the quality of the scythe. Most vintage American scythes could be likened to a once fine but now aged horse that has been allowed to become a “pasture puff”. There are signs of significant wear and tear and much of that “good training” has been lost from disuse or prior injury. It is more common than not to find vintage American scythes, regardless of their original quality, with their blades out of shape and edges in need of dressing, the nibs twisted out of proper position or even missing…and how many today, in the until-recent absence of information on that proper tuning, would be aware of how to “retrain” that unit?

 

“However, it is not quite clear if you are implying that the same could NOT be said about the traditional (mostly straight) Austrian snaths, or the rest of the ‘continental’ lot.”

 

Allow me to clarify then: I imply no such thing. Merely that the American snath is not at disadvantage, contrary to what has been so often spoken of it by adherents to the modern paradigm.

 

““Ergonomic clearance” is a new term to me, and to be honest, a confusing one… so I’ll leave it be.”

 

Quite simple. The snath is designed in such a way that the pivoting action employed in its use is ergonomically sound. Its action does not conflict with the comfortable range of motion of the body. The current paradigm has often made the assertion that the snath is an unergonomic one. If the snath is the source of your discomfort it is very likely to be improperly tuned, being used incorrectly, or both.

 

“However, provided the blade is well-fitted, I can perform, at least for a short spell of time, the same bodily movement with a wide array of scythes, includingthe American.”

 

As I mentioned in my opening response to your article on peening American blades, just because a thing may be done does not mean that it should.

 

“For the same reason, as you can see from my communicated take on the issue, I have long considered the American snath (weight distribution-wise) as completely upside down.”

 

This is in alignment with my argument that one should mow with a scythe as if it is the one it is–not as if it is the scythe you wish it was.

 

“Besides, I’m an advocate of home-made tool handles, snaths included. The American snath is a design for production line; its nearly every feature makes an owner, or even village-made substitute far more difficult than is the case with the vast majority of other snath designs. On that count alone I might relegate it to a museum. Its virtues (if perceived) could be preserved ‘live’ by finding a way to incorporate them into a more convivial-to-make design.”

 

What in the world makes it difficult to self-manufacture? Manufactured nibs (though to my mind superior in function) may be replaced with Russian style grips, and a simple ring and wedge used to affix the blade. The chief principles of curvature may still be employed with wildwood. In fact, I’ve personally made a wildwood American snath and will be continuing to experiment with the crafting of such.

 

“Ah, yes, I nearly forgot those curves. I observe that there are four of them; two with a good purpose, and two without (as far as I can see). The useful two are the up-turn on the bottom and the curve in the middle (about the region of the lower nib). But why the potential comfort of the left shoulder (and sometimes the back) that was created by the good middle turn — should be ‘canceled out’ by having the uppermost portion of the shaft turn upwards, I have no idea. The second puzzling turn is the leftward sweep in the bottom half of the shaft. You see, instead of the leftwards bend I prefer just the opposite.”

 

Firstly, there are commonly five curves, though the fifth is often a subtle one (a slight recurvature after the primary lateral bend) and is sometimes materially absent in snaths of less-optimal curvature. Secondly you are again making the mistake of thinking that the American is wholly compatible with your preferred stroke. As mentioned earlier, the left hand is providing the primary action of the scythe with the American pattern, and this–combined with the forward-facing nibs–results in the optimal curves being different than those for one of your preferred type where the grips are closer to the body than the snath itself. The leftward lateral curve provides greater travel for the left hand at the end of the stroke.

 

I assure you that the left shoulder is rendered comfortable in this arrangement. The lift of the end of the snath that so puzzles you provides bracing for the palm of the left hand, which spans between the snath and nib rather than grasping the nib as one would a hammer. The drawing and pushing of the snath is, as described, generated from the left hand, and by the bracing action between the nib and the snath, both pushing and pulling yield ergonomic results. The elbow remains comfortably bent and relaxed when the snath is close to the body. The left hand should rest a little higher than the right (the right arm hangs fairly straight) enabling the tillering action to adapt to varied terrain and vegetation types. Employing the right hand as the primary powertrain would be exhausting indeed, as you’d be employing an inefficient third-class lever compared to the desired first-class one.

 

“And please don’t tell me that the snath was made curved (to the left) in order to accommodate the blade’s tang. That would be a preposterous reason for such an arrangement.”

 

Trust me–I had no intention of telling you that! It would be just as preposterous as you state. In fact, various “sets” of the “heel” (in this sense the heel being the tang and shank rather than the heel of the blade) existed, ranging from square (most typical) to half-mulay and mulay. See below.
HeelsBlack

“But perhaps the Americans are not to blame for the mix-up. Perhaps it was some influential Scot returning home early morning after a long night in the pub over many glasses of that fine scotch, and (understandably) was seeing double. Perhaps he was a mower at heart and, in high spirits as he was, he stopped by his house, picked up a scythe and headed straight for a hayfield. Likely still seeing double while swinging it, and from that perspective the original triangle-like Scottish snath was shifting shapes, appearing like a snake. Perhaps he had a vision that if that snaky shape was incorporated into a snath design, everybody would be happy. And eventually the concept immigrated to America… where now we have Benjamin enthralled by it, and we can debate with him.”

 

Or perhaps it was a Canadian misunderstanding the methodology behind the pattern that led to his own poor opinion of its fundamental design in spite of it being so satisfying to literally many hundreds of thousands of Americans?

 

In 1921, Derby & Ball was producing 740,000 snaths at their Bellows Falls facility, and they were but one of four manufacturers in America at the time.

 

“I agree; the only rival in this respect is the traditional Russian snath. You know, the one that a man could make for himself out in the woods at the edge of a beckoning meadow, with a knife as the only tool, if necessary…”

 

You’re correct that the Russian grips have an advantage in ease of self-manufacture. But not only could these be used on an American snath, but the manufactured nibs are more comfortable in use–at least in my experience.

 

“Are you implying that the Europeans were as smart (and willing to pay for complexity, if perceived helpful) as the Americans? If so, thank you for the complement, but the guess above was wrong. While the whole of USA was still mown with curved snaths, the majority of scythe blades around the globe were mounted on straight snaths.”

 

Yes. They were as smart, but preferred a different approach. Also, I didn’t say that all or even the majority of continental snaths were curved. Just that many are/were. You seem to keep thinking I’m making absolutist statements when that isn’t the case. While it’s convenient to debate in black and white terms, reality is very rarely so easily pigeonholed.

 

Note that the central arch of the American snath is chiefly to obviate the need for a stemmed grip. If one were to include only the vertical lift of the neck and draw a straight line from that point to the left hand, we would have the beginnings of a design that would start looking fairly familiar in continental-favoring circles. Add a stemmed grip instead of a nib for the right hand, and the transformation in appearance is remarkable. But a stemmed grip requires that it be affixed in some way to the snath, usually by chiseling or drilling a hole to receive it, and the combined arch-and-nib solution allows the wood of the snath to be left whole.

 

“You wouldn’t be saying that there is yet another thing the otherwise so ingenious Americans did ‘backwards’? (The first one being steam-bending the snath to fit the flat and ‘open’ tang instead of factory-setting the tang to fit an easier-to-manufacture snath.)”

 

No. Not backwards. It has to do with the range of adjustment more than anything else. The loop bolt method of attachment is outstandingly secure, but must be of sufficient width to affix the tang in position across its range of adjustment. If so desired, the snath may then be thinned out behind the hardware. Likewise, chronologically speaking, the loop bolt was a much later development than the end-heavy design of the snath. Prior to both loop bolt and ring-and-set screw methods of attachment a ring and wedge were used for attachment, with many bush snaths still employing the ring and wedge method even at a much later date.

