Article : Reel Mowers vs. Rotary Mowers: Which Does A Better Job?

Reel Mowers vs. Rotary Mowers: Which Does A Better Job?

By Karen Stretch, regional editor

Attaching lawn rollers to reel mowers is the most common way to achieve a striped effect, as shown here.Photo courtesy of Big League Lawns, LLC

Typewriter vs. computer. VHS vs. DVD. Digital vs. analog. Reel mowers vs. rotary mowers. Each does the same job as their counterpart, but which gets the job done better? Do microchips and motors guarantee a better performance?

In the Beginning

Edwin Beard Budding, an engineer from England, came up with the idea for a lawnmower in 1830 when he saw a machine in a local cloth mill that used a cutting cylinder, or blade reel, to cut and leave a smooth finish after it had been woven. Budding recognized that a similar concept could be used to cut blades of grass if the mechanism could be mounted in a wheeled frame to make the blades rotate close to the surface of the lawn. Budding went into partnership with John Ferrabee, a local engineer, and together they designed a reel mower whose design has stayed remarkably similar for over 100 years. Motorized mowers did not appear for another 60 years. The first models were gas powered, followed by the short-lived steam mowers, which disappeared from the market around 1900, making gas powered mowers the preferred choice once again.

Many professionals use striping to aesthetically enhance lawns, a technique most commonly in sporting arenas. Typically attached behind the blade of a gang reel mower is a lawn roller, or striper, that bends the grass down and creates patterns in the lawn. However, there are rollers available for certain models of rotary power mowers. Photo courtesy of Big League Lawns, LLC

Rotary mowers make-up 98 percent of all lawn mower sales in the United States. Photo courtesy of

Reel Enthusiasts

Try doing a web search using the keywords “reel mower.” The number of websites dedicated to these simple devices is surprising. People who use reel mowers seem to be quite smitten with them. Those who prefer reel mowers over their rotary counterparts, do so for many reasons.

Good for Small Lots: Reel mowers are good for those who have small lawns without any trees. Reel mowers have a tough time chopping up twigs.

Environmentally Friendly: No gas means no exhaust. But tractors towing reel units do produce significant emissions.

Low Maintenance: With a minimum number of tools and very little skill required, reel mowers can be maintained at home. Reel mower blades typically need to be sharpened every year or two. Other than that, an application of WD-40 or a similar silicon-based product, to the moving parts of the mower will keep them in good working condition.

Virtually Silent: Reel mowers are quiet, which allows users to mow early in the morning without waking the neighborhood. Mowing in the morning makes for a much more pleasant job during the hot summer months.

Natural Mulchers: Lawn waste takes up a tremendous amount of space in landfills; reel mowers are natural mulchers which makes them a good choice for grass cycling.

Safety: Reel mowers cause fewer serious injuries. Every year, thousands of people suffer serious lacerations, as well as severed fingers and toes due to accidents involving rotary mowers.

Close Shave: Reel mowers are able to cut the grass extremely short without the problem of turf scalping. Scalping can occur as the result of irregular land contours, excessive thatch, infrequent mowing, or poor mower adjustment. Scalped turf usually appears brown and stubbly due to the removal of healthy leaves and exposure of turf crowns, dead leaves, or even the bare soil.

Marjorie King, founder of Reel Mowers, Etc., started selling reel mowers online seven years ago after she began suffering chronic migraine headaches and breathing problems. King says that she often has customers who call her after purchasing a reel mower to saying how much greener their lawn looks since making the switch from rotary to reel.

“Reel mowers cut like a pair of scissors leaving a nice clean cut, straight across the blade,” said King. “Rotary mowers hack at the grass, leaving behind a ragged edge. The grass plants are living things and the difference in these two types of cut is the difference between an evenly cut, green lawn and a ragged cut with brown tips. Customers often call me several weeks after buying their first reel mower to tell me that neighbors are stopping by to ask, ‘Why is your lawn suddenly greener than mine?’”

Striping: Lawn striping, a technique that in the past, was used mainly by professionals on large lawns, and in professional sports arenas, has now become a trend among homeowners and can be seen on lawns across the country. Striping is typically done using reel mowers and a lawn roller which attaches just behind the blades of the mower.

The rollers bend the grass down, and the pattern is then revealed by the light shining off of the bent grass.

Professionals most commonly use a gang reel mower to give large lawns a close cut, then follow up with a lawn roller to achieve the striped look. Other designs combine the roller with the mower unit.

Gang reel mowers are available for both residential and commercial purposes. They are deigned to be pulled with ATV’s, garden tractors or small utility tractors ranging from 5-16 hp, depending on the mower. These mowers require low maintenance and give lawns a close-cut manicured look. Photo courtesy of

Disadvantages of Reel Mowers

There is a downside to every good thing in life: roses have thorns, ice cream will eventually get freezer burn, puppies and kittens inevitably grow up; and although they appear to be a gift sent from the lawn gods, even reel mowers have a downside.

• Because of the design of reel mowers, they have a tendency to roll over weeds without cutting them, especially weeds more than six inches in height including dandelions and buckhorn. Reel mowers were designed specifically to cut grass, not weeds.

