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Scythe Buyers' Guide

In an introduction to the 2005 version of this document we had attempted to substantiate why a scythe-related consumer report is necessary, why it needs to be more critical than flattering and why someone wishing to purchase a good scythe ought to take more personal responsibility than when acquiring most other tools. (It has not been understood or admitted to that selling a scythe by mail to inexperienced customers is at best a compromise arrangement.) You can get by without reading those extra two pages but for a more complete grasp of our collective challenges the initial Introduction is still available.

When this website went on the ethers (in January 2002) we listed every mail-order source of the European style of scythe on this continent, and that list (later altered as three of the U.S. sellers quit and others emerged in Europe) has remained ever since. As of now, Scythe Connection joins the ranks of mail-order sellers, which complicates our task.

For one thing it was far easier and/or more fitting for me to be writing a buying guide while uninvolved in retailing. On the other hand, this website was created and has always functioned as an honest Guide for Hand Mowers; including the selling aspect is - given the present situation - an "inevitable" extension of that service. And so until a more unbiased, albeit qualified, person takes on the task of producing an equally informative report, we shall continue "holding the bull by the horns".

The updated list below may be incomplete; if you know of other mail-order sources please let us know.

North America:

Cumberland General Store, Georgia
Johnny's Selected Seeds, Maine
Lee Valley Tools, Ontario, Canada
Lehman Hardware, Ohio
The Marugg Co., Tennessee
Scythe Connection, New Brunswick, Canada
Scythe Supply, Maine

Europe:
Dick Tools GmbH, Germany
*Kosime Snadno, Czech Republic
*Sensenverein Osterreich, Austria
*The Scythe Shop, U.K.

We have added the four Europe-based scythe retailers who, by means of their websites, also serve the international community; all will ship outside their respective countries. What distinguishes them from mere "sellers" is that they have taken steps to contribute to the scythe-related education by offering instructional courses. There is a further difference between the scythe retailers whose initial motivation for selling this tool was business-oriented, and those who wanted primarily to provide some form of social service of which the commercial activity became an outgrowth. It should be evident to anyone who has at least partly followed our involvement with the scythe scene since 1994 that we belong to the latter group and that we have consistently worked toward the implementation of such a service.

The companies indicated with a star (*) we consider partners of the Scythe Network (membership stipulations are explained in "Retail Division". Their international retail service is guided by certain "co-operative parameters" arrived at by mutual agreements with the others.

Our earnest efforts notwithstanding let me emphasize that none of us know it all nor provide the ideal service yet. The "yet" is important because I expect that collectively we will not stop learning and improving the present situation. Interim it matters that we remain unpretentious and open to new ideas.

In the report below we show least tolerance for the conduct of those who claim to be "experts" and give the decided impression that they "know it all". The truth is if the "specialists" selling the top line of, say, musical instruments or mountain bikes knew as little about their respective products, they would be quickly identified and whistled off the stage. Given the knowledge of the average scythe customer, must wool has been pulled over people's eyes.

Still, the situation is not hopeless. Advances in learning have been made and the service is better, with a greater variety offered, than several years ago; also, the quality of most individual items is fine. With few exceptions, the North American scythe market has not become infiltrated with those "bargain" substitutes for what were once the products of good workmanship. The blades themselves and the two natural whetstones are in the top line of what the world today has to offer. These are examples of real bargains!

Although the snaths are nothing to brag about, they are functional and more user-friendly than the old American models. Provided you get one the right size, they are filling a niche until more design improvements take place.

The overall problem is not quality per se. Rather it is the question of harmony--or lack thereof. You see, given certain conditions, each blade, snath or accessory can perform satisfactorily, and given other conditions--or in a different combination--each can perform poorly and/or frustrate the mower.

Although a challenge, an attempt can and should be made to come as close as possible to a "satisfactory fit". It could be argued that such an attempt has been made. In our estimation, it has not been serious or honest enough. In spite of the advertising rhetoric ("adjustable" and "custom-sized" snaths), many North American mowers do not have a correctly sized snath...and some do not even know it. Of those who were fortunate enough to receive a snath which fits their body, a certain percentage are still deprived of an all-around satisfactory fit, because the "correctly-sized snath" comprises only half (or less) of the equation. The other half (which also includes the mower) is actually more complex and has been largely disregarded. We will come to it later.

