Reel Mower Buying Guide
Reel mowers are also called push mowers, manual mowers, hand mowers, or cylinder mowers.
A reel mower harkens back to simpler days before gas or electric mowers were invented.
Reel mowers are the perfect choice for lawn care that not only uses zero emissions but no power whatsoever – other than human power.
These traditional style mowers lower noise pollution as well, since they run virtually silent.
Reel mowers are like turbo charged scissors, and with properly sharpened blades they can easily cut through even tall, dense grass or wild growing weeds.
The reel mower is constructed of a series of fixed horizontal blades that spin quickly when the mower is pushed forward. The blades on the mower are set in a helical pattern around the mower’s central axis, forming a cylinder perpendicular to the ground.
The spinning blades force the grass towards the cutting bar at the back of the mower as the mower is passed over them. The usual width of a reel mower’s cutting swath is ten to sixteen inches. Modern day reel mowers are much lighter than in the past, and as such they are much simpler to operate than their predecessors, but still have all of the benefits of large, professionally used mowers.
Once the height of the mower’s blades has been correctly adjusted, the reel mower can make a cleaner cut of the grass than virtually any other mower. This is another important advantage to using a reel mower, as cleaner cuts allow the grass to heal more quickly than ragged cuts do.
Cutting a lawn with a reel mower will result in a cut that is straighter, as if you had literally taken a pair of scissors to the lawn. The cleaner cut of the grass will promote lawn growth that is thicker, healthier and more robust than it otherwise would be. Healthy, robust grass is less susceptible to disease and invasions of weeds or pests, and lawns that have been mowed with a reel mower will less often show discolored spots or dead patches.
It is important to make sure that the space between the reel mower’s blades and the horizontal cutting bar is not too big. If the blades are not close enough to the cutting bar, the grass will slide between the two surfaces rather than being cut. However if the space between the horizontal cutting bar and mower blades is thinner than the width of the grass, a very clean cut will be made.
There are a number of considerations that should be kept in mind when you are shopping for a reel mower, including the number of blades on the mower; the width of the mower’s head and overall size and weight of the mower; how many different heights are available on the mower – and whether it is adjustable in this regard; whether to purchase a “silent cut” reel mower or one that has blades that make contact with the reel; and finally, how much you want to spend.
1. Reel Mower is a Good Buyer’s Choice
A reel mower is a good choice for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious reason is that they are completely free to operate, unlike a gas powered or electric mower. In addition to that, they create zero emissions and run entirely on clean energy: your own! Reel mowers are the most environmentally sustainable way you can mow your lawn.
Furthermore, other than sharpening the blades or back strapping the mower, they require almost no maintenance to keep them running well for many years. Storage is a snap with reel mowers, since they are typically much smaller than electric or gas powered mowers, and they are often light enough that you can even hang them against the wall of your garage or tool shed with only two heavy duty hooks.
Finally, reel mowers are the quietest of all the lawnmowers out there. Gas powered mowers are incredibly noisy, and even electric mowers that offer a “Quiet Mode” option will still be noticeably louder than a reel mower. Reel mowers run virtually silent, which means you can cut your grass at any time without worrying about whether you are disturbing your neighbors.
So, as you can see, there are plenty of reasons why buying a reel mower is a great choice. Now, let’s discuss what you should be looking for when you are shopping for a reel mower.
2. Reel Mower Buying Specifications
2a. Number of Blades
Reel mowers typically will have a set of between four and eight blades on the cylinder. More blades means the mower has more cutting power, but it also means the mower will be slightly more work to maneuver in order to get the gears that get the blades spinning to turn. Therefore it is important to choose a mower with the right number of blades for your needs and ability.
Thicker varieties of grass will either need more blades to get through them or more passes to properly cut them. So if you have a thick, robust variety of grass you should probably opt for a mower with more than half a dozen blades. Species of grass that would require a reel mower at the higher end of the range would include St. Augustine and Bermuda grass. These varieties are typically planted in the Southern United States as well as on the East Coast. They also generally require more water than their thinner cousins.
