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  4. Chapter 10. Care of the Scythe, with a few notes on “safety”

Chapter 10. Care of the Scythe, with a few notes on “safety”

General scythe care

In his charming 1999 song, Dancing with Scy’, Matthew Heinz of Maine, USA, shares his
enthusiasm for this tool, including a few words on scythe care: “He don’t ask for much, and
he’ll make a good crutch, when you mow ‘til you’re weak in the knees”
Poetic license aside, we fully endorse Matthew’s perspective; scythe care is generally
undemanding of the owner’s time, or other resources. To sum it up in a few words: Initially,
remove all the lacquer and any labels from a new blade, and with the help of some abrasive
shine its body up – from both sides, the more the better. Then keep it dry and protect it from
moisture when not in use.
Of course, such an approach is not strictly followed by everyone, and it can get a bit more
involved, especially regarding storage during the longer periods of non-use. Still, the
variations of “good care” are rather intuitive, at least to those who already have experience
with, and appreciation for, other hand tools.
The adage “rust never sleeps” may be a bit of an overstatement, but it certainly is an
observation worthy of attention. Once particles of rust develop on a steel surface they never
disappear on their own. At best (from tool owner’s perspective) they sort of hibernate, which
is the case in an adequately dry environment (no more than 20% air moisture). But as soon
as moisture in the surrounding atmosphere increases, the rust resumes its growth.
We do not, however, want to trigger an unreasonable fear of rust. Scythe blades can
certainly tolerate some rust for a while. Not to the point of being pitted, especially not in the
bevel zone, and of course, rust should be removed as soon as reasonably possible all the
way down to bare steel.
In temperate (though not overly damp) climates, if a blade was kept somewhat polished by
frequent use during the previous season, it can hang all winter in a barn or open shed (not in
stables where livestock resides), but out of the direct elements like rain or snow. It may
accumulate small and shallow bits of rust interim, but be well enough overall. Thousands of
blades have been stored in just those sorts of settings, un-oiled, all over Europe. When the
grass began to grow and was again ready for cutting, many owners would simply take the
scythe off its hook, peen and hone it, and begin mowing. A few minutes spent polishing (with
the help of steel wool, medium grit emery or the modern sanding block), along with several
mowing spells, can usually bring the blade back to the state it was in when put to rest the
previous fall. That, however, will not be the case with a blade that begins the ‘off season’
already rusty. That rusting process likely started already during the mowing season,
especially in cases of blades that are not dried thoroughly after each use. (Upon return from

a spell of mowing when the grass was still wet with dew, a thorough drying may necessitate
the use of two rags in succession.) As an alternative to thorough drying, wiping with an oily
rag after each use may be a good course to take. Oil helps prevent rust – the bane of many
steel tools. Yet we do not find the use of oil necessary, even if it is nothing more than “free”
used engine oil. 45
In extremely humid weather, especially tropical climates during rainy seasons, the same
principles apply, but additional measures may have to be taken. If the scythe is used on a
regular basis, a thorough drying alone might suffice. To reduce exposure to the ambient
humidity of the air the blade can be simply wrapped in a rag after first drying it.
When the blade is to be stored for longer periods between uses, a light coating of oil can be
helpful or perhaps even ‘necessary’. In all climates, the best option for longer-term storage is
to remove the blade from its snath and store it in a very dry environment, such as in one’s
house or other heated building.
Keeping blades ‘polished’ goes a long way towards preventing rust. The ground-hugging side
of a scythe blade frequently used and properly cleaned at the end of each mowing session
will eventually acquire an almost mirror-like shine. To bring it to that state sooner rather than
after many hours of early morning mowing, the owner ought to start the season with it at
least partially polished by whatever means available (emery, sanding block, damp sand
mixed with ashes applied with some scrubbing pad, etc.). Frequent use will do the rest.
On the other hand, the upper side of a blade calls for periodic treatment of this sort in any
case, because the action of mowing does not polish it adequately. Does the upper side need
to be polished? No, it doesn’t. But it does seem to be psychologically uplifting to have in view
a tool that at least appears to be well cared-for. On the pragmatic side, it is easier to clean a
shiny blade prior to each whetting session in the field than a rusty one and also, upon
returning from the field, to dry it thoroughly.

Care of rings and other blade attachment hardware

If the rings used feature the now common setscrews, those should be periodically removed, their threads

cleaned of accumulated debris, and lightly greased. Many scythes sold
nowadays in Europe featuring the curved metal snath have their blades secured merely by a
single bolt, which should also be periodically disassembled, cleaned and greased.
The “old style” rings held tight by means of a wedge are still widely used in some regions.
These simple steel bands and their accompanying wedges do not require any maintenance
to speak of.

(45)The environmental and/or health-oriented purists would scoff at such an option (claiming that the residue left in the fields
is damaging to Life). They do have a point, but our reasons for not using oil in this manner is more because we believe that
the days of cheap oil are ‘numbered’; exactly what that number may be is irrelevant. If we protest the building of new
pipelines, fracking, or similar exploitations, is it not then our moral obligation to reduce, whenever possible, our dependence
on this system?
Less environmentally objectionable alternatives for rust prevention are animal fats and vegetable oils. Vegetarians and
vegans would frown upon the former. We do too, but for a different reason. Fats and oils, whether they are derived from
animal, plant or mineral (ancient animal and plant remains) we consider ‘precious’ substances, undervalued and all too often
misallocated within the “economy” of contemporary society.

Care of the snath

Wooden snaths are best stored out of direct sun or rain. Periodic oiling of the bottom 15 cm
or so (perhaps in conjunction with cleaning the threads of the ring) is beneficial, but we find it
unnecessary. In our view, the snath is a replaceable accessory; once it “wears out”, another
can be homemade. And, if its user has been paying attention to subtleties of the scythe’s
working dynamics – as influenced by the snath design – chances are good that the new
snath will be an improvement on the old.

