Need some convincing about why scythes are a worthwhile investment?

Blade fitting

As always, leave the blade cover on until you need to take it off.

Put the snath on end (so the business end is closer to eye level).

There are two ways to fit a blade to a snath, varying between the way you deal with the attachment ring.

The first (and most common) is to put the attachment ring on the snath, well below the snath saver, place the knob of the blade in the knob hole and then slide the ring up over the tang.

The second is to place the attachment ring in position on the tang, and then fit the tang and ring to snath, more or less in one action.

The highest part of the attachment ring should sit between about 7 and 12mm below the end of the snath. Don’t tighten the grub screws too much just yet, because now you need to set the hafting angle.

The hafting angle

Some of this section may look disturbingly like geometry (and if you wanted it to be, it probably could be), but rest assured that peasants in the field over the ages haven’t being doing sums before setting up their scythes. There are very simple methods, but this section goes into a bit of background for the sake of clarity and a more complete understanding of the tool.

A conceptual introduction to the hafting angle, and to how your scythe actually works

Loosely speaking, the hafting angle is the angle of the blade relative to the snath, possibly most easily explained by comparison with a traditional folding pocket/jack knife – the hafting angle on a scythe is the equivalent of how open or closed a pocket knife is, where the pocket knife’s handle is the equivalent to the snath, and the blade is… um… the blade.

So, in practical terms, the hafting angle is how far up or down the point of the blade is lifted – i.e. twisted on the snath – within the adjustment afforded by the attachment ring. Pulling the blade down is called ‘closing’ the hafting angle, lifting it is ‘opening’ the hafting angle – just as with a pocket knife.

In really practical terms – that is, in terms of what you’re actually trying to achieve – adjusting the hafting angle adjusts the depth of your cut.

It’s useful to continue the pocket knife analogy here, to cover two important scything concepts. If the pocket knife’s blade is closed and you swing it through grass in an arc, you’re not going to cut anything. If the blade is fully open, and you swing it through grass in an arc, you would cut some grass, but the experience would be fairly rough. If the blade of the knife was two feet long and you tried the same thing, it’d be even more rough.

The scythe operates somewhere in between the fully opened and fully closed pocket knife. In terms of the pocket knife, to achieve a good scything hafting angle, we would open the knife roughly half way before swinging it through the grass in an arc. This would result in the grass being sliced – the length of the blade would run along each stem, rather than the stems being hacked off with the full frontal assault that would be created by having the blade fully opened.

Of course, you wouldn’t actually attempt to mow grass with a pocket knife, but two key objectives are demonstrated:

  1. The first objective is that, with a scythe, we are trying to slice grass with a longer length of blade passing along each stem, rather than hacking at it at right angles as with a machete (or fully open pocket knife).
  2. There is a point at which the blade is too far closed to actually cut anything, and another at which it is too far open to achieve the ideal slicing action which is our first objective. With the blade opened as far as it can be, the blade extends further into the uncut grass, making a deeper cut, but it also makes a ‘rougher’, more hacking (rather than slicing) cut. The second objective, then, is to find the open/closed balance at which you’re getting a deep enough cut to make your effort worthwhile, but which doesn’t result in too much resistance when mowing.

Setting the hafting angle

The hafting angle is essentially the difference between the lengths x and y, but no-one has time to do the measurements…

In more specific, practical terms, the hafting angle is the relationship between the point of the blade and the beard of the blade – that is, essentially between the two ends of the cutting edge – and the snath. This is most easily measured by marking the position of the beard, then moving the point back to where the beard was, and noting the difference in position.

If there is no difference in position, this is called “in circle”. If the point sits below the beard marker, this is a closed (or ‘acute’) hafting angle – as it generally should be.

A simple way of establishing the hafting angle. The top image is step one, the bottom image is step two – the only change between the images is that the scythe has been pivoted backwards to place the point in line with the beard marker. This comparison is also easily performed against a wall or high fence, or, in the field, with the scythe lying on the ground as in the picture, with the pivot end of the snath butted against the foot and an observant eye noting the beard position before pivoting.

The picture on the right is a clear demonstration of these principles, and shows what we would call a “five finger” hafting angle – the distance of the point below the beard, marked with the red arrow, is about five finger widths. For a 90cm blade, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. For a 50cm blade, this would be a terrible place to start; a rule of thumb is to start with the point closed by 1 finger width for a 50cm blade, and for every extra 10cm of blade width, increase the haft by another finger width.

