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All About the Reel Mower

Not just a relic of the past, reel mowers are excellent lawn mowers


All About the Reel Mower

Reel mower from the late 1800's

image © Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

History of the reel mower

The reel mower was invented in England by Edwin Budding in the 1830's as a means to more easily mow grass, specifically golf greens. Based on machines he had seen trimming the rough wool nap on carpets, his design soon replaced scythes as the popular method for cutting grass. The reel mower provided an incredibly smooth new putting surface, altering the game of golf forever.

Soon after the development of the reel mower, home lawns became a popular status symbol and similar to to the inspiration of the reel mower, lawns began to look like carpets of grass. The impact on golf courses was tremendous with the greens becoming manicured to standards never seen before. Fairways began to get mowed with larger, horse-drawn mowers, and the obsession with lawn maintenance was underway. Motors replaced horses, first powered by steam then by gas and diesel. Today's lawn mower industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise.

How does a reel mower work?

The reel part of a reel mower consists of a series of blades spiraling around a central shaft. Blades can number from 3 to 5 or up to nine or more for high-end golf course mowers. The more blades on the reel, the more shearing surface, the finer the cut. The actual cutting happens as the reel spins allowing the edges of the blades to graze a bottom bar or bedknife, causing the grass to get cut with a scissor action not unlike the fine cut of sharp scissors on paper. A reel mower works best when both the reel blades and bedknife have a sharpened edge and just barely come in contact with one another. Though there have been improvements to the reel mower over the years, the principle remains the same in modern day reel mowers and they look remarkably similar to mowers from the 1800's. The wheels turn the drum, which in turn rotate the blades that shear the grass and discard the clippings.

Reel mowers are not special just for their cutting action though, the clean, sheared quality of the cut rather than the tearing of rotary mowers inflicts much less stress on the plant making it less susceptible to lawn disease on other stress induced injuries. Rotary mowers cut the lawn in a much more violent manner and if the blades are not maintained to an adequate sharpness, the leaf blades will be torn and injured.

Reel mowers used on home lawns

Reel mowers have been making a comeback with homeowners as of late as people become more concerned with emissions and reducing their carbon footprint. A people-powered reel mower not only creates zero emissions, it also provides a quality of cut that no rotary mower can. Anytime a lawn is cut, it undergoes stress and injury, but the recovery time is far less with a sharp reel mower than a rotary.

Reel mowers may never gain the popularity of the rotary mower though due to their limitations. The physical exertion required to mow an average size lawn with a reel mower is too much for some people, especially as self-propelled rotary mowers and riding mowers become more affordable. Small urban lawns are ideally suited to reel mowers, which are also easier to store and require no fuels.

The imperfections on many lawns also pose some difficulty when mowing with a reel mower. Reel mowers work best on smooth, even surfaces and the results may be less than desirable on a bumpy lawn. Mowing a lawn strictly with a reel mower is also a commitment. If the grass gets too long, the mower will not function properly and the lawn may need to be cut several times in different directions to get it right, or even mowed with a rotary mower. Using a reel mower exclusively will require weekly mowing to avoid the grass becoming unmanageable.

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