The Best Reel Mower for Your (Small) Lawn
The best reel lawn mower for people who want to mow the old-fashioned way is the Scotts Great States 2000-20S 20-Inch Classic Reel Mower, which costs about $130. We researched and tested reel mowers for more than 20 hours, talked to a professor with a Ph.D. in turfgrass science, and went to a golf course to test our top contenders with the help of the grounds crew. The Scotts mower has a good range of mowing height, is easy to adjust, mows a wide swath of grass with each pass, and gives the cleanest cut for the healthiest grass. It easily handled taller grass and cut the grass more thoroughly with each pass of the mower compared to the competition, and it’s light and easy to maneuver. What’s more, it was the only mower that didn’t jam at all during testing.
(If you’re looking for a review of non-reel mowers, stay tuned for next week.)
Table of Contents
Who should get a reel mower?
A reel mower is hand-pushed and not motorized in any way,1 which means it’s not for the even remotely lazy, especially if you have a large lawn. But if you’re really concerned about the health of your lawn or the overall health of the environment, or if you really want to combine a good workout with your lawn care, reel mowers offer some significant benefits.
Compared to gas-powered rotary mowers, reel mowers require minimal maintenance aside from lubricating and occasionally sharpening the blades. With proper use (that is, not running your mower over stones, large sticks, or into curbs), the blades should only need sharpening once every few years. American Lawnmower sells a sharpening kit, or you probably have a blade sharpening service near you that will do it. The blades of a reel mower can slip out of proper adjustment, but this can be fixed by turning a couple of set screws. Reel mowers sidestep all the mess and cost of fuel and oil, not to mention the pollution of the typical inefficient four-stroke lawnmower engine. Gas-powered mowers are also very loud. Many users of reel mowers cite the gentle snipping sound they make as a key benefit.
Compared to electric mowers, a reel mower doesn’t have an inconvenient cord to deal with, or in the case of rechargeable electric mowers, the weight of batteries and the limited mowing time on a single charge. (It’s worth noting that when I abandoned my reel mower several years ago, I got a corded electric mower, and I don’t have any issues dealing with the cord. I suspect you wouldn’t either.)
I asked Dr. Jason Kruse, assistant professor of turfgrass science at the University of Florida, about the benefits of a reel mower versus a rotary mower. “The scissor-cutting action of the reel mowers results in less damage to the leaf tissue which in turn puts the plants under less stress,” he told me. “They lose less water, are less susceptible to disease, and generally look better when cut with a reel mower.”
The crew at Diamond Hawk Golf Course in Cheektowaga, NY, showed me the difference. Pictured is a blade of grass that had been previously cut with a gas-powered rotary mower, then later cut with one of our reel mowers during testing. The difference in cut quality is obvious—the rotary mower left a crooked, jagged edge, while the reel mower made a clean snip.
That said, while reel mowers offer some unique advantages over gas-powered lawn mowers, in the wrong yard they can be very frustrating. Let’s talk about who should not get a reel mower.
First, anyone with more than a quarter of an acre (roughly 10,000 square feet) is going to find weekly mowing with a reel mower exhausting. Frankly, even a quarter acre seems a bit ambitious, especially in the spring when the grass grows an inch a day.
This brings us to the next type of person who should never buy a reel mower: people who like to let the grass go for a while before mowing. Reel mowers are terrible with tall grass. Mostly they just push it down and roll over it, and the grass springs right back up behind the mower. I used to use a reel mower, but I’m not all that dedicated to a pristine lawn. After the third time I had to borrow my dad’s gas mower because I’d let the grass get too long for the reel, I gave up and bought a rotary mower.
If you live in the South and have tougher or taller-growing varieties of grass, or “bentgrass” varieties that flop over and lie close to the ground, reel mowers are going to have a tough time cutting your grass. Bermuda, Centipedegrass, St. Augustine, and Zoysia are all grasses that are tough for reel mowers to handle, and bahiagrass can be a real problem as well.
The last type of person who should avoid reel mowers is someone with a sloped or bumpy lawn. The torque that turns the blades of a reel mowers comes from the wheels as you push them along the ground. On uneven ground, the wheels will lose contact with the ground as they bounce or as the weight shifts on a slope. This means the blades will spin inconsistently, so you’ll leave a lot of uncut grass in your wake. While we’re talking about imperfect lawns, if your lawn tends to have a lot of debris, like sticks or chunks of mulch, that debris is going to stop a reel mower cold. A rotary mower just chews that stuff up, but a reel mower doesn’t work that way. Any debris will get caught in the blades.
How we picked and tested
To figure out how to pick the best reel mower, we tried to find professionals who use them every day. Unfortunately, there really aren’t any. Landscaping crews, even ones that specialize in green tools, don’t use reel mowers because they often have to mow huge areas and it would take far too long (they use electric mowers instead). Grounds crews at baseball stadiums and golf courses use reel mowers, but their pro-grade mowers are very different from the ones you’d use to mow your front lawn. Professional reel mowers are large, linked together in “gangs” that are pulled by a tractor, and the blades are driven by hydraulics.
