Return to Home Page
The Maintenance and Use of Austrian Scythe Blades
The even mead that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet and green clover
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, keksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.
Shakespeare, Henry V
Scythe-blades have been made in Austria since the middle ages when the Ottoman empire (renowned for the quality of its steel) established a metallurgy industry there. The factory at Rossleithen, where Schröckenfux blades are made has been operating for over 500 years. Surprisingly, some of their blades are now made from English steel.
These blades are different from the stamped and ground blades manufactured in England and the US. They are hand-forged, wafer thin, to an elegant curve in all three dimensions which assists the cutting angle of the blade, prevents it digging into the ground, and makes it easier to sharpen at the correct angle.
They are much lighter than the Anglo-American blades, and this in turn means that the snath (handle) can be lighter. A 75cm standard Austrian blade with a straight wooden snath weighs 1735 grammes. A modern English-style blade of the same length with a traditional wooden snath weighs 3015 grammes. In addition, the system for fixing the blade to the snath is simpler, and can be easily adapted to a home made snath.
Moreover, Austrian blades are not significantly more expensive than English style scythe blades, and the snaths are cheaper. An English blade and wooden snath retails for about £72.
The only situation we have identified where the traditional English blades may possibly have the edge over the lighter Austrian blades is when dealing with heavy, tangled overgrown grass.
Cutting Weeds or Mowing Grass?
Austrian blades are primarily designed for cutting grass -- which is much the most arduous vegetation to cut -- but they will also cut other plants such as docks, bracken, thistles, young fleshy brambles etc. These two activities require a different approach towards the tool.
If you simply want to top a years' growth of weeds, then an Austrian blade will be effective for some years, with little maintenance, other than sharpening. You will find it the lightest most congenial tool for the task. It will, however become gradually less keen over time, despite sharpening, and will benefit from peening (see below).
If you want to mow grass, on any scale, then you are into an entirely different game. You will need to peen your blade, probably after the first season, if not before. You will need a good stone. You may well refuse to lend your scythe, even to your best friend.
But, more than that, if you are gripped, you will enter into a relationship between you, your tool, your colleagues and your land, which will unveil new depths season after season. There is a magic in mowing which, puts the rhythm of the body and the dynamics of a community in touch with the breathing of the earth.
What An Austrian Scythe Will and Won't Do
An Austrian scythe is suitable for the following purposes:
cutting grass, for hay or mulch;
cutting weeds in open spaces;
cutting forage (eg lucerne, clover);
cutting grain crops, such as wheat, barley and oats ( for info on this, see The Scythe Book);
mowing lawns (Versailles was cut with scythes);
cutting water weeds (common in rivers such as the Test and the Hampshire Avon);
the commercial harvesting of spinach.
An Austrian scythe blade is a precision instrument, and needs to be used with care. Properly sharpened, it will cut through virtually any plant less than one year old with a steady sweeping motion. There are some varieties of thick grass where you may have to hack, rather than sweep. It will cut through one year's growth of weeds -- stingers, brambles, thistles, hog-weed, whatever -- with minimal effort.
A few weeds, especially burdock, turn woody after they have gone to seed, and could cause damage to an inexpertly handled blade. Aside from the Bush Blade, Austrian scythes are not advised for woody growth, such as thorn or fruit tree suckers. The Bush Blade, however is not ideal for cutting grass.
The use of a scythe, particularly for mowing grass involves some skill, particularly in sharpening it, and in understanding how to set the blade up so that it is running smoothly and not stressed. Professional instruction to apprentices has died out (agricultural colleges stopped employing instructors for handtools around the 1960s) and, unlike most European countries Britain has not had a reservoir of small peasant farmers able to keep the knowledge alive. For the last 50 years scythes have been sold in farm stores and by mail order, usuaully without any instructions for use whatsoever — and until the distribution of The Scythe Book in the UK in the 1990s, there were no written instructions available anywhere. Of the old scythes hanging up in sheds which people bring to us to see if they can be brought back to life, more than halfhave been damaged by misuse, often irreparably.
Written material is now available, in books, on websites and in the instructions which we provide with the blades we sell. If you are a novice reliant on written material, you are advised to re-read this material more than once, as there is more information than can be absorbed at one reading.
We advise beginners, whenever possible, to take an instruction course. Beginners' courses are offered by ourselves, and by Ray Lister in Nottinghamshire. For more information see Courses
The high performance of an Austrian blade is primarily due to its lightness and finesse; but this means that the blade is vulnerable to damage if used recklessly. Usually this damage — nicks cracks and tears in the blade — can be repaired (see below); but it can be avoided through good practice, which comes with experience.
