I recently became a homeowner and along with my first house came another first: my very own little piece of land to tend. And since Kate and I had been living in apartments for all our married life, I needed to buy a mower to take care of our lawn. Like most Americans, I grew up using and being surrounded by gas-powered mowers. The sound of two-stroke engines firing up around the neighborhood was the unofficial soundtrack of my boyhood summers.
But despite my immersion in the cult of Lawn Boy, I’ve always been intrigued by old-fashioned manual/push reel mowers. Maybe my curiosity about them came from flipping through old magazines depicting a happy 1950s suburban dad mowing his small patch of green heaven. Or maybe it was from watching groundskeepers use giant reel mowers to mow the infield at baseball stadiums.
Whatever the reason for my lifelong pull towards the manual reel mower, when I was in the market for my own mower, I decided to look into whether the old-fashioned push reel mower was a viable option for my lawn mowing needs. To my great surprise, I discovered that the reel mower isn’t just a viable option, but is in some instances superior to its gas-powered cousins.
How a Push Reel Mower Works
Your typical power rotary mower has a spinning blade that chops off the top of the grass as it rotates like a helicopter, resulting in torn and shredded turf. Instead of tearing and chopping your grass, a reel mower cuts your grass just like a pair of scissors. It’s easier to understand how this works when you can see the mower, rather than just describing it, so check out the video below for a full explanation:
Oh, and it goes without saying, but unlike a power mower that requires gas or electricity to work, you provide the power to your manual reel mower.
Choosing a Push Reel Mower
The basic construction of a reel mower is pretty much the same across brands. They mainly vary in characteristics like:
- Weight. How heavy will it be when you’re pushing it?
- Cutting width. The longer and bigger the mower is, the heavier it will be, but the less passes you’ll have to make back and forth on your lawn, and thus the faster you’ll get the job done.
- Cutting heights. What’s the range of heights you can adjust the blades up and down?
- Direction of grass spray. Does the grass spray behind the mower or out in front? Obviously the latter has an advantage in not covering your feet with clippings.
When I was looking for a reel mower, I did a lot of research and finally brought home the Fiskars Staysharp Max Push Reel Lawn Mower . This thing isn’t your grandpa’s heavy old contraption. The folks at Fiskars have taken the old manual reel mower design and updated it for the 21st century: it’s 60% easier to push than other manual mowers, boasts twice the cutting power of competitors, sprays the grass out in front of you, and the blades only need sharpening every 5-10 years (that’s the “StaySharp” bit). It’s fast, powerful, and maneuverable. Not to mention kind of fun to use. After mowing with my Fiskars for nearly two months, I can confidently say that it’s given me the best mowing experience I’ve ever had. Kate and I even fight over who gets to mow the lawn now (the compromise: I mow the front; she mows the back). I can’t sing the mower’s praises highly enough (and I don’t have any affiliation with the company whatsoever, by the way–just a very happy customer).
If your only experience with a push reel mower was using a heavy clunker in your youth, I highly recommend giving the Fiskars a try. It will change your mind about manual mowers.
The Benefits of a Push Reel Mower
Push reel mowers are better for your grass’ health. This was my biggest motivating factor for purchasing a push reel mower as opposed to a power rotary mower. As mentioned above, power rotary mowers cut the grass by chopping and tearing your grass, while reel mowers cut the grass by snipping it cleanly like a pair of scissors. Torn and shredded grass leaves your lawn vulnerable to disease and insect attacks; grass that is cleanly cut with a reel mower heals faster and is less vulnerable to those maladies.
Push reel mowers make your lawn look nicer. Not only are reel mowers better for your grass’ health, they leave your lawn looking professionally manicured. Again, it all goes back to the scissor-like way the reel mower cuts the grass. Clean and even cuts make for a clean and even-looking lawn. The reel mower’s superior cut is the reason why groundskeepers at professional baseball stadiums and golf courses use large reel mowers pulled by tractors. The reel cut makes the grass look purty.
Push reel mowers are quiet. One of the things I hated the most about the old gas-powered Lawn Boy of my youth was the noise. First, it’s just grating to have to listen to a loud and obnoxious two-stroke engine for extended periods of time. Second, because the thing was so stinking loud, I couldn’t mow the grass too early or too late in the evening, lest I disturb the neighbors. That’s not a problem if you live in, say, Vermont, where summer days are pleasantly warm and idyllic (if it’s not raining). When you live in hot and humid Oklahoma, however, mowing your yard during the day with the sun beating down on you is downright miserable.
The push reel mower solves both of those noise-related problems. The only sound it makes is a satisfyingly quiet “snip-snip-snip” as the mower cuts the grass. I love hearing that sound. It’s actually rather soothing. And because my manual reel mower is so darn quiet, I can mow my lawn early in the morning without waking up the neighbors. Goodbye 107-degrees-with-a-heat-index-of-a-115 lawn mowing sessions!
Push reel mowers don’t emit pollution. Don’t let the smallness of your power lawn mower engine deceive you. That sucker spits out a crap load of air pollution. If you let a typical gas-powered lawn mower run for an hour, it will produce as much air pollution as a sedan running for two hundred miles . Jeez-um!
The amount of pollution a push reel mower produces? Zilch. Unless of course you count the relaxing farts you rip as you cut the grass.
If you’re an environmentally-conscious guy, the choice is clear between power and manual. You gotta go manual.
