Choosing Between a Reel or Rotary Lawn Mower

Greetings! This page is intended to give you some observations and pointers about reel mowers and rotary mowers for your lawn. I have used both rotary and reel mowers for years, and continue to use both. They both have advantages and disadvantages that are not always obvious to those looking to purchase a new lawn mower.

Advantages of Rotary Mowers

Rotary mowers provide a most-even cut. With a bagger attachment, they collect debris including tree leaves, small twigs, etc. They vacuum the lawn and lift the plants in your lawn as they cut. So the lawn looks clean and the cut is even all across the lawn. The wheels on the rotary mower are generally on the corners of the mower and thus are usually inboard of the widest swing of the blade between them. So, while the front wheels may trample the grass, the vacuuming aspect and the blade swinging over the wheel tracks immediately lifts those trampled plants and cuts them right away. When you are done cutting with your rotary mower, the lawn is cut very precisely at the same level.

The fact that the rotary blade swings beyond the wheel tracks, means that the rotary mower can trim right up to edging, fencing, tree-trunks, and ground-covers or flower beds of your landscape. It provides a nice sharp edge to the lawn with no extra trimming step.

The vacuuming aspect also means that a rotary mower can cut even tall weeds (did you go on vacation?) to a uniform height and leave the area vacuumed and manicured in one cutting.

If you use a mulching attachment, the power rotary mower chops and rechops the clippings and they can disappear into the lawn, recycling the materials. This aspect benefits from more-frequent mowing, of course!

Disadvantages of Rotary Mowers

Rotary mowers are motorized. There has never been a successful human-powered rotary mower to my knowledge. The rotary mower motor produces a lot of noise and vibration. If gasoline fueled, it belches carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. It requires gasoline and oil which are expensive and whose production and refinement create toxic waste; ask people who live around the Gulf of Mexico. The annual oil change creates further waste disposal issues. There are also both electric and battery operated rotary motors; these do not have the home fuel and oil requirement or pollution during mowing. However, electricity is generated somewhere and that may be just polluting elsewhere (at a power plant for example). Electrical rotary mowers have a cord that must be dragged during the mowing operation, and annoying special care must be taken not to run over the power cord during mowing. Battery powered rotary mowers develop battery degradation over time, replacements are expensive, and the old battery is a toxic waste disposal problem.

Unless you are blocking the chute for mulching/mowing or using a bagging attachment, a powerful rotary mower can throw sticks, twigs, and pebbles. In dry weather the rotary motor spreads a cloud of dust that settles on everything! The high-speed rotating blade can be a safety hazard for toes. If the lawn is wet, the clippings spew out in chunks that have to be raked up after mowing.

Unless the mower is self-propelled, the powered rotary mower is quite heavy and yet its motor power only rotates the blade; you have to push both the mower and the weight of the engine around your lawn. If your mower has a bagger, it gets heavier as it fills. If you have hills, this adds to the work.

The wheels of the typical rotary mower are smaller than on reel mowers, so if your lawn is uneven, pushing the mower can sometimes be jolting. For folks with uneven lawns, there are rotary mowers with large rear wheels, that can smooth out the pushing.

Advantages of Reel Mowers

While there are motor-powered reel mowers, they are relatively rare because they have the disadvantages of both reel mowers and powered rotary mowers and lack the advantages of both rotary mowers and human powered mowers. So my comments here will not address powered reel mowers.

The human-powered reel mower is easier to push than the usual rotary push mower. While the human has to provide both the power for turning the cutting reel and for pushing the mower through the lawn, there is no heavy motor. The modern versions of reel mowers are lighweight and well designed to be far easier to push than any powered push rotary mower. I know some of you may remember the old cast-iron reel mowers of the last century being difficult to push, but these mowers have been replaced with much lighter modern ones! Obviously power mowers may be self-propelled and may require less push than even a reel mower.

The person doing the reel mowing does not experience the vibration, noise, or breathe in the pollutants from a motor. Reel mowing needs to be done often to overcome the "escape height" disadvantage of reel mowers, so it provides light aerobic exercise to the person mowing on a regular basis. The reel mower is clean and quiet; the CO2 emissions come from the human only.