 

And once again, it was intended for the tang to be adjusted post-purchase unless an unpitched tang was actually desired.

 

Lastly, while the typical end diameter of an American snath was 2”, some of the nicer heavy-curve light-weight grass snaths were 1 ½” in diameter with the smaller hardware to match, in spite of manufacture requiring separate tooling to produce it. The width of American tangs varies in accordance with the predicted strain experienced during mowing, with heavy bush blades often having very fat tangs at the neck. Only the tangs of grass and light weed blades will fit in the narrower loop bolts on these lighter grass snaths–not that one would desire to use such a snath with a heavy bush blade anyhow.

 

“These three strikes against it are, of course, grounded in my aforementioned stand regarding the concept of local self-reliance in everything considered ‘essential’. (However, we may be talking over each other’s head here, because of having different sub-goals in mind.)”

 

And is re-use outside of your philosophy? Actual failure of manufactured hardware, while possible, is very rare, and with the abundance of American and Canadian snaths kicking around just about everywhere in their respective nations…it’s inconsequential to harvest the hardware off of a worm-eaten or broken snath and install them on a wildwood snath of your own fashioning. Just throwing that thought out there.

 

“If some enterprising (and skilled) North Americans decide to supply that demand, it will be time to return to the way of forging blades resembling either the old Scandinavian or the American style. They’ll likely be forged out of one grade of steel, not three. And hopefully have a more elevated tang as well as a bit more “smile”.”

 

There are a number of relatively sizable swordworks in the USA as well as quite a few skilled individual makers to boot. I should imagine that in such an event and the demand is there they would be quite capable of producing such blades. However, I likewise imagine it would take quite some time to exhaust the domestic supply of vintage American blades.

 

“If by “traditional Austrian type” you mean the ring that came with your Scythe Supply outfit[…]”

 

As I’ve repeatedly clarified with you, I don’t own a Scythe Supply outfit. I’ve used one, though. Not sure why you still think I actually own one.

 

“Let me get the (already-addressed) crown-function out of the way. The amount of crown on the average American blade obviously did fulfill its function, but at the cost of mower’s luxury of being able to ‘fall asleep’ while at work, in my view. As I expressed above, a bit more smile would have helped…”

 

Again, I think you’re perhaps not experienced enough with the pattern to justifiably state that a feature of its design is “too much” or “too little”. And being alert while mowing is not necessarily a bad thing.

 

“It is on the merits of “…generated primarily from the arms…” where you and I differ in a major way.”

 

Note that I say primarily, not exclusively. There’s a huge difference. The whole body is still used and strain is distributed across the body.

 

“And what ARE the front and back regions doing just then?”

 

I think you mean the heel and toe? Presuming this is what you mean, they’ll both be in a state or “lift” at that particular stage of the stroke, dependent on the degree of crowning to the blade. In a flat blade with a level lay, all points of the edge will be cutting during the stroke. The greater the crown the smaller an “active zone” you’ll have to the edge but the easier you’ll be able to get into dips. Are you suggesting that this would be any different with a “smiling” continental blade?

 

“Are you implying that the edge of an “Austrian” blade is NOT “properly presented”?”

 

No. If your blade is not properly presented you’re doing it wrong, regardless of style or pattern.

 

““incredibly thin“in relation to what? Russian sunflower stalks?”

 

Well, technically yes! In this case, however, I’m more specifically referring to the depth the edge of the blade has to travel to sever a stalk in relation to the overall width of the blade and the sectional geometry of the region actively engaged in the cut. While it’s better to have your blade properly adjusted, it’s not rendered completely unusable if the tang is left unpitched thanks to the bend in the neck of the snath minimizing how many degrees “off target” it is. As cited earlier in this document, an unpitched blade on a snath with “normal” curves will only be presenting itself about 15° above level.

 

“That may be so with the hair on your arm; there is a WHOLE LOT MORE to efficient performance of a scythe blade than ‘edge catching’. Even if the cut be made, the accompanying question ought to be: how much energy did it take??”

 

I agree. I never said that’s all there was to it–I was simply stating that effective, if sub-optimal, results may be attained with an unpitched tang. I highly recommend pitching it if the circumstances call for it, however, and do agree that for grass and weed blades currently manufactured it would be beneficial to beginners if there was some degree of pitching introduced at the factory, as we live in different times today than the consumer of yesteryear.

 

““folly“? How then did all those dove-tailed cornered cabins — with the men having axes as the only tool — ever get built?”

 

I’m pretty sure they rendered the trees into logs first. A cabin built from still-standing trees would be quite the sight indeed!

 

“Of course, you do know all this; what I quibble over here (and other places) is a case of an intelligent man being sloppy with terminology.”

 

Yup. A few careless errors were made, and I’m willing to own that.

 

“But Benjamin, as pointed out just above, there can certainly be “too much of a good thing” with respect to the concept you are talking about here.”

 

Indeed. As I like to say, “Too much is too much. That’s why it’s called too much!”

 

“Or rather ‘ought‘ to have.”

 

The comment was made under the presumption that the tool is properly tuned. I suppose I could alter the lay so egregiously that the blade presents itself like that of a hoe, but that would be outside the realm of sensible conversation. We’re not trying to cut so close a stubble that we plow the subsoil in the process. We’re talking about a scythe–not a hoe!

 

“Good point, except I’d suggest you change the “straight” to FLAT and “edge height” to edge ANGLE.”

 

I‘d rather not, as that would totally change what I was saying. The width of the blade in conjunction with the amount of curvature to the edge will determine how high the blade will ride when presented at a given angle. The angle will remain constant, but the edge will be higher or lower from the ground depending on the width of the blade at a given point.

 

“Are you not getting carried away? At least my intent here is NOT to indulge in some pro and con debate on behalf of total beginners (who may have to be told that it is not a good idea to mow with a dull scythe — and then have it explained what “dull” and “sharp” means). In ALL considerations discussed here, an adequately sharp blade (which includes honed) is, to me, a GIVEN.

And, let’s leave the oranges out of it until the the main course is more or less done…”

 

Not at all. I’m pointing out the error in comparing a sharp scythe of one style to a dull scythe of another style as a basis of determining the fundamental superiority of the one and inferiority of the other. For accurate comparison, properly tuned and sharpened units used with equal degrees of competency is required. I simply continue on to say that when brute strength starts being applied to chop rather than slice through the cut that a tensioned blade is at greater risk of catastrophic failure. The analogy to an inverted orange peel is deliberate. If you take a section of orange peel and invert it, it becomes tensioned (this works best with a thick peel from a small orange.) Gently nick the edge with a knife and watch the cut spring apart as the tension seeks release. In either case, however, the use of a dull scythe is something to be avoided in general.

 

“One of two…”

 

Correct–after the document was written I was made aware of this fact. At the time it was written, I was unaware of the other. I’d be interesting in gauging the quality of that firm’s work, though it looks to not be tremendously different from the current SFX product.

 

“And where did you learn that“…Sweden was the predominant manufacturer …”?”

 

Here used in the sense of “having superior strength, influence, or authority.” They were massively higher quality blades more true to proper form than those produced in Austria. Everything that I’ve found indicates that Austrian-manufactured American pattern blades were simply a “cheap” economy option, and I have yet to see an American pattern blade of Austrian manufacture that actually meets muster, though some older Redtenbacher blades are at least a lot closer to the mark than more recent or modern production.

