Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Reel Mowers

I have been intrigued by reel mowers ever since I noticed Wally and Beaver using one on Leave It to Beaver re-runs. It was my job to mow the lawn growing up and the Cleavers always made lawn care look a lot more fun than it was for me pushing around a heavy gasoline-powered mower.
When we bought our first home, one thing that really didn't occur to me was that once again it would fall to me to keep the grass cut.  Kids come by the house asking if they can do it, but at their going rate of $30 to $40 dollars, I usually ask them if I can mow their lawn instead.

In the process of renovating our home and yard, which had been left in not exactly the greatest shape by the previous owners, I quickly went through four separate gasoline-powered mowers, either simply wearing them out or by hitting upon (literally) hidden treasures like the remnants of a grown-over outhouse, or the mostly buried boiler in the yard that broke the engine of one of the mowers. I then switched to buying used ones for under $100 from a local guy, but soon tired of their inevitable refusals to start, usually just before we have guests or during the last mow of the season, leaving patches of uncut grass for winter.

A riding mower seemed like overkill and plus, I grudgingly like the exercise that I get from cutting the grass. I finally decided to take the plunge and buy a reel mower, figuring that at the least, I could use it as a back-up. My wife tried to warn me off the endeavor, remembering painful childhood hours spent pushing an old, rusty reel mower with dull blades on her family's farm, but I figured that it was worth the risk, given that they aren't all that expensive anyway, and took the plunge.

Doing research on which one to buy, was far from easy. Reel mowers are a product that people seem to either love or hate with equal passion. Lawns come in all sizes, with different kinds of grasses that vary in texture and of course, humans come in different sizes and strengths.

Ultimately, it appeared that there were two major choices, either a Brill-type mower or a Scotts-type mower, with the major difference between them being that the Brills did not need sharpening, while the Scotts-type mowers were recommended for higher, thicker grasses, due to the slightly different manner in which they clip grass. Apparently, the Brill-type mowers are big in Europe where lawns are far smaller and gas-powered mowers are used sparingly. Most reel mowers have five blades, but some of the ones for shorter grass varieties come with seven blades.

After a little more research, I decided to buy a Sunlawn MM1, which was a less costly five-blade clone of the Brill-type, and which also offered the ability to cut a bit higher than the Brill. I am not exactly sure what types of grass I have in my yard, but I think that they are mostly blue grass varieties that grow a bit higher than some Southern varieties, and so I did want the ability to cut above a golf fairway height.

I decided to purchase a Sunlawn MM1 and have used it for over a month, after buying it as a backup for my old gas mower that has already been serviced twice this spring and still refuses to start.

I have been pretty happy with the design of the Sunlawn and particularly enjoyed the soothing sound that its blades make while cutting grass, but I am afraid that Sunlawn must be in the initial stages of product production in China and quality control is apparently not good right now. Previously, some of their dealers have seemingly implied this, as they have delayed production of their new mowers in this style:

"Due to a major production issue with our supplier Sunlawn has been forced to refuse our shipments of the MM-2 model. As a result, availability of the MM-2 will be delayed until further notice. We apologize for the delay and the inconvience but Sunlawn insists that all of our quality standards be met or exceeded."

As evidence of these problems in my own case, the handle bars of my Sunlawn MM1 were warped right out of the box, and this made putting the unit together much more of a chore than it should have been, although Sunlawn was responsive about dealing with this in terms of sending replacements.

Unfortunately, however, after a little more than a month of use, the adjustable metal brackets for changing the mowing height, in the back of the Sunlawn MM1 mower, have both cracked in two, and the mower can no longer be used at all. This happened on Sunday.

It simply appears that the metal was not cured properly or otherwise Sunlawn is going to have to engineer this metal thicker. The Sunlawn has a 2-year warranty and I have no doubts that they will send me a new mower, but I have grass to mow now and hence I bought the Scotts Elite because it was available for pick-up at Home Depot for $84, which is about 2/3 to 1/2 of the going price for the Sunlawn.

I wasn't all that upset about having to invest in a second mower because I have really enjoyed using the Sunlawn mower and its temporary demise gave me a chance to try the Scotts type and to detail my experiences here.

One reason why there are so many varying opinions about these reel mowers is the different ways people use them. Some people in condos and townhouses and the like, have about 100 square feet of grass. I think virtually all of them could (should) be using a reel mower.

My yard is pretty large, probably about a quarter acre of grass, however, and I mowed all of it during the past two days with the Scotts Elite and was impressed. It may be preset a tad low compared to what many recommend but I have usually preferred to mow lower than most people so I probably will not fiddle with the height settings, as I think it is harder to change heights on the Scotts than on the Sunlawn, which had detailed height markings. When I get the new Sunlawn, I may leave it on its highest height setting and use the mowers in tandem.

My grass was about as high as it ever gets during the two days that I mowed it with the Scotts Elite and the Scotts was easily able to handle it, although it was quite a work-out for me. For comparison, the grass height would probably have choked and halted a 4.5 horsepower gas mower unless mowed very slowly, but the Scotts plowed right through it. For further comparison, I then mowed a patch in the front yard that was at a normal cutting height and pushing the Scotts through it was actually easier than pushing a gas mower, as they are much heavier than reel mowers.

I think I like the sound the Scotts makes even better than the Sunlawn.

The Scotts was also easier to assemble and seems better able to handle tall grass than the Sunlawn was, and as I said, my grass was very tall since it needed to be mowed several days earlier. The Scotts' cut may have also been a shade crisper. My Scotts Elite seemed to have more metal parts and to be better constructed than the Sunlawn. My only complaint was that the handles were uncomfortable to hold compared to the Sunlawn but adding some black electrical tape seemed to help.

