After researching reel mowers for more than 30 hours, talking to a professor with a PhD in turfgrass science, and testing four mowers with a golf-course grounds crew, we think the best one is the Scotts 2000-20 20-Inch Classic Push Reel Lawn Mower.
The Scotts-branded mower had the best cut quality of any of the mowers we tested, and its unusually tall maximum cutting height of 3 inches makes it a versatile choice for different types of lawns and grasses. It has a 20-inch cutting swath—the widest available—and at 34 pounds, it’s light and easy to maneuver. It was also the only mower in the group that didn’t jam during testing. And after revisiting this category in summer 2016, we can say that the Scotts mower remains our pick for the third straight year.
We spoke with Jason Kruse, assistant professor of environmental horticulture and turfgrass specialist at the University of Florida. As his bio states, Kruse’s responsibilities include “managing the University of Florida turfgrass Envirotron teaching and research facility, planning and implementing turfgrass educational field days and leading the statewide turfgrass teaching design team.” The guy knows a lot about grass.
For testing, we enlisted the aid of the grounds crew of the Diamond Hawk Golf Course in Cheektowaga, New York, a bunch of people who are serious about mowing. While using the mowers, they picked up cut blades to carefully examine how cleanly the mowers cut; they also bent down to compare the color of the turf after each one made a pass, and pushed all the mowers around on various lengths of grass.
Here at The Sweethome, we’ve been covering lawn equipment for over three years. As for the specific topic of grass-cutting implements, we’ve written extensive guides to both lawn mowers and string trimmers in addition to reel mowers.
Since first recommending the Scotts (and the runner-up Fiskars) two years ago, we have continued to use both models in assorted locations, paying attention to their long-term performance and any ongoing maintenance needed.
Before getting a reel mower, you should be aware of their pros and cons. In the hands of the wrong person, a reel mower will be nothing but a hair-pulling frustration, and you may find yourself pining for the days of a noisy, smelly gas mower. Simply put, a reel mower is not a direct replacement for a gas mower. While such tools are good for the overall health of the lawn (as well as the person pushing them) and need little maintenance, they require much greater diligence in keeping to a mowing schedule, and they work best for small, flat lawns. Any deviation from that can start to cause problems.
Compared with a gas mower, reel mowers are better for the lawn’s health. They snip the grass blades like scissors, while rotary mowers tend to shred grass blades. According to University of Florida assistant professor of environmental horticulture Jason Kruse, “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 continued, “They lose less water, are less susceptible to disease, and generally look better when cut with a reel mower.”
Reel mowers are also good for the operator’s health. Because you hand-push the mower and it isn’t motorized in any way, it takes effort to use, especially if you have a large lawn. Keep in mind that the turning wheels are what rotate the blades, which adds to the resistance. So the task is not as simple as, say, pushing an empty furniture dolly, where you’re pushing the wheels and nothing else. According to a Livestrong.com article (which in turn credits Fatburn.com), pushing a reel mower for 20 minutes burns approximately 153 calories; compare that with 115 calories burned in operating a gas push mower.
So reel mowers are quiet, peaceful, healthy, and good for your lawn. But they have downsides too, of course.
First, for a reel mower to be practical, you need a fairly small lawn. Anyone with more than a quarter acre (roughly 10,000 square feet) will 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 quickly and may demand twice-a-week mowing. One of our long-term testers has approximately 1,000 square feet of lawn, and mowing takes her about 20 minutes.
Second, a reel mower demands diligence and a strict adherence to a regular cutting schedule. If grass gets overgrown, a reel mower will merely push it down and roll right over it, so if you tend to go a while between mowings, you should stick with a regular push mower. As Consumer Reports notes, “[Be] prepared for a hard slog if you let grass grow higher than a few inches.” And the necessary diligence goes beyond the schedule: Reel mowers can’t mow over twigs and leaves as gas mowers can, so additional attentiveness to pre-mow lawn cleanup is required, as well.
Third, reel mowers are troublesome on sloped or bumpy lawns. The torque that turns the blades comes from the wheels as you roll them along the ground. On an uneven surface, the wheels lose contact with the ground as they bounce or as the weight shifts on a slope. As one of our long-term testers put it, “Small dips can lead to grass getting missed, so I often end up mowing from two or three different angles to try and get it all.”
Lastly, the results with a reel mower may not be what you expect. A Consumer Reports article that refers to “‘reel’ disappointments” notes that such mowers often cut unevenly and leave spots unmowed. One of our long-term testers agreed with that assessment, saying that their mower “often totally misses taller strands of grass” and that they “have to go back and snip those with a pair of shears.” Also, on most reel mowers, the blades are inboard of the wheels, so you’ll have a wider gap of unmowed grass against a fence or a stone wall.
If you don’t think a reel mower is the best choice for your situation but you still want a low-maintenance and relatively quiet mower, we have a cordless-mower pick in our guide to the best lawn mower.
