How to Sharpen a Scythe

The clicking and whispering of whetstone on a scythe blade is a sound that still evokes memories of early childhood in me. My father used to breed rabbits and he made hay twice a year. That, of course, clashed horribly with my allergies, so later on he moved to ducks, turkeys, and geese who kept the grass in our rather big garden in check during the summer on their own, and hay was not needed. Nowadays my allergies are much better than they used to be, we no longer keep any animals that eat the grass so we have to keep it in check by mowing. And the lawnmower does not reach all nooks and crannies, nor is it suitable for mowing grass that has overgrown a bit. And thus a scythe has to be used again.

My father has one and I have my own. We were both using one, but I got terrible back ache from it because the handle was just a tiny bit shorter than I need. For a long time, I could not find a suitably long scythe handle anywhere, so I even started to season ash wood to make my own. Luckily my parents saw a TV advert for a company that sells adjustable scythes so I bought one, adjusted it accordingly and I use it for two years by now and my back no longer aches (apart from normal tiredness that is). And I get to make my own clink-whoosh sounds with whetstone on the blade.

But there comes a time when the whetstone actually destroys the blade – when the cutting edge becomes as sharp as that of a knife. Yus, that is correct, a scythe blade that is as sharp as a knife is of no use. Here is a picture of my scythe this morning, when work with it became finally too difficult and it was bending the grass a lot without cutting it. It would cut yer leg off in a blink, but it was no longer good at cutting grass.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

You can see the edge is laid on a tiny peening anvil fixed to a small wooden horse so when one sits on it, the blade can lay on the anvil and be supported by knees on either side to stabilize it. The left hand holds the blade to move the edge across the anvil, and the right hand beats the crap out of the edge with a hammer.

Scythes are hardened, but they are tempered back to springiness, so the material is somewhat ductile – up to a point. The hammering has thus several effects. It draws out the material a bit, so the scythe becomes a mm or so wider and thinner at the edge.  The second effect is the so-called work hardening of the steel, the thinned drawn-out edge becomes harder. And the third effect, completely undesirable in a knife blade but essential in a scythe, is that the edge becomes all wavy and even cracked in places. Look at a hammered blade.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

For a knife, that looks absolutely terrible. But for a scythe, this is a must. Grass is a mixture of soft and hard fibers, yielding and tough. The jagged edge is much better at cutting it than a smooth knife-like one. My father even tells an anecdote about a former colleague of his who never hammered his scythe and has sharpened it as a knife – and as a result, he had difficulty cutting grass with it.

After the blade is hammered out, a few passes with whetstone are sufficient to straighten it a bit and break off some wire edge and thin it just a tiny bit more than the hammering has done. And that maintenance with whetstone should now suffice for a few months, then it will be hammer time again. A properly sharpened scythe should be able to cut grass that is just a few cm high with a light pass.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Yes, I am wearing socks in sandals. I think not doing so is just stupid and fashion be damned, especially in my garden.


  1. lochaber says

    huh. completely new info, but in my defense, I haven’t really had the opportunity to use a scythe.

    so, thanks for the info.

  2. Dunc says

    I do peen my scythe blades, but not very often (I don’t have a lot of grass), and they don’t look anything like that… Perhaps they’ll get that way in time.

    There’s something very satifying about how a well-maintained scythe glides through long grass and clover… Not as clumsy or noisy as a brushcutter; an elegant tool for a more civilised age.

  3. says

    @Dunc, are you sure your peened scythe blade does not look like this? It is a pretty big magnification, in reality, the waving is not as profound and the teef are not as big as it seems in the picture. It is pretty hard to peen the edge in a way that does not cause waving and cracks, it is the nature of hammering cold steel.
    I have found out that the less careful I am with the peeing, the better the scythe cuts a mix of hard overgrown grass and soft fresh growth, which is exactly what I use it for.

  4. Dunc says

    I can probably count the number of times I’ve peened it on my fingers, and I suspect I’m not moving the metal as much as I should.

  5. Ice Swimmer says

    I’ve seen sickles with very small teeth and now I know why they have them (my grandma used a sickle for cutting grass in cramped places on the yard, not for harvesting grain).

  6. Matthew Currie says

    I always learned to use a scythe stone dry to get that slightly ragged edge, and was, in youth (before my back talked back), a pretty fair scythe user. But surprisingly, when visiting Switzerland back around 1980, noticed that the Swiss alpine farmers always used a smooth oilstone on theirs. They seemed to get their stuff cut too, so I guess there’s more than one way to do it.

    Back in the whenever long ago dreamtime when I actually did a lot of this I also was told, with good effect, that one’s swing was very important, and you get a better cut if you pull back more than swinging side to side. The grass lies down nicely too.

    Nowadays I don’t do much scything, except a little bit around various difficult edges with a short bush blade, which isn’t so fine for grass, but can cut down even the stiffest and most ornery puckerbrush where motorized stuff can’t readily go.

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