Monday, May 31, 2010

Q&A: Mowing clumps of grass on uneven ground

Q:  I would very much like to be able to "mow" my field with a scythe. But in all the videos and pictures I see of people using a scythe, the ground appears quite even. My ground is quite bumpy, and the grass (fescue, I think it is) grows in clumps.  Would a scythe work on such a field?  Would a shorter blade work better?

A:  Yes, you can use a scythe on uneven ground having clumps of grass.  (Most of my backyard could be described this way.)
However, the irregular surface will make it easier for the blade tip to dig into the ground, or for the heel of the blade to dip into a low spot, so more attention will have to be given to the horizontal control of the blade.  This usually translates to a firmer grip, less width of the swath, and occasionally some slight "hovering" of the blade above irregularities.

For such terrain, Peter Vido advises that the blade should not be longer than 70cm.  For a beginner, 60cm is probably sufficient.  If the mowing is mainly "trimming" of smaller areas, an even shorter blade can be used.

If you have a sizeable open grassy area (with uneven ground and clumps of grass) and you want to make hay, then a relatively stiff 70cm blade is recommended (like blade #9 in ScytheConnection's catalogue).  A shorter blade is easier for beginners, but will cut less grass with each stroke, requiring more time to do the job.

If you instead will be walking from clump to clump to cut them individually, then a blade as short as 40 or 45cm should be sufficient.

(Source:  Photo of "A field in Vesper, Oregon" copyright 2009 by Halvorsen brian, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Friday, May 28, 2010

In the Catskills

"...It is not good manners to mow up too close to your neighbor, unless you are trying to keep out of the way of the man behind you..."

Many cattle need much hay; hence in dairy sections haying is the period of "storm and stress" in the farmer's year. To get the hay in, in good condition, and before the grass gets too ripe, is a great matter. All the energies and resources of the farm are bent to this purpose.

It is a thirty or forty days' war, in which the farmer and his "hands" are pitted against the heat and the rain and the legions of timothy and clover. Everything about it has the urge, the hurry, the excitement of a battle. Outside help is procured; men flock in from adjoining counties, where the ruling industry is something else and is less imperative; coopers, blacksmiths, and laborers of various kinds drop their tools, and take down their scythes and go in quest of a job in haying. Every man is expected to pitch his endeavors in a little higher key than at any other kind of work. The wages are extra, and the work must correspond. 

The men are in the meadow by half-past four or five in the morning, and mow an hour or two before breakfast. A good mower is proud of his skill. He does not "lop in," and his "pointing out" is perfect, and you can hardly see the ribs of his swath. He stands up to his grass and strikes level and sure. He will turn a double down through the stoutest grass, and when the hay is raked away you will not find a spear left standing. The Americans are—or were—the best mowers. A foreigner could never quite give the masterly touch. 

The hayfield has its code. One man must not take another's swath unless he expects to be crowded. Each expects to take his turn leading the band. The scythe may be so whetted as to ring out a saucy challenge to the rest. It is not good manners to mow up too close to your neighbor, unless you are trying to keep out of the way of the man behind you. Many a race has been brought on by some one being a little indiscreet in this respect. 

Two men may mow all day together under the impression that each is trying to put the other through. The one that leads strikes out briskly, and the other, not to be outdone, follows close. Thus the blood of each is soon up; a little heat begets more heat, and it is fairly a race before long. It is a great ignominy to be mowed out of your swath. 

Hay-gathering is clean, manly work all through. Young fellows work in haying who do not do another stroke on the farm the whole year. It is a gymnasium in the meadows and under the summer sky. How full of pictures, too!—the smooth slopes dotted with cocks with lengthening shadows; the great, broad-backed, soft-cheeked loads, moving along the lanes and brushing under the trees; the unfinished stacks with forkfuls of hay being handed up its sides to the builder, and when finished the shape of a great pear, with a pole in the top for the stem. 