To figure out how to pick the best reel mower, we spoke to Scott Dunbar, superintendent of Diamond Hawk Golf Course in Cheektowaga, New York. He explained that reel mowers can cut much closer to the ground than rotary mowers. At the golf course, the crew uses reel mowers to cut greens and approaches but uses gas-powered rotary mowers for the rough. But the average homeowner isn’t cutting the lawn for use as a putting green—in fact, cutting your lawn too low is terrible for its health. Turf experts suggest never cutting off more than a third of your grass’s length; cutting too close to the ground can cause the grass to dry out and get scorched in the summer. This means that a mower’s minimum cutting height isn’t a useful measurement, since you’re unlikely to use that setting.
We eliminated about 90 percent of the mowers based on insufficient maximum cut height alone. Models by Mascot and Gardena, as well as the Remington RM3000, the 16-inch Weed Eater, the 18-inch and 20-inch Greenworks models, and the 18-inch ProMow all failed to meet our minimum 2½-inch max cut height. We didn’t bother to test any of these mowers, since they couldn’t cut high enough to avoid potentially damaging your lawn.
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 used on their mowers so that the blades could cleanly slice a piece of paper. Over the next three hours, we pushed all four mowers back and forth on different-height grasses. On hand were course superintendent Scott 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 our 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. Choosing between the Scotts model (made by the American Lawnmower Company and usually marketed under the Scotts name) and the Fiskars mower (made by the Finnish company known for its orange-handled bladed tools) was initially quite difficult, as both did an excellent job cutting grass. After a great deal of back and forth, we, along with Dunbar and the grounds crew, unanimously agreed on a pick.
The Scotts 2000-20 20-Inch Classic Push Reel Lawn Mower is the reel mower to get. Of the tested mowers, it offered the cleanest cut and the easiest adjustments, and it was the only one that didn’t jam. It also has a wide, 20-inch cutting swath—the widest we found—as well as height adjustments between 1 and 3 inches, which is a more versatile range than we saw on almost all of the other available reel mowers. At 34 pounds, it’s light and easy to turn around at the end of each mowing row, but it’s heavy enough that it doesn’t bounce around on slightly uneven turf.
The most important aspect of a mower is the quality of the cut, and this is where the Scotts 2000-20 excelled against the competition. When our lawn experts were going back and forth with the mowers on a variety of grasses and lengths, they noticed that the Scotts model would leave a swath of totally trimmed grass with each blade snipped evenly across, no ragged edges to be seen. In contrast, the other mowers would leave a bunch of blades sticking up like chimneys after a house fire, causing the testers to have to back up and go over the area again. The Scotts mower also never jammed up during testing, whereas all of the other mowers did.
And not only was the cut quality good, but with each pass the Scotts 2000-20 also snipped a wider path than most of the others. The Scotts is a 20-inch-wide mower, the widest size available (the measurement refers to the blade width, not the overall width). We tested another 20-inch model, the Lee Valley 20″ Mower, but that one was harder to push, and its cut quality was worse.
Our testers also gave the Scotts 2000-20 high marks for overall usability. At 34 pounds, it lands in the middle of our test group in weight but manages to hit the sweet spot between maneuverability and stability. The Fiskars StaySharp Max, which is heavier, was harder to turn around at the end of a mowing row; the Lee Valley model, which was lighter, bounced around on uneven ground and left a ragged cut as a result.
In addition, all of the adjustments on the Scotts mower are easy to make. For cutting height, it has two levers, one for each wheel. One other model we tested, the 16-inch Great States 415-16, required us to unbolt it each time we wanted to change the cutting height. Also, the height settings on the Scotts model are accurate; the 1-inch setting on the Fiskars, in contrast, actually cut much lower, practically scalping the lawn, before we readjusted it to a higher setting.
The Scotts 2000-20 has a cutting range of 1 to 3 inches. The vast majority of reel mowers top out around 2 inches, so we appreciated the ability to go taller, either for the health of the grass or for a less manicured look. A DIY Network article lists the ideal cutting heights for a variety of warm- and cool-weather grasses, and the capabilities of the Scotts land nicely in the strike zone for every grass mentioned. Our runner-up, the Fiskars StaySharp Max, has an even higher maximum cutting height at 4 inches, but it’s a much heavier mower with more difficult maneuvering, and it doesn’t cut as nicely.
The Scotts is easy to assemble, requiring no tools—the bolts that attach the handle have large plastic wing nuts, so tightening by hand is simple. We found the mower easy to disassemble, too, so if you ever need to take your mower apart so that it can fit into a compact space like your car trunk or a small storage area, doing so is 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.
Finally, even though it wasn’t a major factor in our decision, testers liked how the Scotts looked better than the other mowers (some found the Fiskars model’s oddball form to be off-putting). The Scotts 2000-20 is covered by a two-year warranty, and user reviews suggest that the manufacturer, American Lawn Mower, issues free replacement parts whenever a problem crops up.
Consumer Reports doesn’t rank reel mowers—the testers there seem to think such models are a poor choice compared with powered mowers—but among the handful of reel mowers CR has rated, the Scotts mower produced the best cut. The testers thought it was the hardest to push, however.
