Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Comparing Hand Push Reel Lawn Mowers
We have now reviewed in detail a large number of hand push reel lawn mowers in Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. How do they compare with each other?
Traditional Contact Mowers
All reel mowers made by American (including Craftsman and Scotts) have fairly similar characteristics. Their design has been around for a long time and has gone through multiple refinements. They represent the most common reel mowers on the market today, and are very widely available. For models with loop handles (including the Craftsman 18"), the loop handles are somewhat weak, a problem that gets worse as the cut path widens, and which reaches its peak with the Scotts 2000-20. For models with plastic gears, these gears are a source of weakness as well, which accentuates with load, again peaking with the Scotts model. The height of cut for most models tops off at 2.25", which is acceptable but not perfect (the Scotts and one Craftsman model go to 3", which is good). Of all the American models, we like the 1414-16 and the 1705-16 best, and, interestingly, they are both still made in the US. The 1414-16 is an all-metal, 32 lb, 16" cut path model, with few weaknesses. The 1705-16 is not all metal, but it has 7 blades and works well on most Southern grasses, including Bermuda and St Augustine, a bit weaker on Zoysia, although still acceptable. All American models need back-lapping every year, meaning that a back-lapping kit is necessary with the purchase. Most models require tools to adjust height of cut. They are less silent and harder to push than equivalent no-contact models - although the difference is not large. There is a very large body of user reviews, in general positive, which allows full understanding of the models' strengths and weaknesses.
The Gilmour reel mower is a decent machine where quality has improved with time. Also a contact mower, aqnd made in China, it makes a particularly unpleasant screech-like noise, which is still lower than a gas powered mower, and that some users have been able to attenuate using reel sprays. Its handle, while better than the Scotts, is not as sturdy as it could be. Its cutting height reaches 3", which is good, and cutting height adjustments use spring-loaded handles, which is very good - although some report that these adjustments sometimes slip. While it is called self-sharpening, we still believe that it needs regular sharpening, like other contact reel mowers.Quality control in 2007-2008 appeared poor, but seems to have improved later, and recent reviews do not provide horror stories about mowers falling apart on the lawn as they did earlier. Nonetheless, the noise level for this mower appears so high and unpleasant that we are severely downgrading it.
The recent Greenworks product line is too new an introduction to have much of a track record. Based on the limited input we have so far, it appears to be a true budget option made in China, with somewhat poor quality and fit-and-finish. At this stage we cannot recommend it, although later years might show more extensive, and better, user information.
The Husqvarna reel mowers, all manufactured in Europe, appear to be light duty for US operations, like many other European offerings, probably focused on a market where the average yard is much smaller than in North America. Their low end offering does not have ball bearings, a feature that is practically universal on our market. Their cutting height ranges from a low 1.5" to an acceptable 2.25", adjustable with levers on the model 64. They also offer a no-contact model, the 540, which is generally similar to the other products in the line. Husqvarna mowers exhibit very standards features, are difficult to find online, and their few reviews so far have not scored very high. On this basis, we do not see them as strong candidates.
The McCulloch and Promow mowers, all made in Taiwan in the same factory, range together from 16" to 20" cut path. They are all metal, which we like as it eliminates one significant drive train weakness: plastic gears. The McCulloch mowers, however, offer a very low cutting height topping off at 1.33", which we consider too low for many applications. There are many uncertainties about the McCulloch mowers: there is no original site information on them, the company is unbelievably hard to contact, there are few reviews online, it is not certain that there are still going to be for sale in the future - although they are in the sales channel as we speak. Clearly, McCulloch is still suffering from the Husqvarna acquisition. The only bright point is that their US distributor, Dixie Sales, is particularly responsive to inquiries. Promow, which offers an 18" mower with a 2.5" cutting height (the 2.5" was confirmed directly by the company, although it is different from retailer information), has little online information, and meager, but improving, online distribution. We consider the cutting height of the McCulloch models too low to recommend them for general use, except for bent grasses. We wish the Promow had more distribution and more reviews.
McLane makes a really unusual and interesting line of mowers, also made in the USA, all metal and and very heavy. These front-throw mowers, weighing between 45 and 55 lbs, have an unusual chain drive system, and a reel forward architecture which makes them good at edging. Their product line covers both Northern and Southern grasses, although not in the same models. Their cutting height reaches 2.5", which is fair to good, and adjustments are made with wing nuts, which is tool-less, but not as good as spring-loaded levers. Their 10-blade model is the best manual reel mower for home golf greens short of the very expensive Hudson Star models. They have very few reviews online. Their small wheels and their weight make them more adapted to large, well manicured lawns with even ground, and require users ready to tackle their weight. The company relies on local dealers for customer support and service, and has practically no product information online, so online purchases are not recommended - a local dealer is important.