Maybe in the fall and winter the calves and yearlings will hover around it and gnaw its base until it overhangs them and shelters them from the storm. Or the farmer will "fodder" his cows there,—one of the most picturesque scenes to be witnessed on the farm,— twenty or thirty or forty milchers filing along toward the stack in the field, or clustered about it, waiting the promised bite. In great, green flakes the hay is rolled off, and distributed about in small heaps upon the unspotted snow. After the cattle have eaten, the birds—snow buntings and red-polls—come and pick up the crumbs, the seeds of the grasses and weeds. At night the fox and the owl come for mice.

- from "In the Catskills" by John Burroughs, 1910

"...he was something of a champion at swinging the scythe, and few could mow as much in the course of a day. But certainly labor is no fetich of his, and he has a real genius for loafing..."

There are two seasons of the year when Mr. Burroughs is particularly fond of getting back to his old home. The first is in sap-time, when maple sugar is being made in the little shack on the borders of the rock-maple grove. The second is in midsummer, when haying is in progress. Both occasions have exceptional power for arousing pleasant memories of the past, though such memories have also their touch of sadness. In his early years he helped materially in the farm work while on these visits; but latterly he gives his time to rambling and contemplation. He once said to me, in speaking of a neighbor: "That man hasn't a lazy bone in his body. But I have lots of 'em—lots of 'em."

This affirmation is not to be interpreted too literally. He has made a business success in raising small fruits, and his literary output has been by no means meagre. I might also mention that in youth he was something of a champion at swinging the scythe, and few could mow as much in the course of a day. But certainly labor is no fetich of his, and he has a real genius for loafing. In another man his leisurely rambling with its pauses to rest on rock or grassy bank or fallen tree, his mind meanwhile absolutely free from the feeling that he ought to be up and doing, might be shiftlessness. But how else could he have acquired his delightful intimacy with the woods and fields and streams, and with wild life in all its moods? Surely most of our hustling, untiring workers would be better off if they had some of this same ability to cast aside care and responsibility and get back to Nature—the good mother of us all.

- by Clifton Johnson, from Introduction to "In the Catskills" by 
John Burroughs, 1910


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bolting blades onto wooden snaths

The Schroeckenfux company (FUX) from Austria offers a couple options for attaching a scythe blade to a wooden snath without the use of a ring clamp. 

This is the "Piesslinger-Patent-Scythe" mounting set, which is used with special blades having two slits in the tang (without the usual "knob").  The metal plate attaches to the end of a wooden snath using small nails.  Holes are drilled into the snath for the two carriage bolts which hold the blade against the snath.

Pictured are two of the blades that work with this attachment.  The vertical and diagonal slits allow for "infinite" adjustments to the hafting angle.

FUX also offers this "mounting set for patent scythe with round pivot" for use with wooden snaths.  The metal plate with the multiple holes is attached to the bottom of the snath with the two screws.  A hole is drilled in the snath for the the blade attachment bolt (which goes through the bigger hole on the right side of the plate as shown).  The square shaped metal plate is presumably attached to the top of the snath (using the four small nails) for securing the top end of the bolt with the wing nut and lock washer.  (For metal snaths, such holes can be drilled directly, and only the carriage bolt and wingnut are required.)

Special blades, with one slit in the tang and a rounded tang knob "pivot", are required for this type of attachment.  The tang knob goes into one of the holes on the left side of the bottom plate, and the carriage bolt goes through the vertical slit and holds the blade against the snath.  The choice of one of the five holes for the tang knob determines the hafting angle.  The hafting angle adjustment is limited to these five possible positions. 

To my knowledge, these blades and attachments are currently not available in North America.

(Source:  Franz de Paul Schröckenfux Ges.m.b.H. Rossleithen Austria,

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Women with Scythes in Art

 Here are some works of art from which show women with scythes.  This contrasts with the typical depiction of the division of labor (dating back to the middle ages) showing men with scythes and women with hay forks and rakes.  

