Making Hay By Hand: How to Use a Scythe

Hank Will shows you how to make hay by hand using his Austrian-style scythe with a custom snath.

  • Horse Pulling Hay
    When gathering hand-mown hay, wagons and neighbors can make the process more fun.
  • Sharpening A Scythe
    After a day or so of old-fashioned haying, you’ll know exactly when to give your scythe a couple licks with the whetstone.
    Karen Keb
  • Old Fashioned Hay Tools
    Old-fashioned tools like this wheelbarrow, fork and rake hark back to simpler times.
  • Cartoon Carrying Hay
    Grittie straining to lift a round hay bale by hand.
    Brad Anderson
  • Sharpening An Austrian Scythe
    Sharpen an Austrian-style scythe like this one by drawing the edge out with a peening hammer.

  • Horse Pulling Hay
  • Sharpening A Scythe
  • Old Fashioned Hay Tools
  • Cartoon Carrying Hay
  • Sharpening An Austrian Scythe

Nothing so smells like summer more than a hayfield freshly mown. Even during winter when you break into those little bundles of summer sunshine, the scent will take you back — and the nutrition will help your flocks and herds thrive. Making hay is something that is universally anticipated by folks living on the land, but for many small holders, the expense of collecting and maintaining all the power equipment used in the modern hay meadow is just too much. Your options include buying hay, having a custom hay crew hay your place on shares, or making what you need, slowly but surely, by hand. And if you live in town and have just a few rabbits to feed, handmade hay is the only way to go.

As much as I thoroughly enjoy the sounds and smells associated with using diesel-powered equipment and modern self-tying large round balers, I’ve always wondered whether I could pass muster with my ancestors and make sufficient hay to feed a small sheep flock through the winter using only a scythe, primitive hand-made hay rake, pitchfork and wagon. Plus, I am no fan of paying for a gym membership and running on a treadmill for any reason, so I figured I could get healthful quantities of recreation and physical activity if I put my hand haymaking scheme to the test.

Making the cut: types of scythes

Since I already owned a lightweight Austrian scythe with a snath custom-made to my 6-foot, 4-inch frame (about $190 plus shipping for the outfit at Scythe Supply), and since we already had a few old three-tine pitchforks, an antique wooden hay rake and assorted small wagons cluttering up the barn, most of what I needed was already in hand, so I was able to spring into action within a day of hatching the plan.

There are at least a couple of different types of scythes out there, and I’ve used both for cutting weeds and mowing slopes. The first scythe I ever owned was beautiful, and so lightweight that I concluded it was a decorative replica of the real thing — I sold it for a few bucks to a “junk” collector. It turns out it was actually a very old Austrian-style scythe, and I wish I’d had the sense to keep it those 40 or so years ago. At the time, I incorrectly reached the conclusion that the heavy-snathed, heavy-bladed American-style scythe was the real deal — it was, after all, heavy duty. It also was heavy — and I was young, dumb and strong.

The American scythe is a formidable tool. This scythe is generally constructed of harder, thicker steel, and you really want to use a grindstone to whet it. The American-style snath is usually round in cross section and features adjustable handles that help you get the right fit. The combination weighs about 7 pounds assembled. You get plenty of momentum to motor through thick growth, and there is nothing wrong with the American scythe, but once I learned about and tried the Austrian scythe, my old American just collected cobwebs and corrosion — and got sold to another junk dealer.

In a nutshell, the Austrian scythe is finesse where the American scythe is brute strength. The Austrian has a pronounced crescent shape as opposed to the American’s arched shape, and it is made with softer, thinner steel — relying on its specific three-dimensional shape for strength. To keep the Austrian scythe sharp, peen the cutting edge and dress with a curved whetstone. The peening draws out an incredibly thin and sharp edge, while the whetstone keeps the edge true as a day in the field progresses. The Austrian scythe weighs little more than half a comparable American style.

6/21/2015 9:56:32 AM

We've had a fun and often frustrating time making hay over the years. It really helps to have a good scythe. Great information presented here. I wish we would have read it sooner! Check out our hay-making adventures at:!Making-hay-the-hard-way/c1rfl/5586c3340cf27a6b7457833f

6/19/2015 9:16:35 AM

I have patches of Johnson Grass growing around the place. I scythe it, usually just before or as heads form, or at least waist high. I turn with a hay fork a time or two until dry. Then I gather a bunch on the wheel barrow, that I can just get my arms around, and wrap twice with garden twine (sisal, if I can find it -- a 500 foot ball goes a long ways), tie and cut the twine. Three bundles will ride (two crosswise, one length-wise on top) on the wheel barrow, to the barn. Tying the bundles makes it easy to carry a bundle around to the ponies with a hay fork. I figure the bundle are 10-20 lbs of hay, that I can gather from corners and odd spots. Plus, the shorn areas are easier on the lawn mower, if that is needed. I also find 30-60 minutes once or twice a day is what I can manage, swinging a American style scythe with a brush blade. What I found was a scythe stone ( now several years old works a treat, keeping an edge on my scythe. Now that I have the grinder marks worked out, the back edge of the brush blade sets the correct angle. I use a circular motion of the file-shaped stone on the blade, work from the snath to the point, then a light pass underneath, flat, to take off the wire edge. Wrap back in scrap denim, stick the stone back in my back pocket, and get going again for the next 5 to 20 minutes, depending on what I am cutting.

6/16/2014 4:58:21 AM

You were very creative, I was one of those to learn from your beneficial information. Thanks!

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