Shear Perfection

The first lawn mower was invented by Edwin Beard Budding in 1830; he came up with the idea while observing a cloth mill, which used a cutting cylinder (or bladed reel), mounted on a bench to trim cloth.

Budding’s first production mower was made from cast iron; it was so heavy that it took two people to operate it--one person to push and the other to pull. Naturally, these first mowers were known as reel mowers because the blades rotated on a horizontal axis.

But enough history--let’s talk about the mower we all use at work and at home--the rotary mower. The name is derived from the blade that rotates on a vertical axis. Although many commercial manufacturers have entered the large rotary market (48 inches to 16 feet width), for the sake of this article I will be describing rotary mowers with a cutting width of 22 inches or less. These smaller rotary mowers are great for residential and trim work.

The Right Mower For The Job

Visit any hardware store, mower shop or home improvement store and it’s easy to see how technologically advanced rotary mowers have become, as well as the many shapes, sizes and colors that are available.

Do you prefer to push a mower, or is the terrain you maintain too hilly, forcing you to rely on a self-propelled mower? Is your staff composed of people with limited mobility? If so, maybe you need an electric-start mower. Where is it going to be used--in front of the administrative office or a place that is highly visible? Perhaps a self-bagging mower is best suited for this application. Is it to be used in several locations that will require different cut heights? Will it be used to mulch leaves in the fall? Make sure it has a mulching blade.

But remember, all of these options add to the price of the mower. I have had many instances where a basic mower was all I needed. Many of my colleagues purchase mowers knowing they will be scrapping them the next year for new ones, so they stick with the least-expensive available. Give some thought to what the mower is going to be used for, and that will help greatly in your decision.

Make That Mower Last

Even though push mowers only account for a small part of my budget, I still want to get the most out of each one. Here are a few tips to prolong the life of yours:

1. When you first purchase a mower, have your mechanic wax the underside to keep the grass from sticking to it; this makes for easy cleanup. Be sure to disconnect the spark plug before doing this.

2. Change the oil and air filters, and sharpen the blades regularly. Additionally, be sure to keep the blades balanced. If they’re not, they cause major vibrations and premature engine wear. An easy way to balance blades is to drive a nail into the shop wall and hang the blade on it; it will tilt to one side or the other. Whichever side the blade tilts down, grind that side until it sits level on the nail.

3. Clean the mower after every use. Wash under the deck with water or compressed air (wear safety glasses). If you wash with water, start the mower and run it to dry it off; this will dry all the electrical parts and make it easy to start the next time it is used.

4. Store the mower indoors during the winter. Before hibernation, however, clean it thoroughly--wax the deck (no need to wax in the spring), sharpen the blade, fill the fuel tank with gasoline and fuel stabilizer (filling the tank leaves no room for condensation to cause problems in the spring), pull the spark plug and spray WD-40 or another lubricant into the spark plug hole (to lubricate the cylinder walls and piston). After spraying the lubricant, pull the starter to spread it around the cylinder. Put the spark plug back in the engine.

String Trimmers

Trimmers are known by all sorts of names--line trimmers, weed eaters, weed whackers, weed whips, whipper snippers and garden trimmers. Whatever you call them, you will need the right one for the job at hand. Choosing an appropriate string trimmer depends on the amount of property you intend to trim and maintain. If there are only a few sidewalks and flower beds, a residential trimmer may be suitable since they are meant for light duty and infrequent use.

On the other hand, if you have several driveways, sidewalks, fence posts, trees, shrubs and flower beds, a commercial trimmer is probably a better fit. Commercial trimmers are manufactured to higher specifications and better technology to withstand constant use; they feature solid-steel straight shafts and well-balanced crankshafts in the engines, which help to reduce vibrations as well as operator fatigue. In addition, commercial trimmers have more power, and are much more durable than their residential counterparts.

As with mowers, there are different options to choose from, depending on your needs.

Engine Types

Most string trimmers have what is known as a two-cycle engine, which means you need to mix gasoline with some type of oil. This is needed because, unlike your car, it does not have an oil reservoir, so the oil needs to be mixed with the gasoline to lubricate the engine. (Two-cycle engines also make trimmers weigh less.)

Some manufacturers have begun to experiment with four-cycle engines because they claim emissions are reduced by up to 70 percent; however, the machine is slightly heavier.

Shafts And Heads

Most residential trimmers have a curved shaft that resembles a long spring running from the engine to the head. This type of shaft is less expensive to manufacture, but be aware it is not as durable as the straight shaft on a commercial trimmer, which is balanced for less vibration. The straight shaft also makes the trimmer longer than the residential, which helps with fatigue.

While there are several heads to choose from, the bump-and-feed head is one of the most popular models. It is loaded with string, and when more is needed, bumping the head to the ground releases more string. Although it sounds simple, the string has a tendency to become tangled, and the friction sometimes causes it to melt, which makes for lost time trying to untangle or readjust.

Fixed-line heads also work well--just cut the string to predetermined lengths so they can be changed and affixed to the head.

Even a blade can be affixed to the trimmer--use a steel blade for cutting brush and a plastic blade for trimming grass and small, woody plants.

Decisions, Decisions

Look at your operation to determine what fits your needs. Prices vary, so budgets may ultimately dictate what is purchased. Be sure to take the time to shop around and, more importantly, talk to the operators since they are the employees who will be pushing the mower or carrying the trimmer. And if you can make them happy, the result will be well-maintained facilities.

Sean McHugh , CGCS, is director of Golf/Turf for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail at