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Reel mower performance expectations

August 6, 2008

Green is good, but not at the expense of my lawn looking like it hasn't been cut.

I've been looking at some "touch-free" reels lately mostly Sunlawn branded. When I use them, I need to go over the same areas three or four times before most of the stragglers are finally cut! Does this make sense? I've adjusted these properly, but who would ever accept this type of performance?

I love the idea of having a touch-free reel mower because the sharpening interval is like 15 years. But if it doesn't cut the grass, then what's the point?

I've read in these forums that no matter what type of reel you have you really have to stay on top of your mowing, meaning cut often. My question is this: How often? Every other day? Twice a week? Do the reels that actually come in contact with the cutting bar cut grass better than the Sunlawns???

I wonder if this resurgance in reel mower purchases is simply a fad? Are we so concerned with saving gas, pollution and reducing the strain on our ears so much that we plunk down $ for one of these reels and then realize we were sold a false bill of goods? Will those people buying reels now really go ahead and sharpen them at the recommended interval, and then when it reaches the end of it's useful life buy another reel? Or will they go back to good old gas powered rotaries?

I have nothing against reels. I'd love to use one, but my yard is a little too big. I'm simply trying to get perspective on what's happening here and what reel (get it?) life experiences are in using these things.

I've read the "I love my new reel mower" string on this forum, but I wonder if the positive experience is an exeption or the norm??

Thanks to all,


Comments (27)

  • rdaystrom

    It's likely a fad in my opinion. I have a greens mower, a fairway reel mower, as well as a manual low-cost reel mower. They leave an excellent cut if you cut often and cut the right type of grass that isn't too high. As far as sharpening every 15 years...no way in my opinion. They can't be sharpened without a reel grinder. Back-lapping isn't sharpening. Get a rotary mower.

  • nevada_walrus

    Back lapping is sharpening but it is a touch up. Blades that have been whacked or damaged or badly worn need grinding. Touch free reel mowers still need back lapping after grinding to achieve the no touch. The purpose of no touch is to have a no noise situation. A standard grind with no back lapping will become a no touch in time due to wear which means a grind only sharpening will last longer. Of course excessive grit in the lawn wears on the blades much faster. Any debris in the lawn will nick or screw up the works instantly.

    No sharpening for 15 years is purely B.S.. Someone sold you a bill of dung.

  • jumpinjimmyb

    Thanks nevada walrus.

    Fortunately I wasn't SOLD anything about the 15years, I actually read it in a manual or maybe something online at the website. It seemed strange to me, that's why I asked this group for their opinions.

    I think I'm going to stay away from reels alltogether.

    Thanks for the thoughts and info!

  • wrager

    I can provide a perspective: I have bermuda (Tif 419) and use a combination of a Brill reel mower (manual) and a honda rotary mower. Early in the summer I use the reel mower to cut to .75". This makes the grass grow very vigorously and recover from winter (along with fertilizer). By late July the turf has become so dense that it is difficult to cut often enough to use the reel, so I switch to the honda and cut just over an inch. This also helps with the 90+ degree weather. The cut from the reel is however, noticably better.

  • bear76

    I have three. I bought my 16" great states reel about 5 years ago before the "fad". I used to for one season and I was impressed. The second year I got in the 2cycle mood and put the reel up. Then I got an 18" craftsman (great states) reel because of the wider path. It was OK but wasn't great. Then I got a scotts 20" (great states also), again because of the extra width. It was OK as well but not great. I noticed over the years that the wider the blades got the worse the cut got. I think the bed knife stays more "true" in the 16" compared to the 20". Also the wider the balde was the higher the cut. The 16" had a 2" +/- and the 20" was 3". They cut great if you keep the grass from getting too tall, then you might have to double cut it. Well worth the $69 I paid for the cheapest one I could find.

