A complete guide to using a manual push reel mower

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So you’re thinking about buying a reel mower, or maybe you’ve already got one. First off, congratulations! You’ve taken the first step toward a better looking yard, a much more enjoyable mowing experience, and cleaner air.

I bought my first reel lawnmower in 1997, when I moved into a rent house in South Carolina that required me to cut the grass myself. I wasn’t about to buy an expensive Toro gas mower for a house that I didn’t even own, so I headed over to a local home improvement store to see what my other options were.

I spotted a couple of different models of reel mowers in the store and was surprised. I didn’t even realize that anyone still made push mowers. The cheapest manual mower model was under $100, so I picked up the box and headed home with it. It took about half an hour to assemble.

I started pushing it around the yard, and I was blown away. The mower not only worked, but it worked pretty well, and it wasn’t even hard to push. “Why don’t more people know about this?” I wondered.

That first one I ever used made quite an impression on me. To borrow a saying of the guy from the Remington Shaver commercials, “I liked it so much, I started my own company!”

Over the years, I’ve sold thousands of reel mowers, as well as other lawn and garden supplies, to people all over the country. As you can imagine, I’ve dealt with just about every reel mower issue that you can think of. I thought it might be helpful to people who are interested in reel mowers to write down some of this knowledge and share it. So here it goes.

Picture the pleasure of using a manual mower. The smell of fresh air, the pleasant mechanical sound of the blades cutting the grass, the feel in your hands of of the handle as you push the lightweight mower around the yard. You’ll feel a sense of satisfaction from getting a bit of exercise while knowing that you didn’t burn any gas, or use any electricity to keep your yard looking neat and trim.

7 Reasons to use a reel mower

1. They’re light.
2. They’re quiet.
3. They’re environmentally friendly.
4. They’re better for your grass. (Rotary mowers tear the grass. Reel mowers cut the grass like scissors, leaving a fine spray of cuttings as mulch for your yard.)
5. They’re maintenance free.
6. They’re as easy to push as much heavier motorized mowers.
7. They don’t blow exhaust into your face while you’re mowing.

But wait! Aren’t reel mowers hard to push?

No, they really aren’t. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about reel mowers. In fact, as soon as you tell a friend, a relative or some guy at the hardware store that you want one, they’ll probably say something like, “Don’t get one of those! They’re way too hard to push!”

These people mean well, but the truth is, they probably have never actually used a manual mower at all. Or they used an old beat up 50 pound rusty antique model 40 years ago when they were 10 years old. Hmmm, could this be why they recall that it was difficult?

Modern reel mowers are lighter, better designed, easier to push, and cut better. Take it from me, I know. I’ve sold thousands over the years, and even with a 60 day no-questions money back guarantee, we get a return rate of well under 3 percent. If they’re so hard to push, then why do we get so many testimonial letters from people who love them and so few returns?

There are of course some disadvantages to using a manual reel mower, which I’ll get to later. And they do take some effort to push. They aren’t magical. But honestly, they aren’t any harder to push than an 80 pound gas mower that isn’t self propelled. And since you don’t deal with the loud noise, the vibrations or the dirt, leaves and exhaust that get blown out from a gas mower, it’s a much, much more pleasant experience to mow.

The Myth of the Three Inch Cutting Height

I get emails and phone calls on a weekly basis from people who absolutely insist that they need to keep their grass cut at least three inches high. The fact is, there are only about one or two varieties of grass that actually need to be kept this tall. If your preference is to keep the grass taller, then it’s not going to hurt the lawn. But it isn’t a requirement.

All grass is not the same. If only it were so simple to arbitrarily pick one height that works for all different grass varieties!

Here is a link to a site that lists the cutting ranges for different types of grass. These cutting ranges have been carefully researched by experts, and are recommended by the association of companies that make their living selling sod. Do you think they’d recommend a cutting height that would hurt the product that they sell for a living?

With a hand mower you may always cut to the lowest recommended height. Current higher mowing height recommendations are based on the requirements of the default choice, the rotary power mower (90% of all the mowers in use in the U.S.). Rotary power-mowed lawns must be mowed higher to compensate for the repeated disturbance to the lawn as well as to avoid browning and scalping injury. Mowing heights for reel mowers have been proven over 200 years of worldwide use.