The earliest work I found having this theme is this 1825 oil painting by the Russian artist Alexei Gavrilovic Venetsianov, titled "Peasant woman with scythe and rake".
(Source:, The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia,
Hay in Art Database ID: 778)

This 1883 painting by Henry Bacon, titled "Peasant Girl", shows a young woman leaning on a scythe.  The background is an English landscape with a pair of swallows flying over the partially mowed field.  
 Hay in Art Database ID: 5097)

This photograph from 1909 Russia shows a field with more than 20 women using scythes.  The title is "Monastyrskii sienokos (Haymaking at the Leushinskii Monastery)", by photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii.  The larger linked photo shows better details of the one-grip snaths being used.
 Hay in Art Database ID: 3094)

This scene from Missouri dates back to the 1930s.  "This exhausted girl symbolizes farmers' eternal struggle with the elements, says painter John S. De Martelley.  He calls this picture No More Mowing".  -quoted from LIFE magazine article, "Harvest, it inspires fine crop of paintings", August 31, 1942, p. 48.

(Source: art today. NY World's Fair, 1939, p. 68. 
 Hay in Art Database ID: 3593)

This painting -- titled "Reaping" -- by Russian artist Arkadi A. Plastov was completed in 1945, and includes a woman in a group presumably using scythes.  From the Hay in Art Database notes:  " was included in the Russia! Show at the NY Guggenheim Museum in 2005... [the] catalog description, by Masha Chelnov, is worth quoting: ' Painted during the first summer after the end of World War II, Reaping shows the peasants' peaceful daily toil. Plastov himself was of peasant origin and lived in the village most of his life; the majority of his paintings are devoted to rural life and the kolkhoz (collective farm). The grass and flowers in the foreground are painted in with rich texture and the bright, broken brushstrokes characterstic of impressionism, which was to come under harsh criticism from government officials in the late forties.' With Harvest (ID 5036), 'Reaping' won the Stalin Prize in 1946."
(Source:  Bown, Matthew Cullerne. Socialist Realist Painting.New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. p. 232-233. Also, Russia! Catalog of the exhibtion at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in NY. 2005, p. 59.
 Hay in Art Database ID: 960)

Yet another work from Russia depicting a woman using a scythe, "Haymaking", by Yuri Kuznetsov, was created in 1987.  This oil painting shows a woman in the foreground cutting swaths across the field.  
 Hay in Art Database ID: 3179)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Peening Blocks

To encourage the local use of scythes, periodically I will organize a group purchase of scythes (cheaper by the dozen) and host a free workshop on scythe sharpening and use.  This year, I used some scrap 6-by-6 lumber to make "peening blocks", two-piece portable peening benches.  

For peening jigs, an 11" upright piece and a 15" seat work well.  For longer peening anvils, I turn the upright piece onto its side and use a 15" length of 4-by-6 wood for the seat. (A couple pieces of scrap 2-by-6, nailed together, would also work as a seat.)

Using a longer upright piece with a chair or stool might be more comfortable, but would be less stable and less portable than these simple peening blocks.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Scythe-Whetting Song

"The Scythe-whetting or Rollicking Song is probably a form of greeting as well as love as it is uttered when two or more meet. 

"It has been likened to the sound produced by the sharpening of a scythe and is a sharp metallic wich-er  wick-er  wick-ah  ... repeated from two to twelve times."

[This is referring to the Northern Flicker (Colaptus auratus), a member of the woodpecker family.]

(Source:  "The Wilson Bulletin", a magazine devoted to the study of birds, Number 31, "A Monograph of the Flicker", by Frank L. Burns, page 27, Wilson Ornithological Society, Oberlin Ohio, April 1900.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Crimson Clover

Here in Oregon, crimson clover is now in bloom (a little earlier than usual).  This photo was taken in June of a previous year.  

