Zen and the Sport of Scything: Tai-chi or Golf?

Chris Devaney
40 Min Read

I have to cut some hay.  It’s one of those must-do things.  If I put it off, I pay the price in the end.  So I ask myself, “What’ll it be? Tai-chi or golf?”

That doesn’t sound like a mowing question, but, hold on! A few more questions will clear things up. Or will it?

Question 1: Will I be cutting good grass or spanking weeds?

Question 2: How much do I need to cut today? A leisurely pace or the max?

Question 3: Am I in the need for a physical workout or a mental balance adjustment?

Huh? Mental balance adjustment? What the heck does that have to do with mowing a field? Quite a bit, actually; please read on.

Two Styles of Scything

The art of scything comes in two flavors, a European style, and an American style.  The styles are different because the hardware is different.  More on the hardware a little later.

Using the European equipment and scything style is less of a physical workout and more zen-like.  Similar to some Tai-chi movements, the mower cuts an arc of grass with an upper-body rotation from the hips swinging the tool in an arc that is comfortable to the individual mower.  The action distributes muscle activity from the legs through the torso and finally into the arms and shoulders to guide the blade along the intended path.  Since the force applied is distributed over a large part of the body, scything ends up being less tiring, less of a physical challenge.  The equipment is lighter too.

Clumsy at first for sure, but once a comfortable style is found, an equilibrium of sorts arises; the mind relaxes and wanders off to tend to other activities instead of guiding the tool.  At this point, my brain shifts focus off of the mowing and on to more important things like repeating a chant of personally useful affirmations: “Health, wealth, success, comfort and security, and happiness to us all…” or maybe it will wander back to mentally inventing that “thing” I’ve been working on for a while.  But when needed, as if some sentinel is at the brink of consciousness ever so watchful for imminent disaster, subconscious activity pops me out of my trance when a pending swish of the scythe would take out a particularly beautiful wildflower or a stray clump of Angelica I could use in my next V-8 concoction.  Cutting around a flower or obstacle is certainly a lot easier with a scythe than it is with a tractor or mower. The tool runs on coffee, and it always starts, even after storing it for a year.

The American style of scything is different.  It is a heavier tool, more robust, and once sharpened correctly, it will stay sharp longer.  The mere fact that the American scythe is heavier makes that excursion into the world of Zen less likely than with its European cousin.  It’s all business here.  And when you find yourself knee-deep in heavy growth, woody stems, late September goldenrod, you’ll find no better friend than the American scythe. It also runs on coffee. It just takes a little more of it.

The act of swinging this scythe is quite different from the European version and I’ll discuss that in more detail in a moment.  In a general sense, rather than swinging the tool in an arc, the dance is more of a short shuffle of the blade back and forth… cut, return… step, step… cut, return… step, step… in a rhythmic fashion while facing the grass as if putting on the golf course… not the driving range, mind you, it’s more like the soft swing in miniature golf  (do they still have miniature golf?).  The step-step routine is like a crab-walk, traversing sidewise to the uncut grass.

Not too much is written about the American scythe and less so about this technique of scything.  What I have found in print has always been negative.  Finding that irksome, I refused to believe it, so I had to find out for myself.  It seems to me there are just too many American style scythes around and about in old farmhouses to warrant such a bad reputation.  I figured they wouldn’t have made so many of these tools if they didn’t work.  So I bought one.  And then I found a really old one at a garage sale for two dollars.  Next, I went out and talked to some old scything guru’s familiar with the cutting style and took on the task of learning the American scything technique.  I’m glad I did.

It doesn’t take more than an hour or two with a scythe to reach an equilibrium with it.  You can bet that in the first couple of swings, more than likely, you’ll pitch the blade into the ground or ricochet it off the grass hardly cutting a single blade of grass, but it won’t be long before you are beyond the clumsy stage and enter the phase of developing your refinements.

The scythe is one of the few tools that is so asymmetric that it looks dangerous.  After all, as the Grim Reaper’s tool of choice, somehow we just know we’ll cut off a toe or foot or whatever.  As it turns out, you’d have to be a contortionist to cut yourself while working a scythe.  Only when you are sharpening the blade or transporting the tool to the field is the scythe a dangerous implement.  I believe this is one of the main reasons that the mind can wander during use and busy itself in taking care of more important things, like visualizing world peace, sending healing energy, communicating from a distance, etc.

Let’s take a look at the equipment.

scything, learn how to use a scythe, scythe techniques, types of scythes, homesteading, homestead. homestead.org
Figure 1: Three Types of Scythes

The Scythes

Of the three scythes shown, the left two are European scythes, the leftmost has a grass blade, the middle one has a “ditch” blade which is a little thicker and shorter blade and is designed to handle rougher pastures.  On the right is the American scythe, note the highly curved handle (called a snath or less commonly, a sned).  Note also that the American style blade has less of a curvature to it than the European ones.  This has a lot to do with the difference in scything techniques.

The European Scythe

european scythe homesteading, homestead. homestead.org
Figure 2: The European Scythe Blade

All scythes consist of a blade, a snath (handle), and some means of connecting the two.  Figure 2 is a close-up of a typical European grass blade and Figure 3 shows how the attachment to the snath is made for the European style.  A complete setup will run about $125 and includes the blade, snath, blade holder or attachment fixture, and usually a sharpening stone and cup for carrying the stone while scything. It’s a good idea to get a peening jig as well. See Figure 5.

The typical grass blade is about 26 to 30 inches long (66 to 76 cm) while the ditch or brush blades are shorter and stouter, around 16 to 18 inches (40-46 cm).

The blade is curved along its length but also in cross-section as shown in Figure 4.

european scythe blade
Figure 3: European Blade Connection

The lengthwise curvature draws the grass along the blade as the tool is swung in its arc.  This slices the grass cleanly and the cross-section curvature helps in carrying the cut grass over to the end of the stroke depositing it in a nice neat windrow.  More importantly, however, the cross-section curvature serves to position the blade edge at the optimum angle for efficient cutting.   The lip or rim at the top, in addition to strengthening the blade, serves to guide the sharpening stone across the blade at the proper angle when touching up the blade in the field, a process often referred to as whetting the blade).

Sharpening on the European blade is done with a hammer in a process called peening.  A special inexpensive jig is used to position the blade and

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Figure 4: Cross Section Curvature of the European Blade

a top tube-looking affair is attached to the jig.  The tubes (and there are two different ones) are ground with a special bevel on them so that when they are struck with a hammer as shown in Figure 6, they force a tiny amount of metal downward toward the blade edge and create the working edge.  The blade is slowly moved across the jig surface while the operator lightly taps the top of the tube surface.  One tube, the coarse one, forces more material down towards the edge.  The second tube flattens and shapes the extruded metal into the near-final shape of the cutting edge.  A final touch-up using the stone is done to give the blade its final sharp working surface.  It takes some time to develop a good sharpening technique, longer than it takes to develop a good scything technique.   Lots of words have been written about the process of sharpening, check out a few in the library or check Homestead.org’s guide on how to sharpen knives “Razor’s Edge Extreme Knife Sharpening”.  Be patient, scrutinize the edge, and most importantly, pay attention to the cut grass.  This is the key to knowing when the blade is sharp and “your” technique is working for you.

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Figure 5: European Blade Sharpening Jig

Most manufacturers of European scythes will fit the snath to your body proportions.  That is, they will want to know your overall height and the cubit measurement which is the length from the bottom of your elbow to the top of your fingertips on the right or left hand depending on your handedness (righty or lefty).  Then they will manufacture the snath with the handles (nibs) at the proper height for a comfortable stance while working.

Figure 6: Peening (Sharpening) the European scythe Blade
Figure 6: Peening (Sharpening) the European Scythe Blade

Most snaths are straight or have a slight curvature at the bottom for positioning the blade appropriately with respect to the grass.  Usually the snaths are fabricated from hickory or ash, but there are aluminum snaths on the market too.  I have never tried one, though.   And while there a few adjustments you can to make to the blade and how it sits on the snath, as far as I know, there are no adjustable snaths where you could vary the position and height of the handles.  Once they are glued in place, that’s it, it’s fixed.

