How to Maintain Push Reel Mowers

Keeping a push reel mower in working condition is much easier than maintaining a gasoline-powered mower.
By Jeff Taylor
Aug. 7, 2009
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New, light reel mowers are available, but you can also buy a used machine and restore it.
ISTOCKPHOTO/TOMASZ NIEWEGLOWSKI
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In 1962, when I was a teenager, my father gave our neighbor, Mr. Gruder, $10 for a reel mower of my very own. The ash handle shone with age and use, and it had a canvas grass catcher. Mr. Gruder had built the reel mower from parts — the finest custom-made machine of its kind ever built. Pushing it revved up the blades, a cylinder of curved scimitars that sliced each blade of grass to the same height. Mr. Gruder gave me a lesson on how to safely sharpen the blades to razor sharp. “Wear gloves,” he said, as he demonstrated.

For nearly a year, I mowed lawns with my trusty push mower. I wish I still had it. But two years ago, I found a Super Chief reel mower in an antique store. It had a broken handle but a spotless canvas grass catcher. It was just $75 for a piece of American history, stored indoors for 50 years.

Buying a Reel Lawn Mower

A good vintage reel lawn mower handle should be splinter-free, with solid handles baptized in boiled linseed oil. But if a bad handle is the only thing wrong with a used machine and it has a good price, buy it. For $10, I commissioned a high school shop class to make a handle for the Super Chief.

Old machines in good working condition are rare, but worth the hunt because they’re often inexpensive. But are they worth the hours of restoration? To me, yes, but you may be happier with a more recent model — something you won’t have to repair or restore first. The Mercedes of modern reel mowers is the German-made Brill Razorcut 38, and it’s priced accordingly ($250). But you can also find economy models, such as Scotts Classic Reel Mower, priced at a bit more than $100. Tip: The grass-catcher attachment is worth having on all models, as reel mowers don’t mulch clippings.

Maintaining and Sharpening a Reel Mower

You should perform basic maintenance on a reel lawn mower after every third use, and the procedure is perfectly simple. First, put it up on a workbench. If you grovel at its level, it’s easier to be injured by the blades and lose tiny parts in the grass.

If it’s old, the blades probably need to be sharpened, and you need practice to do this right. Moving the wheels forward causes the blade cage to rotate rapidly because of the movement of a series of gears (which might need to be oiled or repacked with grease). Check the rubber wheels. If they’re slick and can’t get traction, the reel won’t turn efficiently. You can temporarily repair this by making grooves in the tires with a three-corner file — until you have time to look for replacement wheels.

Always wear leather gloves when working with the blades for any reason, including debris removal when mowing. To hone the blades, jam a wooden stick through the cage to prevent it from turning. A coarse sharpening stone and a light application of cutting oil will make each blade sharp within seven or eight light (but even and smooth) strokes. Follow the angle of the blade as closely as possible.

Use the same number of strokes on every blade to ensure a uniform distance of all blades from the cutting bar, which should almost touch the whirling blades, leaving room for the width of a blade of grass. You may need to adjust the cutting bar when you’re done. If your blades slice easily through a sheet of newspaper placed on the cutting bar, you’ve done it right.

Some experts advise dabbing the honed blades with grinding paste and pulling the mower backward for 10 minutes. But I tried out this method, and can tell you that death-by-boredom may occur in half that time. A young person, if desperate enough, might do it for $20, if nobody sees them. (Those were exactly my nephew’s terms.)

On most models, the gears in the wheel assembly aren’t hard to access, but you must be careful not to lose any nuts, bolts or pins. (Drop them in a small can or jar for collection and oiling.) Remove the wheel covers and pack the exposed gears with light grease. If you’re lucky, the wheel covers on your model will have lubrication holes. After each mowing, use a garden hose or air compressor to clean the blades and wheels. Then spray everything liberally with WD-40.

Always mow on a dry, clear day — weekly is best.

