June 15, 2010

Derby and Ball Scythe - Review

scythe_1.jpgWith the field out by the apple tree starting to get a bit overgrown and with FOTS (Father of Tool Snob) informing us that we'd better get to doing something about it before it goes to seed (he's in the know on this sort of thing), we decided we'd fire up a string trimmer to deal with the tall grass.

The long, overgrown grass (complete with thick weeds) seemed to be a good match for the heavy duty 4-stroke LEHR string Trimmer (we have the Craftsman branded one, but it's the same tool). After about ten minutes of relentless starter-cord pulling, we had nothing. So we pulled some more, and then some more after that. This coming from a tool that touts: no winterization and an easy start-up every time. We began to see that unique shade of white rage that accompanies uncooperative lawn machinery. We tried the 2-stroke trimmer that we have and that one was no better. No starting, no nothing. We went back to the LEHR and got another ten minutes of anger.

We were actually in the process of putting the trimmer in the log splitter when we recalled that the house came with an old scythe tucked in the back of the shed. After a few satisfying kicks to the trimmer, we went and dug it up also locating our box of sharpening stones.

scythe_blade.jpgAfter a pass with the angle grinder and a fine tune with the stones, the scythe was pretty damn sharp (a slip with the sharpening stone almost took a finger off, giving us a nice way to test SallyeAnder's claim that their hand soap works on bloodstains). Never having used a scythe before, but having once gotten a lesson from FOTS, we headed out to the field.

A few things to note about the remainder of the morning...

1. The scythe worked great. It's nice rhythmic work that quickly puts you smack dab in your 'happy place.' With no annoying trimmer motor or uncomfortable earplugs, we were relaxed and somewhat hypnotized by the satisfying swishing noise made by the cutting. The neighbors were probably pleased as well to not hear the high-pitched, 10lb mosquito whining of the trimmer motor.

2. We lasted about an hour, but after that we were toast. It's exhausting work. It's sort of like using a post-hole digger in that it seems to rely on muscles that you didn't know you even had. Our technique was OK, but not that great. We're going to have to work on it next time.

scythe_lable.jpg3. And there will be a next time. The trimmer would have been much less effort with the only energy burned being done by moving the shaft around. But the scythe gave us the whole package; we not only got a workout, but were engaged with the process, tweaking a grip, shifting our weight, trying to figure out the best way to work the tool. Above everything, we simply enjoyed ourselves. With no motor, we were able to hear the birds and the wind and all those other little noises that you miss in the muted cone of semi-silence that earplugs provide. The scythe was also able to handle some weeds that the trimmers would have likely had some problems with.

Needless to say, there was no stopping to load another string on the trimmer, no re-gassing, and no engine troubles. The only engine was us (with a pathetically small gas tank, by the way).

4. We also got to thinking about the time when people would spend entire days, no weeks, doing this work. It was one of those, 'we're a nation of sissies' moment, and while we were gasping for air around minute 55, we were in awe of the men who cut hay by hand.

5. If you've got a similar situation going on and there's a part of your property that gets overgrown and you only want to hack it down once or twice a year, we recommend getting a scythe and giving it a go. At the very least, it will give you a deep appreciation of your rural grandfathers. And probably a sore muscle or two.

Here's one at Amazon.com (looks like you have to buy the handle and blade separately). We also some on ebay, but if you start trolling barn sales, you'll probably have a good chance of finding one.

And a video on proper technique:

Read More in: All Reviews | Hand Tools | Lawn/Garden

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Posted by Doug Mahoney at June 15, 2010 5:20 AM

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Recent Comments

My father, William Mason and uncle, Dan Ryder, owned and ran Derby and Ball from 1933 to about 1955. In 1934, my father realized that their principal business, snaths (the wooden handle of a scythe) was a slowly expiring business and the company started making snow skis and then water skis. They still made snaths until after WW II, but as Dad had foreseen, the market slowly expired as hand-cutting gave way to power mowers. At the last, D & B was (almost?) the only one left. He sold some in Canada, which still used scythes after Americans had given them up.



Posted by: Peter Mason at August 15, 2011 1:08 AM

Yes, I've had some time with a scythe, and I had about the same experience. Total marvel at the tool and those that could use it, but I remember being totally whipped at the end of the day, and barely able to move the next. FWIW, I do not own one now, but I have all manner of electrified and gas-powered cutting gizmos.


Posted by: Don at July 5, 2010 7:33 AM

Doug, congrats on proving that sometimes ancient technology is still better than modern tech! In the process you also may have unearthed what might be the most boring youtube video ever! They should totally sync that video to some German heavy metal. Some Rammstein would totally make it more watchable. You also helped me appreciate my suburban micro-yard! Although I could see where this retro style yard work puts you in a zen-like meditation. Anyway, nice job on a fun post!


Posted by: Marc at June 22, 2010 6:18 PM

I found a blade to one of these 2 years ago when I was doing some insulation work in my basement, scared the hell out of me at first, all I could think about was "Children of the corn".
I've looked into replacement handles but they seem hard to find and the ones I did find online were pretty expensive.
I may just make one myself when I have the time.


Posted by: Kevin at June 19, 2010 11:32 AM
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