For now, here is a brief overview of what is presently available (excluding Scythe Connection). The companies' own descriptions as well as prices are, for the most part, left out. For one thing, some can be changed with a few mouse clicks; Scythe Supply's catalogue is strictly electronic. The prospective buyers can, after all, find out the up-to-date prices on their own. Our remarks and hints will help with the first navigation through the maze; we will then return to more specific considerations of each group (snaths, blades, whetstones...)

1. Lee Valley Tools

Between 1995 and today this has been the only option for those Canadians who, using their lesser-valued dollar and/or to avoid paying the import duty (see note) or simply for patriotic reasons, wish to shop within the borders of their home territory. (As of shortly there will be another option here, and by the end of this year there may be others in Quebec, Ontario and possibly elsewhere.


Their selection is not overpriced, but skimpy.

The snath is light aluminum-alloy and although "adjustable" I do not recommend it to anyone over 5'6" tall. The blade--28" (70cm)--I consider somewhat long for many beginners, especially in tight quarters. One other minor drawback is that you may find the blade loosening within the ring during use. It is not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with the blade or the snath--rather, this blade's specific tang and the bottom of the alu-alloy snath make poor company. For anyone who would make their own snath and considers 28" a suitable length (refer to Blade Selection), this blade is fine, and less expensive than most obtainable via mail order.

Unfortunately, to keep their Austrian scythe "ready to mow", Lee Valley is of little help: one coarse synthetic whetstone. That's it. Then again, for those who will not peen their blades, the finest natural stones are of little use. Like most other sources, they provide their customers with a yellow plastic whetstone holder.

However, a positive note deserves to be made of this company's unusual no-questions-asked 90-day money back guarantee (they even reimburse the postage, both ways!) I can say from experience that they do honour that promise. Their service in general is fast and dependable. Also, for Canada's greatest selection of woodworking tools, Lee Valley is certainly the place to shop.

2. Cumberland General Store

Has the least to offer--one 30" (75cm) European style blade and no other pertinent accessories. Therefore I would purchase absolutely nothing here for mowing; otherwise their 290-page catalogue is full of those old-fashioned items which you might think no longer exist. Nice folks who answer written inquiries, even if they don't know much about scythes.

3. Lehman Hardware

Similar to Cumberland General Store, this company's "non-electric" catalogue (in both print and e-editions) is a treat to the old-fashioned and "alternative" crowd. No photovoltaic panels, though an amazing array of uncommon items. Choice, for instance, of as many fancy Aladdin-style lampshades as Lee Valley has chisels (over 200). But, as in the case of Lee Valley and Johnny's Selected Seeds, scythe selling is not this company's specialty. Unlike them, Lehman's selection is more varied. They offer the Marugg line of products plus the same 30" blade as Cumberland General Store and the aluminum snath as sold by Lee Valley.

4. Johnny's Selected Seeds

Similar to Lee Valley in that this successful company's specialty is something other than scythes. If you are not exactly poor, and appreciate a vast array of choices in heirloom and non-hybrid vegetable seeds, this is the company to check out. They also have a nice selection of garden hoes.

With scythes it is different; there is not much to get confused by--one snath, one blade, one stone (with the plastic holder).. but they beat Lee Valley by offering one extra item--the peening jig. Doing so they provide their customers with another option in blade maintenance. Additionally, the natural stone is a good one and capable of producing a considerably nicer edge than Lee Valley's synthetic stone.

Their 24" (60cm) blade is also a better choice for more of the beginners. The other significant improvement is the snath. Still the same aluminum-alloy adjustable model as Lee Valley's or Lehman's but in a longer version. Not only is the whole body 4" (10cm) longer, but the extension of the lower grip is welded further from the blade end. This, unlike the version sold by Lee Valley and Lehman's, gives it much more "adjustability" and makes it suited for people over 5'6" tall.

The attachment between the snath and blade is a "folding patent", chosen and promoted by Johnny's for reasons of safer storage. I suppose with this culture's paranoia of sharp edges it may be a good selling point. Actually it was designed about a century ago, for safer transport (mowers often traveled by train, bus and bicycle to the places of work) and several other versions of folding blade attachments are still used in Europe, predominantly in Switzerland.

5. The Marugg Company

Along with Scythe Supply, Marugg is not distracted by selling other unrelated merchandise and (under, of course, different ownership) it has been serving mowers for 130 years and proudly advertises that fact. Certainly a commendable record!

Still, on the pragmatic level--and especially with regard to this review--I am more concerned with present service. The second-to-last owner was a salesperson by profession and not ashamed to admit that he does not use "one of those things" (scythes). He deserves credit for keeping the old company going for ten of its years, but he was far better at promoting it than at writing accurate and useful catalogue descriptions.

