Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Q&A: Undocumented scything techniques

Q:  We love our new scythes!  We did a lot of scything this past week.  After a couple of days, we started to understand the required motion (or motions - which depends a lot on the conditions).   One thing that I did not see emphasized in any documents was the importance of the tip of the blade in cutting grass.  Peter did mention the importance of taking a shallow but wide swath.  But when I tried to work out the motion for cutting in between rows of plants, where the width is shorter than the scythe blade, if I led with the tip, it worked fine, but if I led with any other part of the blade, it did not cut well. Same with cutting grass in other situations: leading with the tip is more natural, and seems to be the key to cutting grass.  Not the same with thicker-woodier stems, which must be cut with the part of the blade between the middle and the snath.  Any comments?.

A:  You are learning from one of the best teachers of scything technique; namely, experience.  (To avoid picking up bad habits that are hard to unlearn, I suggest that beginners also pay attention to instructional readings and videos, if not live instructors.)

In most cases, leading with the tip of the blade is the best technique for cutting grass, since it assures a slicing motion using the full length of the blade.  And yes, woody stems generally are best cut with the back half of the blade (nearest the snath) to minimize the torquing of the blade resulting from the increased resistance to cutting.  Exceptions do exist, as you have found, especially when trimming in confined areas.

The following techniques were described by Peter Vido in response to your question: 
For "tight" trimming, the front half of the blade can be used, with the heel off the ground a bit to fit in the limited space.  For "very tight" trimming, without much forward distance available for the blade to travel, a back-and-forth "sawing" motion can be used, where the blade is cutting in both directions.  The scythe can cut backwards with a diagonal backstroke (back and to the right, for right-handed scythes).  This backward cutting stroke is useful for cutting behind trees when the mower is standing in front of the tree, as the blade edge can be brought very close to the tree trunk.  The back and forth technique, cutting on both forward and back strokes, is also good for cutting around other obstacles.  

The moral of the story is that scythe technique is not limited to what is found in written materials, so keep experimenting!

(Source:  "Tree trunks in the grass" painting by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tree_trunks_in_the_grass.jpg)