Push reel mowers are hassle-free. Push reel mowers are simple machines. You push it and blades spin around and cut your grass. That’s it. No pulling starter cords or priming the engine before you can mow. Just start walking and–bam!–you’re cutting the grass. Also, you’ll never have to buy gas, oil, or spark plugs ever again. About the only maintenance you’ll have with your manual reel mower is blade sharpening, and some folks think that’s more of an enjoyable, mind-settling task than a chore.  And again, with the Fiskars, you’ll only have to sharpen the blades every half decade or so.
Push reel mowers are cheaper. Even a “top-of-the-line” reel mower like the Fiskars costs less than most power mowers. And if you get one of the smaller, classic models, they can run you less than $100. Plus, there are no maintenance costs. With gas prices as high as they are, why waste a single drop tooling around your backyard?
Push reel mowers exercise your body. There’s no autodrive on a push reel mower. These bad boys are man-powered. The Fiskars is particularly heavy for a reel mower (52 lbs), but is designed in a way that makes it easier to push, and it gives me a nice bout of exercise; hard enough to work up a satisfying sweat, but not so hard it leaves me feeling exhausted. It’s kind of like pushing a Prowler Sled  around your yard, except for that when you’re done, you’re in better shape and your lawn has been mowed.
Push reel mowers are safer than power mowers. In a careless moment a power mower can turn into a rolling death trap, or at least an appendage mauler. More than 75,000 Americans, 10,000 of which are children, are injured in lawn mowing accidents annually, and, get this, 75 people die from lawn mowing accidents every year. Mowing over a grass-hidden rock can turn it into a projectile capable of traveling 200 mph and taking out someone’s eye, and the power mower’s fast-whirling blades have eaten up children’s toes and hands. And even if your power mower isn’t running, you’re still at risk for an accident. I burnt my hand on a hot lawn mower engine as a boy and still have the scar to prove it.
While some dangers still exist when using a reel mower, they’re much, much safer than power mowers. Unless I ran the thing right over someone Tom and Jerry-style, there’s little risk of it chewing up a limb. If you run over a rock, instead of shooting it out like a bullet, your mower just jams. Also, no hot engines to burn yourself on.
Push reel mowers make mowing a pleasure. As a young man, I saw lawn mowing as a chore that you had to do every week. I didn’t look forward to it. I just did it because I had to. Since I’ve started mowing with my Fiskars push reel mower, mowing the grass has turned from a chore into a pleasure. I actually look forward to lawn mowing day. Really! I love pushing it in the cool of the early morning as birds chirp at the day’s start. I love listening to the quiet “snip-snip-snip” of grass cutting. I love the physicality of it–how it feels a little like pushing a plow. I love watching tiny blades of cut grass spit out in front of my mower in a green cascade. Most of all, I love the satisfying feeling I get as I look over my cleanly cut lawn.
Is a Push Reel Mower Right For You?
Now before you head to the home improvement store to pick up a push reel mower, you need to know that it’s not for everybody. Sometimes power or riding mowers are actually better, depending on a variety of factors. Below I highlight a few of these factors you should consider before switching to a push reel mower.
Your yard is a half-acre or smaller. Manual reel mowers are suited for small to medium-sized yards. Most experts agree that if you have to mow more than 8,000 square feet, you’re better off using a power push or riding mower. Although I will say that my yard is on the large end of a medium-sized yard, and it only takes me 45 minutes to mow with my manual mower. And if your yard is the size of most yards in suburban developments, there really isn’t any reason you shouldn’t use a push reel mower.
You can’t bag clippings. If you’re one of those folks who prefer to bag your clippings, then a push reel mower probably isn’t for you. While some push reel mowers have a basket that will catch your clippings, they don’t work very well, and many don’t offer any clipping catcher at all.
However, if you’re a devoted-bagger, you might reconsider your stance. Most lawn care experts agree that you shouldn’t bag your clippings and should just leave them in your grass. Grass clippings are fertilizer for your lawn. They provide the same beneficial nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium nutrients that are in commercial fertilizers, except they’re free.
Not great for excessively bumpy and overgrown yards. I’ve noticed that on areas of my lawn that have a lot of bumps, the reel mower doesn’t do a good job of cutting, mainly because the wheels can’t get good traction to move the blade. I’ll usually have to come back and trim that with my weed-wacker. It’s not a problem because there’s only one part in my lawn that gives me trouble.
Also, push reel mowers work best on yards that are already well-maintained. They don’t cut really long grass too well, so if you always let your grass get pretty long before you cut it, you’re better off using a power mower.
What sort of grass do you have? Manual reel mowers work better on some types of grass than others. Most reel mowers have a hard time handling extra thick grasses like Zoysia, St. Augustine, and Bermuda. Never fear. If you have a lawn that’s made completely of one of these grasses, you’re not necessarily relegated to just gas-powered mowers. Heavier, more powerful manual reel mowers like the Fiskars  don’t have a problem with these types of grasses. Adjusting the height of the reel mower’s blades can also prevent the mower from getting bogged down in thick grass.
Shave Like Your Grandpa, Mow Like Your Grandpa
After a couple of months of using my push reel mower, I really don’t know why the manual mower isn’t more popular or why most folks get the gas-powered variety. It seems quite analogous to shaving. There are a few things where the classic turns out to do just as good a job (sometimes an even better one), and provides a more enjoyable and satisfying experience to boot. The safety razor is one of those things.  And so is the push reel mower. Give it a try!
Any other push reel mower users out there? Share your experience with us in the comments!