 

“You may still be right, however (especially IF you were referring to the late 19th or very early 20th century) although I was under the impression that it was Austria instead.”

 

To be specific, I was referencing the first half of the 20th century. My research indicates that Banko of Sweden was the contractor to Sears Roebuck for their Craftsman line of blades.

 

“1939   31,276 scythe blades (their best year; demand began to slowly drop off then)

[…]

The Swedes surpassing that? I don’t think so, but by all means and for whatever reason, engage in more research.”

 

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were able to surpass that, and actually strikes me as a small number. Granted, we’re talking about a figure from 1848, but the Dunn Edged Tool Co. was putting out 168,000 blades at that time, and was just one of countless blade manufacturers in the USA. By 1902 they were producing 180,000 blades annually.  Pair this with the figure cited earlier with the volume of snaths made by Derby & Ball in 1921 and you have some idea of the truly massive number of blades that were called for at one time.

 

To further inquire, were all of these blades of American pattern, or were continental and hybrid blades (continental blade with American tang) also included in the figures?

 

“In any case, my hat off to the smiths willing to so complicate their task; I didn’t know that they actually used THREE DIFFERENT GRADES OF STEEL to make a scythe blade!”

 

You may enjoy these little excerpts from period documents describing the process:

HoningTheArgument1 HoningTheArgument2 HoningTheArgument3

 

“You are an acclaimed sharpening man, so I can assume that making the statement above, you were not merely (mis)guided by the label on the box of old blades which claims them to have an “ALL DAY EDGE”.”

 

Correct. Bear in mind that “all day edge” does not mean that touchups with a stone in the field are not required to keep the scythe in its best operating condition. But those touchups are very few when the conditions are such that not too much dirt sullies the edge, and taking the blade to the grindstone is only required once in a very great while compared to the frequency with which it is typically advised to stop and peen a tensioned blade, even under rough and frequent use. After initially grinding a blade to freshen it up when first restoring it, I only find cause to hit the grinder again in the rare circumstances that I put a small nick in the edge, and then it’s scarce more than a touch-up. While I do occasionally run into a soft monosteel blade, the general rule of thumb is that the grindstone sees only rare use reshaping the primary grind of the edge to render it sufficiently thin.

 

“But can I also assume that you used the same blade for say 8 to 10 hours (which would be a short day in old American farm jargon), consecutively and kept and kept good track of those hours, even if it was but one hour a day? Also that you were mowing serious grass and not patches of buttercups. Then, at the end of such a simulated day — and before you possibly turned that Grizzly onto it again — how EASY DID the blade pull, periodically whetted to keenness as it was. (I know this is a silly question because how accurately can one describe “easiness” in words.) Yes, but was it still cutting:

a) as easily as in the morning

b) slightly less easy but not so that taking time for re-beveling could be justified

c) given the increased whetting frequency it was still acceptably ‘keen’ at the end of the day.

Before you’d answer these or similarly posed questions further debate on this topic is pointless.”

 

After 8-10 hours of labor on thick knobby grasses and green dogwood stems, with only whetting from whichever field sharpening device I decided to use during the individual sessions comprising the whole, I would say somewhere in the upper B range to lower A. To compare a freshly honed blade to one that’s been used even frequently enough as to require a single touch-up from the stone is not quite accurate as it would be difficult to keep a blade as sharp in the field as I do when freshly prepping an edge. After beveling I remove the burr with a 6µ sanding belt followed by a leather belt loaded with chromium oxide compound. I then finish with a whipping stick of plain wood to remove any wire from the edge and perfectly align the apex. As I’ve stated elsewhere on the ‘net, the edge produced by this process is so fine that it will take hair from my arm without touching the skin. By the end of the 8-10 hours of serious heavy mowing with only field-whetting of the edge it still pulls through the cut with ease.

 

“As for your “the Austrian type which requires periodic peening throughout the day” — I would phrase this as ‘benefits by’ rather than “requires”.)”

 

Fair enough.

 

“You wouldn’t just be pulling data out of a hat, would you?”

 

Of course not. This is cutlery science. I hope I’ve addressed this question at the beginning of the document, but it bears repeating that even at equal hardness an edge produced through work hardening will be more prone to brittle failure (including micro-fracture) than an edge produce through simply heat treating to desired hardness and forming through grinding. The greater damage resistance comes from the support of the un-interrupted crystal lattice structure of the steel and the edge retention through the martensitic crystal phase compared to the chiefly pearlitic formation of the “Austrian.” On a related note it would be interesting to do full and rigorous hardness testing and full CATRA edge retention analysis on a broad strata of diverse blades, but such would be no small undertaking and I don’t have access to anyone with the equipment and the willingness to volunteer its use. For reference, yes I’ve seen your discussion of hardness testing you’ve had performed.

 

“As for a perceptively ‘hollowgrind’ (as we’d normally expect to see when using that term) — for that the old wheels would have had to be of a much smaller diameter.”

 

Hmmm…only for a fellow that’s not very perceptive. I have plenty of new old stock blades from various manufacturers and the factory bevels as produced on stones commonly 7ft or more in diameter are still noticeably hollow both to the eye and to the touch. As it is, the 10” diameter wheel on my Grizzly G1036 produces a noticeably hollow grind, to wit.

 

“Now, now, Benjamin, let’s not get carried away by drawing an analogy between the very low-beveled, hard, but (in relation to most other edge tools) brittle edges of razors, whose toughest expected duty is to cut human hair, AND those tools intended for cutting vascular plants of various species and stages of maturity (from juicy and tender to dry, tough and possibly ‘woody’).”

 

With respect, you’re grasping at straws here. The analogy is one chiefly driven by geometry–not one strictly of hardness (though the blades are still comparatively hard on the spectrum of relevant scythe blade measure) and the bevel is actually of similar angle, believe it or not. A straight razor measuring 3/16” at the spine and a standard 6/8” in width (I know–it may be simplified as ¾” but measuring in 1/8ths is traditional nomenclature) will have a minimum honed included angle of 14°, or 7° per side. My bevels measure, on average, 9° per side. And the human hair we’re talking about is facial hair–did you know that the hair on the face of the average male has a tensile strength greater than copper wire of the same thickness? Cutting it’s no cakewalk. Furthermore, varying degrees of hollowing exist with straight razors, all the way down to “wedge” and “true wedge” grinds.

 

“On this note a question: how many of those Americans (never mind the rest of the globe’s citizens) who by ‘stroke of destiny’ are the unaware ‘beneficiaries’ of the countless lifeforms’ deaths — so that theoretically they could own a Grizzly grinder, can readily afford one?”

 

Let’s do a breakdown:

 

ScytheWorks Canada

“All Purpose” snath and blade combo:  $161.54 USD ($177 Canadian)

Peening Jig: $50.10 USD ($55 Canadian)

Shipping: ??? (Varies)

 

Total: $211.64 plus s/h

 

American “Bundle”

Vintage American scythe found locally and of good quality: Typically $25

Grizzly G1036 Wet Grinder: $212.12 (Amazon.com price as of 2/16/14, Prime/Super Saver-eligible)

 

Total:  $237.12 including s/h

 

So only a $25.48 USD window for shipping before the price is identical. Note that while online auction site price plus s/h on vintage units is higher than that cited, it’s not uncommon to find units for a mere $15 if you scout out the local antique shops and flea markets. The cost could be further reduced if you were to purchase only the 10” grinding wheel itself ($44.95 plus s/h direct from Grizzly) and make your own treadle frame.

 

HOWEVER were you aware that the wheels used for final grinding of scythe blades in factories was commonly one made of wood with grit glued to its surface? Or that you can make your own grinding wheel from cement and fine sand?