The reel mower "scissor cuts" the grass blades rather than "whipping" them, so the reel cut is clean compared to a rotary cut. A few days after mowing, you will not see the "frayed" edges on the grasses that you find after using a rotary mower. The scissor-cut clippings are returned to the lawn to reduce fertilizer requirements. The frequent mowing required by a reel mower (to avoid the "escape height" disadvantage) means that the clippings are small and disappear into the lawn. While you can purchase a clippings catcher for a reel mower, there is little point in having one.

If your lawn is like mine, part of it is above retaining walls, and the reel mower is light and easily and safely lifted up to the elevated parts of the lawn. You can flip the handle of the reel mower over the reel and roll the mower without the blades running at all. The bigger wheels of a reel mower allow you to roll up steps easily.

Because the reel mower scissor-cuts and distributes the clippings evenly over the lawn, you can cut your lawn when it is wet. A rotary mower fills with clods of clippings and leaves trails of grass clumps if you try to mow when the lawn is wet. Because the reel mower is quiet, you can cut your lawn in the cool of the early morning hours when the lawn is still damp, and get an excellent cut and a comfortable exercise. In the heat of summer, this advantage should not be underestimated. You can also mow in the evening after dew has condensed if twilight gives you sufficient light (at my latitude this works for me too).

Disadvangages of Reel Mowers

The reel mower provides, at best, an informal cut. The most-common design of reel mowers always has the wheels, gearing, and hubs outside the cutting reel. So the reel mower wheels trample the lawn on each side of the first pass before the next pass can cut it. Because there is no vacuuming lift from the blades, the trampled portion is not evenly cut on that next pass across the lawn. So the reel-mowed lawn typically has ridges in it after a few hours, even if the person is careful to overlap the cutting swath on each pass. I have long wished reel mower designers would go back to the drawing board and put the wheels inboard of the cutting reel and the cutting blade. You could still have the hubs and transfer gears outboard...just not trampling the lawn with wheels before you cut it. Sadly this re-thinking of the reel mower was not likely to happen given the low volume of reel mower sales.

Worse, many traditional reel mowers "feature" a roller that tramples the lawn after it is cut. This, to me, just adds to the problem of the unevenness of the cut provided by the reel mower. I really appreciated the Scotts 20-inch reel mower because its design had following wheels that are in the same track of the main wheels rather than a following roller. It gives a superior cut to the older-style reel mowers with a roller. But the wheels still trample the lawn first and result in a ridged lawn after mowing.

The reel mower also is unable to cleanly cut tall grass or weeds. Once plants grow above a certain height (what I call the "escape height"), the mower itself rolls over and bends over the tall material and fails to cut it. The tall stuff springs right back up after the mower passes. No wonder people with reel mowers hate dandelions and plantain! Again, this will result in an "informal cut." You can go over the lawn with a human-powered grass whip, but this is an extra step. For overgrown lawns, a rotary mower is far superior to a reel mower. If you only have a reel mower, you need to mow often enough to keep your grass within cutting range (below "escape height").

If a more formal cut is important to you, lawns with dandelions, plantain, hawkweek, and crabgrass often have fast-growing stalks and leaves that exceed the "escape-height" of reel mowers seemingly overnight. So a lawn maintained by only a reel mower needs to be more carefully weeded than one maintained by a rotary mower. A grass whip is an important accessory for a reel mower even in the best of maintenance plans.

The escape-height problem for reel mowers is also a "faulty-design" issue that could have been solved at the same time that the wheels were redesigned and moved inboard and behind the reel. The old design for adjusting the cutting height of a reel mower used the following wheels or the roller to rotate the reel assembly to raise the cutting blade higher above the ground, but also farther up behind the reel. So if you set a traditional reel mower to a higher cutting position, the blade is no longer at the bottom of the reel, where cutting efficiency is maximized. With the blade elevated, the grass is passing under the lowest pass of the reel, and is not cut until the reel has pushed it UP to the blade. At this position the cutting angle is shallower and all the grass was trampled by the reel before it reached the cutting location. Understand that in the traditional reel design, the reel is fixed in terms of its position above the ground. Moreover the old design was optimized for putting greens (a cutting height of fractions of an inch), not for average lawns. A new design that puts the reel in front of the driving and following wheels could also be designed to allow the cutting height adjustment to raise and lower the reel rather than rotating the cutting blade out from under the reel. This is a great opportunity to make a terrific mower out of a good one. Are engineers listening? Hello!

