Log Cabin Chronicles

The joy of scything

Royal Orr

In the growing list of rural skills falling into extinction, scything must get a mention under the "threatened" category. It may even be an "endangered" species of country work.

Mechanization in the form of those fiercely whining, unmotorized weed cutters has driven the scythe into back sheds and attics everywhere. But if you've ever strapped yourself to one of those stinking, screaming machines for an afternoon or, worse, tried to pay for a high-tech weed-whacker, then you might be prepared to give the scythe a second thought.

It's cheap by comparison, it's good exercise and it smells a whole lot better. But it's not obvious how to use one of the twisty handled tools and the people who know the technique for smooth, efficient scything are fast disappearing. You'd have to go back to the turn of the century to find farmers in the Townships cutting their crops with scythes. One man could mow a couple of acres of oats in a day but only an acre of tougher wheat stalks. In a stand of mixed clover and timothy hay, the pace slowed even further.

Small wonder that as soon as horse-drawn sickle bar mowers and grain binders became available, farmers lined up to buy them. The scythe was used to trim fence lines on many properties, and road crews swished away at unwanted weeds along the highways until the early seventies. Then the miniaturization of two-cycle engines brought us our friend, the gasoline-powered weed trimmer.

Okay, so maybe you don't want to start into a ten-acre field of second-cut clover with nothing but your trusty scythe, and power mowers and trimmers are, admittedly, much more efficient for public works, but for the average homeowner with a few thousand square feet of unruly undergrowth, consider the scythe. And if you've begged, borrowed or inherited one of the old-fashioned tools, here are a few rules for effective and safe use:

1) Keep it sharp. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more frustrating to use than a dull scythe. If it seems you're spending too much time sharpening the blade as cutting the grass, that's about right - it's time well spent.

2) Adjust it to fit you. "Adjust it?" I hear you ask. Well, yes. That long, snaky handle is called the snath and it should have two stubby handles attached. They're called nibs by some authorities. The nibs can be moved along the snath. According to one book I read, the lowest nib should be positioned about the length of the blade from the bottom of the snath. The upper nib is placed the length of your own forearm above that. For most people, that means you'll be bent over a bit when you swing the tool, but power for scything comes mostly from the twisting of the torso, not from the arms. It's tiring at first, but it does work better.

There are also three adjustment points at the base of the snath for the blade. Take the time to try each of the positions to see which one is right for you in the conditions you're in.

3) Get a good snath. Aluminum snaths are everywhere. I don't like them; they're cold and they make unpleasant ringing noises as you cut. Wood, I believe, is better. If you're blessed by the goddess of scything, a snath from the Dominion Snath Company of Waterville will fall into your lucky hands.

"The Snath," as people in Waterville called it, made beautifully balanced, wooden scythe handles. From the 1890's until late 1960's the Ball family and their craftsmen made the best snaths you could buy. They still are, if (and it's a big, personally grievous "if") you can find one.

4) Buy a brush blade. You'll have to look around, but some feed stores and hardware shops carry the stubby blade made to cut heavy weeds and small saplings. These are great little additions to your scythe that will whack through stuff that even motorized weed eaters have trouble handling. Rule number one applies here only more so.

5) Never ever leave a scythe lying on the ground. Kids, friends, and pets running across the yard can do things to their toes or an untended side that you just don't want to be responsible for. Hang them up. Don't just lean them up against the garage wall; hang them up so they can't slip and fall. The scythe is, after all, the grim reaper's weapon of choice.

A sharp, properly adjusted, wooden-handled scythe is, simply, a pleasure to use. Of course, if you prefer the noise, smell ,and expense of the modern alternative, well, it's a free country. Right?


Copyright © Royal Orr 1996 /Log Cabin Chronicles/08.96