Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Q&A: Left-handed scythes?

Mowing with ease at seven years young.

Q:  I'm planning to get a scythe, but I'm left-handed. I know there are left-handed blades out there but, in your experience, do southpaws simply adapt to scything with a right-handed bias (as with so many other things)?

A:  [from Peter Vido] The basic 'switch' to an opposite-handed scythe can -- in some cases -- be made before the morning's worth of mowing is over (after which the refinements will continue, of course). My daughters, one naturally left-handed and the other right-handed, would agree. They both started with right-handed blades at the age of 7 or so, and only tried a left-hand version several years later, 'just for fun'. But it was no big deal for either of them to make the 'wrongly-aimed' blades cut grass just fine.

However, my daughters (as well as their uncle Alexander Vido, who is a natural left-hander) continued to use primarily right-handed scythes. The chief reason is that they were interested to try out different blade patterns, and during any one season would end up 'fooling around' with many of them. And, although left-handed blades have long been produced, the diversity of available models was always FAR less. The privilege of our left-handed scythe collection notwithstanding, they can try out MANY more right (as opposed to left) handed models, and so they stuck with the 'right-hand bias' for the most part.

I have recently experimented 'somewhat' (meaning about 10-12 hrs of actual work) with left-handed scythes because my long ago right wrist injury more or less 'ordered' the trial. As a fringe benefit, it was an interesting way to gain insights about the learning process for a beginner -- something I now feel I ought to have done long ago...

We can speculate that it would be easier for a natural left-hander to begin with (or later switch to) a right-handed scythe than for a natural right-hander to meet the same challenge, simply because in our 'right-dominant' culture the left-handers grew up adapting to many 'right hand only' tools. (An example -- ever heard of a left-handed chainsaw? Yet thousands of natural left-handers have made professional careers of using them just the same; a statement to our potential ability to adapt.)

So let's speculate why would someone specially chose to use a left-handed scythe?

Some of the possibilities:

a) They're one of the 'committed left-handers' who prefer left-handed equipment whenever it's available.

b) They are a natural left-hander who initially learned to mow with a left-handed scythe and do not want to relearn (or override) the motions.

c) They are natural right-handers but as a result of an injury to the right shoulder/arm/wrist have more available strength in their 'unnatural' side and consequently can mow better with a left-handed scythe, especially in dense and/or tall grass when the strength factor comes more into play.

d) Some people simply desire to balance their body's muscle usage in general, and while scything they can occasionally switch between right-handed and left-handed scythes.
[Yes, we do know individuals actually doing this.] 

Team mowing with left-handed scythes

One of the most frequently offered reasons against obtaining/learning how to use a left-handed scythe has been "but then you can't mow in teams". Those making this argument may be 'under the influence' of the illustration on page 61 of David Tresemer's Scythe Book. They probably also haven't used the scythe enough themselves, and consequently fail as yet to grasp the range of individual expression that -- potentially -- the use of this tool can entail. That "round and round around the field" represents a 'boxed in' approach to forage harvesting, a must to most forage-harvesting machines. Yes, it may well have been the way the large, flat and evenly-standing areas of America were mown (even with scythes) in bygone days -- but is NOT how a group of mowers traditionally progressed most of the time, in most of the scythe-using world.

Whatever the definition of 'teams' may be and how frequently groups gather (in relation to solo scythe work) these days in the 'West', I do not really know. What I do know is that whether there is a 'team' of 2 mowers or 25 who wish to cut a respective area together, there are usually several ways to accommodate either-sided folks.

Regardless of the specific numbers of people involved, some can begin moving diagonally from opposite sides of a field. Also, the traditional Swiss 'double swath' approach can effectively be implemented by equal number of left and right-handed scythes -- by the leading person (it could be either right or left-hander) starting a strip which deposits the cut matter against the still-standing grass. A person with a blade pointing in the opposite direction can then follow in the leader's heels and deposit the grass against the already accumulating (leading person's) windrow. That is not exactly how the Swiss do it, but the end effect would be the same -- a swath twice the width of one cutting movement of a blade, with all grass accumulated within a 'double windrow' in the middle. (In Switzerland, this approach is still features in at least some of their national mowing competitions. It consists of a person mowing the given length first towards the standing grass, and then turning around and making a pass away from it. It takes more than the usual judgement and skill to assure that everything under that 'double windrow has been shaven clean -- an element, besides the time taken, that is taken into consideration. That is, before the judges announce the final score, all grass is raked away to see just how cleanly the mowing was performed.)

However, the majority of folks making up the Western eco-crowd do not usually mow large fields together as 'teams'. Most end up working in irregularly-shaped terrain where adhering to certain direction is not the issue, or at least shouldn't be. In fact, all seasoned mowers who have faced a wide variety of mowing conditions would likely tell you that there were times they wished their blades were pointing in the opposite direction. That is to say, there are situations where -- due to topography and/or the predominant lay of the plants to be cut -- having a left-handed scythe in hand (or a friend with one at your side) would be advantageous. An experienced leader of a group ought to be able to quickly access the site, and then place the right and left-handers (regardless how many of each the group consists of) in positions where their respective scythe be made best use of.

Availability of left-handed blades

All the above notwithstanding, it would be unreasonable to advocate 'equal rights' in this regard, simply because the present availability of left-handed blades is severely limited.
The Schroeckenfux company of Austria makes one standard (#201 pattern) model - but in 70cm/28" only. They also still, from time to time, make a wider model (#108 pattern) for an old customer in Portugal, where apparently in a few select regions everybody mowed 'left-handed' once upon a time. That (Portuguese) model has been made in lengths from 18" to 28", but is not listed in the company's regular catalogue. Any wholesale customer could, I assume, ask for it although it may not be laying on the shelf in their warehouse in all the lengths at any one time. The Falci enterprise in Italy makes one of their standard models in a left hand version, but only in one (65cm/26") length. That may be the extent of the options today. In Bob Dylan's old words -- "The times they are a'changin'..."

To buck the trend would require a large scale revolution (akin to the feminist, gay or 'black power' movements). Even then, anywhere near matching the right-hand blades' models and lengths availability? Forget it. And this, from my perspective, is the only justifiable reason for advising a natural left-hander against getting stuck on their 'natural right' of bucking the present norm. In the meantime, Scythe Works still offers an inexpensive option to experiment with -- a blade model made in Austria, 20-30 years ago, made for Argentina. It is not extra light (but neither are most scythe blades today), has a relatively steep tang (making it easy to fit the simplest-to-make straight one-grip snath) and comes in 20, 22 and 26 inches, at least for now.

We have in our collection still other left-handed models, but it would take more digging than we can presently take time for to get them all out whatever boxes they are hiding in just to pose for a picture. Hope this suffices as a statement that, yes, left-handed scythe blades have long existed.

-- Peter Vido

Mirror images from Mowing with ease at
Photos from Vido family collection.

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