So you’re in the market for a new mower, but you’re dizzy from all the options. What is a reel mower? How is it different from a rotary mower? And will somebody please just tell you what the best mower is for your lawn (that isn’t also the most expensive option, thanks salesperson)?
A reel mower is better than a rotary mower for your lawn. Because reel mowers cut the grass like scissors, they achieve a manicured, clean-cut edge, while the rotary mower just whacks at the grass. Push reel mowers also have other benefits, including ease of use, sustainability, price, and low maintenance.
What is the Difference Between a Reel Mower and a Rotary Mower?
A reel mower cuts grass like a pair of scissors. It has blades that spin around a central axis. The spinning blades create an updraft that causes grass to stand up straight for cutting. As the grass meets the cutting bar, a blade comes down to chop it. A reel mower can either be a push (human-powered) or powered (gas, electric), although push reel mowers are more common around home.
A rotary mower is what most people think of when they think of gas or electric mowers. It has a single blade that spins around to cut the grass, like a helicopter. The blade whacks at the grass to cut it.
What Mower is Best for Your Lawn?
Quality of Grass Cutting
Ever wonder how landscapers achieve the manicured turf look on professional sports fields and golf courses? The reel mower, that’s how.
Reel mowers cut grass better than rotary, since the spinning of the blades creates an updraft that causes grass to stand up straight for cutting. Rotary mowers send a draft horizontally before whacking it with a blade, often causing uneven cuts or even tearing grass.
However, with sharp enough blades and a powerful enough motor on a reel mower, most people won’t care much about the difference.
Winner: reel mower
Ease of Use
In every pro-reel mower article I read, they tout that reel mowers give you great exercise. But what about those of us with physical restrictions that make mowing the lawn a herculean task?
Reel mowers from decades ago are heavy creatures, but today’s designs are lighter weight than rotary mowers. A rotary mower weighs from 70 to 90 pounds, while you’re also being inundated by noise pollution. In comparison, a push reel mower weighs between 17 to 35 pounds. It may take more effort to get the reel mower to cut, but it’s balanced out by the lighter weight.
Both reel and rotary mowers come with self-propelled versions. Fiskars says that their 18” Staysharp Max Push Reel Lawn Mower is 60% easier to cut grass with than other mowers, while also requiring less maintenance.
What about the ease of actually getting mowers to work? Gas rotary mowers are intimidating and take time to even get started. An electric rotary mower is less intimidating, but you need to manage the cords so you don’t accidentally run over it. Reel mowers are the easiest to use — all you have to do is push.
Winner: self-propelled reel mower
Height of Grass
Reel mowers work best on shorter grass, which means if you’re in the habit of letting your grass grow long between mows, you’re probably better off with a rotary mower. When grass grows fast, you’ll need to mow more frequently with a reel mower than a rotary. (Taking off smaller cuts of grass at one time is better for your grass.)
If reel mowers appeal to you, but you like to keep [your grass up to four inches in the summer (good on you!)], look for a reel mower with variable heights.
Winner: the rotary mower
Size of Yard
Many people who use push reel mowers enjoy the time they spend mowing their lawn, listening to the birds chirp as they cut their grass before the day heats up. But no matter how pleasant, you don’t want to spend your entire day mowing your lawn.
If you have a small yard, a push reel mower is perfect for you. If you have a medium-sized, then a push reel mower is still doable, but it’ll take as much as 45 minutes.
If you’ve got a half-acre or bigger, you’ll probably want to look into a rotary mower, riding mower, or a pull-behind reel mower.
Winner: push mowers for small yards, powered rotary or pull-behind reel mower for large
Both reel mowers and rotary mowers need their blades kept sharp. When the blades dull, they tear the grass, opening them up to fungi and disease.
The difference is that when push reel mower blades dull, mowing becomes a lot harder on you physically. They also need sharpening more often than rotary mowers, although quality brands like Fiskars use blades that keep their edge up to 5 years.