Regularity is the key to effective mowing. The rule of thumb is to reduce the height of the grass by one-fourth to one-third. If you mow to 1.5 inches then at about 2.25 inches it’s time to mow again – usually a week or so.

Strategies for getting your best cut with a manual reel mower

1. Walk at a good, steady pace.

With a manual reel mower, YOU are the engine. Just like your car will stall if you don’t give the engine enough power when you take off, a reel mower will also tend to bind up and skid if you walk at a snail’s pace. The faster you walk, the faster the blade turns. So get moving at a comfortably quick walking pace, and you’ll get the best results.

2. Overlap your rows.

This means that when you are mowing back and forth across the lawn, slightly overlap the row that you already mowed. This will make the mower a bit easier to push because you’re mowing less grass, and it will also help catch any spots that you might have missed on the last row where there’s a little bit of grass left over.

3. Experiment with different mowing patterns.
Different types of grass and different lawns have different growing patterns, and different types of grains of growth. So the direction in which you mow can make a difference in the quality of the cut. So mess around with it, and see if mowing in one direction versus another gives you a better cut.

4. Don’t let the grass get too tall!

Manual mowers are harder to push when the grass gets too tall, so keep your lawn mowed weekly. You’ll find more details about this and strategies for handling tall grass in the Disadvantages section.

5. Experiment with your cutting height.

Once you’ve looked up your type of grass and know the recommended cutting range, try different cutting heights to see which height makes your grass easiest to cut, and which height gives you the best cutting results.

6. Embrace imperfection.

Grass is a living organism. It’s not carpet! If you miss a few blades of grass and they’re sticking up in the yard, move on. Keep going. You’ll get them next week.

7. Mow early.

This is one of the neatest advantages of having a reel mower. You can get up at the break of dawn and mow, and it won’t wake up your next door neighbors. Take in the cooler morning temperatures, listen to the birds, enjoy yourself.

Reel Mower Disadvantages

Okay, so it isn’t all wine and roses! Everything has pros and cons, and reel mowers are no exception. Here’s a list of some of the disadvantages that you should keep in mind.

1. Reel mowers don’t mow tall willowy weeds well.
Because of the design, they tend to just roll over them without cutting, leaving them to pop right back up after the reel rolls over them. This includes tall weeds that are more than six inches, and things like dandelions and buckhorn.

So if you have the kind of lawn that looks like a vacant lot, where you have more weeds than actual grass, then save your money and don’t buy a manual mower. Reel mowers are designed to cut grass, not weeds.

2. If you let the grass get too tall, a reel lawn mower will be harder to push and won’t work as well.
As long as you are mowing on a weekly basis, using a reel mower will be a piece of cake. But if you go on vacation for three weeks and come back to eight inch grass, you’re going to have a lot of work cut out for you. You’ll probably have to mow the same row more than once (going in both directions over the same row) to cut all the grass.

You’ll probably also have to push a lot harder, because when the grass is really overgrown, a manual mower will bog down or bind up and skid, which can be frustrating.

In this situation, you should either just accept that it’s going to be tough and consider it a workout, or just borrow a neighbor’s gas mower or pay a neighbor kid to do it and get it back under control that way. You can also move your mower settings up to your maximum cutting height to make things a bit easier.

Here is a video with an example of mowing overgrown grass, and one showing the perils of severely overgrown grass.

3. It takes a bit longer to mow with a reel mower than with a power mower.
If it typically takes you 45 minutes to mow with a power mower, then you might expect it to take 60 to 70 minutes with a manual lawnmower. But hey, you don’t get the noise and smoke and dust, so it’s a much better experience and you probably won’t notice the extra time because you’ll be enjoying yourself.

Check out this reel mower article from the Christian Science Monitor and see for yourself.

4. A reel mower is best suited for 8,000 square feet of grass or less.

If you live on a half acre lot or smaller, then a manual reel mower is a very reasonable choice. But if you have much more grass than that, then it’s going to be too time consuming for the average person. As enjoyable as it is to use a reel mower, it gets old mowing for three hours.

I wish I had a better solution for people with gigantic lawns, but unfortunately I do not. If you have to buy a gas mower, get one that is CARB certified, which is a higher emissions standard created in California. Lawnboy and Honda both make CARB certified gas mower models.

I hope this guide has been helpful to you. If you have additional reel mowing tips and advice that you would like to share, I’d love to hear from you.