The first painting in yesterday's post (Deyrolle's "Le repos des faneurs") features a field of crimson clover (or so I believe).  You can decide for yourself:  Here is some detail from the painting to compare with the following photos from my backyard.

Bee heaven.

(Source:  Detail of painting by Theophile Louis Deyrolle, "repos des faneurs",,
 Hay in Art Database ID: 686.  
 All photos by Steve Leppold)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Sharpening Scythes in Art

Let's examine more of the scythe-related artwork found in the extensive database at  Many of these works feature scythes being sharpened, perhaps because the subject is conveniently standing in one place or sitting.

In this 19th-century painting by Deyrolle, titled "Repos des faneurs" (rest of the haymakers), the mower is peening his blade while his two co-workers with hay forks are waiting nearby.  The man has the blade removed from the snath and is using a peening anvil that is stuck into the ground.  The field appears to consist primarily of crimson clover in bloom.  Notice the wooden clogs.
(Source:  Theophile Louis Deyrolle, "repos des faneurs",, Hay in Art Database ID: 686)

This 1887 painting by L'hermitte also shows a clog-wearing man peening his blade in the field.  A child is carrying what looks like a double-sided hay rake and a hay fork.
(Source:  Leon Augustin L'hermitte, "Haymakers",, Hay in Art Database ID: 588)

This 1890 photograph by Peter Henry Emerson is titled "In the Barley Harvest".  Two workers are resting while the third is sharpening his scythe.  Emerson once said, "No machine will be invented which will do the work as well as the scythe."  
(Source:  Peter Henry Emerson, Pictures of East Anglian Life, 1890, plate 7.  J. Paul Getty Museum  Hay in Art Database ID: 6142)

An unknown photographer shot this British "Mower sharpening his scythe at Wilcroft, Herefordshire" around 1890.  Note the technique used for sharpening such a long blade.
(Source:  Winter, Gordon. A country camera 1844-1914. Penguin, 1973, p. 42. From Hereford City Library.
 Hay in Art Database ID: 5271)

Another long blade in this 1848 painting by William Sidney Mount titled "Farmer whetting his scythe".  This scene is located in New York.  Note the left hand position and the long sharpening "rifle" (made of abrasives bonded to a handle) instead of a solid stone.
(Source:  Frankenstein, Alfred. William Sidney Mount. NY: Abrams, 1975, plate 31 [color]
 Hay in Art Database ID: 133)

Yet another long blade on an American-style scythe in John S. DeMartelley's 1938 lithograph, "Old Man Towne bought a new scythe".  (Old Man Towne was neighbor of the artist.)  Note the technique for steadying the blade with the left hand.
(Source:  North, Bill. The prints of John S. DeMartelly, 1903-1979. East Lansing, MI: Kresge Art Museum, p. 45.
 Hay in Art Database ID: 954)

An upcoming post topic will be "Women with Scythes in Art".

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Italian peening anvils

The Rinaldi company, located in Northern Italy near Bergamo, has been around for over 200 years and forges a range of hand tools including scythe anvils and hammers.  Most of their scythe anvils can be used directly in the ground, instead of in a stump or wood block:

Item 701 is a narrow-faced peening anvil with a "step" for hammering into the ground.

Item 702 is a narrow-faced anvil for use in the ground, with a broader head, Veneto type, without a step.

Item 703 is a wide-face anvil for use in the ground, Soresina type.

Item 705 is a narrow-faced anvil for use in wood, Bergamo type, with a step.

Alas, these anvils are currently not available in North America.

(Source:  Rinaldo Rinaldi Faustino F. LLI & C. snc - Via Magnavacca, 14-24012 Brembilla (BG) Italy,

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

For those who are unfamiliar with the works of Robert Frost, here are some enticing snippets:

"... a leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared...
 ... the mower in the dew had loved them thus...
 ... from sheer morning gladness at the brim..."

"... the sweetest dream that labor knows.
           My long scythe whispered..."

