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.

Last Updated: January 21, 2015
No new reel mowers that meet our criteria have launched yet in 2015. We've checked the major retailers—Amazon, Home Depot, Lowe's, Sears—and these manufacturers: Scotts, Fiskars, Lee Valley, Great States, Husqvarna, Brill, Mascot, Gardena, Blue Hawk, Remington, Weed Eater, Greenworks, Pro Mow, Earthwise, Helix EcoMower, Task Force, Snow Joe, Gilmour, Steele, and American Lawn Mower.
Expand Most Recent Updates
June 30, 2014: Added the Helix EcoMower to the competition section and noted that bahiagrass, like Bermuda, Centipedegrass, St. Augustine, and Zoysia, will give a reel mower a hard time.

Scotts 2000-20 20-Inch Classic Push Reel Lawn Mower
The Scotts Great States 2000-20S reel mower is the best we’ve found, and it’s only $130. It has a comfortable mowing height range, is easy to adjust, and gives the cleanest cut of all those we tested.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $125.

We tested mowers with the grounds crew of a golf course, a bunch of guys who are really serious about mowing. After picking up cut blades to carefully examine how cleanly the mowers cut, bending down to compare the color of the turf after each mower made a pass, and pushing all the mowers around on various lengths of grass, all of the testers said they’d choose the Scotts over the other top contenders. Then I tested the top two mowers by mowing my own lawn with them, and I found the Scotts easy to push while giving a good, consistent mow.

Also Great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $200.

Fiskars Staysharp Max Reel Mower, 18-Inch
If our main pick is sold out, the $200 Fiskars 18 Inch StaySharp Max Reel Mower is another good choice. It’s smooth and easy to push, but it’s also bulkier than our pick (making it harder to turn around) and more expensive. It does cut grass higher than any other reel mower we tested, though.
If our main pick is sold out or becomes unavailable, we also really like the $200 Fiskars 18 Inch StaySharp Max Reel Mower (6201). It has an innovative design that throws grass forward and raises up to a 4-inch cutting height (higher than any other reel mower). In practice, it didn’t handle tall grass quite as well as the Scotts. And while it was smooth and easy to push, it’s heavier and bulkier, making it more of a chore to turn around. It was a very close decision; both mowers are well-made and do a good job of cutting grass at a wide range of heights. It came down to less-obvious usability factors and overall consistency of cutting—and the fact that the Scotts costs $85 less than the Fiskars.

(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? | How we picked and tested | Our pick | Flaws but not dealbreakers | Runner-up | Care and maintenance | Competition | The final cut

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.)

Reel mowers are also better for the health of the lawn.
Reel mowers are also better for the health of the lawn. The blades “snip” the grass blades like scissors, while rotary mowers shred grass blades (unless the mower blades are kept very sharp). This shredded grass can be discolored and susceptible to disease. Turf professionals at golf courses and baseball stadiums tend to use reel mowers (albeit in large arrays of five or seven mowers pushed by a tractor and powered by hydraulics) for this reason.

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 rougher right end of this blade of grass was cut by a gas-powered rotary mower whereas the smoother left end was cut by a reel mower.

The rougher right end of this blade of grass was cut by a gas-powered rotary mower whereas the smoother left end was cut by 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.

How much lawn is too much lawn for a reel mower will vary depending on your personal fitness level, type of grass, and how long you let it grow before mowing.
For instance, my lawn is roughly 5,000 square feet, and I found mowing it every four days in the spring tiresome, though in mid-summer, using the reel mower was more bearable since I could mow once a week or so. How much lawn is too much lawn for a reel mower will vary depending on your personal fitness level, type of grass, and how long you let it grow before mowing. But if you ask us, anything more than 10,000 square feet definitely calls for a powered mower. Go gas or electric.

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

From front to back, the Fiskars StaySharp Max, Lee Valley 20”, Great States 16”, and Scotts Great States 20”.

From front to back, the Fiskars StaySharp Max, Lee Valley 20”, Great States 16”, and Scotts Great States 20”.

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.”

We eliminated about 90 percent of mowers based on insufficient maximum cut height alone.
We eliminated about 90 percent of mowers based on insufficient maximum cut height alone. Once we’d narrowed our choices to the handful of mowers with a maximum cut height of 3 inches or higher, we started looking at other factors. How easy is the mower to adjust? How hard is it to push? How wide is it? How much does it weigh? The list was whittled to the top four by looking at which ones got positive reviews from other publications, like Consumer Reports and Popular Mechanics, and which had the most robust user reviews. The final four: the Lee Valley 20”, Fiskars StaySharp Max, Scotts 2000-20S 20-Inch Classic Push Reel Lawn Mower, and the Great States 415-16 16-Inch Standard Full Feature Push Reel Mower.

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.

Our pick

Scotts 2000-20 20-Inch Classic Push Reel Lawn Mower
The Scotts Great States 2000-20S reel mower is the best we’ve found, and it’s only $130. It has a comfortable mowing height range, is easy to adjust, and gives the cleanest cut of all those we tested.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $125.