I don’t miss the pollution, the stench of hydrocarbon exhaust, or the unrelenting decibels of a gas engine mower. Instead, I have the silence, the pure scent of newly mown grass, and the satisfaction of light muscle-powered work. No earplugs required.


If you’d like to know more about sharpening blades on conventional gas-engine mowers, read A Midsummer’s Sharpening: How to Sharpen Your Lawn Mower Blade.

Do you use a push reel mower? Have you sharpened its blades? Share your experience in the comments section below.

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mower1
5/30/2013 8:35:08 PM

1


mower1
5/30/2013 8:34:50 PM

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mower1
5/30/2013 8:31:40 PM

I have an "Arlawn Special" push mower with wood handle and ball bearings. It still works great. I had to make a roller extended to get the cut higher. I couldn't find anything on the company but I am guessing that Ar stands for Arkansas. If anyone knows anything about this model let me know.


Richard
9/18/2010 3:50:17 PM
I mowed my lawn all year with and electric that was given to me, and was happy with the performance. I didn't however like pulling the cord around. When I moved in the previous owner left an old reel mower in the garden as decoration. I had little else to do today and didn't feel like pulling out the extension cord so I grabbed my garden ordainment, and cut my lawn. It still works like a dream and I have never had a nicer cut.

Geoff Taylor
9/5/2009 7:21:52 PM
The author of the lawnmower article here: Thanks to everyone for your kind and insightful and sometimes funny comments. The concept of restoring push lawnmowers to aid the young in their search for a work ethic is a difficult sell to them, but paying them a wage for pushing an antique is more cost-effective than buying a riding mower and storing it. At my tender age of 59, I love working on my Super Chief, and then mowing visibly just long enough to attract the notice of one of the local kids in need of some earned money. And I always tell them the opening story in this article, and point out that my dad was much more generous with his wallet after I'd mowed a few neighbor's lawns and made some of my own money. If that doesn't work, I tell them that if they mow my lawn five times, I'll pay for a tattoo instead. Kids these days.

jim_75
8/19/2009 1:43:38 PM
Great article! I would like a little more info on the sharpening. Thanks Jim

Richard Johnson_6
8/19/2009 12:55:19 PM
I bought a modern push reel mower 5 years ago. Since then I got another one at a garage sale for $20.00. The older one, (about 40 years old), mows easier, and does a better job of cutting than the modern model. The older model is a touchless reel model and the newer one has a reel that rubs the knife bed. The newer one was given to a friend that needed a mower. Push reel mowers don't emit odors, don't use gas,and start when you want them. They are quiet. They also spread the clipped grass and don't clump the clippings like a power rotary mower. Grass cycling,(leaving the clippings on the lawn), is good for the lawn. They disappear in a couple days. The scissors action of the cut is far better for the health of the grass as it seals the cut. Reel mowers will not cut buckhorn or very tall grass easily. Mow frequently, and include it in your exercise program

Richard Johnson_6
8/19/2009 12:54:41 PM
I bought a modern push reel mower 5 years ago. Since then I got another one at a garage sale for $20.00. The older one, (about 40 years old), mows easier, and does a better job of cutting than the modern model. The older model is a touchless reel model and the newer one has a reel that rubs the knife bed. The newer one was given to a friend that needed a mower. Push reel mowers don't emit odors, don't use gas,and start when you want them. They are quiet. They also spread the clipped grass and don't clump the clippings like a power rotary mower. Grass cycling,(leaving the clippings on the lawn), is good for the lawn. They disappear in a couple days. The scissors action of the cut is far better for the health of the grass as it seals the cut. Reel mowers will not cut buckhorn or very tall grass easily. Mow frequently, and include it in your exercise program

Edith Gray_2
8/15/2009 2:05:07 PM
I have a reel mower manufactured by Gilmour Manufacturing. This was the only type of mower we had when I was growing up. And we had such a pretty yard. I have new grass in my yard now, {all over}. The reel mower is perfect for mowing new grass, as it doesn't pull nearly as much as a standard gas powered mower.