Obviously the traditional reel mower assumes the goal is a scalped lawn because its cutting blade is optimized for that height. Any plant physiologist (I am one) would tell you that a lawn is far healthier if cut to 2 inches or longer! The cutting goals for a putting green or a bocce court are different than for a common suburban lawn. Two inches should be the height for which common mowers are optimized. The reel-forward design would allow the reel mower to work well at any length in its range from putting green to suburban lawn by adjusting the reel height along with the cutting blade height and keeping the blade in the optimal cutting position at the bottom of the rotation of the reel.

Twigs are a real problem for reel mowers. My lawn is under large scarlet oaks, which seem to produce dead twigs and branches year-round. As the mower runs over a twig, the twig twists up into the reel and jams it against the blade. It halts the mower, jolts the human powering it, and can dull the blade. Not fun. This can be minimized, again, by setting the cutting height as high as possible. The Scotts 20-inch mower has very generous height settings (though still optimized for putting greens). I kept mine on the maximum setting. My Great-States 16" reel is also bolted at the highest possible setting. At these settings, the mower can roll over small and unbranched twigs. The lawn looks better and is healthier at tall settings anyway. In any case, you do need to rake a reel-cut lawn occasionally or hand pick twigs in lawns which, for a rotary mower, can be avoided (by the bagging-clippings option) until the normal autumn raking.

Because of the poorly-designed outboard wheels of the traditional reel mower, trimming around flower beds, ground covers, fences, and buildings, etc. is a "missing by several inches" problem. The wheels trample down the first two inches next to the border but do NOT cut that or the next inch-and-a-half of the lawn edge. This problem cannot be fixed by "overlapped" passes at all. Inboard wheels would virtually eliminate this problem around shrubs, flower beds, and ground covers, but the necessary outboard gearing for even a redesigned reel mower would reduce but leave a small trimming issue unsolved for hardscape areas. Grass shears, a "string trimmer" or another edge-trimming solution has to be an accessory tool for lawns being mowed exclusively by traditional reel mowers.

Reel mowers are usually under-sized. The width of the reel and cutting blade in many of them is perhaps 12 to 16 inches. This leads to lots of passes across a lawn compared to an average rotary mower, and given the required overlap of the cutting swaths because of the outboard wheels on a reel mower, the apparent number of passes is even larger. I really appreciated the wide reel of the 20" Scotts reel mower. It covered my larger lawn areas in fewer passes...and that meant less-trampling before cutting. It gave fewer of those ridges that are unavoidable with reel mowers. So I advise you to purchase the widest reel mower you can find until they are redesigned with inboard wheels.

Obviously, engineering inboard drive wheels is the one redesign that reel mower companies should consider to make their product a more functional piece of equipment. It would give them a second-level product tier with a higher profit margin. Are lawn mower manufacturers listening? I doubt it. Most of the "American" mowers are being manufactured in China. Our US industries have devolved into cash cows for CEOs rather than businesses that support US workers. That's a political story for another place and another time.

2010, finally, a fresh approach!

Fiskars is a newcomer into the reel mower field. They have a second-generation reel mower design with inboard drive wheels behind an 18-inch reel! However, they still have small trampling (balance and height adjustment) wheels in front of the reel, but at least they are inside the cutting width of the reel. Here is a link to a page showing this step-forward mower with interesting videos and photos.

The forward wheels lift both the reel and cutting blade, so it appears the cutting blade remains at an optimal place on the reel for cutting lawns to a greater length and increasing the "escape height" (which is a good thing!). It can be set to a cutting height of 4" which is far beyond most reel mowers and even many rotary mowers. The height adjustment is easy to change.

This Fiskars mower throws the clippings forward, so I worried that it could be less suitable for wet-lawn mowing, as it could accumulate and bog down with clippings in the cutting, redirecting, and recutting process. I am not clear what the purpose of this feature is (except to keep your shoes a bit cleaner when mowing). The orange shield apparently provides this feature; I wondered if it were removable?