A few comments on “safety”

What in contemporary writing may be termed “scythe-related safety” is not our forte. We,
after all, are among the supposedly reckless bunch, doing the majority of our mowing
barefoot and gloveless, using both of these “safety accessories” – shoes and gloves – only
when the cold weather sets in and frost glitters over the meadows on early mornings. There
are no poisonous snakes in this region; if we lived in some of the many “snake infested”
places on this planet we might learn to wear tall boots. But gloves while the weather is
warm? Never. We also do not bother with blade guards and such, certainly not on the
homestead. And if we wrap a rag around a freshly peened and honed blade before taking it
somewhere on a trip, it is primarily to protect the blade, not people.
Frankly, the whole subject rather stumps us. Perhaps it is because we have yet to read some
comprehensive guidelines that would have prevented us from the occasional confrontation
with the edge of a sharp knife or other potentially ‘dangerous’ tools. Yes, the handling of
them, even if only semi-sharp, poses risks. There are countless nuances involved in learning
how to avoid accidents and that learning comes more from experience than the reading of
That said, we do know that it is while honing in the field when a scythe blade is most likely to
remind its user “Pay Attention, mate!” The damage to the fingers is (usually) relatively minor
and heals quickly. The benefit of these ‘warrior wounds’ is that the wounded may be inspired
to do just that – pay attention. IF, consequently, that very attribute becomes at least a partial

instinct, then the mower will have learned a whole lot more than just how to not get cut by a
scythe blade…
We have, for nearly 20 years, advocated a honing technique that we consider not only easier
to learn but also inherently safer than those used in many other traditions, and that very
approach is communicated in these pages. Still, we do not entertain the notion that it may
actually prevent all potential mishaps. At best they will be reduced.
Gloves have been widely advocated for ‘cut prevention’ in contemporary writings on scythe
matters. In addition to what we already wrote on that topic (in Chapter 6, Note 31), we’d like
to add that for the really cautious folks, those gloves had better be made of Kevlar or another
cut-resistant material (because if the edge would not readily slice through an average leather
glove, the blade needs further sharpening to make it really fit to use). However, we cannot in
good conscience advocate the use of some modern industrial product in order for someone
to feel ‘safe’ while using a tool that for millennia was used by literally millions of people who
mostly could not read, and could barely afford the needed accessories – never mind gloves –
but who nevertheless managed to cut untold hectares of grass and grain to help this
civilization expand and “develop”. How did they do it? Prayers? Magic? Or simply “luck”?
We’ve now evolved into a culture steeped in fear, and one that seems to have made the
wholesale choice to trade awareness for “safety gear”. For those among our readers who
might already question the ‘wholesomeness’ of the mainstream culture’s message, and who
wish to pick up the scythe, the single best piece of advice we can think of offering would be
to cultivate what the Buddhists refer to as “mindful presence”. With regard to the handling of
any sharp tools, there is no adequate substitute, period.
With the fundamentals of our personal ‘safety attitude’ communicated, what follows are a few
hints of the ‘rational’ sort.
Although – according to the aforementioned song – a scythe can “get a night’s rest on his
heel” we prefer to rest ours suspended with the blade up in the air. On our homestead, they
are either hung against a wall on pegs, or suspended across wooden rails so that the blades
are well above the height of a possibly inattentive visitor. In addition, they are usually pointing
in the direction where nobody is likely to walk (say the back wall of a shed). However, at least
within the homestead setting, these “safety measures” are as much for the prevention of
damage to the blades’ edges, as to people.

Precautions at public events

Years ago, when we used to travel to country fairs with two to three dozen scythes, the
concern for onlookers took on another dimension. We’d arrive a day early and set up a

square framework covered with a tarp (to keep the contents away from blazing sun and/or
possible rain) within which the scythes were suspended on rails with blades both above
people’s head level as well as pointing towards the middle of the structure (which was a “no
trespassing” zone).
Many public scythe events in Europe feature simple racks, against which the scythes lean,
often from both sides, so that the blades (pointing towards each other) are protected from
easy confrontation with people (especially children) by the snaths positioned outwards. Such
an arrangement does not, of course, double as protection of the tool from effects of weather,
but is sufficient for a days’ course or competition under clear skies.
Various safe/unsafe distances from the blade in action have been stated within some
mowers’ guidelines. Such hints are often exaggerating the threats and have significance only
in situations where other people and/or pets are nearby. With other words, individuals who
may possibly be threatened by the blade are the by-standers, rather than those who are
operating the tool. Do the latter not already know how far their blade reaches to either side of
themselves as they work? If not, they probably ought to refrain from offering a public demo.
Yet, because the onlookers do not usually read scythe using safety tips, it ought to be the
responsibility of the person doing the cutting to adequately communicate what needs to be
made clear in order to prevent accidents. We know by experience that implementing the
safety rules during a public demo for hand tool-using dummies is not an easy task. It is
especially so in case of children who often need to be asked more than once to please not
stand here or run over there…
Delineating the safety zone by means of stakes and rope, coloured cord, or tape is one
concrete step that can be taken. But perhaps because it seems like extra trouble to already
overburdened organizers, it often does not happen…
However, the sort of potential accidents that we are addressing here are extremely rare.
Suffice it to say that having taken part in many public scythe events in various countries –
most of them failing to take the strict safety precautions – we recall a few “close calls”, but
not even one actual incident of an onlooker hurt by a scythe blade. (Perhaps the guardian
angels of the scythe scene have been hard at work, and have made up for the lack of actual
precautions? Whether that is the case or not, we’d like to thank them for being there!)

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