Jim Davis_6
8/14/2009 8:31:29 AM
My wife and I live in a small Victorian-style home with a relatively small lawn. For the past 10 years we have used our reel mowers to mow the lawn. Three side benefits are (1) less noise and fumes and (2) We can listen to our audio best sellers on our ipods and (3) we get about 2 miles of walking with some resistence...great exercise! Reel mowers do require "tuning" from time to time but need blade sharpening infrequently.

ROBIN WILLIAMS
8/13/2009 1:28:26 AM
FUNNY THIS ARTICLE SHOULD APPEAR. OUR GAS MOWER DIED THE OTHER DAY. I DIDN'T FEEL LIKE PAYING TO FIX IT AT THE TIME. SO I HAD THE TEENAGERS PULL OUT THE OLD PUSH MOWER. IT IS RUSTED BUT I HAD IT OILED AND SHARPENED THE BLADES. IT WORKS GREAT. THE TEENS HAD FUN USING THE "ANTIQUE". IT MIGHT JUST STAY THAT WAY FOR A WHILE.:) I AM ENJOYING WATCHING THEM PUSH IT TO MOW. THANKS FOR LETTING ME KNOW HOW TO TAKE CARE OF IT.

DKR_1
8/12/2009 9:51:35 PM
I bought one after my electric mower died and the only place that repairs them is a major pain. Bad location, lousy hours of operation and poor service. I like not having to make sure I have gas, oil, and whatever on hand. Mine is the really cheap Scott's 16". I wish I had gotten one a little larger with a grass catcher. I was afraid I would get tired pushing a larger one. This one is lighter than my electric and much easier than a gas powered one. I like being able to listen to the radio on the porch while I am mowing.

Lisa D.
8/12/2009 12:51:49 PM
Thanks for this article. I purchased an antique reel mower in perfect working condition about 7 years ago at an auction for $5....yes, five dollars. I took it to my local lawnmower repair guy to have the blades sharpened and to have it checked out for any problems. (I'm legally blind and don't trust myself with the sharpening.) The more it's used; the better it cuts. If everybody converted to reel mowers I wonder how much pollution would disappear? As far as I know, there are no pollution regulations on gas mowers, tillers, etc. What do you think?

Professor JWN
8/12/2009 8:36:58 AM
I have three push reel mowers (4 counting the powered Montgomery Ward one). A Meteor, A Craftsman, and a "New" Husqvarna. also have a "powered one" with a 2 1/2 hp Briggs and Stratton engine. (I know we are for conservation, but the power is nice for tall grass. I am investigating a propane or wood gas conversion for the powered one to be more environmentally friendly. The Meteor is my favorite push reel mower. Works the best too. The "Husky" is really not too good. too light and alot more work to use. I use the manual and powered ones frequently, as they do a great job, and are really good source of exercise. company always wants to try them as well. Kind of a novelty. In any case, I enjoyed your article. wanted to add I am a Conservative person, but I do try to be an environmentalist (in between making obscene profits) HAH! Seriously, I do enjoy your magazine and E-Zines. Jim

Professor JWN
8/12/2009 8:35:58 AM
I have three push reel mowers (4 counting the powered Montgomery Ward one). A Meteor, A Craftsman, and a "New" Husqvarna. also have a "powered one" with a 2 1/2 hp Briggs and Stratton engine. (I know we are for conservation, but the power is nice for tall grass. I am investigating a propane or wood gas conversion for the powered one to be more environmentally friendly. The Meteor is my favorite push reel mower. Works the best too. The "Husky" is really not too good. too light and alot more work to use. I use the manual and powered ones frequently, as they do a great job, and are really good source of exercise. company always wants to try them as well. Kind of a novelty. In any case, I enjoyed your article. wanted to add I am a Conservative person, but I do try to be an environmentalist (in between making obscene profits) HAH! Seriously, I do enjoy your magazine and E-Zines. Jim








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