How to Scythe Grass Hay

Scything workshop with Botan Anderson.
Scything workshop with Botan Anderson.

I recently took a day long workshop on how to use a scythe from Botan Anderson, a guru of scything and the author of OneScytheRevolution.com. The workshop took place at Kinstone Academy in western Wisconsin on a drizzly summer day.

After having watched several videos on scything I could see there was more of an art to good scything than just swinging the blade back and forth in the grass. Getting some in-person instruction on how to skillfully wield one of these tools was very helpful. Now I just have to put in more practice in perfecting my stance and rhythm.

scything-2What appeals to me about scything? Honestly, I can’t stand small engines – the noise, the smell, the maintenance. Sure, small engines (and even large ones of the tractor-size variety) are an invaluable part of any farm or homestead. And there are some farm jobs that you just can’t do without the power of an internal combustion engine… like moving downed trees, or powering up your battery bank when the sun and wind don’t cooperate.

After watching a few of the scything videos out there I was enamored by the quiet, almost meditative, operation of one of these tools. You get to hear the birds while you work! How beautiful is that?

A Tour of the Parts of a Scythe

Here is a sketch of a generic scythe blade I did from the workshop…

scythe-blade-sketch

The long handle, as a whole, is called the snath, and the places to hold on are the grips or nibs. A metal ring with adjustable, called a hafting collar, holes allows the blade to attach to the snath.

The hafting angle is the angle between the blade and the snath. A larger angle gives you more “bite” but requires more endurance and strength to keep going.

All scythes are designed to ride on the ground in a half circle in front of you.

There are also “brush blades” that are heavier and designed to cut through tough weeds and small-diameter brush. As expected these take more energy to wield, but is the better tool over a lighter grass/grain blade in some situations.

The fitting of a scythe to the individual user is important for best performance. As you stand your scythe vertically next to you the top most grip should be at your shoulder or armpit height. Then the middle grip should be a distance from the top grip equal to the distance from your elbow to the tips of your fingers.

American vs. Austrian Scythe

Botan comparing an American and Austrian scythe.
Botan comparing an American and Austrian scythe.

Not all scythes are created equally. You may have seen many old scythes at antique stores or farm auctions and thought they could work for any grass or grain cutting job. Not so.

What you’ll be finding in old barns and sheds (in America, at least) is a much heavier design than European scythes. Not only is the snath heavier and more curved, but American scythe blades have a different metallic composition. American blades generally have 3 layers of steel in a soft-hard-soft “sandwich.” Because of this American blades can’t effectively be peened (more to come on peening a blade).

The tang of the American blade is in the same plane as the blade, whereas the Austrian is more offset. These blades come tempered and are designed to be ground on large, circular grinding stones (I think every antique store has one of those). Field dressing the American blade is done with a slightly coarser stone. American scythes are not currently being manufactured in American, but are being made in Europe if you want to seek out a new one.

A modern Austrian scythe is a thing of beauty! Austrian scythes, by contrast, are much lighter, both in the snath and the blade. They are curved in three planes, with the belly of the blade designed to ride along the ground. A finer stone is used to field dress the Austrian blades.

Austrian vs. American type scythes. Image from downsizer.net.
Austrian vs. American type scythes. Image from downsizer.net.

Another difference between American and Austrian scythes is the physical effort you have to put in to cut the grass. Because the American tool is much heavier it requires more energy and muscle to keep going through a whole field. But the Austrian scythe is MUCH lighter, and designed to actually ride on the ground as you slice through the grass. In my opinion the Austrian scythe epitomizes the phrase:

Work smarter, not harder.

How to Cut Grass Hay

With the blade pointed in the direction of your swing, each swinging arch of the scythe actually slices off a fairly narrow section of grass, maybe 6-10 inches wide or so. The tip of the blade is kept pointing slightly up from the trailing edge so as to avoid getting it caught in any matted grass or dirt. The spine, or outer edge of the blade, is allowed to lightly ride on the ground as you sweep from right to left.

Botan demonstrates it very nicely here:

Sharpening and Peening

Practicing peening on a piece of aluminum give you a feel for drawing out the metal.
Practicing peening on a piece of aluminum give you a feel for drawing out the metal.

Peening is the process of hammering out the leading edge of a blade with light, successive hammer strikes. One indication a blade needs peening: if it goes dull relatively quickly.

To start the peening process take the blade off of the snath. Clean it of any plant debris or dirt. Dry it and do a final “cleaning” with a rest eraser – a special tool to scour the metal to a matte finish before peening.

Most of the time the anvil is set into a heavy tree stump. Find a chair height that lets you rest the blade on top of your thighs, with the center over the anvil. Position the blade facing you with the inside curve facing down. If you’re right handed start at the tip and move toward the heel/beard.

The first peening passes on the blade should be done with an angled strike.
The first peening passes on the blade should be done with an angled strike.

A “drawing” hammer strike pushes more metal toward the edge. Each strike moves along the blade about 1/16th of an inch. It will take about 4-5 passes to get a super sharp blade. The later passes will be more of a downward strike, rather than the drawing strike. Botan suggests having the anvil stump on concrete to facilitate a more energetic bounce back of the hammer, thus allowing you to keep up a momentum a little easier.

peening-hammer

A peening jig can make the job a little easier. With a jig you can use a regular hammer, instead of a special (and expensive) peening hammer. A peening jig comes with 2 caps, one of a lower angle, and another of a higher angle. Work the blade first with the higher angle, then progress to the lower angle to draw the metal out thinner.

peening-anvil

scything-4

scything-5

scything-7a

scything-7b

scything-7c

In Conclusion

A quality scythe is a wonderful tool to own and use. Even if you use it only occasionally to clear grass it’s a great backup if your gas powered mower is out of commission for awhile. And even if you just like to hear the birds and the wind while you work this tool is for you. Find a scything workshop and get started with your own scything revolution!

Your moment of zen: