American Classics: The Push Reel Mower

(I admit it – not the sort of topic you’d expect at TAC.  But maybe American Classics can be a new meme for TAC contributors?)

A blog I’ve discovered recently, and added to my reader, is The Art of Manliness.  I wouldn’t be surprised if several, if not most, of the contributors to TAC read it regularly.  It’s mission:  To revive the lost art of manliness.  Now, that has different meanings for different people – to me, I sense that the author and his many guest contributors want to expound upon iconic masculine ideas and interests.  From a photo essay on getting a straight-razor shave at the local barber, to leadership lessons from Gen Dwight D Eisenhower.  From what to wear on your first date, to how to tie a necktie.  They focus on virtues and integrity and traditional mores, and while not everything they publish interests me, I have to say that everything they publish is interesting.

All this to say, I found it timely that they wrote an article titled In Praise Of The Push Reel Mower, earlier this week.

I was in the market to buy a new lawnmower.  My previous model, a gas-powered self-propelled Honda (with bagging and/or mulching options) had serviced me well over the years, but two summers ago, the cable that operated the self-propelling feature snapped.  And the bag was showing signs of serious wear and tear.  Then, a customer service girl at one of the companies I represent mentioned to me that her lawn mower died, and she needed a new one, but she was bummed because she was broke.  So I offered her mine, informing her of its problems – albeit minor ones – but she gladly accepted it anyway.  Now I was committed to replacing it.

I had my eyes set on a model offered at the local Menard’s.  But then….

…then I read the above-mentioned article.  And my mind was changed, then and there.  I bought a push reel mower yesterday, and used it straight away.  So what was it that persuaded me to buy it, when just days before, I was ready to purchase a power mower?

Pure nostalgia wasn’t what convinced me – I grew up in the 10th Ward in Rochester NY – modest middle class homes with city-sized yards, and my dad owned a push reel mower that he *graciously* allowed his sons to use every Saturday.  To be honest, I was envious of my friends who used power mowers, but my father was insistent.  He wasn’t obsessive about how the lawn looked, as small as it was (we were, after all, allowed to play football and Rush the Bulldog on it), but he preferred the cut that the push reel mower provided.

My decision was based on common sense, with a little bit of virtue thrown in.  I’ll list the reasons given by the author why he considered it (in bold), and add a bit of commentary here and there.

Push reel mowers are better for your grass’ health.  The scissoring cutting action of the push reel mower is cleaner, sharper and does less damage to the grass than a power mower.  This allows the grass to heal faster, preventing disease and infection.

Push reel mowers make your lawn look nicer.

Push reel mowers are quiet.  Amen.  This is a big deal for Mrs LarryD.  And there’s something rhythmic and seductive about the “chickety-chickety-chickety” noise the mower does make – which you can control depending on how quickly or slowly you push it.

Push reel mowers don’t emit pollution.  Not the most important issue on the list for me, but it was high on Mrs LarryD’s.  But it is a fact – no emissions.  From a Catholic viewpoint, it does demonstrate better stewardship of the environment.

Push reel mowers are hassle-free.  It took me 20 minutes to assemble out of the box – the blade didn’t need any adjustment – and I was off and cutting.  No gas, no oil, no plugs.  Sure, the blades will need sharpening regularly, but so does a power mower blade.  And the lawn does need to be clear of debris – like sticks and landscape mulch – more so for a push reel mower than its power counterpart – but I did that anyway.

Push reel mowers are cheaper.  I bought a Yardmaster 20″ Push Reel Mower (with grass-catcher bag), out the door from Menards, for $100.  And they gave me an 11% mail-in rebate coupon to boot.  The power mower I originally wanted was $250.  No brainer.

Push reel mowers exercise your body.  Given that I had been considering a mower with a self-propelling feature, this was true.  But power mowers are heavier, so actually you might be getting more exercise with one of those.  Or more strain, depending on your physical condition!  My new mower is a mere 32 pounds, making it more maneuverable and making the 10-foot high back-to-front slopes on each side of my house easier to mow.

Push reel mowers are safer than power mowers.  

Push reel mowers make mowing a pleasure.  Strange enough, I really enjoyed cutting the grass yesterday.  My sons are unconvinced – in fact, my older son cannot for the life of him understand why I would opt for “1930’s technology” when 21st century convenience and power and speed appears so much better.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

Now, push reel mowers are not for everybody.  Those who live on acre-plus size properties won’t find them as a better option, and according to some guys who left comments at the AoM blog, they don’t work worth a darn on certain grass species.  We live in a typical subdivision with moderate-to-large sized lots, and many use rider mowers (especially the homeowners who have corner lots).  Because of the way we landscaped our yard, with a modest vegetable garden and a large portion of the backyard being quasi-wooded and on the edge of a itsy-bitsy lake, I don’t have as much lawn to cut as other neighbors do.  So it happens to be right for me.

Freshly mowed, and after a gentle morning rain.

It was the practical choice, while pleasing Mrs LarryD to no end (Rule #2 to Happy Marriages:  “Happy wife, happy life”).