The first lines are from "The Tuft of Flowers" and the second passage is from "Mowing", both appearing in Robert Frost's first book of poetry "A Boy's Will" published in 1915.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Hand-cranked portable peening machine

Here's an invention that was designed to peen the edge of a scythe blade when the hand crank is turned.  The device can be taken into the field for convenient use.

Patented in the United States by German inventor Michael Humpfner in 1887, the machine "...allows the scythe to be so struck that no warping or notching can occur even though the metal be extremely thin... obliges the clumsiest and laziest workman to hold the scythe in right position... allows only one point to rest, and the guiding-bow, set at the correct angle, renders too great an inclination of the scythe impossible... The apparatus is mounted in oblique position on one end of a board about fifty centimeters long for the purpose of rendering possible work in the open field, which is done by holding the board fixed on the ground by means of the right knee, while the right hand turns the crank and the left hand draws the scythe through. In this manner my apparatus secures safe sharpening even on the loosest sandy soil and on wet meadows."

The above quotes are from the patent document which can be viewed at:

(Source:  United States Patent Office, Patent number 375708, Issue date Dec 27, 1887, Device for Sharpening Scythes by Michael Humpfner of Frankfort-on-the-Main, Germany.  Patent information found using Google patents.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Scythes in Art -- Middle Ages and Renaissance

Historical records of scythe usage appear in works of art from the past millennium.  A database of hay-related (and therefore scythe-related) artwork can be found at  Browsing through this wonderful site is like spending an afternoon at an art museum.  Here are some of the earlier works depicting the use of scythes.

The first image (above) is from an 11th-century English manuscript and shows an October harvest scene taking place practically 1,000 years ago!  The scythes seem to have one-grip snaths, with the length of the snaths exceeding the height of the mowers.
 (Source: The Art Archive/British Library, Hay in Art Database ID: 4)

This stone sculpture of a peasant sharpening a scythe is from 13th-century France, and can be found on the west facade of Notre Dame de Paris.  Note the large (exaggerated?) size of the whetstone and blade.  (Source:â„‘_id=170465Hay in Art Database ID: 2571)

This 13th-century mower is using a two-grip snath and has what appears to be a whetstone holder (cow horn?) hanging from his belt. 
  Hay in Art Database ID:2493)

This scene of mowing and haymaking in France from a 15th-century manuscript shows good details of the one-grip snath in use.  The leading mower's stance is realistic and shows good form.  Note the bare legs (due to hot weather?  or bothersome tunics?)  
(Source:  The Pierpont Morgan Library,, Artist: Jean Poyet, Hay in Art Database ID: 6218)

This mowing scene, supposedly in Belgium, appears in an early 16th-century manuscript.  The scythes have two-grip snaths with simple cradles attached.
(Source:  The Pierpont Morgan Library,, Hay in Art Database ID: 6301)

A 16th-century painting by Bruegel (Pieter the Elder) contains this detail of a man hammering a scythe blade on an anvil in a field, somewhere in Holland.  The snath, still attached to the blade, has a simple cradle attached; and another blade is lying nearby.
(Source:  Hay-making. Introduction by Jaromir Sip, translated by Till Gottheiner. London: Spring Books, 1960, opposite p. 1.,
Hay in Art Database ID: 2012)

These images are a small sample of the 6,779 items in the Hay in Art Database.  In an upcoming post, I will discuss some more recent works of scythe-related art.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Q&A: Tang angles for tall folks

Q: I have a pretty basic question. As an upright 6'-5" tall man, I should be considering blades with a tang steepness of 30 degrees plus?

A: Peter Vido asked me to address your question, as I am 6'-8" tall and have faced the same issue.

In general, you could say that the taller you are, the steeper a tang you need, but the tang steepness you need depends mainly on the snath you will be using.

