While not directly related to woodworking, lawn care often requires judicious use of hand tools. Now that spring is approaching, I am dusting off my lawn care equipment, the most-used of which is my reel push mower, a hand tool in its own right.
Almost four years ago, I moved to coastal Alabama and bought a suburban house, so one of my first big purchases was a lawn mower. I had grown up using various riding mowers and push mowers, and I was ready to try out something else. I had seen the reel mowers in the Lee Valley catalog, and almost on a whim, I decided to try it out. The price of the largest one was on par with the middle-of-the-road gas-powered push mowers at the home centers. I also got the sharpening kit, which brought the whole bill to just about $200. I did not get the optional grass catcher. Assembly was quite easy, just a few nuts and bolts to keep the handle together. Height adjustment is simple, just two levers on either side.
My lawn is a mixture of St. Augustine and centipede fescues, with assorted clover, vetch, and weeds thrown in the mix. The St. A. patches can get very thick when we get enough rain, but there are also fairly sparse, high-traffic areas. My lawn is not flat, either. There are many slopes, some at a 35 degree grade, and I have several shrubs of different sizes to mow around. This lawn would be a challenge for any mower, and I usually cut it once a week for at least nine months out of the year.
After a few years of using the mower, here are my thoughts about it.
First, a reel mower works differently from a powered mower. It feels completely different in use. Comparing the reel mower to a conventional gas mower is like comparing wine to whiskey. You may end up with the same results, but the experience of getting there is very different.
– It is safe. The mower does not throw projectiles, and it would be nearly impossible to get a toe caught in the cutting mechanism. It’s important to me that my kids can play nearby while I work, or even help push the mower. I can safely wear shorts and sandals while I work. I can safely run the mower over gravel, garden hoses, and even small toys without doing any damage.
– It is quiet. I like not waking the neighbors when I mow early on Saturday mornings. I also like being able to hear what my children are up to.
– It is very light and easy to push, even up steep hills. This is not your grandfather’s cast-iron monstrosity. However, because pushing my mower causes friction in the cutting mechanism, it takes more effort to push than the poundage would suggest, but it’s still easier to push than most non-self-propelled gas push mowers. It has a smaller footprint, too, and you can hang it up on the garage wall when you’re done.
– It tends to cut more cleanly than powered mowers, resulting in less tip browning. (If you care. I don’t.)
– It does not get clogged with heavy or wet clippings. There is no need to wait for the grass to dry before cutting it, which is important where I live. When I go over a thick spot that the blades can’t handle all at once, it just lays over what it can’t cut, and I can take a second pass. As with powered mowers, the key to handling very thick patches is to (1) slow down, and (2) take two passes, one cutting high and the next cutting lower.
– It spreads clippings evenly, instead of laying them down in lines and clumps. I never have to rake grass clippings, even after mowing the thickest patches.
– It is extremely low-maintenance. It starts up immediately, even after sitting all winter. There’s no gas to mix, no battery to charge, no spark plug to change, and no pull cord to hurt your back. There are no caked clippings to scrape out. I sharpen it once or twice a year, a simple job that takes me ten minutes with the sharpening kit. If your lawn care season is shorter, you could easily go 2-3 years without sharpening. I rag some oil on the blades once a month, just to keep the blades going smoothly and to prevent rust on the cutting edges. Thus far, I have not had to repair or replace anything, nor are there really any parts that would have to be replaced because of wear.
– It is environmentally sound. In use, it produces no pollutants, in the form of either gasses or noise, and it runs on what you ate for breakfast.
– It does not cut all the way to the sides of the mower, leaving more edging work. To my mind, this is the biggest disadvantage to this style of mower. If you’re going to weed eat anyway, it’s not a big deal. But typically there’s more trim work because you can’t mow right up next to things.
– It will not cut the very high stuff. Because of the way the cutting mechanism works, very high stalks (anything about 2″ or more over the cutting height) will just lay down under the mower and won’t be touched. The trick, then, is to not let the lawn get away from you. This is NOT a mower for people who let their lawn become a grassland restoration project between cuttings. When the mower leaves the inevitable tall weed, there IS a way to make it knock down little patches of high stuff. Mow a tight circle over it, using one of the wheels as a pivot point. The tall piece will slip up into the cutting mechanism and be severed. Otherwise, get out the weed eater.
– It cuts only going forward in motion, not in reverse, and not sitting still. I’ve seen more than one fatigued woman in my neighborhood dragging a push mower across her lawn, just to finish the job. Most of the time, cutting in reverse is unnecessary anyway, so this doesn’t bother me at all.
– It is easily stopped by sticks that get into the cutting mechanism and jam it. This was the biggest surprise to me when I first started using it. The reel will sever small twigs if it’s sharp and you’re going fast enough, but I still jam it several times each time I mow the yard. But it’s very easy to dislodge stuck twigs. Just use your toe to spin the reel backwards, and the stick will slip out, usually falling harmlessly to the ground. In practice, you need to keep your lawn relatively free from twigs and other debris if this mower is going to work for you.
– Cutting isn’t always consistent, and I find myself having to overlap a lot, especially in high-density areas. That means it probably takes me a little longer to mow the flat parts of my lawn than it would with a gas mower. But I’m less fatigued when I’m done, and I think I make up lost time on the steep slopes.
Knowing what I know now, would I have bought it again?
And I’m very glad I got the biggest one. I would recommend the smaller ones only for the smallest townhouse lawns. The smaller ones also have lower ranges of cutting heights. Mine is 1 7/8″ – 3″. Most grasses are healthier when allowed to grow higher, so take cutting height as well as width into consideration when selecting a model.