• Grass that is longer than eight inches is going to be challenging to cut using a reel mower. Each row could require more than one pass, and pushing the mower could prove to be an arduous task because of the reel mower’s inclination to bind up and skid. Setting the mower to its maximum cutting height may make the job a little easier.

• Mowing a lawn with a walk-behind reel mower typically takes more time than its gas-powered counterpart, simply because you are the mower’s engine.

• According to, a reel mower is best suited for 8,000 sq. feet of grass or less. Anything more than a half-acre of land will become very time consuming when using a walk-behind reel mower.

• You’re going to have to put some muscle into it! Although today’s reel mowers are considerably lighter (today’s versions weigh on average 16-32 pounds) and are easier to maneuver than they were in the past. Remember that you are the engine, the faster the mower is pushed, the faster the blades will spin, resulting in a better cut.

Reel mowers have been around since 1830 when Edwin Beard Budding, an engineer from England, saw a machine in a local cloth mill that used a cutting cylinder, or blade reel, to cut and leave a smooth finish after it had been woven. Budding recognized that this concept could also be used to cut blades of grass. Photo courtesy of The Reel Lawn Mower History & Preservation Project

Rotary Power Mowers

What do you think of when you think of power? World domination? Wealth that would make Bill Gates look like Bob Cratchit? The pink battery-powered, drum-playing bunny? Maybe you’re more of a mechanical thinker – a powerful engine really gets your motor running. If so, a rotary motor sounds like the machine for you. Today there are more makes and models to choose from than ever. There are electric motors, cordless mowers, battery powered mowers, and gas mowers. In the mower’s early days, there was even a steam-powered version!

Getting Better All The Time

While it’s tempting to compare the rotary mower to Jack the Ripper, it is a bit harsh. Instead I’ll liken it to a puppy. While its intentions are good, it has a tendency to chew up everything in its path, including the tips of the grass blades which leaves a ragged uneven edge and leaves the grass susceptible to disease invasion and can increase the need for fungicides.

However, with technology that allows us to control just about everything except the rate at which the Earth spins, turf scalping is becoming less of a problem with rotary mowers. Cub Cadet, John Deere, Encore and Ferris are just a few of the manufacturers who have developed rotary mowers that are designed to significantly reduce (but haven’t yet eliminated) turf scalping.

The Good, The Bad, and The Smoggy

In spite of their shortcomings, rotary mowers still dominate the mower industry. According to, 98 percent of mowers sold are rotary. That was “The Good.” Now here is “The Bad, and The Smoggy” courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency and

• Each weekend, about 54 million Americans mow their lawns, using 800 million gallons of gas per year and producing tons of air pollutants. Garden equipment engines, which have had unregulated emissions until very recently, emit high levels of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, producing up to 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution and a good deal more in metropolitan areas.

• In a single day in southern California, lawn tools emit more pollution than all of the aircraft in the Los Angeles area. A single mower puts out more pollution than 73 new cars.

• Each year, approximately 17 million gallons of fuel, mostly gasoline, are spilled while refueling lawn equipment. That’s more than all of the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in the Gulf of Alaska. The replacement of 500 gas mowers with non-motorized mowers would spare the air:

• 212 pounds of hydrocarbons (smog ingredient)
• 1.7 pounds of nitrogen oxides (smog ingredient)
• 5.6 pounds of irritating particles 1,724 pounds of carbon dioxide

Rotary mowers can tackle an overgrown lawn filled with weeds and twigs with no problems. However, it is important to consider the terrain of the lawn being mowed before using a rotary mower. Uneven terrain could result in unsightly turf scalping.

Consider the Turf

A key aspect of maintaining vigorous turf using any type of mower is mowing at the correct height at regular intervals. The correct mowing height is determined by the species of grass and use of the turf. A good rule of thumb for mowing heights is never to remove more than 1/3 of the grass blade. Cutting too low may result in a weakened stand, which is more vulnerable to weed competition and may require extra irrigation and fertilization.

Older Comments
Name: Matthew TeBeestWrote in with general comment
Comment: Thanks for all the knowledge, I have learned a great deal by reading this article. I just discovered the pull type reel mowers and they look like my best bet. Thanks, Matthew

Name: Robert SantangeloWrote in with correction comment
Comment: Toro rotary walk-behind mowers feature an anti-scalp cup under the blade and blade-brake clutch assembly. This greatly reduces scalping with a rotary. Also, keeping the blade\'s edges clean and sharpened on a rotary makes for a cleaner cut and less stress on the grass - although still not as surgical as a reel model, acceptable and pleasing results may be achieved along with the efficiency advantage that a rotary provides.

Name: Peter LusbyWrote in with correction comment
Comment: My front lawn is irregularly shaped, roughly 40' x 40'. My back lawn is rectangular 90' x 45'. Working around the trees, walkways, planters and hedges, it takes me a full hour to mow either lawn with a 22" cut gasoline engined rotary mower. I can cut both lawns in about 45 minutes using my 16" muscle powered cylinder mower! Not only that, but I can start mowing at first light and be done before it gets hot, here in Southern California, whereas with the power mower, I can't even start before 7:00 am! Which does a better job? Hands down the rotary! The reel mower misses more blades than it cuts. But I still prefer the reel mower :)


June 30, 2016, 8:45 pm EST

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