The American Scythe

The American Scythe Blade
Figure 7: The American Scythe Blade

As mentioned earlier, the American scythe is stouter, more robust, and built to last.  I personally like the lines of this style better but appearance isn’t everything.

Like the European setup, the American style blades come in a variety of lengths and at least 3 variations: grass, weed, and brush blades.  A typical grass blade will be about 30 inches and a weed blade about 26 inches and brush blades being much less around 16 inches or so.  Figure 7 shows a close up of the American style blade—a 26” weed blade.

Note the less curvature of the blade.  It is also straight in cross-section although it does have non-symmetric ridges at the top for strength and a lip which helps guide the sharpening stone at the right angle.

American Style scythe Blade Attachment
Figure 8: American Style Blade Attachment

Figure 8 shows the attachment mechanism and as you can see, it too is different from its European cousin.

The tang has a projection that fits into one of three holes in the wooden snath.  This provides blade attack adjustment often referred to as open or closed.  A similar adjustment on the European setup is not as clean; there are no additional holes only manual positioning of the blade and then mashing down the screws.  The European scythes call this “adjusting the hafting angle”.  The American version terminology is just “hole on the right” or “hole on the left”.  Switching between the holes affects how the edge of the blade meets the grass and it is worthwhile to experiment with this as you become more experienced in scything.

An Adjustable scythe Handle
Figure 9: An Adjustable Handle Note:  The handles are left-handed threads.  Turn them clockwise to loosen, anti-clockwise to tighten.

One standard feature of the American scythe sorely lacking on the European version is adjustable handles.  This feature allows a more comfortable position for the mowing activity with less strain on wrists, forearms, and back.  To adjust the handles, merely loosen the handle, move it to the right position (up, down or around) and retighten it.

The American style blade is initially sharpened on a grinding wheel and then touched up in the field with a sharpening stone.  Unlike the European blade which is hammered or peened to a sharp edge, the American blade has a bevel ground on both sides of the blade.  It is also constructed out of a higher carbon steel making it less ductile, harder and slightly more brittle.  The actual process of hammering the American blade would destroy the edge rather than extruding softer metal down towards the blade edge.  On the plus side however, once the blade has been ground sharp and touched up with a stone, it will remain sharper for a longer time, requiring only a touch up in the field with the sharpening stone.

Oddly enough, all American style blades are made in Austria.

Tai-Chi of Scything: The European Version

Ok, let’s get to mowing.

The scythe is ready, the blade is sharp, and the early morning grass is wet with dew.  This is the best time to scythe. Let’s go spank the grass.

So I asked the master, “How will I know if my scything technique is correct?” And the answer came back:

“Swish, step, step… swish, step, step.  And what are you thinking about?” the master asked a question in response to my question.

“So many things.” I answered, reverently, “I remembered my grandmother’s face, her apron pockets were always filled with treasures, I smell the grass and an occasional fragrance of mint in the air, I feel sweat on my brow and a limberness in my hips, and I…”

“Well, enough!” said the master.  “Stop, turn around, and look.  What do you see?” said he.

“I see a 50-foot windrow of cut grass, more or less evenly laid upon the ground but I’m not sure how it got there.” I answered.

“Perhaps your technique is fine,” said he.

The actual cutting process of each stroke of the scythe cuts a relatively thin swath of grass, about 3 inches deep, over a circular arc.  The total angle of the swing will vary depending on your own preference, your stamina, and the equipment you use.  I generally swing an arc of around 150 degrees or less, a scything expert would probably do more; and maybe I would too if I were more flexible, but I’m older now.  See Figure 10.

Figure 10: Scything Swing: European Scythe
Figure 10: Scything Swing: European Scythe

Standing upright in a comfortable position, the scythe in your hands, at a left corner of the intended patch of grass to mow, face the grass with the blade positioned flat on the ground.  Spread your feet to be about the width of your shoulders apart.  Later, as you gain more experience, your right leg will be slightly bent as you reach over to swing a larger arc.  But for now, concentrate more on keeping the blade parallel to the ground and a level swing.