On Amazon, this model currently has a solid, if unexceptional, rating of 3.7 out of five stars across more than 1,200 user reviews. Most of the complaints center on the aluminum handle breaking, a plastic gear in the mechanism stripping out, or simply the realization that a reel mower is not the right choice for the owner’s particular lawn.
We investigated the plastic-gear complaint by removing the wheel of the Scotts mower and taking a look at the gear. As you can see in the photo above, 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, which rotates the blades. Stripping it out is an issue to be aware of, but under proper use, the gear shouldn’t be a problem. And if it becomes one, replacing the gear is a 10-minute repair job. While it would be nice if both the wheel and the gear were made of metal, such a design would likely add a lot of money to the price tag and a significant amount of weight to the mower.
One of our long-term testers also noted that when the Scotts arrived, many of the screws holding the handle together were loose and fell out within a month. Once they were replaced, no further problems surfaced.
A close reading of the user complaints suggests that owners who were using the Scotts mower on tall or tough Southern grass had the most problems, but such difficulties are likely to be common among all push mowers and not just the Scotts.
In our controlled tests, the lawn crew described the Fiskars StaySharp Max as having a “smooth rolling push” and being the “easiest to push.” Consumer Reports, in its testing, rated this model as being the easiest to push, as well. We found, however, that when set at lower grass heights, it sometimes choked on the grass and required several pushes to get rolling again. Although the Fiskars model uniquely throws the grass clippings forward instead of out the back, our testers were mostly unimpressed with this feature. It worked as intended, keeping the grass from falling into our shoes, but no one seemed to think it was that important. The Fiskars reel mower also has a more complicated mechanism than other models do, as it uses a chain drive to connect the turning of the wheels to the blades. You can change the height with a single lever, and it can adjust between 1 inch and 4 inches, the largest range of any mower we looked at.
In 2016, our long-term testing revealed that because of its weight the Fiskars model isn’t the best choice for a particularly small lawn. We’ve been using it on a 600-square-foot (20-by-30) patch of grass, and as our tester said, “Once you get it up to speed, it glides along really well, but in my case, as soon as I get up to speed, I’ve reached the end of my lawn and have to turn around.”
Fiskars marketing suggests that the StaySharp system prevents the blades from ever touching, so they’ll never need sharpening. However, in reality 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 allow such adjustments, as well, and the golf course crew told us it’s a matter of preference. The blades will still dull eventually from cutting grass or hitting branches and other obstacles.
One of the advantages of a reel mower is that it doesn’t require much maintenance. After each mow, just hose off any stray grass and grime, and let it dry in the sun.
It isn’t a bad idea to wipe down the blades with a rag moistened with household oil once a season to prevent rust.
You also have to pay attention to the blade adjustment, because it can shift over time. With most reel mowers, the spinning blades pass over a stationary bed knife, which is where the cutting happens. If the blades are too far from the bed knife, they won’t cut grass. If they move too close, they’ll hit the bed knife harder, making the mower difficult to push and rapidly dulling the blades. The adjustment, usually involving a couple of set screws, is easy.
Even with proper adjustment, the blades will need sharpening after a few seasons (American Lawn Mower sells a sharpening kit).
The Great States 415-16 16-Inch Standard Full Feature Push Reel Mower is the only mower in our test group that requires unbolting to adjust the mowing height—all the others allow adjustments via levers. It’s also the narrowest mower here, so you’d need to do more passes to mow your entire lawn. In our tests it was such a pain to adjust that the golf crew hated it before they mowed a single blade of grass with it.
The Lee Valley 20″ Mower was difficult to push, and the grounds crew noted that 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 model bounced all over the place. Popular Mechanics favored this model, although the reviewer notes that it’s hard work to mow with and not suited for large lawns.
Husqvarna’s reel mowers come only in a narrow, 16-inch size, and while they’ll cut your lawn very short (down to ½ inch), their maximum cutting height is far too low.
Like many other mowers we dismissed, those from Brill, such as the Razorcut 38, have low maximum cut heights (not even 2 inches), making them a bad choice for many types of grass.
Fiskars makes several variants of the StaySharp Max, such as the 17-inch StaySharp Plus, that are essentially smaller, downgraded versions. We decided to test only the top Fiskars reel mower, assuming that the others would offer comparable or worse performance—and in fact, none of them can match the StaySharp Max’s 4-inch maximum cut height.
The Helix EcoMower has a nice max cut height and is very light. The company’s Eversharp tech, however, is much like that of Fiskars—more a matter of marketing than technology. This model is quite expensive, especially for being a fairly basic mower. And its biggest advantage is actually a drawback, in that it’s too light. At 21 pounds, it’s a lot lighter than the Scotts 2000-20. Because the torque for driving the blades comes from the wheels turning along the ground, an especially light mower will slip and cut inconsistently on even the smallest lumps, bumps, and elevation changes in your lawn.
(Photos by Ed Grabianowski.)
Originally published: July 20, 2016