Theoretically, it may be harder to sharpen the Scotts at some future point, but I obviously have not gotten to that point yet. The Sunlawn may only need sharpening every 7-10 years, as they claim, but there is scant possibility that the mower will last that long, if used on a large yard, although I guess one could get replacement parts after the 2-year warranty expires.

I would add one thing about aesthetics. Part of the fun of these is the throwback aspect, sort of in the same way that vinyl records and tube radios are making a comeback.

Scotts has two mowers under their name. The Scotts Elite, which is the 16-inch mower, seems to me to be more of what people think of when they remember classic reel mowers, with blades that are about shoulder-wide, and usually sells for $80-$100, which seems a bargain. I really like the look, sound, and feel of this mower which seem to embody what a reel mower is, or at least should be, to me. If anyone has read my earlier posting regarding record players, the Scotts Elite is the AR Turntable of reel mowers. It has classic styling, simple engineering that simply works, and few if any extras to break or complicate use.

Scotts' other mower is the 20-inch Scotts Classic--so named, even though it looks less classic to me than the somewhat smaller Elite. The Scotts Classic is about twice the cost of the Elite, and to me, looks a bit strange as it is somewhat wider and has what look like training wheels in back, instead of rollers as on the Elite and on the Sunlawn MM1.

I did not like the look and feel of the Classic nearly as much as the Elite. It felt clunkier and as though it was shaped to meet the 20-inch width just for competitive reasons rather than principles of engineering, because many people who have never used a reel mower before seem to want the widest one possible because they think they will finish mowing quicker.

People forget, however, that getting the larger cutting area is not "free." Aside from the fact that the Scotts Classic costs much more than the Elite model, potential purchasers need to remember that given the laws of physics, it is probably about 25% harder to push the bigger 20-inch Scotts Classic than the 16-inch Scotts Elite.

I also notice on the box that the manufacturer is the American Lawn Mower company, which also makes mowers under its own name, which look similar. They are usually an attractive red in color, and the one for sale at Home Depot was even cheaper, at $74, with a cutting width of 14 inches. It might be a better choice for smaller people or those with less pushing power.

So far, I am very, very impressed with what I got for $84 in the Scotts Elite, but I will let you the gentle reader know if any negative things crop up.

Right now, I would probably recommend that for people who want a mower for a condo or tiny, well-manicured lot, or one with really short or thin grass types, that they consider the Sunlawn since it doesn't need sharpening every year or two, but for people who need a workhorse mower, the Scotts are the way to go.

Among other manufacturers, the American Lawn Mower, Sears and Prison(Yes, really! That is the brand name) reel mowers are probably fairly similar to the Scotts in their mechanics, while the Brill and Gardenia are closer to the Sunlawn, I believe. In terms of aesthetics, I think both the Sunlawn and Scotts Elite are equally attractive, but would give the Sunlawns the edge over the Scotts Classic, which looks ungainly to me.

Lastly, let me say a couple of things about the ease/difficulty of use of reel mowers. If the grass is high enough so that someone would objectively say, "hey, that grass really needs to be cut," then a reel mower would probably be harder to push than a gas mower(non-self-propelled) on flat terrain(Self-propelled mowers have their own issues in terms of being difficult to use, but I won't go into that here.). Reel mowers are actually easier to manage than gas-powered mowers on very hilly terrain due to the lower weight of reel mowers, but overall, if the grass is high, reel mowers are harder to push.

If you stay on top of your lawn, however, and mow perhaps slightly earlier than you would otherwise, then a reel mower may actually be easier to push since they weigh much less.

Secondly, using a reel mower successfully probably demands a change in the way a person mows the grass. If you are the type of person who always is in a hurry to finish mowing and have a fairly large lawn, then reel mowers are probably not for you. You are not going to achieve any significant savings in gas by using a reel mower, although they are safer, much quieter and less polluting, not to mention not having to worry about running out of gas in the middle of mowing and having to trek off to the gas station.

The great thing about reel mowers is that you can mow for five or ten minutes a day, without getting all hot and sweaty and without smelling like gas and without wrenching your arm out starting the mower. You can have fellowship with your family out in the yard because the noise factor is minimal. You can stop whenever you need to rest or get thirsty because there is no worry about starting the thing up again or wasting gas while you rest a second if you leave the gas mower on.

You may actually start enjoying your time spent mowing now that, instead of trailing the hot fumes and noisy barrage of a dangerous gas mower, you are focused on the gentle and safe whirring of a reel mower's blades and the delicate balance of the grass blades as they lift gently in the air after being cut.

Ulitmately, mowing with a reel mower is a Zen thing. If you think it might be for you, give it a try.


York said...

I have experience on two Brill models. One is the Brill 38, very light weight. It works great in the spring. But in the hot summer, my Bermuda grass grows fast. I have to cut it every 3~5 days. It has difficulty to cut tall grass. So it will leave the lawn with some tall clip here and there.

My second is Brill 380ASM. It is basically the same model plus battery and a motor. It works better because the cylinder spins faster to cut the long clip. It works really good for about one year.

After one year, both models have dull blades. The dealer clams they can work 5~8 years without sharpening. That's not true for Bermuda grass which is tough. I had to manually sharpen the blades and adjust them. The battery powered model worn out the belt. In the thick grass area, I can hear the slipping of the belt and the blades are not moving.

So to me, Brill is not good for Bermuda. I am looking for some other nice reel mower with battery powered motor.

PS, my lawn size is about 4500 sq ft.

York said...

I forgot to add, I did order EM-2 from Sunlawn. But it was broken out of the box. The charger doesn't work and this model cannot work as a manual push mower. It was on re-call and I had to send it back. Never get a chance to try it again.