In the early 1800s, the grass on common greens and sports fields was commonly cut by grazing animals or by using a scythe, time-intensive processes that did not always yield the best results. In 1827, a British man by the name of Edward Budding became a hero to groundskeepers everywhere when he invented the lawnmower. The first lawnmowers were of the hand-pushed reel variety, with a frame of wrought iron. Gear-driven, they were beastly to push, but created a much more uniform cut than the sheep generally cared to produce. So beastly were they, in fact, that the earliest reel mower models were not only push mowers, but pull mowers as well, since they often required an additional handle at the front of the machine that could be employed by a second operator. Although still labor-intensive, mechanical mowing had its start.
The idea spread like wildfire, and the perennial usefulness of the machines has sparked continual innovation. The addition of a chain drive in 1859 made the machines easier to push, an upgrade that is still used in some reel models today. Machines were eventually designed to be pulled by draft animals (the first “riding mowers” with a seat for the driver), and there were even a few steam-powered lawnmowers, ponderous machines that burned kerosene and took an hour or more to warm up.
Around the turn of the 20th century, gas-powered motors were incorporated, yielding a convenient mower that was slightly easier to push than Budding’s original design, mostly through the advent of better machining and lubrication techniques. As small gas-powered motors offered more torque, the rotary blade was added in place of the reel, yielding something not unlike the pushmower many of us grew up using.
These days, improvements in materials science have led to a revisioning of old designs and ideas, particularly where environmental friendliness, energy efficiency and ease of use are concerned.
Many among us have had the misfortune to use a heavy, clunky, often rusty reel mower sometime in our lives. For those who have used one, the idea universally evokes images of drudgery: Mowing was truly a chore, and while keeping the reel blades sharp made pushing a little easier, actually sharpening them every so often was a royal pain.
Thanks to advances in bearing and blade technology, reel mowers have been recreated as a quiet, ultra-convenient way to mow one’s lawn — modern reel mowers are much easier to push than their forebears, and most feature adjustable cutting heights and blades that, properly adjusted, stay sharp for five to 10 years. In addition, they require no fuel, no oil and no prep time. Simply place the mower on your lawn and enjoy an invigorating walk around your property, accompanied by the sound of your grass being cleanly sheared down to size.
The right conditions
While reel mowers have improved to the point where you might actually enjoy using one to mow your lawn, they, like their electric and gas-powered counterparts, perform best in certain conditions. Reel blades, unlike electric and gas-powered rotating blades, cut the grass using a clean shearing action. This is healthier for your grass and also provides a neater look; it is for these reasons that some golf courses and baseball fields are mowed with large gangs of reel mowers towed behind tractors.
The downside is that this delicate approach often lacks the power to process tougher vegetation such as woody shoots or twigs. Rotating blades, on the other hand, cut the grass using a chopping or tearing action that results in a rougher cut, but they handle rougher flora with less trouble. If you have a lawn that is mostly grass or grassy weeds, a reel mower might work for you. If fetching the morning paper requires a machete and a pith helmet, you might be best served by a powered unit.
Another factor when considering whether a reel mower is right for you is how often you mow. Reel mowers best cut the grass when it’s shorter than the reel; waiting too long to mow can cause the reel to roll over longer grass, laying it down rather than cutting it. If you mow your yard only whenever you find the time, using a reel mower might be something of a challenge. If, however, you like to mow your lawn every couple of days, you might find yourself starting to look forward to your time with the reel. There’s something extremely satisfying about the only sound being that of your grass being snipped off, and with no motor noise to get in the way, you’ll be free to fully enjoy your time outdoors. In addition, mowing every few days with a reel mower, while not exactly strenuous, will provide some light exercise in the fresh air.
Cleaning reel mowers is a breeze. Because there’s no mower deck to get in the way, any clinging blades of grass are easily washed away with a little water from the hose.
In short, reel mowers are best applied in the situation where you are willing to take a brisk walk around your lawn every few days. If you have more than an acre to mow or have lots of tough weeds, you might look into getting a powered mower, unless you’re looking for a truly vigorous exercise routine.
If you want more assistance than the reel provides, but you’re looking for alternatives to the traditional gas-powered two-stroke, check out some of the electric mowers that have come out in the last few years. In addition to the older style of electric mower, complete with extension cord, there is now a variety of viable battery-powered machines for your pushmowing pleasure. Some of these hold enough charge to keep you mowing for an hour or more. Modern models are designed so that you can swap your depleted battery pack for a charged one (sold separately). This sort of design makes electric mowers a viable option even for commercial lawn-grooming services. For folks with just one yard to mow, it might not be worth it to invest in extra battery packs, but the option is there if you want it. Many mowers can go 40 minutes to an hour without recharge, depending on the model. If you find yourself with a surplus of yard, but you don’t want to spring for the extra batteries, you could mow the front yard one day and the backyard the next. I prefer to split up the job anyway, but you’ll figure out what works best for you.
While not as quiet as a reel, perhaps, the electric models produce significantly less noise than their gas-fueled counterparts and are a nice all-round solution — quiet, lightweight, but still packing the punch needed to get the job done. Electric mowers also allow you to avoid the whole petroleum question — just plug it into the side of your house or into an outlet in the shop to charge. End of story. Because the electrics use rotating straight blades, like gas mowers, scraping them clean every so often is a good idea to help prevent rust — and that’s about it for maintenance. Make sure the battery is removed when you perform that chore.
For those of you who are interested in both comfort and convenience, and have either a small lawn or are willing to break up the work into pieces, an electric mower might just be the way to go.
If you have a large area to mow, or you’re looking for a machine with more substantial power, there are a wide variety of gas-powered pushmowers that will fit the bill. For some folks, there’s nothing quite like the sound of that engine sputtering to life after a long winter in the garden shed. There are many situations where a gas-powered mower still possesses a number of advantages over the options discussed previously. For those of us with a large field on our property — not quite pasture but not quite lawn, either — a gas-powered mower excels at supplying the extra torque required to chop through thick, hardy field grass, and it has the staying power to handle an acre or more without stopping. For these larger areas, many gas-powered mower lines now offer a self-propelled, walk-behind option to ease the strain of pushing the mower through thick growth, at a lower price than a riding mower.
The power comes at a bit of a price, however: The engine will need fuel, oil and replacement filters, and maybe spark plugs after a while — essentially it’s like a little car. If you’re willing to take the time for some periodic checkups, and you don’t mind the noise and exhaust, then this machine will see you through vegetation thick and thin, and keep on coming back for more.
No matter what your circumstances, there’s a flavor of pushmower out there that is perfect for your needs. If you want to be pleased with your mower purchase, the most important thing is to be a realist about your needs — and those of your yard. A mower, like any tool, needs to fit you and the project for best results. Take your time and try out different models if possible. Once you’ve found one you like, you can look forward to years of productive partnership and well-groomed grass.
Read more: Hank mows with a scythe and puts up hay the old way in Making Hay in Osage County, Kansas.
Assistant Editor Kasey Moomau enjoys watching the grass grow, and truth be told, he even enjoys mowing it.