The most recent pair of owners, who bought the company in 2003, are posing on the Internet dressed like farmers, holding their scythes in a way suggestive of a somewhat new toy. Perhaps I'm wrong and they really can mow...but first they had better take the wrapping paper off their new (already mounted) blades...

They refuse to change the old advertising pitch: "Largest Selection of High Quality European-style Scythe Blades in America", which for at least four years has no longer been true. Relative to the North American average and with respect to blade lengths, their selection is good. However, the blades are really of only three models: one grass and two bush. There are six grass blades from 20"-30", one 24" left-handed grass blade and four bush blades from 16 to 24". (The second bush model was only added in 2005 and is now "out of stock".)

The two snaths (straight and curved), made of hickory by Marugg and rather reasonably priced, are strong enough near their bottom ends to mount an ax head on and chop down trees. For the bush blades or overly reckless mowers this may be good; for general mowing, I consider it a slight downfall. Slight, because it can easily be corrected by shaving some wood off - as we'll discuss later. For an extra $5 above the base price, Marugg will custom-size the snath.

For blade maintenance, both kinds of edge-shaping options are offered--the peening jig as well as the traditional hammer and anvil. They sell the synthetic as well as the natural whetstones and, of course, the plastic stone holder. Extra rings are to be had here, should you decide to make a more personally-suited snath, or by misuse ruin the ring that comes with the snath.

6. Scythe Supply

Notwithstanding some flaws in the advice offered in their electronic-only catalogue and more recently a video, here is somewhat of a blueprint of more efficient scythe selling than North America has known so far. There is the diverse selection, an attempt to provide (by means of the e-"workshops" and video) far more instruction than is common, and the user-friendly website with an artistic touch. Advertising as "European Scythe Specialists" is another subliminally powerful strategy. However, all it really means is two entrepreneurs specializing in selling European style scythes--and learning how to use them in the process. Regarding the first effort, they have done well; with respect to the second, they have a long way to go.

Scythe Supply's items which none of the others dealers presently have are the non-plastic whetstone holders, the narrow-faced anvil and the fine grit "Rozsutec" stone.

Now, if one is to go by the company's own description, the Perry Maine curved and straight wooden snaths sound like the real McCoy--unique Scythe Supply original design, incorporating ergonomic features sure to make your mowing experience an ecstatic one.. Its virtues are exaggerated. In both models the upper half is straight, thus when mowing it feels no more comfortable than a completely straight snath. And because the grips are fixed, only a percentage of the customers receive it in proportions best suited to their purpose. Although Scythe Supply claims to be able to custom-size the snath expertly, I will explain later why I am of a different opinion.

Scythe Supply's blade selection is a "can of worms", the opening of which I have myself unwittingly contributed to. Now the little creatures are out, some crawling in wrong directions, and neither the owners nor the clients can make heads or tails of them all.

Selling such a diversity of models requires, first of all, a better understanding of their technical differences. Secondly, those differences need to be communicated by way of more accurate catalogue descriptions so that a customer is given a better chance of making an intelligent choice.

Although some elemental attempts are made in Scythe Supply's catalogue in this regard (pointing to the difference in steepness of the tang between the bush and grass blades, for example), it is not enough by a long shot.

On top of it, what little customer education the mention of that concept may begin is thrown back out the door by the following statement on snath selection: "Any of our blades work fine on a straight snath. You can hardly go wrong with this choice."

If the author of this nonsense can demonstrate to me that for instance the Scythe Supply Turk's Head #3055 (22") and #3065 (26") will fit on their straight snath equally well for the same mower, I'll eat both blades.

I selected an example of two blade models which are featured in the very same category (Turk's Head old production grass blades). There is absolutely no hint in the catalogue to the fact that those two blades are different models with distinct specifications. There are other technical distinctions, but the most obvious one is the elevation of the tangs, the feature which very directly translates to how parallel the cutting edge is to the surface when the blade is mounted.

The 22" has the least steep tang of all the blades they carry. The 26" has the steepest tang of all their grass models. Consequently, if one fits the same snath and the same mower, the other one won't. (I am, of course, not referring to "fit" as merely "being mountable on".)

Actually, anyone with both units for reference would immediately notice the difference and have no trouble deciding which fits better. The problem is that the customers buying scythes by mail order do not have the benefit of that comparison.

The above is by no means an isolated instance of where Scythe Supply's promise of a satisfactory fit will not be met simply because the "fitting knowledge" is absent and/or not communicated enough. We will return to this subject later when all companies' blades are put on a pile from which to do the sorting.