Rotate your hips with the swing transferring weight from your right leg to the left leg during the swing.  On the return swing, I generally coordinate the “step, step” routine with the return swing, taking small steps forward.  First the right and then the left with the left foot planting as the scythe reaches the start position again.

David Tresemer in his classic book on scything (see the reference section), likens this body rotation action to a coiled spring, storing energy in the tendons and muscles of the arms, legs, and body and uncoiling as the body rotates back to the start position.  In this manner, your upper torso as well as your legs get into the action, not just your arms.  This is one of the main reasons why the European style is less taxing on your body.

It is natural to feel odd at first, and no doubt, the blade will seem to have a will of its own in the first few swings.  But within an hour or so, you’ll be comfortable in handling the tool and no more, well… rarely, after that, will you be digging the point into the ground.  If your arms and shoulders are getting prematurely tired, there is something wrong in the swing.

There are many schools of thought on the scything action.  Some folks preach that the only way to handle a scythe is their way or the wrong way for maximum efficiency.  You’ll find a strong bent for this in the literature.   It could be that they are right, but it is my belief that it depends on the body as well as your reasons for scything.  An equilibrium will come, a style will develop that will suit your body.  Your muscles won’t ache and your harvest will increase if you enjoy what you are doing.

Figures 11 and 12 show the beginning and end of a stroke using the European scythe.  Note that I use a little more of a forward stance.  The left leg is in front of the right one and I am leaning into the grass a little.  This works for me, it may not be for everyone.

scythe Swing
Figure 11: Start of Swing

Over time, I made adjustments to both the style and the method of scything to suit my needs.  I actually was forced to initially when I fractured my leg in 2006 during what I now call “the summer of pain”.  No insurance, no doctors, and 12 acres of hay that still needed to be cut and baled.

That year, July’s cut was done mostly on one leg with minimal body rotation so I could maintain balance and keep upright.  In August, it was easier with a little more weight on the bad leg which allowed for more body rotation and a greater arc of the swing.  Finally, in addition to modifying my swing, I came up with a method that started the cut from right to left in the field followed by the next row from left to right.  In this manner, the windrows were deposited in a more orderly fashion with

scythe Swing
Figure 12: End of Swing

more space between them.  I had a better view of the cut grass so I could make adjustments to the motion for a cleaner cut.  Plus drying was easier in that there was more room to flip the hay the next day.  I still use this method today in my mowing.

After each row is cut, or more frequently if needed, I field sharpen the blade using the sharpening stone.  This is usually referred to as “whetting the blade” but to me, the blade is already wet and so am I, so I just call it “field sharpening” or “honing”.  Whetting is the proper term, however.

Most scything outfits come with a stone holder that is a cup-like affair that holds the stone in some water and hangs from your belt while you work.  I will admit it is convenient but I am always bending over to remove some unwanted weed or dog-dragged yard debris from the cut hay.  The now warm water spills out of the holder and runs down my leg giving me the sensation of incontinence.  Hence, I keep the stone in a can of water conveniently positioned at the end of a row and I feel more in control of myself.

The field sharpening process is a matter of sliding the stone across the edge of the blade at more or less the correct angle.  This is done front and back as shown in Figure 13.  An American scythe is used for this picture but the process is identical for the European blade.

Field sharpening keeps the edge conditioned and as you gain experience in scything, you’ll notice the difference in cutting before and after the field sharpening.  But I must admit, for the first year or two, I didn’t notice any difference and thought it might be just another strange ritual in the scything community.  And there are some odd rituals, some good, others… well, you’ll find out.

Using the upper edge of the blade helps to guide the sharpening stone at pretty close to the optimum angle for sharpening.

Field Sharpening the scythe Blade
Figures 13 A and B: Field Sharpening the Blade

Sharpening the blade is one of the few times that the scythe can be dangerous.  The more you do it (and you will be doing it often), the more dangerous it can become because you can build up a false sense of security since it becomes so familiar. Several times I have let go of the blade prematurely intending to move my hand further up the blade for a subsequent stroke of the stone.  The blade falls into the upcoming hand holding the stone and “ouch” I cut myself.  I’ve cut myself twice already! How many times can I be kicked by the same mule in the same place before the brain sends the signal that perhaps if I move over a bit… There’s always a need to use good sense while handling the blade.  That includes transporting the tool out and back from the field.

