How to Use a Scythe

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The following diagram displays the basics of how to use a scythe.
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For maximum effectiveness you'll need to sharpen your scythe often.
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A scythe is a fine tool for mowing or cutting.

Up until about a century ago, virtually every small-scale
farmer knew how to use a scythe. The hook-bladed
implements were used for cutting fields of hay, grain, and
weeds. But when the horsedrawn mowing machine–and,
later, the petroleum-powered harvester–became
popular, scythe usage dropped off sharply. In fact, today,
many folks consider the cutting method to be little more
than a “quaint folk art.”

But hold your horses (and tractors). The
scythe is beginning to make a comeback, and with good
reason too! More and more small-farm-holding folks are
discovering that the centuries-old implement is the perfect
tool for many homestead tasks. After all, a person wielding
one of the muscle-powered mowers can harvest an acre of hay
or grain a day (more, if he or she is skilled), cut
weeds in small orchard plots and along fencerows, or
even–if the user is really adept–mow the front lawn!

Scythes are first-class cutters, but make no
mistake, there’s a knack and a good bit of hard work
involved in using them. I know, because I’m 74 years
young and I’ve been around the implements since I was a
boy.

Back in those days, the first morning task, come haying
time, was to sharpen up the family scythe. Being a stout
lad, I was usually chosen to turn the handle of our
grindstone while my dad honed his blade to just the right
thickness and angle. The tool had to be precisely
sharpened–indeed, some special-purpose thin grass
scythes are honed until you can deflect the blade with a
thumbnail!–so this task always seemed to me to take hours
(actually, the job probably lasted little more than 15
minutes).

Dad would carefully run the blade up and down on the
grindstone, working on the underside of the tool to produce
an upwardcutting edge, and using an overthe-wheel drip
bucket to keep the metal cool. The scythe was considered
ready when the edge could cut, effortlessly, through a
wheat straw.

After my father gave the blade its final touches with a
whetstone, we headed off to the fields for the day’s work.
Dad would start down in the left-hand corner of a plot,
adjust the two grips (these “nibs” can be set to whatever
positions the mower desires) so that he could stand upright
while his blade hovered just off the ground,
and–keeping his feet close together–turn his entire
torso back to the right. He would then swing the tool
around and across his body … so that the blade sliced
(not chopped!) a thin swath. After that, he’d arc the tool
back, step forward about half a foot, and slice again. Each
quarter-circle so cut would be about a yard across and only
six to eight inches deep.

My father would work for about 15 minutes at a stretch (
which was just long enough to cut a row in our small
field). At that point, he’d stop, pull his whetstone out of
its water-filled sheath, and retouch the blade. This
regularly performed task served two purposes: It kept a
fine cutting edge on the scythe, and it gave Dad a chance
to rest. (As I said, scything is hard work.)

Although my father used only a standard haying blade on his
scythe, I later learned that the tools’ curved handles (or
“maths” as they’re properly called) can be fitted with
sturdier bush blades for cleaning brush or briars, and with
thin imported grass blades for fine mowing work. In
addition, a grain cradle can be attached to a snath, to
catch the sliced stalks and make them easier to bundle than
they would be on the ground.

I didn’t get to do much work with a scythe myself until I
got a job as a Montana ranch hand many years later. There I
used the tool to trim areas that a mechanical mower
couldn’t reach. I found out–while doing so–that
it does take a while before a person can develop good
mowing and blade-sharpening ability. But I worked
hard at learning the skills, just as so many younger
people are doing today. And you know, it does my old heart
good to realize that there’s a growing number of folks who
are concerned enough about the future to want to watch over
small plots of land … and that a tool from my childhood
days can still play a useful part in such people’s lives!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Cumberland General Store is a good source for scythes and for a manual, The Scythe Book.

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