 

From Autonopedia.org —

 

GRINDSTONES AND WHETSTONES

For sharpening axes, debarking spades and other cutting tools, revolving grindstones operated by hand or foot are used for regular overhauls (1). They should have a minimum diameter of 50 cm and a minimum width of 10 cm, be made of sandstone or appropriate artificial material and be used with water. When not in use, the stone must be kept dry to prevent moisture softening the part of the stone under water. From time to time, the stone must be “dressed”, that is, restored to its original circular shape.

Grindstones can easily be made locally from 20 litres of good quality cement and 50 litres of quartzitic sand with 1 mm or smaller particle size. The sand must be sieved (e.g. with mosquito netting), be washed and clean from clay or salt. In addition, an iron tube or rod is needed, about 60 cm length and 2 cm diameter with a nail welded to its middle.

The grindstone is made in a wooden mould (2) which is set up in a shady place. The mould is approximately 50 by 50 cm in size and 15 cm high. It consists of two parts (2a) which are placed on a board (2b) resting on two supports (2c).

Exactly in the centre of the mould the iron rod is placed, forming a perfect right angle with the mould and securely held in position by small boards nailed on the mould (3a).

After filling the mould with mortar and compacting it carefully, the grindstone is left to dry for about three days. Some sprinkling with water may be required to avoid too rapid drying.

After removing the grindstone from the mould, the stone is placed in a trestle with a piece of an old tyre fitted underneath as a water container (4a).

This type of grindstone is also handy for sharpening agricultural tools such as hoes and spades and should be available in any village.

“Regardless of how long you perceive the “Oil Party” may still continue, do you actually think that your Grizzly can beat my grandfather’s old hammer, (used in those on those American blades) in endowing a scythe edge with a very efficient geometry?”

Yes.

To be less contentious, though more verbose there is nothing that prevents the stock removal method from generating a geometry equal to that of one produced with a hammer.

 

“Let’s sum up the ‘metallurgical magic’ portion of whatyou claim on behalf of this venerable American tool thus far.”

 

Nothing magic about it. It’s just simple low-alloy steel we’re talking about here.

 

“1.The primary bevel of its edge is/can/ought to be shaped (on a grinder) to 9 – 11 degrees per side (that is 18-22 combined angle, which is low and potentially very penetrating). So far so good…

2. …and (thusly shaped) it will hold a “keen edge all day” “with only whetting….”

3. …while used in “… where bumps and valleysabound””

 

Yup. Or as we Mainers say, “ayuh.”

 

“4. Now you add that (perhaps as a consequence of #3?) it might be “twisted into a pretzel or zigzag” and yet “can be bent back true without permanent damage”.”

 

Nope. Read that again–the “twisted into pretzels or zigzags” is in reference to the ritualistic destruction of Viking sword blades, which was used as analogy for some of the awful shapes I’ve found American scythe blades in. Some, verily, are cracked already or crack upon the attempt to return them to true (fun fact–”strain hardening” from repeated bending operates on the same principle as peening) but many bent or twisted blades may be repaired without incident. For instance, that American blade you posted photographs of that had survived so much abuse could likely be straightened out without incident and overall restored to a very usable condition–though I cannot speak for the inherent quality of that particular blade. Instead, perhaps this image may be convincing. Scope out the weed blade in the middle of this trio in its original state (lower right) vs. what it became (upper left.) This is by no means the most extreme example I’ve fully repaired, but it’s the one I have the best photos of:

Rise&ShineScythe_RestorationMontage

 

“IF all this is true, I suggest you try to ferret out the secrets of how exactly the American steel mills made those three kinds of steel, how the smiths forged a blade of it, and then heat treated it so as to have it posses the combination of the above-claimed qualities. If you manage it, I think that every edge-tool making company would send a representative to your door, begging you to accept a distinguished position in their metallurgy-related department.”

 

It’s nothing particularly fancy, and is all based on well accepted and demonstrated science and manufacturing methodology in the cutlery field. It’s just good lamination and heat treatment at work, using materials of appropriate grade for the application. Lamination as a mode of construction has been done for thin edged tools for many centuries by nearly every steel-working culture, including Austria. Certain nations used it more extensively than others, though, as it’s a comparative pain in the butt vs. just skipping the whole hullabaloo and using monosteel. However, you might find some entertainment in watching destructive testing of swords made from bainitic-phase L6 or what kind of abuse a knife made from S7 can take.

 

“As for “… Austrian pattern blades found on this continent with their edges torn like a child’s construction paper…”, their owners evidently disregarded the advice you offer just below.You ought to know that an edge which can cut grass with ease is ALSO one prone to get damaged. Furthermore, I want to remind you that equating a scythe blade’s edge (in this case the “Austrian style”, of course) with child’s construction paper, you cross the line between an attempt at being constructive and being silly, even belligerent. The spill of your poetic license may come across humorously to some, but what is such smear doing within the context of a serious, education-oriented debate with a technical slant? (Had I thought it to be otherwise I’d be sleeping right now instead of writing…)”

 

Or perhaps you’re just misunderstanding me again, like with the orange peel reference before. I address this particular simile earlier in the document when you first alluded to it, but let’s do it again to make sure it’s driven home squarely.

 

In the hands of an insensible brute that thinks a scythe is a machete on a stick, it is not unusual that such wretched tears in a thin blade would be produced, and this is the fault solely of the user and not of the tool. Method, tool, and application must all act in synchronicity to produce good results.  If there is a smear here it is against those with willful disregard for the care and proper use of their tools–not one against the continental scythe.

 

“What? I don’t recall ANYONE making that argument. Heavy and/or brittle, yes. “Delicate”, NO.”

 

Delicate here meaning “easily broken or damaged; fragile.”

 

“With other words, the specs for the “continental” scythe design were were being written when Europe was far from being a territory of “well-groomed fields”.”

 

And as you yourself state, heavier or more robust blades abounded.

 

“I don’t know if you are referring to that funny thing that Seymour used to wholesale (or still does?) — the mostly straight shaft, little upturned near the bottom with one ‘peg’ for a grip and called it “German style snath” — but if so, I’m not surprised. I would NOT want to use it either.”

 

Well, given that I outright state that the unit was manufactured by the “Sta-Tite Snath Co.” (of Shelbyville Indiana) I should think it fairly obvious that it was not a Seymour product.

Note that these photos show a hybrid blade mounted, but that’s just what came on it when I bought it. I’ve mounted “purebred” continental blades on it without incident. Observe the rectangular (rather than square) wells to receive the longer knob of the continental tang.

HoningTheArgument4 HoningTheArgument5

The hardware is all unique to this model, so evidently they thought there was at least enough demand to justify the cost of dedicated tooling.

 

“Nothing “simple” about this. In spite of your darn hard attempt to convince me otherwise, I’m still left with the opinion that most of the American farmers never really tried an alternative, so ‘didn’t know better’ and consequently worked harder for their cut grass than many of their European and Near Eastern comrades – the respective “mowing conditions” taken into account.”

 

You make it sound as though Americans were not at all worldly nor part of an extensive global trade network. Tensioned blades being such “old hat” and widespread in their use, to the point of being actively imported and sold throughout the USA and many tensioned blades having been made in hybrid format with American tangs–to the point that Seymour still imports such hybrids to this very day–I think it odd that you insist on the American farmer as having operating in a  relative vacuum. If they were so willing and ready to cast off the comparatively inexpensive scythe for the much more expensive horse-drawn mowing machines I should expect that their willingness to adopt a labor-saving device would have led to the immediate adoption of the continental style if it had been the best choice for their purposes.

