Reel Mower Neophyte

pdb5627(5)July 30, 2010

I bought a Scotts Classic reel mower this spring when my wife and I moved into our first house. Before this, I had never used a reel mower or even seen one used. I liked the idea of not having to put up with the loud noise of a gas-powered mower, not having to buy gas, and being able to get some exercise. In my time of using the reel mower, all these reasons have proved to be true and very satisfactory. However, there is one small problem: the mowing quality seems to stink!

Most weeks I mow with significant overlap such that each section of grass probably gets about 3 passes with the mower before I'm done. It looks shorter when I'm done, but over time I have noticed that many blades of grass are not actually getting cut but only getting pinched and bent over. A few days later, I can see that the grass either has a long brown end or has several thin brown line across the blade.

As the summer has worn on, these brown ends have gotten longer and longer, so this week on a relatively cool evening, I went over the grass as many times as it took to get to the point where no more grass was being cut on each pass. I estimate that it took me about 6 passes over each section, not counting all the overlap between passes.

Is this normal for a reel mower? I figure that it might need adjustment or sharpening, but I've only been using it for a few months, so it seems like the factory adjustment would have been good for longer. Is there any way to tell if it needs adjustment or sharpening or both?

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From my memory banks, of long, long ago, i can remember my Dear old Daddy going around the yard, with his old reel mower. I can remember how the reel sounded as it revolved across the blade. Yes, it touched the blade! Worked just like scissors! Listen to a good pair of scissors, to the sound they make. That is how your reel should sound as it revolves across the bed knife. That part must be adjusted so the blades of the reel just slide across it, with only a small amount of contact. The bed knife may not have been adjusted correctly by whom ever assembled it at the place where you bought it. After all--when those mowers were all we had, i was a kid! I'm now almost 86, but my memory is sharp, and i can still hear that sound!

    Bookmark   July 30, 2010 at 8:49PM
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A lot of it depends on what type of grass you have, and how much you are trying to cut off. Some types of grass are much better suited to a reel mower than others.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2010 at 11:32AM
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Sounds like one side of the blade and bed is gapped too far. Read your owners manual for the proper way to check and adjust that gap. It should have been set by the dealer. Once it is set, you should mow regularly and fairly frequently because push reel mowers don't handle tall grass well. Additionally, to get that old bent over grass cut you may want to rake the lawn as you mow. You should only need to do this once.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2010 at 11:59AM
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Thanks for the tips. I think that my grass is something like a fine fescue from the results of a couple of online grass identification tools. I've been mowing every 3-4 days all summer, which is about as frequently as I can handle.

I will try adjusting the gap between the bedknife and the blade and try raking as I go (or maybe seeing if my wife will help with that).

    Bookmark   August 2, 2010 at 5:05PM
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If I remember correctly, some 50 years ago rotary mowers made reel mowers obsolete for many reasons. Now reel mowers seem to be making a comeback, but the reasons they became obsolete still exsist. The Amish may still use the horse and buggy, but most people will continue ro embrace the internal combustion engine.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2010 at 5:23PM
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Your mower definitely needs sharpening. When the reel is not sharp it pinches and tears the grass blade. After a while your yard will look like there's a bunch of dead yellowish-white clippings all over it. Do a search here on "backlapping" for tips on sharpening. Depending on how badly damaged your reel and bedknife is, backlapping may or may not help. If it doesn't, you're better off buying a new push reel than getting the one you have properly grinded and sharpen as the cost would probably be about the same.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2010 at 10:57PM
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dwrecktor is right on. A reel mower only cuts good when everything is perfect. Reel mowers are far from obsolete. They are still the only mower that cuts good enough to do golf courses. There is no comparison in cut quality. That being said the reel mowers they use are far better than homeowner units.
To cut properly you must have a sharp bed-knife, a sharp reel, and a properly adjusted bed-knife to reel clearance. Backlapping is only a maintenance procedure for keeping a sharp reel mower sharp.
To check a reel mower for sharpness it should be able to cut a piece of paper at any point across the bed knife with any of the reel blades. Keep in mind that if you try this test it is ultra easy to cut your fingers badly.
Like dwrecktor a homeowner low priced unit is hardly worth having it professionally sharpened. In fact most shops know little about how to sharpen one and adjust the clearance. If they just backlap the reel they have not truly sharpened it. On golf courses they send the reels out for sharpening or have expensive $25,000 computerized reel grinders and some seriously trained mechanics. I have a fairway reel mower and sharpening it could cost $750 or more and at least $150 for my greens mower.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2010 at 11:52PM
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I guess I'll add backlapping to my plan and see if it helps.

Earlier someone mentioned that some types of grass are better suited to cutting with reel mowers than others. What types of grass are better or worse for cutting with a home-type reel mower?

    Bookmark   August 3, 2010 at 1:00PM
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After re-reading this thread I can see why reel mowers appeal to only a few homeowners and rotaries are the dominant design. Brings back distant memories of my dad spending hours lapping and sharpening his power reel at home. If your reel mower requires sharpening you should donate it to the Salvation Army and buy a gas or electric powered rotary mower.

The ultimate niche machine would have to be a green painted reel mower powered by a lawnboy 2 stroke motor!

    Bookmark   August 3, 2010 at 2:04PM
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Generally, cutting w/ a reel mower (when it's sharp) is better for all types of grass b/c the scissor like cutting action of the reel is less destructive than the machete-like whacking of a rotary blade.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2010 at 3:34PM
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In the mid-Atlantic area several types of grass continues to grow rapidly into summer with no noticable destruction from being cut with a rotary. It just seems to regrow after every cut.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2010 at 4:30PM
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"Reel mowers are far from obsolete. They are still the only mower that cuts good enough to do golf courses."

Not to be argumentative, but other than golf courses which use machines which cost thousands of dollars and as you point out hundreds of dollars to properly maintain, 99.5% of grass cutting including that by LCO's is done with rotary mowers since most people aren't cutting golf courses. In my mind that makes them obsolete except for golf courses.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2010 at 5:52PM
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"Not to be argumntative..."

You are being argumentative, and uninformed at that. Where are statistics to back up that 99.5% figure? Did you pull that number out of your butt?

Althoug a niche market, Tru-Cut, Trimmer, and McLane sell to commerical gardeners and homeowners. Crawling grasses such as St. Augustine and Hybrid Bermuda look better and are more healthy when cut by a reel. Locke is further upmarket such as estates and athletic fields. None is considered a player in the gold course market.

From California through the South to Florida reel mowers have a considerably greater penetration. I'm willing to concede that reel penetration is only 0.5% on places like Maine and South Dakota, but since I don't have statistics, I can't argue the case further.

Toro, Jacobsen, Gravely, and John Deere are the primary golf course mower manufacturers. Sure their stuff can cost tens of thousands. So do their rotary fairway mowers. But to compare them to a $1000 to $1500 homeowner or light commercial walk behind is misleading and specious.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 8:56AM
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I adjusted the bed knife to be tighter and cut test paper across the entire width, sprayed some WD-40 on the bed knife and blades, had my wife help with raking the grass ahead of me to try to get the grass to stand up better, and mowed last night. Mowing went much better than in the past, and the grass even looks greener.

Thanks for all the input! I am feeling a lot better about my reel mower now.

I have spent my fair share of time pushing a gas-powered rotary mower, and, obsolete or not, I like the reel mower much better and don't want to go back to the noise and the stink from the rotary.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 9:43AM
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pdb, in case you're not aware, be careful not to run over rocks, twigs, and anything that can jam the reel now that you seem to have gotten it sharpened. Doing so will prolong the need to re-sharpen. Good luck.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 1:13PM
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Fori is not pleased

Thanks for asking and updating, Pdb! After having a lawncare service (not a good one, but they cut the grass) for a few years I'm back to mowing my lawn. I'm using a reel mower and it definitely needs some work. But mowing with it is so much more pleasant than my big fat gas-powered self-propelled mower I'm definitely going to work on it (or upgrade it to a better reel).

I've mowed a large lot of thick St. Augustine in steamy SE Texas where you want as much help as possible (plus a solid rotary mower takes the tops of the fire ant hills better). Wouldn't have considered a reel mower there. And I've had a small slopey lot in the upper midwest (where I bought the reel mower) but the steep lawn got me back with the self-propelled mower. But now I have a flat yard and nice summers and it's nice to just putter around with a relaxing reel mower. I don't smell like exhaust afterward and I can talk to my kids while I mow. Or stop to pull a weed or move the cat. If you have the right lot, I think reel is not obsolete at all.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2010 at 7:04PM
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I have two damn near brand new reel mowers sitting in the garage....Lol! There they sit.
I only used them for a test bed to a pull behind tractor implement that was being proto typed.


    Bookmark   August 7, 2010 at 5:21PM
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I had this same mower when I had a smaller yard. If you look on either side of the reel, you see adjustment screws that take a large slotted screwdriver. Those adjust the bed knife closer or further from the reel. If you fiddle with it until the reel makes contact, then back off a little you will get the swish-swish sound from the reel and the performance you're looking for. Back off too much and the sound goes away and you're back to bending grass, back off too little and the mower becomes too difficult to push. With a little trial and error, you can find the right balance--good luck.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2010 at 6:36PM
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