The reason for this increasing drop on the point of the blade as the blade gets longer, is a matter of extrapolation – we’re attempting to keep the hafting angle essentially the same, and because we’re measuring it over increasing lengths, the drop between point and beard increases accordingly. Of course, this “simple” extrapolation is only simple because the blade makers have done their job; a blade with a bogus arc would behave very differently.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Pictured to the left is a demonstration of why the drop must differ between a longer and shorter blade. The longer 90cm blade is ‘closed’ about 5 fingers – where it should be – with a 50cm also closed about 5 fingers. Point A on the diagram is the beard on both blades. At first look, based on the yellow line, you might think that these blades would cut equally well, since the point of both blades lies close to the same line. But the yellow line is actually a deceptively meaningless distraction for our purposes (and it’s only been added to the picture to highlight the ‘commonality’ that probably would’ve popped into your head when first looking at the picture); it’s the curve (point B) of the longer blade that is in the right place to cut grass well. With the smaller blade correctly adjusted, point A would be in the same place as pictured and the point of the smaller blade would actually be very close to point B.

The dotted green line is the border of the mown area from the previous stroke, the red arrow shows the depth of the cut afforded by the 90cm blade.

This brings us back to the first key point about the hafting angle. The longer the blade, the more grass you can mow in one swathe, but the extra grass comes because of the extra depth of cut. This extra depth of cut is reflected (and directly influenced) by the increased “number of fingers” of the hafting angle – but in reverse. If you have fewer fingers of hafting angle on a given blade length, the cut will be deeper (remember the opened pocket knife; fewer fingers means closer to being fully open). The reason we close a longer blade more than a shorter blade, is because it would be cutting an unmanageably deep swathe if we didn’t.

The ‘lay’ of the edge

The last picture would give a close mow – you certainly would not want the edge any lower unless you’re certain there are no obstacles (e.g. on a lawn).

The blade should sit on the ground in the mowing position with the cutting edge off the ground, but not too far off the ground. Somewhere around 5-10mm is a good place to start for the edge where the belly of the blade sits on the ground. The point should be significantly higher, and the beard will also be slightly higher – yes, the blade also curves in this plane.

The lay of the blade is directly affected by the steepness of the tang. If you find the blade does not lay well for you, try wedging it with the supplied hardwood wedges – one of them (or even a couple together) may solve your problem, and at very least they’ll give you a starting point for making your own.

The twist fit of the scythe

The angle of the grips, and your preferred way of holding them, will affect how the flat end of the snath is presented to the tang. The tang also has a rotated face, and unless your preferred snath rotation and the tang rotation happen to result in exactly the same angle, once they’re clamped together the point of the blade may be too high or too low.

We call it “the twist fit”. Peter Vido calls it “horizontal balance”.  This is a subtle-but-important interplay between the position in which the snath feels best in your hands and the best position for the blade on the ground. We prefer to call it the twist fit of the scythe, because the obstacles that stand between your achieving these ideals can be posed by either the blade (the tang twist), the snath (the angle of the grips), how you prefer to hold the grips (and how that affects the twist on the end of the snath), or all of these factors.

As part of our QA in providing you with a blade, we make sure the factory has produced a blade with a tang that’s twisted such that a good starting point is achievable. We won’t make final adjustments to the snath (i.e. remove wood) without having seen you holding it, but we’re happy to give advice once you’ve established your ideal hold.

Get comfortable swinging the snath – with no blade on it – and notice how you’re holding the grips and how this affects the rotation of the end of the snath. Fit the blade and then, with the blade not touching the ground, hold the snath in the same manner as you found to be your most comfortable position, then lower the blade to see whether it’s laying as it should.

Your options for addressing a poor twist fit are to either:

  • correct the angle at which the flat of the snath presents to the tang (i.e. create a ‘new’ flat on the snath), either by using a wedge or removing some timber from the snath, or
  • put up with it and adjust the way you hold your scythe.

The latter is probably what usually happens, because, unless the twist fit is very bad and you’ve gone through the process of establishing your preferred hold, you’re unlikely to have noticed. We can confirm, however, that a very poor twist fit can make a huge difference in the overall mowing experience.

As always, we’re indebted to Peter Vido’s article on blade fitting which provides useful information on the horizontal balance, as well as the other aspects of blade fitting. There’s also now a blog post devoted to twist fit and related factors – check it out.