Here are some tips:
• Keep the blade sharp, otherwise you will find you have to hack at the vegetation with unnecessary force; however do not peen the blade super-fine if you are planning to mow very coarse material.
• Make sure that the hafting angle is less than 90 degrees (see below "Fitting the Blade").
• If you wish to tackle a particularly thick or tough plant that presents a challenge for the blade, cut it with an upward motion so that the incision is at an angle, and not perpendicular to the stem.
• Watch out for the stumps of saplings that may have been chopped off not very close to the ground in previous years; this is a good reason for using a mattock, which can cut them off flush with the ground.
• Use a smaller blade (50-65 cm in length) around tree stumps, fences and other obstacles.
• On rocky ground and other rough terrain consider using a Hahnsense or Styria ditch blade with a reinforced point.
• Use an old, less valued scythe in areas where junk may have been left, or where there are a lot of large stones.
• Use a bush scythe or else a mattock on woody growth.
Fitting the Blade
The matter of fitting the blade is covered at length in The Scythe Book, by David Tresemer and Peter Vido.The blade has to be fixed to the blade at an an appropriate angle, in all three dimensions. If you do not wish to purchase the book, we provide instructions with every scythe we sell.
It is particularly important to ensure that the hafting angle (the angle between the snath and the blade seen when the scythe is laid on the ground and viewed from above) is less than 90 degrees. The distance from your left hand to the tip of the blade should be less than the distance from your left hand to the beard (the beard is the end of the sharp edge of the blade which lies nearest the snath).If the hafting angle is too wide it puts undue leverage on the blade. Most of the damage that occurs to blades results from mowing with too wide a hafting angle. This damage is exacerbated if the blade is not sharp, as the mower is likely to be hacking away with more force than necessary.
If you are mainly cutting weeds, then you won't have any problem, though the comments below on mowing grass should still be observed.
If you are planning to mow grass in any quantity, it is advisable to read The Scythe Book, unless you can find someone to instruct you. However here are some tips to help get the novice started.
Practice the motion on a bit of lawn or mown grass. Don't even attempt to cut grass, until you can perform the following motion:
Swing the scythe around your body in a circular arc. The tip of the blade should describe the same arc as the beard (ie the near end of the blade. Keep the scythe blade on the ground at all times. Swivel on your waist and hips. Keep your hands at the same height above the ground at all times. Shift your weight from your right foot to the left as you make the stroke.Try flexing your knees, the right knee at the beginning of the stroke and the left knee at the end of the stroke.
When you can do this without lifting the scythe blade off the ground, advance almost imperceptibly into an area of unmown grass. Just try and nibble off a strip off a couple of inches wide with each stroke. The scythe will take more, but it is stroke accuracy that you need to practice at first. As you advance, shuffling forward with your feet, each stroke should be parallel with the previous stroke, and eat a circular arc out of of the standing grass.
I repeat: keep your scythe blade moving along the ground; don't home in on a narrow strip of grass in imitation of the arc of a dive bomber; draw the blade along the skin of the ground like a razor across your cheek, (or your partner's). Don't even lift the blade an inch off the ground, not even at the beginning of the stroke, nor in the return movement .
You should cut the grass in rows (swaths) about four to eight foot wide. The cut grass should be deposited to the left hand edge of the swath you have just cut, in the with previous swath.
To deposit the grass without bringing it back with you on the return stroke (a) make sure the scythe returns taking the same path it used when it went forward; and (b) if necessary, give a tiny little flick at the end of the stroke.
If the blade won't cut, it ain't sharp enough.
It is highly likely that you will find yourself disobeying most of these rules. As long as you can get the blade sharp enough you should still manage to cut the grass at a rate of about a quarter of an acre a day. A good mower can do an acre a day. The record (apparently) is five acres. But scything is a mysterious skill, and if you want to get good at it, and haven't got a tutor, you should read The Scythe Book .See also the video on http://www.scytheconnection.com/adp/video/index.html
Half the battle is in keeping the blade sharp. In fact more than half.
Austrian scythes sharpen more easily than Anglo/American scythes, partly because they are forged to a finer profile and there is not so much of a "shoulder" to take off. Moreover, you can maintain this profile, through a process called peening.
You will need two stones: a coarse artificial stone which is used only occasionally for improving or maintaining the profile of the bevel and repairing the blade; and a fine natural stone, for touching up the edge in the field. However the two stones are normally used in the same way.
The principles of sharpening scythe blades are these:
(1) The bevel is on the uppermost side of the blade, so that the blade bites downwards into the stem of the grass, (rather than upwards which would give the grass more of an opportunity to bend away from the blade).