Before I leave Scythe Supply, a couple of other blade-related notes may be in order.

1. I would not choose one of their Redtenbacher's blades. (click for an explanation)

What they refer to as their "Gardener's Blade" is every bit as sturdy as (actually more than) the 24" Redtenbacher Ditch. It has a nicely placed tang--steep enough for tall mowers, but not excessively so (as, for instance, is the case with their bush blades); it allows for a "close" hafting angle in dense growth (which none of the Redtenbacher blades do) and I like that blade pattern overall. Their "standard blades" are lighter in weight and a considerably better choice for lawn and field mowing than the Redtenbacher 70cm and 75cm. With the latter in that blade length, in a stand of respectable density, the more open hafting angle will also make you sweat considerably more.

2. As for Scythe Supply's peening service: the way I see it, they are asking customers to pay for the seller's experience in learning how to peen and repair blades. (click for an explanation)

Besides, if the new scythe owner does not learn to repair and peen his/her own blade, will he/she ship it back each time after several hours of use? As you will read in the Scythe Book's Addendum (if you buy it) I recommend peening the blade every 3 to 4 hours (and do my own even more frequently), during which spell many mowers (certainly the average novice) will find more than grass stems with the edges of their blades. Minor edge repairs are a continual "must". Major blade repair is beyond the capability of this company.

Europe

Here are two Europe-based scythe retailers who, by means of their websites, also serve the international community. Both ship outside of their respective countries. What distinguishes them from mere "sellers" is that both have taken steps to further the education by offering scythe courses.

7. The Scythe Shop, U.K.

Somewhat of an antitheses to the present American scythe dealers, Simon Fairlie (the founder) appears to be "someone else" first and a businessman second...or maybe even third. He and I interacted in one way or another during all eight days of the First International Scythe Symposium and Festival in Austria (2004) and he stayed an extra day for additional brainstorming with a small core group. Everybody liked Simon.

If I were to describe him in one word, it would be "unpretentious" -not a common trait. By no means wishy-washy, he is nevertheless ready to admit that, when it comes to scythe matters, he is still learning. This was the chief reason he attended the Symposium/Festival--no doubt the single most educating event on the subject.

He was the only one there representing the Great Kingdom, and arrived at the bus station toting a backpack. He camped out in a tent for the event's duration (most days saw some rain; the group of mowers from Slovakia were the only others who endured it). Everyone else hid in dry Bed and Breakfasts.

Over the winter I've made some suggestions regarding the selections in his catalogue as well as how to describe them more accurately, and have found Simon relatively easy to work with. He is already providing the British scythe enthusiast with better service than they've seen so far and I trust that it will continue to improve. Education is intrinsic to good scythe selling to the new generation of mowers. So is promotion going beyond the oversimplified articles that glamourize the scythe but omit certain details without which a positive mowing experience is not likely.

Simon organized a Scythe Festival in England in May 2005, which was preceded and followed by practical courses on mowing and scythe maintenance. More events are scheduled for 2006, detailed on his website

8. Dick Tools GmbH

Similar to Lee Valley Tools, this company retails woodworking, musical instrument making, and to a lesser extent gardening tools. They specialize in the high quality line (many handmade Japanese knives, chisels and axes) and have not succumbed to selling the "economy" items.

Considering the quality their prices are reasonable. Yet what really distinguishes them from the other mail-order retailing businesses is that this one functions as a teaching centre for many traditional crafts. Workshops are offered for an array of skills: blacksmithing, carving, the making of tools, musical instruments, furniture, log houses, kayaks, bows and arrows; the list is long, and includes several courses in scythe use and maintenance. The instructors are well qualified in their fields--the course on Japanese sliding doors, for instance, is taught by Toshio Odate, the blacksmithing by Lars Enander, head smith of the famed Gransfors Bruks of Sweden.

Rudolf Dick, president of the company, found time to drive to Austria and spend an afternoon at the Scythe Festival last summer. He has also produced an instructional video, available from Scythe Connection.


SHARPENING ACCESSORIES

As explained in "The Scythe Must Dance" and further substantiated by the blade hardness report, any discussion or review of scythe sharpening accessories must start with the tools used for peening (i.e. shaping of the edge by means of hammering). Let me insert here that, if I shared the opinion of the past president of Lee Valley Tools--which is that Canadians are either too lazy or too stupid (my paraphrase of his exact words-see Appendix) to learn the skill--I would not dedicate my life to promoting the scythe. Following Lee valley's recipe for its maintenance (whetstone only), it is not the same tool.