While grounds crews couldn’t recommend a specific homeowner-grade reel mower, we learned a lot about mowers and turf health from them. I talked to Scott Dunbar, superintendent of Diamond Hawk Golf Course in Cheektowaga, NY. He explained that reel mowers can cut much closer to the ground than rotary mowers. At the golf course, reel mowers cut greens and approaches, while gas-powered rotary mowers are used for the rough. But the average homeowner isn’t cutting his or her lawn for use as a putting green. In fact, cutting your lawn too low is terrible for its health. Turf experts suggest never cutting more than a third of the length, and cutting too close to the ground can cause the grass to dry out and become scorched in the summer. This means that minimum cutting height isn’t really a useful measurement, since you’re unlikely to use that setting.
Maximum cutting height, however, turns out to be very important. You want to be able to cut the grass high enough to keep it healthy. Very few reel mowers are able to get above 2.5 inches. We used this as our primary factor in eliminating mowers from contention. If a mower can’t mow high enough to avoid damaging your lawn, it’s no good. I asked Dr. Kruse if maximum cut height was the correct factor to focus on, and he adamantly agreed. “Yes—this is one of the primary complaints I have against the majority of reel mowers that are marketed for home use. Most push-type reel mowers are limited in the range of heights of cuts that they can achieve. This is an important consideration for homeowners as most residential grasses (both cool- and warm-season) have recommended heights of cut that are at the upper limit or even exceed the height of cut that is possible with some of the mowers. While it would be possible to use the mower, the long-term health of the turf could suffer significantly.”
At that point, we took our final four mowers to the golf course. There, the grounds crew helped us adjust the blades to the exact same standard they use on their mowers, so that they are able to cleanly slice a piece of paper. Over the next three hours, we pushed all four mowers back and forth on a variety of different height grasses. On hand were course superintendent Dunbar, a member of the grounds crew, a mechanic who maintains the course equipment, and an equipment salesman who happened to be at the course that day. These guys are all turfgrass experts who deal with grass and mowing equipment every day. They really took to the task of comparing these mowers, examining every aspect closely and answering all my questions about turf and cut quality.
We mowed recently cut grass that was already quite low. We mowed tall weedy grass. We mowed everything in between. It was initially quite difficult to choose between the Scotts (made by the American Lawnmower Company and usually marketed under the Scotts Great States name) and the Fiskars (made by the Finnish company known for their orange-handled bladed tools), as they both did an excellent job cutting grass.After a great deal of back and forth, Dunbar and I, along with the rest of the grounds crew, unanimously agreed on a pick.
Testers felt the Scotts gave the cleanest cut, leaving each blade of grass snipped evenly across with no ragged edges. Its 20-inch width was much appreciated, allowing more grass to be mowed with each pass. While it wasn’t quite as easy to push as the Fiskars, it wasn’t at all difficult to push, and unlike the Fiskars, it never choked on grass, even at minimum cutting height.
The Scotts was also easy to adjust: It has two levers, one for each wheel, to set cut height. Adjusting the blades for proper cutting was also easy, on par with the other mowers. It was very easy to assemble, requiring no tools—the bolts that attach the handle have large plastic wing nuts, making it simple to tighten by hand. It was even easy to disassemble, so if you ever needed to take your mower apart so it would fit into a small space, like your car trunk or a small storage area, it’s not much of a hassle. You might need pliers to remove the small C-clips that attach the handle to the body of the mower for disassembly. The handle has an ergonomic curve that testers appreciated (a featured shared by the Fiskars).
Although it wasn’t a major factor in our decision, testers liked the way the Scotts looked better than the other mowers (some were put off by the Fiskars’ oddball form).
You can see from the above photo that both mowers cut the lawn quite nicely. It’s really impossible to tell the difference between the two areas of lawn. One thing that’s interesting is that the Scotts was cutting at its lowest setting here, 1 inch. When I set the Fiskars to 1 inch, it was actually cutting much lower, practically scalping the lawn, and was nearly impossible to push. I had to set the Fiskars a bit higher to properly mow.
As I mentioned before, I’m not lawn obsessed. I tend to let it go a while between mowings. The above photo is not the tallest my grass has ever been, but it’s pretty tall. Both the Fiskars and Scotts mowed it without difficulty. At their highest settings (3 inches for the Scotts, 4 inches for Fiskars), they were barely trimming off the top of this grass. So you’ve got plenty of cushion if you prefer a less manicured look for your lawn, and the Fiskars’ extra inch is probably superfluous.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
Consumer Reports didn’t rank reel mowers—they seem to think they’re a poor choice compared to powered mowers—but among the handful of reel mowers they’ve rated, the Scotts gave the best cut. They felt it was hardest to push, however. It has a solid, if unexceptional, 3.8 out of five stars from more than 900 Amazon user reviews. Most of the complaints about it center on the aluminum handle breaking or a plastic gear in the mechanism stripping out.