This Fiskars reel mower is at least one step in the right direction. Now if the forward wheels could be moved behind the reel, this will be what I am looking for in a third-generation reel mower! The ideal mower has to cut before it tramples...this requires putting all four wheels behind and inboard of the cutting reel. Fiskars gets an "almost there" award! It will be interesting to see how the competitors respond to its presence in the marketplace!

So I bought the Fiskars reel mower on-line at Lowe's for just under $200. It was shipped directly to the house for free. State sales tax took the total cost to just over $200.

Assembly was easy. Four bolts put the handle together. I did have the required 11mm box-end wrench (an 11mm socket wrench would work too). The height adjustment knob went on by hand easily. The handle attaches with easy-to-pull cotter pins. So assembly was no problem.

Following the instructions in the booklet, I checked the cutting action. The drive side of the reel cut perfectly without blade-reel contact. The non-drive side was set too far apart (failed to cut). The 11mm wrench loosens the two locking bolts and operates the adjustment dial. Thanks, Fiskars, for making the assembly and adjustment of this mower require just ONE tool! As other reviewers note, the locking bolts are very tight from the factory. I did use some light hammer taps on my box-end wrench to loosen these bolts. I doubt they will need that ever again. A couple of dial and locking bolt adjustments on the non-drive side got the cutting action to specifications. I noticed immediately how easily the reel rotates...smooth as silk. Since it cuts without contacting the stationary blade, there is no friction to speak of.

This Fiskars mower was easy to move to the yard as it thoughtfully has a handle built into the front bar to assist with lifting. This is a slightly heavier mower than most standard reel mowers. The reel is more robust, and the drive system for the inboard wheels does add to the weight. However, as soon as you push it on the lawn, you realize how much no contact between blade and reel reduces the pushing effort. This is the easiest to push reel mower I have by far. The extra weight is offset not only by less friction in the cutting, but also by the longer wheelbase and the momentum you get from the weight moving forward. My lawn has hills to push up and pits that often stop reel mowers. The Fiskars mower literally glided across the lawn with far less effort on my part than any of my mowers. Having said that, you should know that the turns do require you to push down the handle so that it can turn on the two drive wheels. This is a four-wheel mower and, like your rotary mower, you have to put it on two wheels to turn. This is a bit new for people using reel mowers, but it is easily learned.

The cutting action of the Fiskars mower is virtually silent. This was a totally unexpected and pleasant surprise. A reel mower is far more quiet than any rotary mower, but this mower is equally more quiet than the other two reel mowers I have! You can hear birds chirping, and even our dog did not react to my mowing. The cut was excellent, and the reel spinning momentum is really appreciated at the end of each pass. Though you cannot hear it, it continues spinning long after the pushing stops compared to other reel mowers. I am a singer and band musician, so I very much appreciate the virtual silence of this mowing operation! You almost have to notice the clippings being thrown forward to even know it is cutting...

Do the inboard wheels of the Fiskars design help with the cut? Yes! While the inboard front wheels do trample prior to cutting, the deep grooves in those wheels reduce this effect. The weight of the mower is on the drive wheels and these trample AFTER the cut. So the extra technology and weight for inboard wheels is definitely worth it. You also appreciate the inboard wheels in trimming close to flower beds, ground covers and fences. The drive side has mechanisms extending beyond the cut above the grass, so you do not get as close a cut on that side, but if the trimming pass puts the non-drive side of the mower against the fence or beds, you do get a very clean cut! This is FAR superior to other reel mowers...by about 4 inches!

How about that shield directing clippings forward? Well that works very well. I had set the cutting height to a middle-range setting which is at or above the maximum height for my other reel mowers. The clippings are nicely thrown forward away from shoes. They were recut and disappeared on the lawn. Since I was mowing a wet lawn on a morning after evening drenching rain I was pleased there was no problematic buildup of clippings.

The shield does eliminate access to the reel by your toes as you mow. I was worried about the twigs from my oak trees jamming the reel and then not being able to back-off the reel with my shoe to release them. When I mowed last with the 20" Scotts mower, it had jammed dozens of times, so I had planned to rake before mowing this time. But the Fiskars mower came so quickly, that I went ahead and mowed without raking. There was not a single jam in spite of lots of new twigs from the storm. So I still haven't had a jam to need to see how this would work with the shielded reel. This first performance was impressive!

