Here’s How to Use a Scythe

There’s nothing particularly novel about the scythe. For centuries, this agricultural wonder-tool was commonplace among small-scale farmers. Most knew how to maximize the benefits of these hook-bladed implements, using them to cut fields of hay, grain and weeds.

man using a scythe
man using a scythe

With the advent of horse-drawn ploughs and petroleum-powered harvesters, the scythe slipped out of fashion. In fact, up until now, cutting grass and crops with the trusty tool was deemed nothing more than a quaint folk art.

But the scythe has regained favor among survivalists in recent years. Many small farm owners and preppers are coming to appreciate this centuries-old tool for its handiness for homestead and survival tasks.

With a bit of elbow grease, someone wielding a scythe can harvest an acre of grain or hay in a single day, hack weeds in orchard plots and along hedgerows, or, if they’re very skilled, even mow the front lawn! This muscle-powered mower is an ace cutter, but mastering the tool requires some technique and hard work.

Why Use a Scythe for Survival?

It may seem odd to recommend a scythe as a practical tool in a gas and electricity-powered age, but there are many reasons this reaping tool has stood the test of time and remains both practical and economically sound when SHTF.

  • If you’re planning to grow fruit on your property, or if you own an orchard or vineyard, you may wish to refrain from using pesticides and herbicides. With the help of a scythe, you can clear away suckers below low-hanging branches and keep the grass short enough to keep voles or field mice at bay.
  • For berry growers, the scythe is the perfect implement for thinning vegetation and removing weeds while leaving the berry bushes unscathed.
  • Knowing how to use a scythe correctly can prove to be a good bartering skill. You may find the opportunity to mow someone’s field or lawn in exchange for food.
  • Using a scythe allows you to get closer to your crops without causing damage like if you used machinery. The ditch blade is good for handling raspberry and blackberry canes.
  • Use a scythe to maintain your property by keeping grasses cut down in your defensible zone, as well as around garden edges and between rows and flowerbeds.
  • If you have electric fences that are still in operation, use a scythe to clear away excess foliage from underneath.
  • Mow out the corners of fence rows where machinery can’t reach.
  • If you’re keeping livestock, a scythe is a perfectly efficient tool for cutting enough grass over the summer to dry out into winter hay for a herd of 8 to 10 goats.
  • Using a scythe will save precious fuels, such as gas and oil, as well as minimize repairs needed on machinery.
  • Machinery may pose a fire hazard in some instances, making a scythe a far more reliable and safe option.
  • Because heavy equipment may also limit drainage by compacting the soil, a scythe is far more crop-friendly and less invasive.
  • If you don’t have a bush hog on hand, a ditch-bladed scythe is one way to cut back dense fields and restore them to fertile pasture.
  • You can also use one to clear small trees from roads and trails and for thinning out saplings in a woodlot and at the edges of fields to keep invading foliage in check.
  • Scything is also an effective form of exercise without the back-breaking stoop. Keeping your body fit and strong in a disaster situation is imperative, so why not mow something while you’re at it?
  • If you find yourself bugging out to a perennial dry area, making your property fire-proof should be a number-one priority. You can start by clearing all combustible materials with your scythe before the fire season begins.
  • Use the excess grass you trim to make garden mulch and compost for your crops.

Now that we know the many benefits and uses of scything, here’s how to get started with developing your technique. Pay close attention to these points, because they’ll save you a great deal of unnecessary trouble and frustration in future.

Using a scythe can be physically exhausting if not done right. You could damage yourself or your scythe if you resort to swinging it like crazy. The last thing you need in a crisis situation is to be on your back foot and exhausted.

First, notice the blade. It’s almost as thin as paper on the sharp side and doesn’t get much thicker as it goes up. It has curves, horizontally, vertically and along the edge.

These curves, combined with the tension built into the steel, gives this elegant blade its incredible strength and resilience. However, even the best blade can snap if misused. It’s essential to learn the correct stroke and to keep your blade in good condition.