Golf: The American Way of Scything

I’m at a disadvantage here, right off the bat.  I don’t play golf.  Nor is there anything in print that I could locate about the American style of scything.  So, once again, I asked a master.  This master is more tangible, he’s accessible and he doesn’t speak in riddles or questions.  A nice guy and a fellow scyther, Dave Saunders.  He’s also local.  Dave has been around ever since the green bean.  He’s been scything his own hay that long too.

Dave was instrumental in getting me started with the American scythe; that, and the remarkably consistent bad press the American scythe has garnered.  It can’t be that bad I thought to myself.  It just can’t.  And Dave told me, with authority, that it wasn’t.

I met up with Dave in the grocery store back before the winter released its grip on the northeast.  I told him I was interested in the American scythe.  Normally age-squinted, his eyes grew big and round, the downsweep of his white mustache took on an upward tilt, teeth showed and he said, “Chris, you’re a good man.” I wasn’t so sure about that last part but before I could question it, Dave had an imaginary American scythe in his hands and was showing me the basic technique… right there in the aisle.  “Look out, ladies, scything in action here!”

“Face the action,” he said.  “You can’t cut it if you’re not looking at it.  Watch the point. Keep the heel of the blade down and build up a rhythm like this…”

His arms moved gently in a rather short, diagonal, almost lifting action as he crab-stepped down the aisle.  Swish, flip, return, step-step… swish, flip, return, step-step.  It sounded familiar but sure looked different.   A few moments later I was by his side crab-stepping down the aisle.  “Swish, flip, return, step-step… swish, flip, return, step-step…” we were past the peas and heading towards soup.  “Swish, flip, return, step-step…” in unison, arms moving and lifting, then heading back for the return stroke during the step-step, we looked like a couple of spent weirdoes doing some kind of new Texas tandem line dance in the canned vegetable section to some imaginary tune only evident in our heads.  Nobody else joined in.

Figure 14: Start of scythe Swing by the Master
Figure 14: Start of Swing by the Master

“It’s like a thousand stroke golf,” Dave said, “like putting on the green, delicate, rhythmic, serious.”

I will admit, I can’t dance.  But I’m making progress in scything.  I have some additional lessons to take before I feel comfortable with this new style but I certainly see the benefit here.  Figures 14 and 15 show the Master at the start and end of the scything stroke, and Figure 17 compares the resulting cut hay windrows at different stages of dryness using the American scythe (left) and the European scythe (right) from my efforts. I must admit, the Master’s technique produced much neater windrows than I was able to obtain. But as the Master’s apprentice and benefiting from his wisdom and encouragement, I am determined to refine my technique before the goldenrod season.

Figure 15: End of scythe Stroke by the Master
Figure 15: End of Stroke by the Master

With this technique, note the ever so slightly bent position and the relaxed positioning of the legs as shown in Figures 14 and 15.  Note also that the Master is facing the grass as he cuts and there is only a slight body rotation.  Compare the body rotation in Figures 14 and 15 with Figures 10, 11, and 12 for the European style.  This technique relies more on arm and shoulder strength rather than a coordinated distributed action over the body.  For sure, my arms felt the difference but as I look back in time, I sure could have used this technique to my advantage during the summer of pain when my legs were not up to the task.

The rhythm you build is captivating, short quick strokes with a slightly deeper cut into the grass than with the European scythe.  It is not an arc but a more or less straight swing with a slight twist at the very end to deposit the cut grass.  “The point goes into the grass first” says Dave, “then with the heel down you follow through. like this.” as he slices through the grass with incomprehensible ease. It is ever-so-important to keep the heel of the blade parallel to the ground for good even cutting and this takes some practice. “And watch the point as it enters the grass,” he kept saying, “make sure you’re not digging into a rock or sticking the neighbor’s cat!”