 

I have encountered many documents written by Americans traveling abroad in Europe that contain (granted, unfavorable) remarks about the scythes they saw in use or laid hands on, and the raw material for American scythes was commonly  sourced from Germany, England, and Sweden. I rather expect that, as a whole, the American agriculturalist was more aware of the continental scythe than you surmise.

 

Cheers,

~Benjamin P. Bouchard

Feb. 2014

Postscript: Regarding Some Other Comments

While Botan is of course fully capable of speaking for himself, I cannot help but provide my own thoughts on some of the comments you’ve made in your response to his original document, some simply adding to the discussion, others critical.

 

“[…] but perhaps I’m stuck in reflecting on all the strong swords, machetes and knives which did a bloody lot of tough work, straight as they were.”

 

Totally different tools in terms of their design requirements and precepts other than being long edged implements. Swords, machetes, and knives have been made in even greater variety than scythe blades shall ever likely be. While countless straight swords, machetes, and knives exist, so too do those of dramatic curvature, and a large array of construction and design methods were used to create a blade that met the needs of the user.

 

Perhaps these, too, were designed by that wandering Scottish fellow you mentioned earlier on. My, how he got around!

HoningTheArgument6HoningTheArgument7 HoningTheArgument8 HoningTheArgument9 HoningTheArgument10 HoningTheArgument11 HoningTheArgument12HoningTheArgument13

Now of course, I know what you’re getting at, but this is just as clumsy a statement as you call Botan and I out on in our respective documents. In fact, in the realm of straight swords there are an astounding array of design classes that were intended either primarily or exclusively for thrusting, with very little edge or even none at all. This has little to do with scythes, I know, but the same may be said of the statement I’m taking to task right now.

“Haven’t all their users and designers wanted strength as one of the blade’s attributes?”

One of. Not exclusively. In design, certain features take dominance over others depending on the needs and wants of stakeholders in the process (all parties involved with the design, manufacture, sale, purchase, or use of the product.)

 

“Assuming that most of this readership opts for the latter (though I can’t really know what ‘hand-forging’ means to them) here is some food for thought:

In the age of obsessive mechanization “hand forged” has acquired a romantic ring, and can now function as buyer-bait for tools made by industry (which does little ‘by hand’, as we affectionately think of it).”

 

I like to refer to what is often so erroneously called “hand made” in countless industries well beyond edged tool manufacture as being made by “hand-operated machine process”.

 

“I have often pointed out the many ‘shortcomings’ of “most Americans”, but to put it like this? Could the author be possibly underestimating his compatriots’ conceptualizing abilities?”

 

Personally I found it obvious that it was meant in the sense that most Americans’ mental schema when they think of scythes is one of hard work and antiquated inefficient methodology, having no or limited experience with what a good scythe can do. So in the absence of either direct or vicarious experience (such as having a friend that has a scythe and knows how to use it) then it would be very difficult for them to conceptualize the ease and efficacy of mowing with a good scythe.

 

“An additional comment: a friend recently wrote that while in England he saw a documentary claiming that “excavations under a building in York had turned up Viking steel implements that were of a quality of steel as good as anything made anywhere with today’s technology””

 

That documentary’s claim is outstanding nonsense.

 

“No region of the world HAS local STEEL.”

 

Unless in this instance “steel” was being used as a summary term for not only ore but the means to mine it, refine it, and process it into steel; a domestic steel making industry.

 

“(How “simple”, for instance, were the samurai swords, or the Turkish scimitars?)”

 

Nihonto (Japanese swords) are, even in their thinnest form, much thicker than even the thickest of common scythe blades, and Turkish shamshir and kilij swords, while thinner than most of the Japanese sort, are still much thicker than typical scythe blades as well. They’re very complex in form, but as the thinness is the chief point that was being discussed, I still don’t see what swords have to do with scythes besides cutting a swath through the “field of battle” for warrior or farmer alike. If anything, the art of plate armor manufacture probably has more akin to continental scythe blades than anything else.

 

“Besides, what once was accomplished with those old grindstones can be done with only files and hand-held stones and, (depending on the respective quality of both) sometimes faster.”

 

Not always. Hollow grinds necessitate a convex abrading surface, and–in the case of files–that the convexity be aligned in the direction of the cutting action. This is why so many professional knife making belt grinders have a large diameter contact wheel for grinding against–it simulates the kind of hollow grinding action provided by a classical grinding wheel. So while most sharpening functions can be accomplished using hand-held stones and file, they aren’t able of performing all of the tasks that were traditionally the domain of the grindstone.

 

Concerning the “sufficiency” of a dull edge tool — ANY edge tool — I wish to add here a note on behalf of beginner tool users:

1) There is often greater difference in performance between well and poorly serviced edge of two tools of exactly same make/quality than there is between equally well-serviced edges of a cheap and expensive versions of same.

2) Only ignorance would have a person put up with a dull edge on any tool, for any job. (The temporary inefficiency is smaller part of the price paid; the more unfortunate side-effect of such choices is that they easily lead to lowering one’s standard of the tool’s potential.

 

Total agreement here. As a fellow once said, “A high quality tool is easily rendered a poor one through improper or careless sharpening.” Likewise, the truism that geometry is what cuts and the steel and heat treatment are what determine for how long.

 

“Hmm…”

 

And just what is meant by this? Or for that matter, this, from the Consumer Report listing?:

 

Botan Anderson of One Scythe Revolution has become the most creative scythe seller, surpassing even Scythe Supply’s ability to sell volumes of scythes to the generally under-informed, and sometimes misled, North American public. More than any other retailer, Botan fits the image of a man who can, as they say, “sell ice to the Eskimos”.

He does deserve acknowledgment for his scythe-related activism, even though he sometimes ‘forgets’ to give credit where credit is due…

 

I’m curious–where are you drawing your figures from? I’m pretty sure he doesn’t sell more units that Scythe Supply does. To boot, I’m not sure if you’re aware or not, but while the ability to “sell ice to the Eskimos” may be a testament to the ability of the salesman, the phrase is a pejorative one when it comes to ethics and so not exactly considered a compliment. Is this intentional? It does seem as though you have some feelings you’re holding back, but only just.

A Primer on the Selection, Use, & Maintenance of the American Scythe

Baryonyx Knife Co.

A Primer on the Selection, Use, & Maintenance

of the American Scythe

The scythe is a powerful, versatile, and useful tool for the mowing and removal of unwanted grasses, weeds, and young woody growth. Quiet and pleasant to use, the scythe provides numerous advantages over mechanical mowers and string trimmers, and is able to be used in many locations where mechanical mowers can not. Unlike the chopped clippings of mechanical mowers, which can cause colic, the clippings generated by a scythe may be used as useful forage for horses, rabbits, and other livestock.

If you are reading this guide chances are you have just purchased, are about to purchase, or already own an American pattern scythe and are curious about how to get the most out of this versatile tool. In this document we will cover how to identify parts of the scythe, select the best model for your uses, adjust the scythe to your body, describe proper technique, and how to keep your scythe in good operating condition so that it provides you with years or even generations of faithful service.

 

~Terminology~

 

To best understand the descriptions that follow in further sections it is important to become familiar with the parts of the tool. The following diagrams illustrate conventionally accepted nomenclature for the scythe and its components.

SnathTermsCollarLabeled

NibComponentsLabeled

BladeTermsNoHole

Snath: The “handle” of the scythe. Can be used to refer only to the shaft or to the entire assembly complete with hardware.