Never swing it as if you’re playing golf. Rotate your entire trunk at the waistline and keep the blade level with the ground, swooping in a half circle so that the blade makes a slicing motion instead of a chopping one. Plus, doing a few practice swings is great exercise and can be fun, too.

Scything is a gentle art, and doesn’t require a great amount of strength. The women in your party can also participate. The muscular power needed for carrying the blade through thick grass comes from the thigh and buttock areas, while the arms and shoulders guide the scythe’s path.

At the start of the swing, only the tip of the blade should touch the grass or sapling. If you try to use the full edge of the scythe, the tough uncut grass will make it harder.

Approximately mid-way through the swing the entire length of the scythe will begin to slice through. At this point, gently rotate your trunk at the waist, pulling the scythe with you so that it moves in a continuous arc, across the front of your body, and ending on the other side of where you began.

Throughout this action, the bottom of your blade remains on the ground. The blade is rounded so that its base sweeps the earth, and keeps the sharp edge positioned in the right way to the grass.

This means that the ground bears the heaviness of the scythe as you mow, you aren’t holding it up off the ground. The return stroke is the exact reverse, the blade still against the earth.

Practice this motion in an open space. When you’re ready, cut the grass using short strokes of the scythe back and forth in front of your body. As you start to become more confident, aim to make a longer, wider arc.

If you’re sticking to trimming rather than mowing large fields, short strokes are ideal. Short strokes will enable you to trim around rocks, fences, steps, posts, shrubs and foundations without much trouble.

When trimming gets more difficult and it seems the blade has lost its sharpness, stop and use a stone to sharpen it. The secrets of scything are pretty simple and can be summed up like this:

  1. Keep your blade sharp.
  2. Keep it on the ground.
  3. Keep it moving in an arc.
  4. Keep it gentle.

Taking the Long Stroke

Being with the blade behind you at a 5-o’clock position, with your body facing the 12-noon point for reference. The end of the blade should be forward-facing. This position is your ‘brace positon’, similar to if you were pulling back and loading a spring mechanism. Lean your weight onto your right foot and keep your hands out from your body.

Scythe Workshop: How to Mow with a Scythe

As you take the stroke, pivot your waist, moving both arms in unison with your body. At this point, your left arm will naturally propel the handle, while your right arm will act as the fulcrum. The blade moves in a circular movement with just enough speed to slice the grass. Do not whip the grass, keep strokes controlled and gentle.

From here, adjust the power of your stroke to cut the grass. It’s always best to start out gently, then increase the force and velocity. The power of the long stroke comes from your thighs and buttocks. Guide the direction of the scythe with your upper body and be sure only the tip of the blade moves through the grass.

Keep your eyes on the moving blade, ensuring that it stays close to the ground throughout the full stroke, from beginning to end.

At the end, your left hand will end up in back of you and your weight should be on your left side. The blade should point backwards. The power you need to complete the stroke comes from your body as it spins. Before beginning the next stroke, step forward slightly.

Practice your moves in an open space. While you’re still mastering the stroke, exaggerate the steps a little until things become clearer.

You should aim for a fluid, graceful and near-effortless motion. It’s perfectly acceptable to incorporate a smaller arc in your swing. This is useful in situations when a forceful 180-degree swipe is unnecessary, such as when trimming back vegetation from your defensible zone.


The best time to mow is after it has rained and just before it gets really dark or first thing in the morning. Imagine yourself as a point in the center of a circle.

First, face the way you want to move with your eyes focused on a fixed object in your line of sight such as a pole, a large boulder, or a tree. Aim for that object as you stroke as described above.

For uncut grass, engage only the tip of the blade to start, to avoid hanging up in the thick grass. As it reaches the 1-o’clock position, the entire blade will be carried through the grass because of the momentum that has built up in your swing.

