Reel Mower Buyer's Guide
How to Pick the Perfect Reel Lawn Mower
To many people, reel lawn mowers, which are powered mechanically in most cases, seem like a blast from the past. After all, who in their right mind enjoys working harder when mowing their lawn.
It’s all about the payoff. Today’s reel mowers aren’t anywhere near as hard to use as the ones your great grandparents had, yet they can provide the cleanest cut and healthiest grass you’ll see in your life. They can also be healthy for you by making you exercise! That’s why they’re making a comeback and are becoming the preferred way to mow for many.
What is a Reel Mower?
On a reel mower, the blades spin vertically. This is different from most mowers you may be familiar with where the blade spins horizontally, called rotary mowers. Traditionally, reel mowers are mechanically powered, which means you need to use muscle to push them to cut grass. However, gas-powered reel mowers are also available today, especially for larger turfs.
How Does a Reel Mower Work?
Reel mowers use several blades that turn like the blades of a paddleboat, pulling the grass into the mower so the cutter bar can clip it. Reel mowers are also often compared to scissors; the blades come together to clip the grass. The result is a clean cut that leaves the tips of your grass blades fresh and green instead of ragged and brown.
Their clean, short cut is the main reason people buy reel mowers. In fact, only reel mowers can cut down to 1/2-inch or less. If you’ve ever wondered how golf courses get their grass so short, they typically use a gas-powered reel mower.
Blade Count: The number of blades varies by reel mower. Four, five, and seven blade models are common. A general rule of thumb is that, the lower you want to cut your grass, the more blades you need.
Grass type will also determine how many blades you’ll need. For bent, heavier grasses such as Bermuda or St. Augustine, seven-blade mowers work best. For finer, thinner grasses such as fescue or Kentucky bluegrass, try four-blade and five-blade mowers.
Mower Width: Reel lawn mowers come in different widths, ranging from 14 to 20 inches. The wider the mower, the faster you’ll mow. A 20-inch mower will cut a lawn 30 percent faster than a 14-inch mower.
How to Sharpen a Reel Mower
One detail you're sure to love about your reel mower is how easy the blades are to sharpen. Just apply an abrasive paste to the blades and push the mower. The blades will sharpen themselves as they spin. You can get this abrasive paste as part of a low-cost reel mower sharpening kit.
Should I Get a Reel Mower?
Before deciding to get a reel mower, you should weigh what you’ll get versus what you’ll have to give.
What You’ll Get with a Reel Mower
- Cleaner Cut: As explained above, reel mowers provide a cleaner cut, which is important for grass health. The less torn or frayed the grass blade, the less chance of dangerous fungus creeping in and ruining your lawn. Reel mowers are also better than rotary mowers for cutting wet grass.
- Shorter Cut: If you prefer very short grass, then you should go with a reel mower. Rotary mowers simply can’t get your grass shorter than about 2 inches.
- No Fuel Costs: Unless you get a gas-powered reel mower (useful for large properties or professional lawns), manual reel mowers run on the power of your muscle. No refilling the gas tank. No battery charging. No worries about running out of fuel before you finish mowing.
- Less Maintenance: There are fewer things that can go wrong with a manual reel mower because there’s no engine. Again, unless you buy a powered unit, there are no oil, spark plug, or air filter changes.
- Quiet and Clean Operation: Manual reel mowers are noiseless machines that don’t release any emissions, so they are environment (and neighbor) friendly.
What You’ll Give with a Reel Mower
- More Physical Effort: Depending on who you ask, this can be good or bad. Some people love the extra workout they get pushing a reel lawn mower. It’s also not as hard as it was decades ago, with modern models being much lighter.
If you have a large lawn (more than ½ acre) but still want that golf course-level cut or you live in the south and have a thicker grass breed, then we recommend a powered reel mower. These gas-powered machines take the strain off your muscles, but lose some of the fuel- and maintenance-saving benefits mentioned above. You may even consider a gang reel tow-behind mower if you have a tractor to pull it.
- Grass Clippings: Since reel mowers are bare bones, they don’t come with a bag to collect grass clippings, so you’ll have to pick them up yourself. However, you shouldn’t be picking up the clippings anyway because most lawn experts agree they are healthy for your lawn.
- More Difficult Repairs: If you damage the blade on a rotary mower, you can replace it easily. If you damage a reel mower blade, it’s not something you can simply remove. Fewer things can go wrong, but if they do, they’re much harder to fix.
- More Time: If you go with a reel mower because you want a short, clean-looking lawn, you will need to mow more often to maintain that height. Waiting for the grass to get too long will make it physically difficult to mow. Depending on how quickly your grass is growing, you may need to mow every 2-4 days with a reel mower.
Overall, using a reel mower is a lifestyle. You either go all-in and embrace this more natural but demanding method of mowing or stick with the rotary mower that you know. Some people go reel and never go back. Others run back. If you have the time, energy, and inclination, you’ll probably be part of the former.