Those species of grass that do not require as many blades to successfully cut with a reel mower in a single pass include Kentucky Blue grass or Fine Fescues. These are typically planted in the Midwest, New England, and across the Northern United States. If you have one of these species, you can go ahead and shop for a mower with only four or five blades. If you are unsure of what kind of grass is best for your region, please refer to my guide on lawn care.
On the other hand, you may have thick St. Augustine grass, but not quite be strong enough to maneuver a push mower with more than half a dozen blades through it. If that is the case, then I recommend looking for a mower with only four or five blades. Fewer blades mean that the mower will be easier to operate, but it also means that you will probably have to make more than one pass while you are cutting your grass in order to get all of it evenly cut. In that case, it is a good idea to cut your grass in a crosshatch pattern: that is, cut it all in one direction first, and then go over it again at a ninety degree angle to the first pass. And whatever the number of blades on your reel mower, cutting in a crosshatch pattern is never a bad idea.
2b. Width of the Head and Size of the Mower
The width of the mower’s head, along with the overall size and weight of the mower, are also factors in which you will have to compromise the grass cutting ability of the mower with your own strength and ability to maneuver a big mower. As with the number of blades, there are advantages and disadvantages to having a large or small mower, so you should carefully consider what you want in your mower.
The width of a reel mower’s cutting swath usually ranges from between fourteen and twenty inches. If your reel mower has a wider mouth – and thus a wider cutting swath – you will be able to mow your lawn faster, but the mower will also be harder to push or pull. A mower with a twenty inch mouth will allow you to cut your lawn in 70% of the time it would take using a mower with a fourteen inch mouth. And generally speaking, a modern, well made mower with a twenty inch mouth will not weigh more than about fifty pounds.
But is a bigger mower always better? Not necessarily. If you are cutting your lawn with a mower that has a fourteen inch mouth, it will cut a swath that is 70% as wide as a mower with a twenty inch mouth could cut in the same pass. On the other hand, there is a proportionate increase in the amount of energy you have to use in order to push the mower with the twenty inch mouth. If you are able to maneuver a mower with a fourteen inch mouth around your lawn more quickly than you are able to push the larger mower, then the added width is not really saving you any time – it is only making the chore more difficult. Add to that the fact that getting the mower in and out of the garage – particularly if it is hanging on the wall or stored behind other lawn equipment – will be more difficult if you have a larger, heavier mower.
Therefore you should choose the size of your mower based on what you feel you will be most comfortable working with. If you have a slight build, or if you are not used to lifting more than thirty or forty pounds, a smaller mower is probably right for you. But if you are fairly bulky and feel comfortable lifting and carrying up to fifty pounds, and you have a rather large lawn, then a bigger mower with a wider mouth will be your best bet in the long run.
2c. Is the Mower Adjustable?
Whether or not your reel mower has different height adjustments is another important consideration. If possible, you should always purchase a mower that has several height adjustments. There are a number of good reasons for this. It is never good for the overall health of your lawn to cut the grass less than 1/3 of its overall height, and frankly you should not even be cutting the grass shorter than half of its overall height. Doing so does unnecessary damage to it, and can cause it to be more susceptible to disease, pests, and weed invasions: it also make it more likely that the grass will die in the event of a few days of hot, dry weather in a row. As such weather is almost inevitable in the summer no matter where you live, you will want to maintain the healthiest lawn possible at all times.
However, not all of us are able to maintain a rigorous schedule for mowing our lawn, and even if we can, the grass will grow at variable rates depending on how much water it is getting, how hot it is, and which season it is. For those reasons, you will not always be cutting it down to the same height every time. Remember: what’s important is not how close to the ground you are cutting the grass, but what percentage of the overall height you are taking off the top. Because of that, you are going to want to buy an adjustable reel mower.