  • rockinandreelin

    I have had a Scotts Classic for almost a year . I was a bit discouraged by the cut as it left strips . I finally found a place to sharpen it and traveled the 24 miles round trip (twice) so the 80 y.o. guy who still does does it could perform his magic. Meanwhile , I ordered a TRU-CUT 20 " with 5.0 horse Honda (Actually I'm told it's really 4.6 horse ).That meant I had to use my 6 H.P. Sears while the reel mowers were away or in transit. What a mistake ! I felt like apologizing to my lawn after blitzing it with a rotary again. What a profound mess...and I had to rake to boot. No more of that.
    The TRU-CUT takes some time to learn even though the controls are simple and straightforward. Instead of pushing (as with the Scotts) ,I have to restrain....that does cause some back ache...nothing severe and it goes away immediately....but it is different.I'm hopeful that lawn will look better as I become more adept at using the TRU-CUT . I've discovered that I have a bunch of CREEPING BENT in my yard .That stuff messes things up .I have to remind myself (as Ted Steinberg says in his book AMERICAN GREEN) "...Don't fancy for a moment that you can have an English lawn in an American climate."
    I'm eager to hear from other reel users, power and push . Thanks.

  • Greg Goyeneche

    I agree with the previous post that the right reel mower is key.

    Although I don't use a reel mower now that I'm in Jersey, for 30 years or more I used a succession of Trimmers, Tru-Cuts, and McLanes. When I lived in California I usually had St. Augustine or Bermuda.

    I prefer the Trimmer, which has a reel and cutting bar almost identical to the Tru-Cut. The Trimmer free wheels and drives through a rear roller in the center. The Tru-Cut drives through the rear wheels, using a clutch and differential. The McLane is basically a homeowners knockoff of the Trimmer.

    On all of these mowers, the reel is set to just a whisper of contact with the cutting bar. A true sharpening involves grinding the reel and the cutting bar, and them back-lapping them in for a final seat. The better sharpening is a "relief" grind, although you will often encounter the less expensive "spin" grind.

    For home use a good, professional sharpening (grind) should last about 5 years, provided you back-lap the reel and bar once every year or every other year. Back lapping can be done at home, provided you are patient. All of the mower manufacturers sell hand crank arrangements for back-lapping.

    I do not recommend the power back-lappers, which either reverse the chain and have the engine drive the reel, or those which are electric motor driven. Power back-lapping can gall the reel or bedknife surface if you are not careful. While you might save 1/2 the back-lapping time using power, you still have to clean the reel of grinding compound, and more importantly you still have to set the reel to the bedknife, which is the most time consuming. Bottom line: you might save 15 minutes of a 2 hour job by power back-lapping.

    Recommend you look at a clean used Trimmer or Tru-Cut, or consider a new McLane. 20" or 21" cut should be more than adequate for your application. Suggest you avoid the 17" McLane. I think they're junk/completely different design than the 20" model. The 20" and 25" McLanes are OK, as long as you recongnize their limitations, compared to the Trimmer and Tru-cut.

  • rockinandreelin

    What do folks think about the optional rollers for the front of reel mowers ? Is the thick "stripe" all that important or aesthetic ? Thanks.

  • wrager

    I did buy a used, powered reel mower this year, actually two. The Tru-Cut is so heavy it is difficult to use on my sloped, lumpy yard. I now realize that these are best used on very level, flat turf.

  • rockinandreelin

    Wrager , you're correct about the hilly cutting....My TRU-CUT weighs 175 pounds and the up and down mowing takes its toll. The downhill is especially taxing as you have to make sure the casters stay on the ground AND restrain the mower ...my back is still achy from Saturday's mow. BUT THE LAWN LOOKS GREAT . Q.E.D. !!!! I hope that after several times using it I'll have my back in better shape.If worse comes to worse , I can probably use the TRU-CUT on the front lawn and my SCOTTS on the back .

  • rockinandreelin

    I got oil in the sparkplug and the air filter of my TRU-CUT so I had to use my Scotts 20" .The lawn looks great ! Go figure ....At this point , I have to say I have two reels (at opposite ends of the power spectrum) ,each of which does a satisfactory + job of mowing. They were at the opposite ends of the COST spectrum too.

  • rockinandreelin

    jumpinjimmyb : reel mowers are great...but you have to get used to their idiosyncracies . They do miss some grass .The people-propelled mowers are a snap to push...the self-propelled are a pain (in the back) to restrain...It takes longer to mow your lawn. In spite of this (and the fact that it is difficult to find someone to sharpen them *try a Golf Course * ) your lawn will look superior to one cut by a rotary . Almost everyone agrees with that last statement .

