Short view: The Scythe Supply Ditch Scythe feels light and limber and won’t wear you out. Cutting with finesse instead of brute force, this quality tool really can cut an acre of hay, or more if you have the patience. If your hay has rocks and trees hidden in it, expect some damage to the exceptionally thin blade. I redid part of the snath before I even used this scythe and am glad I did.
For an alternative tool with a harder temper check out the Seymour Scythe on Amazon.
Long view: Nearly everyone today works with machines. If it isn’t run by gasoline or diesel or electricity, people don’t think it’s practical. Machines get between us and the things we do, constantly, and we have become so accustomed to this that we rarely consider the alternative.
I nearly always work by hand.
This past summer the weed scythe I’ve been using to cut hay from my half acre of woodland meadow developed a crack. I knew this would happen someday because even hand tools break down eventually. When it did give way I thought I might have trouble finding a good replacement. Locally the hardware stores only stock cheap grass sickles that will hold up for about an hour before complete ruination. The Amish store I often order tools from didn’t have any scythes in stock so I wound up at a new place online, The Scythe Supply. Price seemed good so I plugged in some measurement numbers on their online form, thinking at the time that this was a lot more info than anyone had ever asked me for before, and I ordered one of their ditch model scythes. That’s a medium-length, medium weight blade and I figured if it was built for ditch work it would hold up to my needs also.
[What you get when you buy a scythe from Scythe Supply includes a sharpening stone with belt pouch, a hex wrench for adjusting the shackle, the shackle and scythe blade, a peening jig for hammering the edge of the blade when needed, the snath (ash handle that comes ready for assembly) and an actual book that tells you everything you didn’t expect anyone needed to know about scythes. Plus some suggestions from Scythe Supply about the proper way to assemble the scythe and to use it. See the complete outfit here.]
Not until I got an email asking for a correction on one of these measurements did I realize I was into totally new territory. Apparently my reach measurement was a little short for a man of my height, so was that really the length I wanted? or would I like the right length? I answered that it didn’t matter to me, I’ve been using scythes for decades so just send it. My field isn’t level and I adjust my stance to match the ground so I just can’t see how this is that important. Then I checked to see what was going on and found out I was getting something much different than I had expected.
(2/2/18 Update: Although for me the full length of the snath works out fine, a visiting friend who is a foot shorter than I am tried it out this past summer and the snath length was clearly too much for her. So if you buy one of these please do take the manufacturer’s advice, especially if you aren’t six feet tall.)
I’m used to the American scythe and snath, which is more like an axe that flies sideways, fixed to the end of a ship’s tiller. It’s heavy in blade and heavy in handle and it will cut through small saplings if need be. I’ve seen attachments hanging on walls of restaurants and museums that make me groan because I know much weight and resistance they would add. In the old days you could hang a sheave basket on one of these scythes and collect a bundle of grain over the course of a few swings, then tie it off and lay it down in the row and repeat. It’s a fine idea except for the amount of work involved.
What I now had on order was nothing like this, I had stumbled into the world of the European scythe and even though had I known this I’d have gone elsewhere, now I was curious. I did not think this would work out well for me but I did want to know what this tool was like. When I received the box I was worried as soon as I picked it up, because it seemed to be missing about 15 pounds of tool. I felt no better about it when i sorted out what was inside the box. The blade was much thinner than I would have expected and the handle was much lighter. I did not think it would hold up to the things I do, although it did seem like a good tool if you were cutting a level field of grain.
At first I thought, well, it’s a nice looking tool so I will hang it on my wall and buy something else that will hold up. Then I thought, crap, if I spent that much on it I should try it out and see what happens, so I did.
I ran into some assembly issues that I couldn’t ignore. The handle rungs fit to the snath with round tenons, sloped to wedge tightly into round mortises. If you have an old style kitchen chair, that’s the way the bracing rungs hold the legs together, and by owning a chair you will no doubt already know the problem with this joint. It comes apart easily. Round wooden tenons deform and then almost no part of the tenon makes solid contact with the sides of the mortise. Even with gap-filling epoxy glue I wouldn’t trust a joint like that to hold, so I changed some things before I even got started. On both handle rungs I whittled off the wedge part of the tenon and shaved it down until it bottomed out in the socket and fit snugly all the way through the mortise. Then I bored a hole in the end of the tenon and cut a narrow kerf lengthwise with a Japanese ryoba saw, so I could add a wood screw and slightly expand the tenon once seated.
The strength of the lower tiller joint also worried me because the mortise removes about a third of the handle, so I strengthened it with a tight whipping of nylon cord fixed in place with epoxy glue. Ash resists splitting and I hope this makes that type of failure even less likely. It at least makes me feel more confident in the rig. Everything is now bonded with five-minute epoxy and thus far the whole thing has held together.
Within ten minutes of beginning work with my new scythe I ran into half a brick buried in tall grass, twice, and when I checked the blade I found two deep nicks that had not just dented but curled and slightly cracked the blade edge. That’s not a good sign. I’d much rather have a stronger blade with a harder temper, even if it’s twice as heavy. But this is what I have now, so I took it to my anvil and beat it flat with a machinist’s hammer, stuck the blade in my vise and filed a new edge on it. The sharpening stone did a good job of taking off the bur, but I’ve not found it very useful for touching up the edge. There’s enough hard stuff in my hay field that I need the file to put the edge back in order.
The good news about this scythe is that it’s light. There’s no point in swinging it full force against a thick sprout, because you won’t cut through it with this, you’ll just turn the edge of the blade again. But it’s easy to work with and if your hay isn’t full of crap that shouldn’t be there it works very well. I have a few good spots like that. Everywhere else, when I’ve hit something solid the handle has absorbed enough of the shock that nothing has been wrecked beyond repair. I have removed about an eighth of an inch of blade edge through repeated sharpening, but there’s still plenty of blade left.
The bad news about this scythe is that it’s light. If you are the sort of person who thinks swinging harder will compensate for a dull edge, this tool won’t last for long. It will work if you keep it sharp and use it with finesse. Keep some limb loppers handy if your field has sprouts in it and snip them off low. This scythe will cut through hardwood sprouts up to 3/8 inch diameter if you are careful. Anything bigger, use the loppers.
I did watch the Scythe Supply video about how to use the scythe properly, and if you have a perfectly level field of daisies or grain and it’s safe to wear a long calico dress and walk through your field barefoot, you can do things their way. If you try that here, you will wind up in the hospital emergency room. My field has lots of old stobs, chunks of brick, poison ivy and brambles of all sorts. The only critter who will eat my hay is my garden.
In the end, the scythe from Scythe Supply survived one cutting of my hay without serious damage or broken joints. I’ve had no use for the peening jig although maybe if you were cutting grain that would actually be needed. I can probably work with it without breaking it, but if something does go wrong with it I will at least step up to their heaviest blade. If the snath develops problems, I’ll make my own next time, there’s a tree limb on the black locust out back that looks like it only needs a little bit of tweaking and that one is free.
(And another 2/2/18 update: I’ve used the scythe for all the hay cutting I have done since 2015, and that’s a lot. I give it five stars. It works fine wherever there is room to swing it. For tighter spaces I recommend what most people only know as a martial arts weapon, the kama. I use this around my willows and in narrow spaces where a swing of the scythe would be awkward. Kamas are fun to use, you get down low and take short swings under the mat of grass. Makes a nice sound, like a zipper opening. This reminds me, it’s about time to clean up the willow hedge, and that’s a kama task.)
The book that came with this, The Art of the Scythe, I do still have that and I guess I might read it someday, but you don’t need a lot of training to swing a scythe.