The $130 Scotts Great States 2000-20S 20-Inch Classic is the reel mower to get. When our lawn experts and I were going back and forth and mowing a bunch of stuff, we noticed that the Scotts would leave a swath of totally cut grass, whereas the Fiskars would leave a bunch of blades sticking up like chimneys after a house fire. You’d have to back up and go over it again to get them all cut. The Fiskars, with its chain drive and single-handle height adjustment, is a bit fancier, but that’s not really what you want in such a simple machine. The Scotts is light, reliable, and didn’t jam once throughout all our testing in multiple locations and conditions, and that’s why it’s the best.

The Scotts in action.

The Scotts in action.

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’ mow height is adjusted with this simple lever. There are two levers, one for each side of the mower.

The Scotts’ mow height is adjusted with this simple lever. There are two levers, one for each side of the mower.

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).

scotts_candidAlthough 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).

To get a better idea of how these mowers handle in day-to-day use, I mowed my lawn with them.
While the input from our pro turf guys was impressive,  I was worried I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, that I was too caught up in the cool technical turf stuff the golf crew was telling me and missing the big picture. To get a better idea of how these mowers handle in day-to-day use, I mowed my lawn with them. This really confirmed the Scotts as the pick. The weight and bulk of the Fiskars was a big issue because it was a huge pain to turn at the end of each length of the yard. And I found it less easy to push than the Scotts, even after I readjusted the blades.

fiskars_scott_comparisonYou 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.

grass_measurementAs 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.

The Scotts is covered by a two-year warranty, and user reviews suggest American Lawnmower issues free replacement parts any time there’s a problem.

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.

Some user reviews complained that the plastic gear could strip out, but a metal gear would damage the plastic wheel. Besides, should anything break, it’s a quick 10-minute fix.

Some user reviews complained that the plastic gear could strip out, but a metal gear would damage the plastic wheel. Besides, should anything break, it’s a quick 10-minute fix.

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.

Runner-up

Also Great

*At the time of publishing, the price was $200.

Fiskars Staysharp Max Reel Mower, 18-Inch
If our main pick is sold out, the $200 Fiskars 18 Inch StaySharp Max Reel Mower is another good choice. It’s smooth and easy to push, but it’s also bulkier than our pick (making it harder to turn around) and more expensive. It does cut grass higher than any other reel mower we tested, though.
If you can’t get the Scotts for whatever reason, we’d recommend the Fiskars 18 Inch StaySharp Max Reel Mower for $200. As previously mentioned, it’s not quite as consistent at cutting as the Scotts and it’s a bit heavier, but it was almost as good. What’s more, the heavier weight actually makes it roll more smoothly once you get it going, and a unique design that pushes clippings forward instead of backwards keeps your shoes clean as you mow. Ultimately, we preferred the consistency and lower price of the Scotts, but you won’t be disappointed with the Fiskars either.

…it sometimes choked on the grass and required several pushes to get rolling again when set at lower grass heights.
Testers described the Fiskars as having a “smooth rolling push,” and “easiest to push.” Consumer Reports rated it as being easiest to push as well. In our tests, however, it sometimes choked on the grass and required several pushes to get rolling again when set at lower grass heights. While the Fiskars uniquely throws the grass clippings forward instead of out the back, testers were mostly unimpressed with this feature. It worked as intended, keeping the grass from falling into your shoes, but no one seemed to think it was that important. The Fiskars also has a more complicated mechanism than other reel mowers, using a chain drive to connect the turning of the wheels to the blades. The Fiskars’ height can be adjusted with a single lever and can adjust between 1 inch and 4 inches, the largest range of any mower we looked at.

The Fiskars only needs one height adjustment lever for both wheels.

The Fiskars only needs one height adjustment lever for both wheels.

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.

The Fiskars in action —you can see it throwing grass forward.

The Fiskars in action—you can see it throwing grass forward.

In the photo below you can see where the Scotts’ blade just touches the bed knife.

scotts_bladeIn the next photo you can see the Fiskars’ blade not quite touching the bed knife. The difference is a matter of adjustment.

fiskars_bladeCare and maintenance

One of the advantages of a reel mower is that it doesn’t require much maintenance. After each mow, hose off stray grass and grime and let it dry in the sun.

It’s not a bad idea to wipe down the blades with a rag moistened with household oil once a season to prevent rust.

Even with proper adjustment, the blades will need sharpening after a few seasons.
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 any grass. If they move too close, they’ll hit the bed knife harder, making the mower difficult to push and rapidly dulling the blades. It’s an easy adjustment, usually involving a couple of set screws. Even with proper adjustment, the blades will need sharpening after a few seasons.

Competition

From left to right, the Scotts Great States 20”, Great States 16”, Lee Valley 20”, and Fiskars StaySharp Max.

From left to right, the Scotts Great States 20”, Great States 16”, Lee Valley 20”, and Fiskars StaySharp Max.

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).

Footnotes:

1. The blades are mounted in a cylinder that rotates as the mower is pushed forward—in fact, they’re sometimes called cylinder mowers. This is different from the more common rotary mower, in which the blades spin around like helicopter blades and are powered by a gas or electric motor. Jump back.

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Originally published: June 25, 2014

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