How to Use a Reel Mower

Why Reel Mowers Are Great for Small Lawns and More

What to Know About the Reel Mower

The Spruce / Xiaojie Liu

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, reel mowers are 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.

What Is a Reel Mower?

A reel mower is a push mower that does not use fuel, electricity, or oil and is powered by the person pushing it. Most have two primary wheels and several sharp blades in a cylinder that spin around cutting the grass.

Reel vs. Rotary Mowers

As with most things, reel mowers are excellent for some situations and users and troublesome for others. Reel mowers lack many of the common annoyances that come with other types of mowers—the smell and noise, the potential risks, and the price, to name a few—but they also have their own drawbacks. Reel mowers don't work as well on tall grass or grass sprinkled with twigs and leaves, and 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.

Reel
  • Environmentally friendly

  • Low Maintenance

  • Inexpensive

  • Lighweight and safe to use

Rotary
  • More efficient at mowing grass

  • Easier to mow larger areas

  • Mulches up debris

  • Handles cutting grass better on uneven ground

Parts of a Reel Mower

Several different characteristics serve as distinguishers between manual reel mowers and other types of mowers. 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. Manual or push reel mowers don't have engines, which means they don't use gas and emit no pollutants. That lack of an engine also means these mowers are virtually noiseless. No engine also means no tune-ups, which means additional savings, and less maintenance: no oil to check, no filter to clean, no spark plugs.

Modern models of reel mowers are lightweight and easy to push. Reel mowers are still ideal for small lawns with no trees, though: Pushing one across a large lawn will still be a strenuous chore, lightweight or not.

Why Should You Use a Reel Mower?

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 reel mowers diametrically opposed to the kind of product that a buyer looking to remove as much physical strain as possible from the task of mowing, for whatever reason (disability, lack of strength or energy, etc.), would choose.

Still, despite the decidedly unmodern functionality, there are good 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, adding time and effort to the task. Nor can reel mowers be employed in fall as makeshift leaf-shredders—not an unimportant consideration for those who like to shred leaves 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?

How to Use a Reel Mower

  1. Set desired grass cut height with the adjusting lever located on each wheel of the mower.

  2. Push mower around the yard cutting grass.

  3. Clean off reel mower after finished, brushing the grass clippings off.

Buying vs. Renting

Reel mowers are inexpensive mowers, running around $100 on average to purchase. Since mowing the lawn is a weekly chore, especially in the spring and summer months, it only makes sense to buy one rather than go through the constant expense and hassle of renting one. 

Although reel mowers are relatively cheap, you shouldn't necessarily buy the very cheapest option. You want to make sure your mower is well-made, and that blade sharpening kits suited to the brand you select are easy to find because you'll need to sharpen the blade regularly.

How to Maintain Reel Mowers

There is, however, one regular mower-maintenance chore necessary with reel mowers: sharpening the blades. This only needs to be done once or twice every year. You can buy sharpening kits (at Home Depot, for example) to help you with this job, or you can grab these three basic items: grinding stone, grinding paste, and newspaper. The blades can stay right on the mower, and with a little bit of manual effort, you can start the sharpening process. 

  1. Grinding stone: Use this stone first to smooth out any nicks or burrs you feel on the blades. 
  2. Grinding paste: Apply this paste to the blades and cutter bar. Then turn the reel backward. The grinding paste and running it backward will sharpen the blades and cutter bar's edges. Do this for a few minutes, and you will see the paste going away and shiny edges appearing. If there's any excess paste, simply wipe it off.
  3. Newspaper: Test the sharpness of the blades on the newspaper. If it's not sharp enough, repeat the sharpening process. 

After Using Your Reel Mower

After each use, make sure to wipe/wash off any grass clippings that have built up on the mower. Store the reel mower in a dry place to help keep it from rusting. 

Another choice other 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.

When to Replace Your Reel Mower

Reel mowers are inexpensive, quiet to use, environmentally friendly, and require less maintenance than other types of lawnmowers. They will last for a number of years if you keep them clean and sharpen the blades periodically. If you find yourself not having the time to spend mowing with a reel mower, or you've gotten a larger yard, then you should consider replacing it with a powered motor. If your yard is considerably bigger, then a riding lawn mower will save you time and effort.