The 6 Best Reel Mowers of 2021

Cut your grass without the pollutants

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The Rundown
With an 18-inch-wide cut and two sets of wheels for cutting closer to edges, this mower is a good size for most medium yards.
Rest easy with this budget-friendly mower's two-year warranty.
At 21 pounds, this mower is lightweight and maneuverable so it’s ideal for smaller lawns.
This five-blade mower has a wide 20-inch cut, so you’ll get the job done in fewer passes.
A grass catcher is included, making this a budget-friendly choice if you wish to pick up clippings.
It’s pricey, but this mower is built for durability with heavy commercial-grade parts.

If you’re looking for a mower that doesn’t require gasoline, spew smelly fumes, or wake up the neighbors early on a Saturday morning, it’s time to go old-school. Reel mowers, which don’t require electricity, batteries or gas, are what previous generations used. In fact, the first U.S. patent for a reel type mower was 1868, and it looks almost identical to today’s version!

Reel mowers are powered by you so you won't create planet-heating emissions or other pollutants while you cut the grass. They’re also an alternative to electric corded or battery-powered mowers, which have a limited run time before requiring recharging. Typically, the only maintenance necessary is occasional lubrication of the bearings and blade sharpening every few years.

But it is important to — excuse the bad pun — get real about when these types of mowers should be used. Using a reel mower is a workout, especially on a steamy summer day. Reel mowers are not designed for large yards unless you have ample spare time and plenty of energy; most manufacturers suggest these mowers are best for lawns no larger than a quarter to a half acre. They’re also not great on lawns that aren’t completely level because the wheels can lose contact with the ground so it may miss spots.

Ahead, our picks for the best reel mowers:

Best Overall: Fiskars Stay Sharp Max Reel Mower

Fiskars Stay Sharp Max Reel Mower

With an 18-inch-wide cut and two sets of wheels for cutting closer to edges, this five-blade mower is a good size for most medium yards. The company says the steel blades stay sharp for several years, so you’ll be able to go a while in between sharpening tasks. The one-touch height adjustment ranges from 1 inch to 4 inches so it can accommodate different types of grass including tough species such as St. Augustine, Bermuda and Zoysia.

A reversible grass chute allows you to direct where clippings go. The downside? It weighs about 52 pounds so you’re going to work hard. It performs great, it is heavy to lift over obstacles. There’s an optional grass catcher available at additional cost, and it has a limited three-year warranty.

Best Budget: Remington 16 in. Manual Walk Behind Reel Lawn Mower

Remington 16 in. Manual Walk Behind Reel Lawn Mower

This five-blade mulching mower makes a 16-inch-wide cut and has a lever height adjustment with nine positions ranging from .75 inches to 2.5 inches. It has 10-inch wheels in front and 6-inch wheels in back for better maneuverability, and it comes with a two-year warranty.

It's an affordable option, but that it tends to bend, rather than cut some tall weeds, which actually is typical for many reel mowers.

Best for Small Yards: Great States 14 Inch Wide 5-Blade Reel Lawn Mower

Great States 304-14 14 Inch Wide 5-Blade Reel Lawn Mower

This 14-inch wide mower has five steel blades and 8.5-inch rubber wheels. The t-style handle is cushioned, and it’s the only part you’ll have to assemble out of box, though you won’t need any tools. Cutting heights can be adjusted from .5 inches to 1.75 inches. It throws grass behind and to the left of the mower so keep driveways or walks to the right to prevent making additional work for yourself (or you’ll have to sweep).

At 21 pounds, it’s lightweight and maneuverable so it’s ideal for small yards. The company has been around for 125 years and was acquired in 1936 by American Lawn Mower Company, which makes nearly identical reel mower models under other brand names including Earthwise and Scotts. This mower has a one-year limited warranty. It’s great for a small yard but don’t let the grass get taller than 4 inches or you’ll have to make multiple passes.

Best for Medium-Sized Yards: Greenworks 25072 20-Inch 5-Blade Push Reel Lawn Mower

Greenworks 25072 20-Inch 5-Blade Push Reel Lawn Mower

This five-blade mower has a wide 20-inch cut so you’ll get the job done in fewer passes. With nine cutting height adjustment levels from 1.75 inches to 2.75 inches, you’ll find the right one for most grass types.

Two sets of wheels (front 10-inch and rear 6-inch) make it more maneuverable on the lawn, and it discharges grass to the rear or into the included grass catcher. It weighs in at 31 pounds. It comes with a three-year limited warranty, one of the longer in the industry. It’s extremely quiet and does a good job for the price.

Best with Grass Catcher: Sun Joe MJ500M Manual Reel Mower w/ Grass Catcher

Sun Joe MJ500M Manual Reel Mower w/ Grass Catcher

This five-blade mower has a 16-inch wide cut and 8.8-inch wheels with four adjustable cutting heights from .88 inches to 1.81 inches. At just 22 pounds, it’s a lightweight option that will work well for most small yards.

A grass catcher is included, making this a budget-friendly choice if you wish to pick up clippings (such as when you let the lawn get too long before cutting). It comes with a two-year limited warranty. It’s light and maneuverable and a good value.