The Master Hones His Blade

The Master also told me that the left arm does all the pulling, the right arm is more like a pendulum, swinging back and forth with hardly any effort except for that required to guide the blade.

The combined motion of the golf-swing and slight diagonal lifting action together with the highly curved shape of the snath make it a more difficult technique to master at first.   I think many first-time scythers try to swing an arc with the tool and this will just not work.  The blade is too straight, the snath is too bottom-heavy, the result will be less than satisfactory and your back will soon argue with you.

When I asked the Master about this, he told me, “Well, yes, you could emulate the European style, it’ll probably kill you, but you could do it, and you won’t cut much grass so you’ll have some good winter pastures for your animals.” His mustache was turned up in that odd angle again.

Like the European blade, judicious use of the sharpening stone is a must to keep the blade in good shape. The Master shows how it used in Figure 16.  The stone sold for the American scythe is different.  It is oval-shaped, longer, and coarser.  The honing process is the same although Master Dave mentioned that the action in one direction on the front and opposite direction on the rear face puts a microscopic serrated edge on the blade and enhances cutting.  I’m not experienced enough to tell yet, but I do as the Master says.

Just before I left The Master to go home as I was packing my scythe into the van, he said: “By the way, Chris, did you know that in the State of Maine it is against the law to carry an unsheathed scythe on a public conveyance?”

“I had no idea!” said I with all honesty while wishing he had not ever mentioned that. I was halfway home before I realized I had not sunk into the very bosom of criminality for my Plymouth was not registered as a “public conveyance”. In my mind’s eye I could see Master’s mustache tilting up.

 Scythe-cut Hay, American Style (L) and European Style (R)
Figures 16 A and B: Scythe-cut Hay, American Style (L) and European Style (R)

Personal Notes and Recommendation

In the end, when it gets right down to it, the European scythe cuts more hay with less effort.  Sharpening is easier and well within the ability of even the most normal of us.  But when the going gets rough out there, say by mid-September when the grass is thick, high, and the goldenrod toughens, the European scythe, even with a bush blade, just won’t handle it as gracefully and as competently as the American scythe will.  It will be a workout for sure, but then again, they tell me golf is not an easy game.  The American scythe is tough and dependable, just as the European scythe is fast and nimble.  You can cut an entire field with just a European scythe, but when the fields toughen, the pace slows requiring more sharpening, more physical exertion, and less Zen.  The American scythe will blast through either mix.  No Zen, just business.  And big forearms.

If you are seriously considering scything, my personal suggestion is to equip yourself with a European outfit from one of the vendors listed below.  The blades generally come already peened but in need of field sharpening with a stone before mowing.  A couple of the vendors listed offer a sharpening service and I highly recommend using it once or twice AFTER your first few times out with the scythe.  Keep in mind the first few episodes with the scythe will result in a lot of unwanted earth removal.  You’ll dash the point into the ground, bang surprise rocks, or clip fence posts.  The blade itself will take the abuse, but the edge will complain.  After a very short time, however, you will need to resharpen the blade and you will have gained enough experience and developed a good enough technique to be able to evaluate the effect of a properly sharpened blade.  Plus, by scrutinizing the sharpened blade returned from the vendor, you will have a good idea of what a properly sharpened blade should look and feel like.  Without that information, you can, if you try, get a blade too sharp. Then it will wreak havoc on your Zen as it rapidly deteriorates or even destroys itself through the very action of cutting grass.

Zen, or golf.  It’s your dance.  Happy scything.

References and Scything Suppliers

The Scythe Book: Mowing Hay, Cutting Weeds, and Harvesting Small Grains with Hand Tools, David Tresemer, Alan C.  Hood & Co., Chambersburg, PA, 1996.

Scythes on Amazon

The Scythe Shop, Charmouth, Bridport, Dorset, UK

“A Good Scythe”, Wendell Berry, Organic Gardening, January, 1980.

Scythe Supply, Perry, ME

The Marugg Company, Tracy City, TN

The Scythe Connection, Lower Kintore, NB, Canada

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