I did mow the grass wet, so in putting the new mower away, I washed out the shield and cutting blade with a blast from the hose. There were some clippings there and I did not want them drying on and rusting the metal. I bought some Fiskars grass shears a few years ago that I did not rinse after use and the blades rusted very badly. I don't know if the Fiskars reel and blade are stainless or not. The Fiskars hand shears were NOT. The reel and blade are painted on this mower. I'll update this report to this point at the end of the season.

Conclusion

If you think of your lawn as a place for exercise, a reel mower provides frequent aerobic exercise in a good atmosphere. The more frequently you mow, the more even/formal your reel-mower cut will look. It is actually easier to mow with a reel mower than it is to push a heavy gas-powered mower over the lawn. The energy is free. The lack of noise and no breathing of chemical pollution is a bonus. However, with most reel mowers, at best you will get an "informal cut" until reel mowers are redesigned. The second-generation Fiskars mower has an intelligent design, cuts well and silently, and pushes smoothly and easily over twigs and divots in the lawn. I need to evaluate the Fiskars mower for the rest of the season before I decide to get rid of my other mowers. For now it looks like a yard sale may be happening!

If you really want a very-formal even-cut lawn and the manicured well-trimmed edges without extra steps, you need to use a rotary mower. It will poison your environment, wake your neighbors, deafen and shake you up, and cover everything with dust...but it provides a very nice look to the finished lawn (if the blade is sharp enough to avoid the "whipped" brown blade tips).

For years, I have been taking a hybrid approach. I use my John Deere 14PZ push rotary mower for the first spring mowings to help vacuum the winter twigs and until the dandelions are finished with peduncles that grow above escape-height in a day. Then I use my reel mower set at a tall height, to try to keep the lawn below "escape height" for the rest of the summer. Because of the edge trimming issue around the flower beds and ground cover around the tree bases, I use the John Deere rotary mower about once a month to give a nice formal cut and to vacuum newly deposited twigs from my oak trees.

While I already have both rotary and reel mowers, I very much prefer to mow with the reel mower; I actually look forward to lawn mowing with it. With the Fiskars redesigned mower with inboard wheels and correct height adjustment, mowing is a lot less work...more fun! Moreover, with the Fiskars reel mower, I think my rotary mower will go a lot longer between uses. Time will tell, and I promise to revise this page in the fall when I can provide a season-long perspective on it. In the meantime, I wish you the best of success with your lawn mower selection decisions and your lawn mowing exercise!

2012 Update

Here is the update I promised. This year, I did my usual power-mower season-opening mow to pick up the winter twigs. I have used my Fiskars mower for all the summer mowings since with just one exception. I did use the power mower after I had our trees pruned professionally; the lawn was a mess of twigs and trampled sections, etc. But the Fiskars mower has been excellent for me. And I really would say that the cut all summer has been more nearly of a "formal" look than I have painted my other reel mowers above. I find using it often helps a lot with this appearance. I have also shortened the cut by one-notch this year. So I am still thrilled by this mower and its results!

A neighbor had to move out and left their place in the hands of a realtor to be sold. The realtor never mows the lawn, and when the grass got to be knee-high, I heard a lot of grumbling of the neighbors about it. So I power-mowed (almost a haying operation!) it. I have since been mowing it with the Fiskars. But there is a lesson here. On the first pass at the sidewalk with the Fiskars, their main walk has a step. I mowed right across it not thinking about the reel mower. Apparently the concrete hit one of the reel blades. The one blade started "ringing" on the cutting blade with each rotation of the reel. I was worried that I had ruined the best mower I've ever had. I read the instruction manual and it explained how to use a flat file to smooth the ding. It took me about 2 minutes to fix this. The mower is back to its normal silent operation and cutting efficiency. So even this kind of damage is shrugged off with the Fiskars mower. Impressive.

I'm still hoping a manufacturer will someday get all four wheels behind the reel and inside the cutting swath but, until then, I'm finding the Fiskars reel mower with the drive wheels behind the reel and all four wheels inside the cutting swath superior to all others.

This page © Ross E. Koning 1994.

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Send comments and bug reports to Ross Koning at: koningre∂gmail⋅com.