Reel Mowers - Review

This is a great choice for small lawns

Reel lawn mower
Ken Gillespie/Getty Images

The bottom line is that reel mowers appeal to many types of people: environmentalists, the frugal, exercise-fanatics, haters of noise, lovers of safety. However, with this type of lawn mower, you must be committed to mowing when the grass is ready, not whenever you get around to it. And unless you don't mind the extra work of raking up twigs beforehand, they're not practical for large areas with lots of trees, since you can't ride roughshod over twigs as you can with standard mowers. Sharpening the blades is also a hassle. This review is based on my experience with the Scotts 2000-20 20-inch model.

Pros and Cons of Reel Mowers

  • They are pollution-free.

  • They are safe and quiet.

  • They are cheap, including few maintenance costs.

  • Not good for mowing tall grass or for shredding twigs, leaves.

  • You may be able to get by for years without sharpening the blades on a regular mower, but it's critical that you keep the blades of a reel mower razor-sharp.

Product Description of a Sample Reel Mower

  • Whereas the blades of rotary lawn mowers spin on a plane parallel to the ground, those of reel mowers spin at an angle perpendicular to the ground.
  • Although reel mowers are relatively cheap, you shouldn't necessarily buy the very cheapest...
  • Scotts 2000-20 20-inch model, for instance, is high-quality, offering a 20" cutting width.
  • Another good thing about buying the Scotts unit is that, since Scotts is a popular brand, you're more likely to be able to find a blade-sharpening kit with which it is compatible (see below)
  • No engine (with the "push" type) means no gas, which means no pollution.
  • No engine means no noise—listen to the birds sing while you mow.
  • No engine means no tune-ups, which means additional savings.
  • No engine also means the elimination of some maintenance chores: no oil to check, no filter to clean, no spark plugs.
  • Modern models are lightweight and easy to push. Don't be misled by granddad's stories!
  • Reel mowers are ideal for small lawns with no trees.

So Why Should You Mow Your Lawn With an Antiquated Product?

When you think of mowing your lawn, the mental image that comes to mind for most of us is that of a rotary machine, because this type of grass-cutting device has become the standard. Unlike the rotary models that you’re used to, reel mowers (we're talking about the "push" type) don’t have an engine. Yes, you read that correctly: no engine!

Instead, this 19th-century device, invented by a man named Edwin Budding, cuts the grass using sharp blades that move as you push the device along. In other words, this type of mower has to enlist an ally to get the job done: your muscle power. Notice this isn't merely a question of the machine being self-propelled vs not self-propelled: it is entirely human-powered. This makes it diametrically opposed to the kind of product that a buyer would select who is looking to remove as much physical strain as possible from the task of mowing, for whatever reason (disability, lack of strength or energy, etc.)

You may be asking at this point, "Doesn't the reel mower, then, represent a step backward? With today's sophisticated machines, why would you want to mow your lawn the way people did in the 19th century?" Well, let's look at some of the reasons you might want to consider buying a reel mower.

Environmentalists tout reel mowers as a clean alternative to polluting gas-powered rotary models. And reel mowers offer many benefits besides being environment-friendly, including benefits in safety, noise-level, and cost. Modern versions are easier to use than older models because lightweight plastics and alloys incorporated into their framework have made them more maneuverable.

But reel mowers come with some disadvantages, too. They don’t chop up twigs as do rotary machines, as twigs get lodged in the blades, requiring manual removal. Consequently, raking up twigs prior to mowing would be advisable. Nor can reel mowers be employed in fall as makeshift leaf-shredders—not an unimportant consideration for those who like to shred leaves for for the compost pile. Rotary models are also better at mowing grass that's grown too high, an important consideration for those who don’t mow the grass religiously.

These limitations argue that, for all but the most industrious or idealistic, reel lawn mowers are well-suited only to those who tend small urban lots. But if you do, indeed, have just a small lawn to mow, the reel mower could be a godsend for you. Dealing with all the gas, oil, and noise associated with regular mowers seems like overkill for such a small space, right?

There is, however, one regular mower-maintenance chore necessary with reel mowers: sharpening the blades. You can buy kits (at Home Depot, for example) to help you with this job, but it's still a hassle. In fact, just finding a kit in the first place that's compatible with your unit (they're not one-size-fits-all) is a hassle.That's why an even better choice than reel mowers for those who have a small lawn to mow is battery-powered mowers. The idea here is to keep mower maintenance to a bare minimum since it doesn't make sense to trouble yourself too much over such a small patch of grass (killing the grass and putting something else there is another possibility). We have found a good battery-powered mower to be the very best option for small yards mowed by owners who want but a small maintenance burden to bear.