Laurence Peter, who wrote The Peter Principle, in one description of how he tried to live deliberate simplicity, wrote:

“Until I replaced our cheap lawnmower with the highest quality hand mower obtainable, I would not have believed what a big step forward I was taking. The hand mower costs more but is a delight to operate. It never runs out of fuel. It never tests my patience getting it started. It emits no pollutants. It provides me with healthful exercise. I can stop and start it with ease. I feel in control. I feel relieved of the nervous strain, the safety hazards, and the inevitable mechanical problems and responsibilities that power equipment entails.”

 

More details about particular reel mower models:

Brill Razorcut 38 manual mower

Brill Luxus 33 manual
lawnmower
(slightly smaller than the 38, but otherwise identical.)

Brill ASM 380
cordless electric reel lawn mower

Scotts Classic push reel
mower

How to mow a lawn correctly

I naturally recommend Clean Air Gardening for reel mowers, because I work there.

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{ 8 comments }

Becky Davis 04.25.09 at 4:03 pm

Thank you so much for your insights and advice. I have a reel mower, but have a yard full of weeds. I’ll get those killed and then mowing will be much better.

david 05.17.09 at 10:08 pm

thanks for the info
i tried my neighbors reel mower and i decided im going to buy one tomorrow
they are soo easy to push!

mark 06.07.09 at 5:16 pm

Legend..
Great info and well defined. Ups and Downs…. i like that ,not many people will dicuss the down points. But do you and if so how and how often do the blades need sharpening?? ” sharp sharp blade smooth cut”
thanks..

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How long before you sharpen depends on the mower itself, how big your lawn is, etc.

Some of the mower brands like Brill can go up to a decade before you need to sharpen. Others like the American Lawnmower / Scotts Classic / Great States mowers typically need sharpening every two or three years.

Diann 07.03.09 at 6:40 am

Although right now I’m using a lawn service (it seems to rain every time I have time to mow), I loved using the manual reel mower. People asked me if it bothered my often-bad back; I said absolutely not, pushing on it actually helped my back. It provided restful excercise, and I could get up at seven am on a Saturday and just mow without annoying anyone, including myself.

I still have it; I came across your site in a search for a sharpening kit for it.

Justin S. 07.20.09 at 11:03 am

Thank you for the information. I am going to try my first reel mower at 27 years of age. I have many reasons to not use a gas powered mower:
1. they are expensive
2. they require gas (expensive) and oil
3. the wheels LOVE to bend and fall off
4. I am not a fan of breaking my back trying to get them started (pulling the cord)
5. N O I S E !!!!!!
Maybe a reel mower will be light enough for my mom to be able to use safely as well.
Thank you!

Dan Voels 08.24.09 at 8:22 am

I’ve been using a reel mower for several months now and I love it. One recommendation: get a 16″ model with rollers, not the big 20″ Scott with wheels. MUCH sturdier construction on the small one, and it was $80 at Lowe’s.

————

Thanks for your comment.

Which brand are you referring to? Last time I was at Lowes, they had this made in China brand called Task Force (or something like that). I wasn’t very impressed with that brand, personally.

Although I do see how some people might prefer rollers in back, like you describe.

The reason that the Scotts Classic has those wheels in back is because it can be set at a higher maximum cut of 3 inches. Some people prefer a higher cut, even if it means that they can’t have rollers.

pmuellerblue22 08.25.09 at 11:54 am

I enjoyed reading your guide. I recently purchased a reel mower and absolutely love it. Mowing is now a much more pleasant experience. I wish I purchased one years ago. I have recommended a reel mower to several people and have converted one from the world of gas mowers.

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Thanks!

Glad to hear that the guide was useful, and also that a reel mower worked out for you. They aren’t for everyone, but I think they are a realistic option for a lot of people. I also like mine much more than using a power mower.

joe dunn 09.03.09 at 10:45 pm

I bought a reel push mower and as advertised it is easy to push, quiet and makes mowing a pleasant experience. After back surgery, the doctor prescribed physical therapy. One of the exercises involved exercising in a waist deep pool. The exercise required me to push a foam board against a stream of water while walking forward. The foam board was held at waist level. Mowing with a reel mower provides almost the same exercise. I am excited to learn that push mowers sales are up. I love my environment and I think my mower is helping to preserve it.

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