Nibs: The side-handles of the snath.  Distinct from “grips” in that they encircle the snath rather than being bolted or mortised into it.

Nib Iron: The threaded rod of the nib, onto which the recessed nut in the grip is tightened.

Nib Bands: The steel bands of the nibs.

Nib Blocks: The iron or aluminum ferrule through which the nib bands are drawn when tightened.

Hafting Collar: The collar at the end of the snath through which the loop bolt passes.

Heel Plate: A plate with a hole or series of holes to seat the end of the blade tang. Often integral to the hafting collar. Also sometimes called the web, though this can be confused with the web of the blade.

Swing Socket: An alternative form of heel plate that pivots for an increased range of hang adjustment.

Tang: The “tail” of the blade which is used for mounting it to the snath.

Knob: The bent end of the tang that seats in the mounting plate. Historically sometimes called the “claw”.

Shank: The portion of the tang in line with the blade.

Elbow: The bend, turn, or crook of the tang.

Heel: The base of the blade, including the tang.

Beard: The base of the blade as it projects, drops, or flares from the tang.

Toe: The tip of the blade.

Edge: The sharpened region spanning between the beard and the toe of the blade.

Spine: The back of the blade.

Chine: The raised lip of the spine.

Crest: A raised ridge on the backside of the blade that supports the toe after the termination of the rib. Not present on all blades.

Rib: The large stiffening channel that runs along the spine of the blade.

Bead: One or more smaller stiffening channels that runs alongside the rib. Not present on all blades.

Web: The span of thin steel between the rib and the edge. Conceptually akin to the web of a duck’s foot rather than a spider web.

Heel Set: The orientation angle of the tang with the blade. A square heel is the most common, presenting a 90 degree bend at the shank. A half set heel has a slightly more open angle and a full set an even more so. Half set and full set are alternatively referred to as half mulay and full mulay.

Web Set: The relative positioning of the height of the blade web vs. the height of the spine. Half set is most common followed by full set and quarter set.

Hang: The angle of the blade when mounted on the snath.

Lift: The “pitch” of the tang from the plane of the blade. Most American blades came historically without any lift to the tang with the end user adjusting it to their taste. Sometimes called the “cray” or “tack” of the blade.

Crown: A gradual upward bend or “smile” of the blade along its length. A blade with less crown will yield a more even stubble, but a blade with more crown will more readily follow undulating terrain and cut into dips and hollow.  If a blade bends downward or “frowns” this is the result of damage, and should be corrected before use.

HeelsBlack

~Fitting the Scythe to the Body~

 

The first important step to ensure success with the American scythe is to test-fit the snath to your body. Modern snaths produced by Seymour Manufacturing are sized to the average modern man, but some vintage snaths will be on the small side for the taller American of today. Fortunately, the first step of tuning your scythe is very simple and can be performed in the store from which you intend to make your purchase.

 

Adjusting the Nibs: First, check the nibs to make sure they rotate freely. The nut at the top of the nib typically runs on a left-directional thread, so rather than turning counter-clockwise to loosen and clockwise to tighten, as with a conventional thread, the nibs are loosened by turning them clockwise and tightened by turning them counter-clockwise. This is important to keep in mind, as you wish to avoid over-tightening the nibs, making them difficult to remove. Once the nibs have been loosened you may adjust them to their proper position for your height. Stand relaxed with your feet shoulder width apart and the scythe standing upright on its end next to you (blade end on the ground.) While standing thus, bring the upper nib to a level that fits snugly under the arm and tighten it gently in place. The lower nib is then set one cubit down from the upper nib–a measurement equal to the distance between the elbow and outstretched fingertips.

For tall persons (roughly 6ft and above) you can expect most American snaths to be too short for this method to work, but such snaths may still be fit to taller users with reasonably good results. You will want there to be roughly 4″ of shaft above the upper nib to support the heel of your palm. Set the upper nib at this maximum position, and then set the lower nib one cubit down from the upper. The upward lay of the blade will be compensated for later in the fitting process by adjusting the lift of the tang.

Now that the proper distance has been set the scythe needs to be balanced by rotating the nibs into proper orientation. Re-assume a relaxed stance, holding the scythe loosely by its nibs with the blade wholly to your right as if beginning a stroke, and the blade resting on its spine. The natural balance of the blade on its spine will commonly be ⅓ the length of the blade from the heel and you will want the spine of the blade to rest on the ground somewhere between here and the midpoint of the blade. Adjust the rotation of the lower nib to a position somewhere between 8-10 o’clock and place the left hand so that it is capping the butt of the snath. When the lower nib is in the proper rotational position, the snath may be lifted from the ground by the nib without tipping left nor right. This balance may not always be possible with very long blades, but even in extreme cases the nose-heavy balance can be minimized. Once the horizontal balance is tuned, adjust the orientation of the upper nib to where you are most comfortably able to lift the blade off the ground by pushing down on the upper nib with the heel of your palm against the snath and allowing the lower nib to roll in your right hand as a pivot. You will likely find that rotating the upper nib between the 9-11 o’clock position is the most comfortable and advantageous, allowing the elbow and wrist to sit relaxed and close to the body.

This initial adjustment is all simply to get you in the ballpark for your particular scythe configuration, and you will likely find yourself making further adjustments while using the scythe for extended periods. Listen to the tool and it will tell you how it wants to be used. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your adjustments!

Selecting a Blade: The blade you choose is the next most important thing for you to consider after snath selection, and they generally come in variations on the following styles:

NWTYankee

Grass blades: The most common variety. Typically long, thin, and light. The “run” of the blade (the tilt of the blade relative to the ground) tends to be either parallel to the ground or only slightly lifted. A blade of this style in medium length (around 30″) will usually be capable of handling everything from fine lush grasses to (with practice and prudence) heavier woody plants like goldenrod, burdock, and thistles, but they are more prone to damage than other varieties due to their light build and long blades, which can compound the leverage of a bad cut and damage either the blade or the snath. They are, however, both the most commonly available blade style as well as the most versatile. Experienced users will typically use grass blades for the majority of their tasks. The heel of the blade should be wider than the thickest stalks being cut, so “Dutch” (wide) heels are preferred if the local vegetation includes thick-stemmed plants.
NWTWeed

Weed Blades: These blades are similar to grass blades, but are usually used with a slightly upward run and have a slightly broader, more robust build. These blades are well suited to handling the weedy overgrowth mixed with occasional woody plants that commonly occurs in neglected areas.The slight upward run of the blade helps reduce strain on the snath when running into unexpected woody plants, avoids cutting into small hillocks, and helps cut diagonally across the grain of resistant stalks at the expense of not leaving as low or level of a cut. Their shorter length assists with navigating the blade and reduces the tendency to snag, and the broad web easily cuts the full diameter of thick-stemmed weeds like burdock and thistle.

NWTBush

Bush or Brush blades: These blades are shorter and heavier, with a much broader blade, and are intended for clearing young woody growth ranging from goldenrod, burdock, and thistles up through very young green saplings.  They are robust in the spine and are used with a steep upward run to allow the edge to cut with an upward shearing stroke along the grain of growth. These are generally best reserved for dedicated removal of woody material as they are more heavily built than a short grass blade.

 

Bramble blades: These blades are the shortest of the lot and are used with the tang left flat. They are reserved for clearing woody-stemmed thickets and thorny bushes (such as raspberries.) They are not recommended for anyone not performing a similar task, as they are a purpose-built blade style that is not well-suited for general mowing duties. They are often narrow in the heel and with heavy curvature. The overall build is usually lighter than found on common bush blades, being somewhere between a grass blade and weed blade in thickness and width.