(2) The bevel on the upper side of the blade is very slightly greater than the angle created when your curved scythe stone rubs both against the sharp edge and the back rib of the blade. In other words if the end of your stone is rattling against the rib when you sharpen, this is OK, and means you have almost the right angle and are merely inflicting very marginal wear on your stone.
(3) The underside of the blade is basically flat (though rounded), and the object is to remove the burr created when you sharpened the top side.
(4) Strokes should be outward, with the stone moving in the direction in which the blade cuts. Strokes should start at the handle end of the blade (the beard) and progress towards the tip. The theory (disputed) is that any burr which remains has the same direction as the teeth of a standard saw, and so penetrates better.
The most normal stance for sharpening is to hold the scythe upside down, with the top of the snath on the ground, the beard near your left shoulder, and the blade pointing outward and away from you towards the right, at an angle of about 45 degrees when viewed from above.
Competent scythesmen hone their blades as quickly as a butcher flicks her steel. However this takes practice. The beginner may find it easier honing the blade carefully, sitting down with it steadied against the knees at a comfortable angle (be careful not to cut your leg), or else bending over with the tip slightly dug into the ground, until a familiarity with the angle of the bevel is acquired.
Austrian scythe-blades used to be supplied mähfertig , ie sharpened by women and "ready to mow", but now this is no longer economical. If your blade is new you will have to give it a lengthy and thorough sharpening, according to the principles above, with a coarse stone. When you have done this, repeat the process with a finer stone, preferably a natural one.
When you are mowing grass you will need to touch your blade up every 5 to 10 minutes or so, with the fine stone. After an hour or two you may feel the need to give it a sharpen with the coarse stone, followed by the finer stone. After an acre or two you will begin to notice that its performance is gradually deteriorating. The blade just doesn't cut as well as it did, it clogs up with grass towards the end of the stroke, and however assiduously you apply the sharpening stone, it doesn't seem to make any difference. That is the moment when you will have to confront peening.
For more information on sharpening see http://www.scytheconnection.com/adp/tech2/sharpening.html and http://www.scytheconnection.com/adp/docs/peening.html; also www.scythesupply.com .
CAUTIONSharpening is the most dangerous part of mowing. You can't cut yourself when you are mowing (you can cut other people) but you can easily cut your right hand when you are sharpening in the standard position. Until you are familiar with the rhythm, we suggest that you wear a glove. Carrying a scythe can be dangerous and so is leaving it where someone might tread or kids can grab it.
If sharpening a scythe blade can be compared to tuning a guitar, peening is more like putting a new set of strings on.
Peening involves hammering out the edge of the scythe to make it thinner.
Austrian scythe blades, like most knives, axes, chisels and similar cutting tools, are wedge shaped in section (the rivetted English scythes formerly made by Tyzack and plane blades are exceptions). This means that as you continually sharpen and eat away the edge, you get into thicker and thicker metal. This in turn means that in order to get a sharp edge you either have to make the angle of the bevel steeper and steeper; or else you have to grind away ever more exhausting amounts of metal to maintain the fine angle.
With carpentry tools, this requires grinding back the shoulder with a file, or on a wheel. With Austrian scythes you don't grind, you cold-forge it, you hammer it flat.
If you just want to knock down weeds, then you can get along for a long time without peening. Somebody was selling small Austrian scythes in England a decade or two ago, and when you find these secondhand they are usually unpeened from the day they they were bought, though sometimes they have been heavily ground or filed. They still cut down stingers, brambles and thistles.
It is entirely possible to keep an Austrian scythe blade moderately sharp by filing the shoulder back every so often. However, if you want to mow grass in any quantity, you will do much better if you learn how to peen your blade.
Traditionally peening is done with a hammer and a tiny anvil. There are two variations. Either the anvil is flat and the hammer is a cross-pein hammer, that is to say the head is in the shape of a long thin rectangle, about 6 mm wide and 30mm long.One of these faces, either the hammer or the anvil has to be slightly convex. The edge of the blade is laid across the anvil and struck lightly but firmly with the cross pein hammer in order to spread out the metal.
The alternative, favoured in Eastern Europe (and the method which we sell) is to have the head of the anvil shaped to a long, slightly convex rectangle, about 6mmm wide and 30 mm long, and use an ordinary carpenter's hammer. In this case the edge of the scythe blade is held upside down on the anvil. Some people (including myself) find this more accurate than the standard flat anvil, because it is easier to determine the exact point of impact on the blade when it is aligned against the narrow face of the anvil.
Using either of the above tools requires some skill, and unless you have experience at working metal you will benefit from tuition. Peening instruction is a considerable part of our day courses for beginners.