You do not necessarily want to get the reel mower with the most adjustable heights on it, as that is simply not necessary. But what you do want is a mower that has at least four or five adjustable heights that range from about one and a half inches to four inches. If you are conscientious about your lawn care, it is very unlikely that the grass will ever get to be more than eight inches tall, right? And you generally do not want to cut your grass any shorter than one and a half inches. You are maintaining a lawn, not a putting green, and most grass cannot handle the stress of being kept too short.
Finally, make sure that the height is not too difficult to adjust. You do not want a reel mower with a lever that is difficult to work or that slips out of place while you are mowing the lawn. Either test out the mower’s height adjuster yourself, or check out other users’ reviews about this feature on the products you are considering for purchase.
2d. Silent Cut Mower or Contact Mower?
Reel mowers fall into two general categories: “silent cut” or no contact mowers, and contact mowers. The blades on silent cut mowers do not make contact with the bed knife, whereas the blades on contact mowers, as the name suggests, do make contact with the bed knife. While silent cut mowers have been around for some time now, certain advances in reel mower design and technology have allowed for a number of new products on the market.
Silent cut mowers are enjoying a resurgence in popularity for a number of reasons: they are notably quieter than contact mowers (and arguably the quietest possible option for mowing the lawn short of using a scythe); they are somewhat easier to push than contact mowers; and they provide a cleaner cut, eliminating the need for crosshatching or backtracking over patches you have already run over.
Silent cut mowers do need to have the spacing between the blades and the bed knife adjusted – typically about once a year – but this is a relatively simple process, and most manufacturers will provide a gauge to help you do this. If your mower does come with a gauge, do not throw it away or lose it, as it is a very necessary part of this process. Contact mowers, on the other hand, do not need this adjustment, but their blades will need to be sharpened more often. Contact mowers require sharpening every five years and back lapping once a year. Back lapping is a process in which an abrasive compound is spread on the blades, which are then turned in reverse to re-sharpen them. Silent cut mowers, on the other hand, do not need back lapping, but also need sharpening about once every five years or so.
Generally speaking, you will have to decide whether you want to purchase a silent cut or contact mower based on your own needs, how quiet you want the reel mower to be, and how often you want to have to service your mower.
2e. Reel Mower Price
The final, and perhaps one of the most important, things you will have to consider when looking at which reel mower to buy is price. After you have weighed all of the pros and cons of having different numbers of blades on the mower, the width of the mower’s mouth, the size and weight of the mower, its adjustability, and whether to buy a silent cut or contact mower, you should have some idea of what you are looking for. But how much are you willing to pay for it? This depends on your own financial constraints, of course, but you should also keep in mind the adage that you get what you pay for.
While buying the cheapest reel mower on the market will obviously save you money up front, in the long run it could end up costing you a lot of money in other areas. If you purchase a mower because it is inexpensive, you will undoubtedly discover that it is also cheaply made. A poorly manufactured reel mower will not cut your grass as cleanly, so right away you are going to spend more time mowing your lawn. Ragged cuts will also make your lawn more likely to contract disease or be invaded by weeds, or even worse, turn brown and die during hot, dry spells. All of this means you will be spending more money on lawn care products, weed killers, and grass seed in the long run. In addition to this, a cheaply made reel mower will require more maintenance and need to be serviced more often, and may even require costly repairs if parts on it break down altogether. Finally, a cheaply made reel mower will not have as long of a life as a well made one, which means you will wind up being forced to buy a new mower every five or ten years, and those costs will mount up. You can avoid all of that by spending a bit more up front to get a quality mower that will keep your grass healthy, give it clean cuts, require minimal maintenance, and possibly be the only mower you will ever need to buy.
Of course, this does not mean that you need to buy the most expensive reel mower on the market, either. Often, purchasing a mower that is priced in the mid-range will be the best compromise between quality and savings. Shop around for a mower that meets your requirements and is also affordable.