For example, the first scythe I got was from Johnny's Selected Seeds. The blade's tang angle was about 25 degrees. The snath was woefully too small for me. I modified it as shown in a photograph on this webpage:

The snath modification now allowed me to mow with a straight back. With this modified snath, 25 degrees was the right tang angle for someone of my height (but the ergonomics of the snath were far from ideal).

I later made a one-grip snath for the same 25 degree blade. I followed the instructions listed here:

To make the one-grip snath work for me with a 25 degree blade, I had to use a piece of wildwood for the shaft (instead of sawn lumber) which was specially selected to have a curved bottom. (The wood was from the prunings of an ash tree in my backyard.) I sawed the curved bottom at just the right angle to accommodate my height and the 25 degree tang angle. With this snath, a 25 degree tang is the correct one for me, and it works remarkably better for me than the same blade with the modified Johnny's snath. (For example, with the Johnny's snath, I can't get a full swing with enough control to cut well at the end of the stroke.)

Without a curve at the bottom of the one-grip snath, in other words with a straight shaft, the tang angle would have to be much steeper. Exactly how steep can be calculated by the method quoted from the following webpage:
"To estimate the required tang angle [for a straight-shafted one-grip snath] for anyone, regardless of height, a scale drawing can be made on graph paper, or a bit of trigonometry can be applied. Assuming the person is right-handed, measure the the height of the right hand in the mowing stance (usually with the right arm almost completely straight), and divide this number by the theoretical distance between right grip and end of snath (following the instructions for making the one-grip snath), and find the arcsine (or "inverse sine") for this quotient. The result is the approximate tang angle required for both the one-grip snath and the Oregon snath."

I wanted to make a straight one-grip snath and this method resulted a tang angle of about 50 degrees! Luckily for me, Peter happened to have some suitable blades in stock (he has many blades not listed in the catalogue).

I later wanted to try these same blades with a two-grip snath (homemade from straight lumber), so I designed the "Oregon Snath", as shown in the above link.

If I had a two-grip snath with curves in the right places, I could use a less-steep tang angle. How much less of an angle depends on the specific snath design (the location and amount of curvature, the grip arrangement, etc.)

The adjustable two-grip snaths that are available from various sources are only adjustable for a certain range of heights, and this doesn't really address the blade fit. Each adjustment of the snath might change the angle the snath makes with the ground, theoretically requiring a different tang angle.

For a given user/snath combination there is an optimal tang angle. (The desired use for the scythe can be reflected in the snath design and influence the optimal tang angle.) The available blades may not match this optimal tang angle. There is some leeway possible since the user can adjust his/her stance and arm positioning a bit to make a blade work, up to a certain limit. Beyond this, a wooden wedge can be used between the tang and the snath, to simulate a decrease in tang angle, up to about 5 degrees less than the actual tang angle. Modifications are sometimes made to the bottom of the snath, tapering (cutting a wedge off) the snath to simulate an increase in tang angle.

The use of wedges and tapering to affect the lay of the blade is explained in this webpage:

A recap of the last couple points: A snath can be fitted to the user. The resulting snath will need a blade with a certain tang angle. The curvature of the snath affects the required tang angle of the blade. A blade with a tang angle that is too high for the user/snath combo (up to about 5 degrees too high) can still be used with a wedge. A blade with a tang angle that is too low (up to a couple degrees too low) can be used if the snath end is tapered.

With the Oregon snath, I took a different approach by starting with a given blade. The Oregon snath is then made to fit the user (and blade) without the use of wedges or tapers.

The blade/snath/user each have an influence on the other two factors. For example, you cannot determine the tang angle for a given height user without considering the specific snath.

The maker of the snath should have this all figured out, but this isn't always the case. I think that there may be some fudging done, such as one or two tang angles used for a range of users, instead of having a wider range of tang angles available to properly fit the range of users.

So I hope that you now understand how a 25-degree blade and a 50-degree blade can both fit the same tall person, and how the answer to your basic question depends on the specific snath.