If it ever seems that you are pushing the scythe to cut the grass, slow down. The blade cuts at an oblique angle, like slicing with a scissor blade. Never pull the blade through the grass.

It should feel more like a rhythm, rocking your weight back and forth from your left foot to your right. This is your dance. Embrace it. Take care not to hack, whip or rip through the grass. Scything is an elegant art. Exercise finesse rather than brute force.

Sharpening and Peening

Peening is the traditional method of preparing your blade, by hardening the metal, and helps it hold its edge longer. Strike the cutting edge of the blade with a hammer against a small anvil or jig until it has the edge needed.

There should be a slight curve to the face of your cross-peen hammer so that the head of the hammer is able to connect with the blade hollow. Some times to find the right balance point, you need to shorten the handle.

You can maximize comfort and control by wrapping the hand in hockey stick tape, if you have some available. Your goal is to have an evenly hammered edge. Rubbing chalk on the edge as you peen will make it easier to see your hammer strikes.

Use a whetstone to hone and to maintain the edge at intervals during mowing. Remember that over time, the whetstone whittles away the peened edge over time. Remove the blade from the handle and peen again, as much as every few hours, to restore correct edge and angle.

After peening, you’ll need to master the art of honing. Always use the top rounded part of your stone. For a ditch blade, stroke the stone toward the edge keeping the face of the stone against the rib and edge. For a bush blade, lift the stone just a little bit as it passes over the rib and along the edge to create a sharper angle.

You can adjust how much you raise or lower the heel of the stone to create the angle you want. A shallow angle slices through lightweight grass just fine. More overgrown grass and weeds may need a sharper angle and more force.

There are many different types of stones available at any good scythe supply store. Once you’ve hammered the blade very thin, you’ll need to hone the cutting edge with a stone to prepare it for mowing.

You can use coarse synthetic stones which remove metal efficiently, or fine, natural stones for maintaining an extremely sharp edge. It’s best to use one after the other.

Synthetic stones are open pore stones that work similar to 60 – 80 weight sandpaper. The narrow top edge is for sharpening the stone but it is milled smooth all over. Use only when needed as it can wear down the blade.

Natural stone is an all-purpose stone, or ‘field stone’, that is most commonly used to sharpen the blade. The final touch should be achieved with a fine-grit Rozsutec sharpening stone to keep your blade razor-sharp.

sharpening / peening a scythe

Tips & Tricks

  • Keep your blade sharp by honing it frequently. Aluminum is the best resource for sharpening steel. Salvage a piece of smooth, clean aluminum rod and use this as your final hone. This is a soft material and will cause less damage to your blade if misapplied.
  • Identify your desired direction and face it squarely before you begin the stroke
  • The blade should rest against the ground and move in an arced motion.
  • When using your scythe, it will need to be stoned frequently. You’ll be able to tell if it’s losing its sharpness by the sound it makes as it moves through the grass. In some cases, you will need to stone as much as every 5 minutes for about 30 seconds at a time.
  • Before you attempt to stone a blade, it should be wiped down and then dried with a bunch of grass or a rag.
  • A blade left in the sun will warp.
  • How often you mow and what you’re mowing will dictate how often you need to peen the blade. The more you hone the blade, the more you should peen.
  • For the proper fit and position, handles should be dry fitted prior to gluing.
  • If the glue is not yet set, you can replace the stem for the lower handle by gently rotating the handle to free the parts.
  • To modify an old handle that been set in the same orientation for many years, apply a combination of WD40 Liquid Wrench and a bit of muscle.
  • Blades made in America may respond to peening. Instead, occasionally use a slow-turning wheel of sandstone. Use a whetstone every so often to hone the blade.
  • Scythes work effectively on slopes. Start near the bottom, facing downhill, and work your way up.

Honing your scything techniques takes practice and patience. But once you master it, you’ll be even more prepared to survive without typical machinery. It’s a small material and time investment with long-term return. Happy harvesting! What are your top scything secrets? Share them below!

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