The easiest method of shaping the edge is by means of the so-called peening jig. Although I introduced the idea of this jig to the North American market, I never told anyone that it is either a "professional" or "idiot-proof" sharpening device. You can still mess up the edge with it, though not nearly as badly as many beginners will free-handed. So "perfect results are always achieved" is exaggerated advertising humbug.

The "instructions for use" which presently come with the tool are totally inadequate. What they say, an idiot could figure out; the rest is simply omitted. The guidelines in our Addendum are far more complete, though they could be more detailed yet.

Simon Fairlie of The Scythe Shop, in his scythe use guidelines, quoted me as saying that I recommend the jig but don't use it myself--and he was confused by this. I simply prefer the freehand method; it is more fun, and more "professional" (whatever exactly that means) results can be achieved. I am also no longer a beginner.

The two models available are of the same design. The one sold by Scythe Supply is made of lower-quality steel, thus after many uses its "caps" will deform slightly. (This model has its shank partly flattened so if you choose to clamp it in a vise, which I do not recommend, it will hold tighter.) The other version has shorter caps, which I feel work better. For those two reasons, and because it has a wider base, the second jig is a better one than what most dealers sold up until two years ago (the outdated picture of which is still on Marugg's, Johnny's and Lehman's websites.

By the freehand method the blade is hammered in either of two ways: right side up (i.e. from the top as the blade lays when mowing) or upside down. Each could also be done with the edge towards or away from you; thus altogether there are four variations.

Interestingly, I have rarely come across anyone in Europe who uses one of the variants but has also tried out the others. It is simply a regional tradition.

For peening from the top a cross-peen hammer is used. The two models offered by Scythe Supply work well, in my opinion, only if you hammer with the edge away from you (i.e. not as Diagram 8 in The Scythe Book indicates.) They are in fact not specialty peening hammers but rather the most common general-purpose hammer in the regions where they were made, although they may sometimes be used by the local people for that task.

Marugg's hammer is a specific peening model (and the type for the method suggested in The Scythe Book) but a junky version of it. (Marugg's hammers up until the late 1990s were considerably better.) Although they do obtain it from Austria it is not made there; no Austrian company would produce such garbage. Although I won first prize in one regional Swiss peening competition in 2003 (see picture of the hammer I used), I would be sure to make a mess of my blades if I used that hammer unaltered...however, you cannot make a Cadillac out of a Pontiac.

The best true peening hammer for the "right side up" method to be obtained on this continent is sold by Centaur Forge, a farrier supplies company; go to centaurforge.com and enter keywords "scythe hammer". At 500g (17.5oz.) it is somewhat light, but well shaped, balanced and very well made (by Peddinghaus of Germany). It is also reasonably priced.

Personally, I much prefer the technique of peening from the bottom (i.e. blade upside down) and with the edge toward me, for which any normal hammer with a slightly convex face is used. Every home already has a hammer like that. 600g (21oz.) is a good weight, I prefer 700-800g, the Swiss standard, for instance, is 1000g.

For this approach the narrow anvil (Scythe Supply) is preferable, although the other can be used, and of course both anvils can be substituted with an array of smooth steel surfaces found on nearly every homestead. (Yes, some hints are needed and we will provide them before long.)

WHETSTONES

Synthetic: Although good quality synthetic whetstones suitable for in-field honing are still available, though far rarer than 50 years ago (for instance the "Silicar" in Germany), the dealers are not offering them because they are not cheap and so they couldn't add their usual mark-up and hope to sell them.

I consider a synthetic stone somewhat essential only for the first treatment of the blade following the use of the jig, simply because it is a considerably faster "metal-eater". But it does not need to be a bona-fide scythe whetstone; an old bench stone will do.

Natural: What are offered as Austrian natural stones (Marugg's, Johnny's and two of Scythe Supply's-- "tipped" and Bregenzer,) are all the same stone, i.e. all are Bregenzer. I consider this stone the best choice for the average mower. Even though the Rozsutec (Scythe Supply) is my personal favourite, as I introduced it (first to Organic Grower's Supply), I emphasized, in the catalogue description I wrote for them, that it is not recommended:

a) to real beginners

b) to those who will not peen their blades

c) and certainly not as the only stone for those who use the peening jig.

O.G.S. re-wrote all my descriptions and I found it frustrating when, of the Rozsutec stone, they simply said: "It will produce the best edge." Without having this statement qualified, every sane person would naturally buy that one.


2 Mar. 2005
Modified 21 May 2006
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