To get to the bottom of this, I took the wheel off of the Scotts mower to take a look at this plastic gear. As you can see, it’s a pretty robust gear with deep teeth, and it interfaces with the teeth on the inside of the plastic wheel. The wheels turn as you push, and those teeth turn the plastic gear that rotates the blades.
A close reading of the user complaints suggests that users who were using the Scotts on tall or tough Southern grass had the most problems (which we discussed earlier). It’s an issue to be aware of, but under proper use, the gear shouldn’t be a problem. And if it is, it’s a 10-minute repair job to replace it. While it would be nice if both the wheel and the gear were made of metal, that would likely add a lot of money to the price tag and weight to the mower.
Fiskars’ marketing suggests their StaySharp system prevents the blades from ever touching, so they’ll never need sharpening. However, they work just like the blades of other reel mowers—the difference is that the instruction manual directs users to adjust the blades so that they don’t quite touch the bed knife. Other reel mowers can be adjusted this way as well, and the golf course crew told me it’s a matter of preference. The blades will still be dulled eventually by cutting grass or hitting branches and other obstacles.
In the photo below you can see where the Scotts’ blade just touches the bed knife.
In the next photo you can see the Fiskars’ blade not quite touching the bed knife. The difference is a matter of adjustment.
Care and maintenance
It’s not a bad idea to wipe down the blades with a rag moistened with household oil once a season to prevent rust.
The Great States 16” is the only mower that requires unbolting to adjust the mowing height—all the others can be adjusted with levers. It’s also the narrowest mower, so you’d need more passes to mow your entire lawn. It was such a pain to adjust that our golf crew testers hated it before they mowed a single blade of grass with it.
The Lee Valley mower was difficult to push, and the grounds crew felt it provided the poorest quality cut. Worse, it had a tendency to bounce when it encountered even slightly rough terrain, causing inconsistent cutting. While rough ground is a challenge for any reel mower, the Lee Valley bounced all over the place. Popular Mechanics favored it, although they noted it was hard work to mow with and not suited for large lawns.
Husqvarna’s reel mowers only come in a narrow 16-inch size, and while they’ll cut your lawn very short (down to 1/2 inch), their maximum cutting height is far too low. This is the primary problem with several mowers, including models by Brill, Mascot, and Gardena, as well as other models from Scotts and Lee Valley. The Task Force 16”, Blue Hawk 16”, Remington RM3000, Weed Eater 16”, Greenworks 18” and 20”, and Pro Mow 18” all failed to meet our minimum 3-inch max cut height. We didn’t bother testing any of these mowers, since they couldn’t cut high enough to avoid potentially damaging your lawn.
Fiskars makes several variants of the StaySharp Max that are essentially smaller, downgraded versions. We tested their top reel mower, assuming the others will have comparable or worse performance—in fact, none of them can reach the Max’s 4-inch max cut height.
Only one mower met our 3-inch minimum but didn’t make the top four. The Earthwise 18” reel mower only had a handful of user reviews and wasn’t mentioned by Consumer Reports or Popular Mechanics.
The Helix EcoMower has a nice max cut height and is very light. However, their “Eversharp” tech is like Fiskars’, more a matter of marketing than technology. It’s quite expensive, especially for being a fairly basic mower. Its biggest advantage is actually a drawback–it’s too light. At 21 pounds, it’s a lot lighter than the Scotts 34. Because the torque for driving the blades comes from the wheels turning along the ground, a super light mower is going to slip and cut inconsistently on even the smallest lumps, bumps, and elevation changes in your lawn.
The final cut
The Scotts Great States 2000-20S 20-Inch Classic Reel Mower is a well-made reel mower that offers the highest quality cut and has a maximum cut height of 3 inches, high enough to keep your lawn healthy and avoid cutting too short. It received a positive review from Consumer Reports and outperformed the Fiskars StaySharp Max by a narrow margin during our golf course grounds crew testing session. It continued to shine in our backyard mowing test, where its light weight made it easier to use. It’s a straightforward machine that gets the job done, and it costs about half as much as other top-of-the-line reel mowers (and a lot less than a gas-powered mower).
New Walk-Behind Lawnmowers: Abusive Lab Test, Popular Mechanics, December 18, 2009,
Inside Consumer Reports Test Labs: Review of Easun NaturCut Classic, Fiskars Momentum 317736, and Scotts 2000-20 reel mowers, Consumer Reports, March 8, 2010
Product Preview: Fiskars Momentum reel mower, Consumer Reports, February 18, 2010
Superintendent of Diamond Hawk Golf Course, Interview,
Originally published: June 25, 2014