Reel lawn mower — AKA cylinder mower or manual push mower

Today I’m going to talk about a yard-maintenance workhorse that’s practically care free. That might seem like an odd choice for a blog about taking care of things, but in the “make things last” category, a reel mower can’t be beat.

The reel lawn mower was the first lawn mower, invented in 1830 as an alternative to the scythe. Imagine cutting your lawn with a scythe. I’d definitely let my grass get longer between cuttings!

Thinking about getting a reel mower? Here are some pros and cons to consider. (They’re mostly pros, because I’m biased.)

Pros

Reel mowers:

• Are quiet. Actually, they’re better than quiet. They make a lovely little sound that’s combo of soft whirring and snip-snipping. I find it kind of meditative.

• Are better for your lawn. Other mowers tear and chop your grass down to size. A reel mower cuts the grass cleanly, like scissors would. They give it a haircut. Torn lawns are less healthy and more vulnerable to disease. Cut lawns look nicer, too.

• Provide good exercise. Nothing is propelling the reel mower except you. The newer reel mowers are lighter and reportedly easier to push than the older models. We have a 40-something-year-old Smith & Hawken (remember them?), and I can vouch that ours provides a good workout! 

• Cost nothing to run. They need no gas, or battery, or electricity. 

Reel lawn mower resting on a gras lawn

• Don’t pollute. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, per hour, a gas lawn mower produces 11 times as much pollution as a new car.

• Are safer than power mowers. A reel mower won’t get hot to touch, and it won’t throw rocks and sticks up at you. (The debris will stop the mower, but you just back up and it falls out.) With a little direction and supervision, our 8-year-old grandson used ours and said it was his favorite part of a recent visit. 

• Take up very little storage space. A reel mower will just stand neatly upright against the garage wall, unlike most mowers, which practically need their own parking spot.

• Are affordable. They run from around $70 to about $200.

• Are almost entirely maintenance free. (See below.)

Cons

Reel mowers:

• Are not great for large yards. Experts recommend that if your lawn is over 8,000 square feet you opt for a power push mower or a riding mower. That’s based, I guess, on how much exercise is enough for most of us!

• Aren’t the best on very bumpy ground. I’m not sure that a power push mower does a good job either, but reel mowers tend to miss parts of the lawn when they don’t get great traction (going up and down bumps, for example). They do the best job — and are most enjoyable to use — on an even lawn.

• Are not great for very long grass. If you often let your lawn get well overgrown before mowing it, don’t depend on a reel mower to get through it. 

• Only cut when moving forward. This takes so little adjusting to that it barely qualifies as a con.

Shopping for a reel mower

Convinced to get yourself a reel mower? Here are some things to check out:

• Weight — Some reel mowers are easier to push than others. Some are heavier to get through heavier grass (like Zoysia grass, for example).

• Size — Some cut a wider swath than others, which means fewer trips back and forth across the lawn. Reel mowers generally come in 14-inch, 16-inch, 18-inch, or 20-inch widths.

• Where it sprays the grass clippings — Some reel mowers spray the grass in front of the mower, while others spray it behind. 

• Whether you want to collect clippings — Grass clippings are good for the lawn, so usually there’s no need to collect them. But if you do want to collect grass clippings when you mow, you’ll want to look for a mower that has a bag attachment.

• How often the blades need sharpening — Different manufacturers recommend different sharpening times.

Maintenance

rusted blades on a reel lawn mower

Since there are no parts to maintain, reel mowers need no oil changes, charging, or replacing of worn or broken parts (like cords and levers). There are just a couple of things to keep in mind:

Keep your reel mower dry to prevent rusting. Don’t leave it out in the rain or dew, dry it off when it gets wet, and (carefully) wipe off the grass clippings.

Keep the blades on your reel mower sharp. Depending on the type of reel mower you have and the conditions you use it in, you’ll need to have the blades sharpened every few years (at the most. Some stay sharp for 10 years or more!)

Since the blades so infrequently need sharpening, I think it’s worth a trip to have it professionally sharpened. (Anyone who sharpens lawn mower blades can do this). But if you’re into DIY, you can purchase something called a backlap sharpening kit. Sharpening involves applying a compound to the blades, then turning the mower in reverse with the kit’s included crank. (To make things easier, you can attach the crank to a power drill.) After sharpening, carefully apply a light coat of vegetable oil on the blades to help prevent rusting. 

Mowing

For a good cut, keep a steady pace. A quick walking pace keeps the blades moving well. I always overlap rows a bit when I’m mowing (with any mower, which is why it takes me longer than anyone else), but with the reel mower this is an advantage; it makes the mower easier to push and it gets any stragglers on the second swipe. 

What kind of mower do you use? Have you ever tried a reel mower? Do you have any pros or cons to add?

You might also like: How to take care of your garden hoses so they last, unkinked! and Garden tool care and keeping. 

2 thoughts on “Reel lawn mower — AKA cylinder mower or manual push mower”

  1. We had a reel mower for the first several years at our house. We bought it because it was all we could afford at the time. I loved that it was quiet and a safe option since I soon had toddlers running everywhere and a baby in a pack on my back! If my lawn had been a bit smaller and a lot smoother, I would have enjoyed it even more. Even though we opted for a gas mower when we could afford it, I still sometimes lament the loss of that simple, quieter tool. For now, I get enough of a workout pushing my noisy gas beast, but if our next house should include a small, level lawn, I would consider the purchase of another reel mower.

    Reply
    • I do love simple, quiet tools! And you’re right, smaller and smoother is ideal when it comes to lawns for reeling! I’m using the reel mower in the front, and Alan uses the gas mower in the rough and tumble back. I’m hoping there will eventually be so little grass to mow out back that all we need is a reel mower!

      Reply

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