Rotary mowers need to be sharpened less often, and they’re considered easier to sharpen. You only need to sharpen two blades, after all. Still, some people find sharpening tools relaxing, so this isn’t necessarily a pro.
They also both need to be regularly cleaned and kept dry, especially when used on wet grass, to preserve their edge.
That’s where the push reel mower maintenance ends, but rotary mower maintenance continues on.
Gas-powered mowers will also need oil changes, air filter replacements, and spark plug replacements throughout the year. Electric mowers sit in the middle, needing more part replacements than push reel mowers and less than gas mowers.
Winner: reel mowers
Push reel mowers are safer than rotary mowers. With a push reel mower, you can’t sling a rock into someone like you can with a rotary mower — the mower just jams. When you stop, the blades stop. And there’s no risk of burning yourself. That’s not to say that push reel mowers are completely safe, as they still have sharp blades. They’re just a whole lot safer.
Rotary mowers have independently powered blades that can chew up a limb, even when stopped. They sling rocks at high speeds. The motor heats, which can cause burns. You could accidentally run over your electric mower’s power cord, or short out an electric motor on wet grass.
When using a reel mower, keep to a brisk walk — don’t run. A brisk walk is fast enough to get a good spin going on the blades.
Winner: push reel mower
Don’t you just love waking up to the roar of a neighbours’ mower? Not me. Push reel mowers are so quiet that your neighbours will wonder how your grass stays so short when they never hear you mow.
If you live in a hot climate, you’ll love how you can whip out your push reel mower at six in the morning while it’s still cool.
The lack of noise makes mowing the lawn a pleasure instead of a dreaded chore. You can listen to the early morning birds and the quiet snip, snip, snip of the blades.
Winner: push reel mower
Weight and Transportation
Rotary mowers are heavy machines! Even heavier push reel mowers are a lot easier to move around your yard than rotary mowers. They’re also smaller, which means it takes up less space in the shed (perfect for small yards, when you don’t have much space to begin with!).
The length of cord restricts how far corded electric mowers can reach and the cordless versions have a limited charge.
Winner: push reel mower
Push reel mowers don’t use electricity or gas, and because they’re so simple, they’ll last decades with proper maintenance. Any mower that uses electricity or gas will be worse for the environment.
The EPA estimates that one hour of gas mower use is equivalent to driving a car for 350 miles, if that 350 miles were in your backyard. (That’s insane!) Gas lawn mower emissions in the US account for up to 5% of the total US air pollution. Let’s not forget about gasoline spillage — the EPA estimates that at 17 million gallons of gas each year. And after all that, you walk away from mowing the lawn smelling like a freeway.
Electric mowers are in between. They use up electricity (so contribute to whatever environmental hazards your local power plant has), but they produce no emissions of their own. They also won’t last as long as push reel mowers.
Winner: push reel mower
Push reel mowers are your most inexpensive option, retailing from $80 to $200 plus a $25 blade sharpening kit, while gas-powered mowers (whether reel or rotary) start at $200 and go up to $500. You also need to pay for gas and oil changes.
Electric mowers tend to be $150 more expensive than gas-powered mowers (so starting around $350), but they cost less in the long run, needing fewer part replacements and $5 worth of electricity to run each year.
A powered mower lasts only as long as its engine before it needs to be replaced, while a push reel mower lasts for decades with regular maintenance and sharpening.
Winner: push reel mower
Take a serious look at a push reel mower. They’re quiet, they’re lightweight, they provide a better cut, they’re way better for the environment and your lungs, and they’re inexpensive.
If you have physical limitations, look for a self-propelled reel mower or a “walk-behind” self-propelled rotary mower, either of which will take the physical strain off you.
If you have a large yard, though, you’re going to need more than a push mower. Look at pull-behind reel mowers or look into a riding mower.
Jamie is the founder of The Backyard Pros. When he was 15 years old he started working at a garden centre helping people buy plants, gardening products, and lawn care products. He has real estate experience and he is a home owner. Jamie loves backyard projects, refinishing furniture, and enjoys sharing his knowledge online.