Best Splurge: Clipper USA 19" Reel Mower

Clipper USA 19" Reel Mower

This reel mower is definitely the gold standard. It’s pricey, but it’s built for durability with heavy commercial-grade parts. It has an adjustable handle, aluminum wheels with standard 10-inch rubber tires, a stainless-steel shaft, and six riveted steel reel blades. The cutting height adjusts from 1 inch to 2.5 inches.

The 19-inch mower weighs in at 42 pounds, and Clipper also makes versions with 17 and 21-inch cutting widths. It’s made by Amish craftspeople in the United States and comes with an impressive 10-year warranty. It's a high-quality machine and has a heavy-duty feel, meaning it should last a lifetime.

Final Verdict

Our top pick for its size and versatility is the Fiskars Stay Sharp Max Reel Mower (view at Amazon). However, it’s heavy for some users, so our second choice is Greenworks 20-inch Push Reel Mower with Grass Catcher (view at Walmart). It weighs in at 31 pounds instead of 50, cuts a wide swatch and comes with a grass catcher.

What to Consider When Shopping for a Manual Reel Mower

Size

Manual mowers usually range from 20 to 50 pounds so they do require effort to push, especially if your grass is long or you have a large yard. So, if you want less a less strenuous experience, look for a lighter model. Reel mowers typically have cutting widths from 14 inches to 21 inches wide. If your yard is medium-sized, stick with wider cuts or you’ll need to make lots of passes. 

Cutting Height

Cutting height is adjustable on most mowers, ranging from roughly .5 inch to 4 inches. Pay attention to this feature so that you choose one that will allow you to cut your grass at the correct height for its species to keep it healthy.

For example, Bermuda grass should be cut at 1.5 to 2.5 inches while tall fescue should be mowed at 2.5 to 4 inches. If you don’t know what kind of grass you have, your local university county coop extension service (find yours here) can help you identify it.

What Happens to Cuttings

Some reel mowers come with grass catchers as well, though they’re typically small and need to be emptied often. Most turfgrass experts recommend you leave the cuttings on the lawn as organic fertilizer. Finally, be aware that you’ll need to do lawn cleanup before mowing because no reel mower does well running over twigs, vines or leaves. Most will, quite honestly, get jammed and require you to stop to remove the obstruction.

FAQs

How hard is it to push a reel mower?

That depends on several factors, including your fitness level and the mower's size. For example, there’s a big difference in how it feels to push a 20-pound reel mower versus a 50-pounder around the yard for 45 minutes, especially if you’re less active or have underlying health conditions. There’s also resistance from the wheels, which are what cause the reel blades to rotate. The length of the grass is another contributing issue because if it’s long (4 inches or more), the mower requires more effort to push. If you have a hilly yard, it’s definitely a challenge to mow uphill!

How does a push reel mower work?

A reel mower is like cart a with a long handle. The brush bar at the bottom front of the mower presses the blades of grass downward as you push the mower forward. As the reel spins, the grass is caught in between the reel blades and the cutter bar, or blade, which is at the back of the mower. It’s like scissor blades coming together and sliding across each other to cut a piece of paper.

In fact, this scissor action produces a clean, even cut, which is beneficial for turf health. That’s because clean cuts improve grass recovery after a mowing, decrease water loss, increase photosynthesis, and reduce risk of disease development.

How do you sharpen push reel mower blades?

Most reel mowers need sharpened every year or two. Because the reel usually is not removable, it’s a bit challenging. The easiest method is to invest in an inexpensive sharpening kit, sometimes called a back-lapping kit (view on Home Depot). They’re usually specific to the brand of mower, so make sure it will work for yours. A kit typically contains grinding compound, application brush, and a back-lapping crank.

Every mower is a little different but in general, you’ll remove one wheel and the gear under it, then insert the crank handle into that same hole. Apply the compound with a brush on the edge of each reel blade and turn the reel in a counter-clockwise direction (this is opposite of the normal mowing rotation). Watch your fingers and wear gloves! Turn the crank for about 10 minutes. Use a rag to remove the compound. You should see a clean shiny edge along the whole blade. There are plenty of YouTube videos to show you how it's done, or if this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, have it sharpened by a mower shop.

Wait…aren’t lawns bad for the environment?

Heavily watered and chemically treated lawns can have a big negative impact on the environment, and some pesticides used on lawns can even pose a health risk to children and pets.  

However, turf isn’t all bad. Research shows that turf grasses do provide benefits such as storm runoff reduction, removal of impurities during percolation of the water through the root zone, and the ability to mitigate the urban heat island effect. Kids and pets need a place to play, too!

But if you reduce the size of your lawn by replacing at least some of it with native plants and flowers, you’ll also decrease the resources needed for its maintenance. At the very least, mow less frequently, which recent studies have found is beneficial for pollinator populations.

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Treehugger wants to help homeowners find garden tools which have no or little impact on the environment. Arricca SanSone specializes in writing about home, shelter, and gardening.