There is also a special peening jig which requires less skill. It is almost the same shape as a child's top. Picture a small cylindrical polished metal drum, about the size of a small pot of face cream, with a spike coming out from the underneath to fix it in wood, and a machined metal column projecting upwards from the centre of the top circular surface. The blade is held the normal way up flat on the anvil with its edge touching the base of the column. A hollow cylindrical cap is placed over the column. This is accurately machined so that when tapped with a carpenter's hammer, it will compress the edge of the blade in the correct place and to a prescribed thickness. The blade is moved along as you tap. This method, though harder to describe, is easier for the novice to perform; but it doesn't produce as good or as sensitive results as freehand peening.
There is a lot to be said for peening initially with the jig, to get the basic profile right, and then finishing off with hammer and anvil to get a keen finish.
Neither Tresemer nor Vido give completely comprehensive instruction on how to peen. Tresemer gives some basic advice; Vido prefers free-hand peening himself, but warns against amateur peening because this can damage the blade and advocates the jig for beginners. There is detailed information on using the jig, taken from the Scythe Book, at http://www.scytheconnection.com/adp/docs/peening.html; and guidelines on peening and sharpening on www.scythesupply.com . We supply a two page guide on peening with all peening equipment we sell.
Tresemer advocates peening every twelve hours, Vido every three or four hours, taking about 15 minutes. I agree with Vido: if you peen a blade and then mow grass for four hours, the blade will be noticeably blunter by the end of the morning, and no amount of honing with a stone will get it as keen as it was when you started. The fact that many traditional peening anvils were designed to be planted in the earth suggests that peening was carried out in the middle of the day in the field.
Our advice to the untutored beginner is that if you want a scythe for casual attacks on weeds then you can get by without peening, though you should still pass a file over the blade every once in a while. If you want to mow grass in any quantity you will have to buy, or locate, the equipment for peening, otherwise you will be doomed to a lifetime of deepening frustration.
The other reason for acquiring peening equipment is so that you can repair damaged blades. Scythe blades can and do get damaged, when they hit stones, fences, tree stumps etc, though an inexperienced mower is much more likely to damage a scythe than an experienced mower. If disaster strikes, don't despair. Small cracks and chips are not a problem, Even apparently serious cracks and chips can often be filed back and then peened out. This is easier to do with a hammer and anvil than with a jig. For information on repairs, see Vido in The Scythe Book .
But it is better to avoid unnecessary damage. It is advisable not to lend your scythe. The best precaution is to have a Grade 2 scythe to lend to people and to use yourself in suspect areas
We can, if you wish, supply a left handed scythe, but there is only one model, and only one length (70 cm). This is because left handers have to mow right handed because otherwise they will be mowing in the opposite direction from the rest of the team (unless they are all left-handers) I am not sure how best to sharpen a right-handed blade left handed.
Mowing grass is normally just one part of the larger process of haymaking. The other main processes are turning (or tedding) the hay, and bringing it in. When all this is done by hand (and when it isn't) the turning is, by a considerable margin, the greater part of the operation. One good man can scythe an acre in a day. It would probably require one person two or three days to ensure that that acre of mown grass was turned sufficiently to dry as quickly as possible.
Tedding is a skill in itself: one 18th century agricultural commentator remarked that the quality of the hay lay "the greater part in the teddying". Getting the hay cut when the weather was fine was often a simple matter. Getting the stuff dry and home when the weather had a mind to turn was much more traumatic. It required a level of co-ordination and commitment on the part of the community, or else astute management from someone appointed to make the decisions.
The Future of Scything
Of all the grass-growing countries in the world, the UK is one of the most backward. In countries such as Egypt and Iran (which import large numbers of blades from Austria) many people depend on the tool for their livelihoods. In Austria, Spain and other European countries there is still a residue of knowledge about scything. In the USA and Canada there is a revival, led by people such as David Tresemer, Peter Vido and Wendell Berry.
In England there seems to very little at the moment, and so we have started to import Austrian scythes to help promote the art. If you buy a scythe to do a bit of weed clearance, then we hope that it works for you and that you will never again pick up the strimmer. If you get infected by the urge to mow grass, then keep in touch. That is what we particularly want to promote, and we will be relaying any useful information on this website.
Much of the information in this introduction comes from The Scythe Book , by David Tresemer, with an appendix by Peter Vido, Hood Books, USA, 2001. You can buy it from us, price £13 . Peter Vido's website is www.scytheconnection.com Many thanks to both authors, and to Carol Bryan of www.scythesupply.com
Return to Home Page