 

Hybrid tensioned blades: These are lightweight European-style blades manufactured with an American-style tapered tang, and are intended for use on American scythe snaths. The hybrid style is maintained like a conventional European blade but is curved in a way that is compatible with the American snath and strokes.

 

Mounting & Adjusting the Blade: Once a blade is selected, the attachment process will depend on the mounting hardware used by the snath but most, including all present Seymour models, make use of a loop bolt through which the tang is passed, and a series of holes for receiving the bent end (knob) of the tang. These are used for adjusting the hafting angle, or “hang”, of the blade, allowing you to make the angle more open or closed. A more closed angle is generally recommended as it minimizes strain on the blade and snath and cuts more aggressively though it narrows the swath of the cut. An open angle is used in fine grasses and clear ground, and is advantageous when clearing a large area as it maximizes the reach of the blade. This works best with blades that have a strong curve at the heel, as it does well to aggressively finish off any stray stalks that were not cut by the more gentle, stroke of an open-hung blade. The more open the hang, the greater the degree of pull that will be experienced through the cut–another reason why a closed hang is best in tough or dense growth.

The orientation of the tang with regards to the blade is known as the “set”, making the natural hang of the blade more open or closed. While most are “square set” one may find examples of “half set” or full-blown “open set” and these were intended for specially curved “mulay” and “Dutch-bend” snaths. Some loop bolts pass through the wood at the end of the snath and cannot be tightened beyond a certain point. In cases where clamping ability is insufficient to hold a thin-tanged blade, a  heavy patch of oiled leather or rubber (a cut piece of vinyl hose works well) may be inserted between the loop bolt of the collar and the blade tang to provide a more secure fit and prevent wear on the parts.

How the blade is angled in relation to the ground is known as the lay. The lay of the blade will depend on a few factors, including the height of the user, the curvature of the snath, and the angle of the tang. Of these factors, the angle of the tang (the “lift”) is the one most practical to adjust. This can be done by firmly locking the shank of the blade in a vise, heating the shank of the tang with a torch, and slipping a pipe over the tang to apply leverage. If this is done, a wet towel should be wrapped around the blade to prevent overheating of the edge, as this would damage its heat treatment. While at red heat the tang may then be bent to the proper angle for its intended snath, user, and task. Be sure to allow the heated region to slowly air cool–do not quench it with water, as this would make the tang brittle and likely to snap in use. Exercise extreme caution in the performance of this task, as both the torch and heated tang present potential fire and burn risks if performed without proper safety precautions. If the blade is improperly clamped or the tang insufficiently heated you run the risk of cracking the web when attempting the bend. The below diagram shows one of several ways to securely clamp the blade in a  vise so that the web of the blade is not stressed during bending.

ScytheViceCropped

Clamping the Blade in a Vise for Adjusting the Tang

For  a more in-depth explanation of how to bend the tang, including video of the process, see this detailed overview.

When a scythe is properly adjusted (including the lift of the tang) the edge of a grass blade should lay with a distance approximately a finger’s thickness between itself and the ground. As the proper lift of the tang is slightly less for weed blades, this measurement should be slightly greater on a blade intended for weed use or in rough ground. Bush blades require little or no pitch at all due to their upward pulling stroke.

~Use of the Scythe~

 

The various strokes of the American scythe can be isolated into three regions of the body: the legs, the torso, and the arms. These three zones of the body are used varyingly in different circumstances according to specific mowing conditions. During mowing the lower nib acts as a pivot point while the left hand provides the drawing action of the stroke. This is the reason why the threads on nibs are reverse-directional. As the most resistance would be experienced as the cut is executed (rather than on the return stroke) it prevents the nibs from being inadvertently loosened. Many well-used snaths develop a high polish on their nibs from this pivoting action, and it makes them a pleasure to use. You may hasten the process with a fine sanding and light oiling of the wood.

 

Core Technique: The motion of the arms is most easily described as being somewhat similar to the operation of the oar on a rowboat with the oarlock being the lower nib. The approach to the cut is “opened” as the right foot steps forward and the majority of one’s weight placed over it. The arms open towards the target with the left arm traveling furthest, and the point is brought to bear on the start of the swath, with the heel of the blade very slightly raised as the blade “toes in”. Upon the full opening of the swing and nearly all weight being brought to bear on the right foot, the weight of the body is shifted left in an almost falling motion as the the left foot is extended forward and the cut closed with a pulling motion primarily actuated by the left hand. As the cut is executed the heel finishes low, completing the slight lateral rock or “scoop” to the cut. This compensates for the presentation of the blade by maintaining the the edge at a fairly constant height relative to the target. The appearance of the technique in action resembles a faltering shuffle due to the forward/back shift of balance. The rib of the blade rides the ground during the entire length of the stroke, giving a uniform, low cut and relieving the body of the weight of the scythe.

Grass stroke trio

The Motions of a Standard Stroke

A beginner may experience some mild muscle soreness initially due to the specialized muscle groups employed to use the scythe. This is to be expected and will quickly pass as those muscles grow accustomed to the task. Fatigue then becomes a minimal concern, as most of the work is done by the momentum generated by the shifting of balance and the pendulum action of scythe. When the motion of the body and the forces acting on the scythe are properly in balance the only force necessary beyond the natural action of gravity is the minimal effort required to keep the action in motion and to support the scythe itself. As the weight of the scythe rests on the ground during most strokes, the greatest energy expenditure usually stems from carrying the cut vegetation from the swath.

While the above provides a general overview of core technique, the mowing conditions and blade/snath configuration will call for adaptations of your technique for peak performance. The following examples illustrate how to adapt both the scythe and your technique to the mowing conditions at hand. While preferred nib settings are mentioned, they may be left in standard adjustment without negative effect.

Lawn Care: To best produce a close-cropped stubble closely resembling that of a mechanical mower, either a hybrid blade may be used or a grass blade with the tang strongly pitched to bring the lay of the blade parallel with the ground. A gentle downward pressure may be applied to the lower nib during the cut. Both the trunk of the body and the arms will provide the action, with the cut opening wide to about the 3 to 4 o’clock position and closing at the 9-8 o’clock position. Be mindful of how the toe of the blade enters the cut and keep the heel down. The tension created by the body and arms opening the cut will be released like a coil spring to close the cut, with the arm motion of the core technique being combined with a pronounced rotation of the torso. A fairly broad swath will be cut in this manner, and very close to the ground, but this method is best reserved for the smooth relatively unrestricted spaces and light thin grasses of lawns and will not fare well on bumpier ground or in tall growth.

 

Uneven Ground and/or Mixed Weedy Growth: The core technique will function well for much of the mowing, but resistant weedy patches or navigating depressions and hillocks can benefit from a short and shearing stroke with a lift at the end. Move the right hand across the body while rapidly drawing the left hand back and up. This will resemble a sharp sweeping motion, like flicking dust with a broom, and will provide a strong cut to a small and controlled space while either matching the slope of a hillock or interior of a depression, or cut diagonally across the grain of stemmy weeds. A grass blade or a weed blade may be employed depending on the mowing conditions of the site. A blade with a pronounced crown can be useful for getting into depressions.