  • cranheim

    When I was growing up, my Mom & Dad had nothing but push reel mowers, so I got used to using them. When I got married and bought a house with a large lawn, I bought a power reel mower from Sears. As others have said, they cut great as long as the grass (or weeds) do not get too long. It did not take long to see what happens if you happen to hit a stick, or worse, a stone. Because it was power driven, it would bend the one of the cutting blades, or the bed knife, making professional service necessary. That got quite expensive, so I bought a rotory power mower instead. While it did not cut as well as a sharp reel mower, I could easily repair the blade if it should hit something hard enough to damage it. I never went back to a reel mower after that experience. Charles Ranheim

  • rockinandreelin

    Charles. Thanks for weighing in. You might enjoy using one of the newer reels that are produced today . The SCOTTS and the BRILL are inexpensive and cut well. >I'm quite satisfied with my TRU-CUT and as I learn how to use it most effectively (the longer you stay in a straight line the easier overall)the more I see I made a good choice.

  • reelfanatic

    @Rockinandreelin! Your Tru-Cut does not have to be "restrained"! The thumb actuated lever on the left handle does not have to be pressed into the "Lock" position to self-propel. It is a double clutch system which alows for slippage. Use the lever as a gas pedal. Press it very lightly with your left thumb and keep it there. The unit will just creep along. More pressure- faster ground speed. It will make a world of difference for you.

  • reelfanatic

    Also, the front roller is always a good idea. I would spend the 200 bucks or so. They stripe fairly well, but to get the really pronounced baseball field stripe you need a roller drive system in the rear as well. The benefit of the front roller for any application is it completely eliminates scalping. If you have casters in the front, and a bumby or un-even lawn, a caster will drop into a low spot allowing the bedknife to make contact with the soil towards the middle. This will scalp badly and you will never get an even cut. A front mounted roller will always ride on the highest portion of your soil contour, allowing for a much better presentation. Here is my 27 inch Tru-Cut with a roller installed.

  • rockinandreelin

    reelfanatic....thanks for all that. Next year's budget will have the roller in it. I already use the clutch as you describe...I guess I inappropritely used "restrain" to describe the difference between pushing my SCOTTS CLASSIC(all upper body work) and trying to keep the TRU-CUT casters on the ground and straight ,particularly on my hilly back lawn.There's no upper body ache with the TRU-CUT , but some fleeting back ache .My guess is that will pass as I use the mower more. If not I suppose I can use the SCOTTS on the back and the TRU-CUT on the front (flat) lawn. Thanks again.

  • reelfanatic

    Now I understand. The Tru-Cut is definately a very heavy machine. Over time you will be manuevering it around like a plastic Fisher Price lawn mower. The roller helps greatly with holding a straight line also, and will give you a decent amount of striping. If your back yard is hilly, and uneven, it will make a world of difference in the quality of cut and the after cut appearance.

  • reddart

    I have both a Brill and a Scotts classic, and they both have their own advantages and disadvantages.

    For sure, I wouldn't use them on a big lawn (my house sits on slightly less than 1/4 acre).

    For the purposes of comparison, here's a rundown if anyone is interested in either mower. AFAIK, the sunlawn is similar to the Brill

    Maneuverability: The brill is much lighter than the scotts, and the rollers on the Brill make turning around obstacles much easier than the Scotts with the wheels. However, the Scotts is a bit easier to stay in a straight track because of this. Also, I find the Scotts better for hills, because the Brill is so light, the cut is compromised especially when going uphill or cutting sideways along a hill (where the wheels are slightly "lifted" up due to the light weight and slow the blade down).
    Advantage: for flat lawns with many obstacles, the Brill. For hilly lawns with no/few obstacles, the Scotts.

    The Blades: A lot of hype is touted with the contact free blade system of the Brill (and Sunlawn) over the scissor contact type blades of the Scotts (and many other traditional reel mowers). Yes, the Brill is much easier to push around when "not cutting grass", but when you are actually mowing, the difference is very little in the force required (and I'd attribute the difference to the narrower cutting width of the Brill). I also find I need to adjust the Brill once or twice a season for optimum performance (not the 4 years or whatever they claim) though it is very easy to do. There is also a good reason the Brill only has a maximum cutting height of 1.8": the cut quality suffers at its highest setting (in unevenness), but cuts awesome at the lower settings. I guess the blade needs to dig in lower where the leaf blade is stiffer and doesn't cut as well when the grass is longer and "floppier" You also need to maintain a decent speed when cutting with the Brill to get the best cut.
    The scissor blades of the Scotts are much less dependent on height and mowing speed than the Brill in getting a good cut. I'm not sure about sharpening interval, as I have only had the scotts a few months, but it is still cutting great.
    So, in my opinion, the contact free blade system might have an advantage in sharpening interval (with easy adjustments now and then), I prefer the cut of the Scotts overall, unless you are cutting short (under 1 1/2 in), where the Brill is probably equal.