As to my son’s comment, who probably thinks I’m transmogrifying into some horrific Luddite…no way.  A push reel mower is *still* technology, just human powered as opposed to fuel.  Is it less convenient?  I don’t think so – I won’t ever have to go to a gas station to fill up a 2-gallon container of unleaded LarryD.  Is it faster?  I estimate that it took me an extra 15 minutes to mow the lawn – the cutting path is a couple inches narrower than the old power mower, but I think that as I get more used to the new one, the time difference will be even more negligible.  And power?  That’s in the mind and spirit of the user.  I owe my son’s comment to one thing:  embarrassment, at the fact that *gasp!* someone might see his dad using it!  Or worse yet – his friends will see him using it!

And what about virtue?  Is there any inherent virtue in going “old school”?  Well, I’m certainly not claiming I’m better than anyone who chooses to use a power mower – that’s just silly.  Using a push reel mower doesn’t confer any sort of special grace or deep wisdom.  But as I was using it yesterday, the thought occurred to me that our culture and society, which is ever pushed by the forces of convenience, speed and power, overlooks simplicity, automatically disregarding it without seriously considering whether it truly is inconvenient, slow and weak.  It got me thinking that perhaps the traditional things that are witnessed so rarely nowadays – a handwritten letter sent by post; homemade cookies; freshly-squeezed lemonade; a straight-razor shave at the local barber – really aren’t inconveniences, but that they require sacrifices on our part.  As Catholics, we ought to be experts on making sacrifices, and many of us continually make them – for the Lord, for those whom we love, for ourselves.  And when sacrifices are done out of love – then they really aren’t sacrifices at all.

That’s not to say I sacrificed by purchasing a push reel mower – on the contrary, I think I did myself a big favor by doing so.  But I realized that I was conditioned to believe that replacing my old mower with a new power mower, as I had originally planned to do, was the only choice.  Perhaps subconsciously, I had thought that not having a power mower would be a hardship, or “the difficult way of doing it”, when in reality, it wasn’t difficult in the slightest.  I had made an assumption, and that assumption had been proven wrong.  It made me realize that I have to be more discerning in how I judge future actions, and not jump to conclusions.  And there is virtue in that.  Hopefully my sons will come to realize that lesson from my experience, and eventually learn for themselves that they won’t die from embarrassment when they’re friends see them using my new push reel mower.

The Yardmaster 20" Push Reel Mower

12 Responses to American Classics: The Push Reel Mower

  • I detest everything to do with mowing the lawn! Perhaps this would be the answer to my grass detesting prayers?

  • Awesome! Nice looking lawn, and mower!

  • Homeric, LarryD. I used a reel mower both as a boy and as an adult. You do have to cut more frequently, because if the grass is more than about 3.5″ tall, the push mower just jams up on it. And if your lawn gets bumpy from the constant freeze/thaw of, say, the upper Midwest, it becomes very difficult to push that single axle smoothly. So you might end up having to get yourself a heavy roller, too.

  • My dad used rabbits and moved the cage when they had eaten all the vegetation and it worked. Some people use geese. But the eco-goats are the BEST.

  • This was interesting. I thought push reel mowers were no longer manufactured. My dad used these when he was a young boy.

    However, I am not getting one. I have nearly 1/2 of an acre and I ride my Ariens lawn tractor to handle most of it. The lawn tractor bags the cut grass so I don’t have to rake it. The Ariens also does a great job picking up leaves that fall off of the maple trees in my yard each fall. I have two young boys and the less time I spend on the yard the more time I have with them.

  • Great post. I actually bought one about a year ago for our small yard. I had the thought as well that it just didn’t seem manly (or make economic sense) to pay someone $35 every two weeks to cut my lawn. Our lawn is fairly small and the push mower was cheap. It does a great job.
    When i was a kid no one in our middle-class neighborhood paid people to cut their grass. Dads and kids did it.

  • Hi Larry. My husband and I have had a reel mower for all of our 24 years of marriage, and I concur heartily with your post. Several years ago, my husband broke his ankle and lower leg bone, and I was left with lawn duty until he healed. We have a very steep back yard, and I found I could not push the power mower (used model, which we use when the buckhorns get out of control). Our trusty Beaver Cleaver mower did the job beautifully. It is light enough to push uphill, it is blessedly quiet, and outside of the buckhorns, it does a very fine job. As I said, its only drawback is that the buckhorns seem to slide past the blades, but that is problem we have had. We also do not have to worry about storing gasoline and maintaining the engine, only occasionally sharpening the blades.

  • I saw that post, too, and it made me seriously consider purchasing a push mower… and I don’t even need a new lawn mower. The noise factor is what is weighing very positively heavy on my mind. I like to know that my kids won’t go deaf when they want to “help me mow the yard” with their little lawn mower toys. But I have heard that you have to mow more regularly with the push mower and that could be a very serious drawback for us. Thanks for posting this, though. It gave me more food for thought.

  • Once you own a push mower, there are practically no extra costs. No fuel. No oil. Next to no maintenance (honing the blades). It is quite. I can mow my grass late at night (sun doesn’t set up this way until 930 PM this time of year). It doesn’t bug the neighbours, no exhaust to breath in. Best of all, my young kids can be around it & me with a much higher degree of safety. Oh, and it isn’t as if I don’t need the exercise.

    I still have my legacy gas lawnmower… but I am loath to use it. Reel mowers are where it is at and I am so there.

  • Correction: It is quiet.

    Please note: a reel mower does not act as a proof reader.

  • Goats are the reason that the Levant is desert. Get rid of the goats and the desert will bloom.

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