SilentCut is truly unique among US made reel mowers. The design of the reel mower goes back to 1939, although it has been refined with the years. The manufacturer is an Amish company, which has the parts manufactured in China, then sharpens, fits, adjusts and tunes them in the US, before sending them to the distributor. The mowers are all metal and very long lasting. All models fit all US grasses, Northern and Southern, including the difficult Bermuda, St Augustine and Zoysia grasses. These mowers are fairly heavy, ranging from 38 lbs to 45 lbs (the last for a 21" cut path mower, widest among hand push reel mowers in the US), but, because of their larger wheels, they are easier to push than the McLane mowers (they are also somewhat lighter). The highest cutting height they offer ranges from 2.25" to 3", which is good for the high end of the range, and adjustment requires moving bolts:( Their customer support, through their distributor ReelMowersEtc, is best among all reel mowers, and they have good distribution across the major online gardening stores. While they are probably not the best choice for small yards of for weak users, they represent a very good choice for many.
TruCut could be an outstanding choice among reel mowers, as it carries many positive attributes, were it not for some drawbacks based on its accessories (or lack thereof) and distribution system. While there is practically no user feedback on manual TruCut reel mowers (we had to interview the manufacturer and some of its retailers to get product information and feedback on its mowers), TruCut has a very good reputation online for its golfing green mowers, which are seen as the nec plus ultra. Its mowers, of traditional contact design, are made in the USA, all metal, cleanly designed and of moderate weight. They offer a maximum cut length of 2.25", which is acceptable, although not perfect. Adjusting heights involves thumb screws: tool-less, but not as good as spring-loaded levers. They offer one model for Southern grasses and two for Northern grasses. However, they do not offer a back-lapping kit, and none of the retailers we talked to pointed us at a third-party back-lapping kit we could use. The manufacturer pointed us at third party sharpening kits. How do we back-lap this mower? It is quite unusual that neither the manufacturer nor its dealers would be able to help us figure out the most common maintenance procedure needed for these products. The manufacturer relies on dealers to do all customer support and service, and it was exceedingly difficult for us to actually reach somebody who would talk to us at TruCut -more than 20 phone calls over 2 weeks, and multiple rebuffs,- although, once we found a contact, we got excellent information. If you wish to make an online purchases for TruCut mowers, you will need to count on the online dealer itself to provide product support.
Brill was the original company that made this category more popular in the US. A European manufacturer, it provides typical European design options with lightweight, well engineered, expensive mowers, that can work very well in small yards with Northern grasses, but which cannot deal with Southern grasses, and are not as long lasting when confronted with the larger lawns of our continent. Their cutting height is tops off at 1.8", sometimes too low to be useful, and adjusted by moving bolts. Their smallest 13" cut path mower weighs a record 15 lbs (lowest in the field), and is very well adapted to very small yards and older users, when limited to Northern grasses. Brill has very broad distribution in the US across many online gardening dealers, and support happens through the dealer.
Easun NaturCut models represent an interesting hybrid design, starting from the European Brill design, and adapting it to American conditions (although made in China). Having a wider cut path, they can deal well with larger lawns, and offer (in one model) a very high cutting height of 3.5", very useful for those who sometimes miss cutting their lawn for a week. Adjustment involves moving pairs of bolts:( NaturCut mowers are lightweight machines that are easy to push and low in maintenance requirements. The plastic gears, and unsuitability to many Southern Grasses are the primary weaknesses of this product line, which is new enough that it does not count many reviews as yet.
The Fiskars Momentum is an interesting entry into the market, with an unusual combination of technologies, inspired from McLane and Brill - two very different directions. The strong marketing push that accompanied its arrival on the market has been quite refreshing to the whole industry, and brought, we think, many new customers to hand push reel mowers. Online information and documentation, including video, is excellent - probably the best among all reel mowers. We like much of this mower, but feel that it will really reach a better stage of evolution after at least one more design iteration. This heavy 44 lb mower has a record high 4" maximum cutting height, elegantly adjustable using a single lever: very nice! It edges well on one side. Its handle is awkward in tight spaces, and does not allow the user to lift and reposition the mower. It is a good player in large, even yards and reasonably muscled users, preferably but not only with Northern grasses. It is not at ease in uneven yards, or where maneuverability is a premium, and may not always be able to deal with dense Southern grasses. It carries a lot of plastic compared to most mowers (although none of it is in its drive technology), which is not good for its longevity, its fit-and-finish is only fair, and its design is complex when looking at the number of parts, resulting in possible reliability issues in the longer term. All in all, it provides a good alternative for specific conditions, although by no means a solution that fits all users.
The Gardena mowers, like the Brill mowers, are made in Europe, with a lower price and an even lower 1.65" cutting height for the models documented on the site - although a non-documented model, the Hi Cut, while not a contact mower, offers a higher 2.25" cutting height. Their specs and general characteristics are very similar to the Brill mowers, as is their quality. We like the lower price and the few reviews that are available (in general very good), and we like the fact that Gardena Canada is a customer support point, where Brill customer support remains largely limited to the local dealers. We would like to see higher cutting height, as low cutting height is their biggest weakness along with the plastic pinion gears. Essentially, Gardena mowers play best in small, plain yards with Northern grasses and limited heat exposure, for users who will be fairly religious about mowing their lawn in a timely manner. Gardena mowers have collected several wins in comparative tests of consumer magazines in Germany in the past 2 years, often against Brill.
Next we rank the best hand push reel mowers for small yards... so come back soon!
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