    The dreaded wheel lines of the Scotts: Yes, you notice the lines, but they are less pronounced the shorter the cut, and depending on the grass type (I hardly notice them on my front lawn which is KBG, whereas it is more noticeable in the back with the KBG, fescue and rye mixture even at the same cutting height) The Brill with it's rollers has a much less noticeable track, and in fact due to it's slightly less quality cut (compared to scissor blades), looks more "natural", or like the lawn hasn't been cut recently (but nice and even, not that the lawn hasn't been cut!)

    So, I think neither is better than the other, it depends on your conditions.
    For a lawn with few obstacles and turns, but has hills, I'd recommend the Scotts even though it is heavier. For flat lawns with a lot of obstacles and curves and only minor grades, "and" you always cut shorter than 1.8", the Brill would be good. I'm glad I have both, as my lawn is in between the conditions that would prefer one or the other (some hills out back, flat in front, some obstacles and curves). If I only could have one, I would pick the Scotts mainly due to the higher cutting setting available. I will be pulling out my Brill when it gets cooler and am cutting shorter.

    As for my lawn, I get many good complements from the neighbors, who all use power rotary mowers, and some who even have sprinkler systems ( I use oscillating sprinklers when needed, and fertilize organically 90% of the time)

  • rockinandreelin

    Thanks reddart for that complete entry . I have a TRU-CUT and a Scotts . One cost $117 and the other cost $1299 . And they cut about the same . The Scotts is much better to use on my hilly back lawn , and the TRU-CUT is great on my flat front lawn. I find the lawn mowing with these two tools therapeutic mentally .And my lawns look better than those of everybody else in my neighborhood , which is good for my ego !

  • rockinandreelin

    Any suggestions about varying directions when cutting with a reel ? Sometimes I go North-South , others East -West, still others Diagonal. Any thoughts? Thanks.

  • rockinandreelin

    Feeling nostalgic ? There's a nice 1959 REO MOWER poster being auctioned on eBay . It's item # 250281714637.

  • rockinandreelin

    About 6 weeks ago I brought my TRU-CUT out front to clean it. A neighbor stopped in her car and asked me why I had my snowthrower out so early !

  • rockinandreelin

    First cut today(2009) with TRU-CUT. I just ordered the front roller too. I'm eager to see how that does.

  • wrager

    Ohh....me too. I used the Tru-Cut last weekend to scalp.
    I bought a new roller from Craig's List thinking how smart I was ($140). When it arrived I realized it's for a 25", ugh! Anyone out there want to trade a 20" for a 25" roller? Maybe I'll ebay it.

  • rockinandreelin

    I got my roller , put it on , and just used TRU-CUT : My lawn looks spectacular ; my wife notices no difference . I can't wait to tell her what I really think of her meatloaf !

  • reelman

    hey jumpinjimmy, if you want to try the reel mower thang hold off on the expensive tru-cut and get you a manual push mower to start. Use it for one to four months and determine what you like best about it. Try cutting one section of your yard one day and another section another day. Sometimes I split mine up into three different days. Decide how groomed you want your yard to be(cut rows once then cut rows twice and compare the two). You will have to learn how to cut rows straight if the one you get has rollers. Main things to appreciate: Much less noise, no prep time once you get your height dialed in, your not breathing exhaust or dust or allergens, it can turn on a dime, its a garden tool not heavy machinery. In my opinion these things have nothing to do with being green, but if you want to add that to the list its your choice. I found that touch reels work better on finer turf like bermuda and other fine bladed types, but none contact work just fine on coarser turf like st. augustine, centipede, and the wider bladed zoysias like meyer z-52. I would use the touch types on the grass that grows in clumps like the various fescues and kentucky blue grass.

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