In recent decades, gasoline-powered lawn mowers with rotary blades largely displaced hand-pushed reel mowers, but the American classic is making a comeback among those who are frugal, those who are environmentally conscious and those who don't mind a little work. The operator sets a horizontal cutting bar at a fixed height. As she pushes the mower, a spinning reel of cutting blades forces the grass past the bar. The traditional reel mower is pushed by hand, although gasoline-powered models exist as well.
An Englishman, Edward Budding, invented the reel mower in the early 19th century. Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana, introduced the classic American push-model in 1870. After numerous attempts at power models, the gasoline-powered rotary mowers became the urban standard by 1960. With the passing of years, electrical-powered models came on the market, and improved small gasoline engines emitted fewer pollutants and were quieter. Through it all, the reel mower endured.
Reel mowers are cheaper to buy, and there are no maintenance costs outside of getting the blades sharpened. You don't have to worry about spark plugs, changing oil, buying filters, or getting the engine tuned. Reel mowers give you good exercise, and they're safe to operate.You don't have to worry about cutting your foot on a spinning rotary blade.
Reel mowers are quiet, don't pollute; you don't have to breathe exhaust fumes. You can mow early in the morning when it's cool and not annoy your neighbors.You can set a precise height of the cutting bar from ½ inch to 2 ½ inches. Rotary power mowers tend to beat the grass; reel blades cut the grass cleanly, so that it retains more moisture and is less susceptible to disease.
What some people regard as good exercise, others regard as hard work. Reel mowers are best for small lawns. They're hard to push when the grass gets more than 2 inches tall, so if you go on vacation and come back to tall grass, you'll have to find somebody with a power mower.
Another disadvantage is that you have to rake twigs that have dropped from trees; you can't just blast through them like you can with a rotary power mower. When a twig gets stuck in the blades, you have to stop and remove it by hand. Finally, you can't use a reel mower to shred leaves for compost.
Older models were clunky and heavy. Horror stories about the hard work of pushing a reel mower are largely a thing of the past; newer models are made with advanced plastics and metal alloys. They're lighter, less clunky, and easier to push. Although there models of reel mowers with gasoline engines, the classic model, pushed by hand, is likely the best.
The blades of a reel mower usually need to be sharpened every two years. It's best to have a professional do it. A mower that might take 45 minutes to mow with a power mower can take an hour or longer.