Weed Stroke Trio

The Motions of a Weed-Cutting Stroke

 

Dense Woody-Stemmed Growth: For dense patches of green woody growth employ a bush blade and set your nibs 1 to 3 inches closer together than your standard cubit measure. A “ripping” stroke up and back is used, almost like pulling the ripcord of a two-stroke engine or pulling a plant from the ground by its roots. This stroke is used to cut diagonally across the stems of the growth. Be sure to still close your cut properly in spite of the short length of the stroke–you want the edge to glide through your target rather than pull or chop through it. A very closed hang is recommended, and the bulk of the force from the stroke should be delivered with the heel of the blade. You will wish to avoid percussive force or overly thick targets as this can result  in damage to the snath. A bush blade can make for very rapid and comfortable thicket clearing, but it makes a poor machete! If total eradication of these plants is desired you may follow up the clearing work by chopping the remaining root mass with a grub hoe or mattock. Since the freshly cut woody stems will be at a sharp angle, a second stroke at a lower presentation to pare the tops flat can be beneficial.

BushStrokeTrio

The Motions of a Bush-Cutting Stroke

These are just a few of the challenging mowing conditions that a user can potentially face, but by reading the land and “listening” to the tool you will quickly become proficient at adapting your technique.

 

~Sharpening & Maintenance~

 

In order to provide proper performance the blade must be kept as sharp and as thin in the edge as possible. The edge as it comes from the factory will require additional sharpening in order to be made ready to mow. While this was traditionally done using a relatively fine large-diameter water cooled grindstone, these are not commonly available to most individuals today. It is inadvisable to use a bench grinder for this work as the coarse wheels and high speed risk damaging or ruining the blade. A smooth-cut half round file or a coarse synthetic sharpening stone may be used instead. Belt sanders with sharpening-grade belts may be used for initial edge thinning if available, but extreme caution should be exercised as it is very easy to damage a blade if inexperienced. As a result power equipment should be avoided unless very familiar with its use. An excellent low-cost power grinding option is  our specially formulated grinding points, which are designed to minimize heat buildup and can be chucked up in a common electric hand drill.

 

Sharpen the edge at an angle of about 7-9° per side. Examine the edge periodically by holding the blade edge-up under a bright light. Any spots where light is able to reflect off of the edge are dull and require additional sharpening. Once all such spots are removed the edge may then be refined by honing with a fine stone, ceramic rod, or other fine sharpening tool like a diamond or fine-cut conventional butcher’s steel. Our preferred style of sharpener is a canoe-shaped scythe stone, as it is capable of maintaining traditional hollow-ground edges, and we recommend a combination of our Bull Thistle and Arctic Fox models to be used in tandem. When finished the edge should cleanly slice copy paper. Be sure to remove any burr that may develop, as this creates an artificial flattening of the edge that will prevent it from cutting properly. If a burr must be present it should be hooked upward rather than downward.

The edge may be finished by stropping with  a wooden “whipping stick”.

As a blade wears over time and becomes more narrow it may eventually become necessary to grind and sharpen the blade with the stone making contact against the underside of the rib and the top of the chine in order to maintain a sufficiently thin edge angle. This should be avoided as long as possible, however, to avoid excessive grinding causing the rib to be worn through. Most users will never use their blades to the point where contact grinding is required.

BladeWear

How a Blade Wears Through Grinding

 

Touch ups in the field are typically not required with great frequency unless the blade is run through dirt or strikes a stone, but if cutting performance noticeably decreases while mowing it is best to hone the edge with a fine stone. When doing so one should stand the scythe on its small end and grasp the base of the blade firmly while making slow, and deliberate strokes on both sides of the blade. Work as slowly and carefully as necessary to produce a uniform and fine edge angle. When first starting off do not be tempted to mimic the rapid motions displayed by experienced scythe operators–until proficiency at a slow and deliberate pace is achieved speed will do nothing but produce a poor and rounded edge.

Keep all steel and iron components regularly oiled to prevent rusting. Mineral oil is preferred for this task as it is inexpensive, available locally at any pharmacy, and will not spoil. After use wipe the blade down with a dry rag to remove excess moisture followed by light oiling. Any light to moderate rust may be easily and gently removed by the use of steel wool followed by a reapplication of oil.

 

Adjusting the nib bands: Nibs may need their bands adjusted for a number of reasons, including shrinkage or crushing of the snath from age or use or a tall individual needing to move the nibs higher up on the tapered snath than their typically anticipated adjustment range. To do this, remove the nib from the snath and remove the wooden grip and aluminum block, leaving only the band and attached threaded rod. The best method for adjusting the shape of the band uses an anvil, although a vise and some ingenuity can get the job done well. Stand the loop on a flat anvil surface so that the shoulder of the loop’s teardrop shape is presented vertically (the threaded rod portion will likely be angled at about 45 degrees when this is done properly) and use controlled blows from a ball-pein hammer against the shoulder of the loop to draw the relaxed form of the band into a more closed position. Repeat on the opposite shoulder.

NibAdjustment1

Tightening A Nib Band

 

If the loop is knocked “out of round” you may tap it back into true round form either by sliding it onto the long tapered horn of a stake anvil, or if one is not available to you, you may insert the threaded rod into the hardie or pritchel hole of a conventional anvil or into a length of narrow pipe so that a direct blow may be placed on the center of the loop to compress it without damaging the threads of the rod. Once the desired interior diameter is reached, test the fit by reassembling the nib on the snath in its desired new location, and perform any other adjustments as necessary to eliminate visible gaps between the band and the snath.

NibAdjustment2

Using the Pritchel Hole to True a Nib Band

NibAdjustment3

Using the Horn of a Stake Anvil to True a Nib Band

Storage & Transport: When not using your scythe, proper storage will keep it out of the way and safe until needed again. The simplest method, if possible to do so, is to simply hook the blade over a wooden rafter close to the wall in a garage or barn. The wood of the rafter will not damage the edge and the unit hangs ready to grab when needed.

ScytheStorage

Hanging a Scythe from a Rafter

 

By placing the scythe near a wall accidental bumps or knocks are prevented. If a rafter is not available a long stout nail may be substituted and the scythe hung by the shank of the blade’s tang. The beard of the blade and the end of the snath serve to create a notch that securely straddles the nail. If neither is possible or practical it is recommended to dismount the blade from the snath to keep it out of harm’s way. The snath may then be stood upright along a wall, in a corner, or on a long-handled tool rack and the blade oiled and stored in a safe location. A simple blade cover may be easily fashioned using cardboard and packing tape, which will protect the blade against accidental bumps and prevent the keen edge from causing accidental injury.

When taking a respite from active mowing, if possible, hang the scythe from a tree branch or stand the scythe on its small end against a stable object (such as a fencepost or sapling) so that the blade is uppermost and clearly visible. If no place is available where the scythe may be placed in this manner, keep it close to your person as possible with the edge in a safe and controllable position. A convenient and typically safe place to lay a scythe is with the blade tucked into the uncut grass where mowing was ceased, as others are unlikely to run into the unmown growth. When walking with the scythe it is preferred to carry it by the right hand nib with the snath nestled in the crook of the arm, blade end up, and with the toe of the blade facing directly forward. This provides visibility and control during foot travel to prevent accidental damage to the tool or injury to the self or others.

TransportingScytheCropped

Safely Carrying A Scythe

If performing mowing service for others or attending scything events it may be necessary to travel with your scythe in a motor vehicle. In these instances it is recommended to dismount the blade from the snath and place it in a cardboard cover for safety. The snath may often then fit in the trunk of a car, but if not it may be easily transported in the cab of the vehicle. It is recommended to put together a small travel kit comprised of an adjustable wrench, oil, a dry clean rag, and a sharpening tool of your choice for edge restoration and maintenance.

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,

And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.

What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;

Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,

Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—

And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,

Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:

Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,

Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers

(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

~Robert Frost