Rotary vs. Reel Mower – Everything You Need To Know To Mow Low

Did you know there are 2 distinct types of lawn mower?

These 2 types of lawn mower cut the grass in different ways.

  • There is a rotary mower.
  • And there is a reel mower.

The rotary mower is the one you know and love. It is the typical walk behind mower from Honda or Toro that rotates a blade (or two) under a steel deck – like helicopter blades – to chop through grass like a machete.

Most homeowners choose the rotary mower because it deals with unkept long grass much easier and there are 100s of mowers to choose from in all price ranges.

The reel mower uses 5+ spiral blades (more blades for cutting shorter) rotating around a drum/reel in combination with a low lying flat bed-knife to scissor cut the grass. The rotating blades capture and push the grass against the bed-knife to scissor cut it at your desired cut height.

Golf course groundkeepers choose reel mowers to keep their greens puttable because they can cut lower (below 1/2-inch) and have higher cut quality.

Today we are going to show you everything there is to know about rotary mowers vs. reel mowers.

Rotary vs. Reel Mower Pros and Cons

Rotary

  • Pros: Cut high, tough grass with ease. Many affordable self propelled models available so you don’t have to push. Corded electric, battery powered and gas powered mower models readily available to choose from. You are likely experience using a rotary mower.
  • Cons: Chop the grass (instead of scissor cut) leaving it vulnerable to disease and dehydration. Costs much more than a push reel mower.

Reel (Push Reel Not Gas Powered Reel)

  • Pros: Simple and safe with no engine or motor to deal with. Cuts grass between spiral blades and bed-knife for a perfect scissor-like cut. Can cut low below 1-inch where rotary mowers can’t go below 1-inch. Low maintenance – you just have to sharpen the blades. Affordable – only costs $50 – $100. No noise. No fumes. No refuelling or recharging batteries – just human power.
  • Cons: Must keep blades razor sharp to work properly. Won’t get through tough, high grass easily. It is human powered – the blades won’t rotate unless you push forward.

Cut Quality Comparison

A rotary mower is tearing the grass…

…Its blades are hitting and chopping the grass like a machete at high speed.

Here’s what a rotary mower grass cut looks like:

Rotary mower grass cut showing ripping

A reel cylinder mower is precision slicing…

…Or cutting the grass like you were cutting it with scissors.

Here’s what a high quality reel mower grass cut looks like:

Reel cylinder mower precision grass cut

3 Benefits of Precision Slicing vs. Tearing Grass

  1. The lawn looks cleaner and more manicured vs. the rough and rumble look of a rotary mower chopped lawn.
  2. A reel mower leaves the grass healthier and less prone to pests and disease because the inner cells of the grass are not exposed.
  3. Allows you to mow low – like a golf green. A rotary mower can’t go below 1″ because it will start pulling the grass from the roots. A reel mower cutting grass between the bedknife and spiral blades can get down to 1/4″ with a 10 blade setup.

Verdict

Reel mowers give your grass a better quality cut.

Mowing Low With a Rotary vs. Reel Mower – Which is Best

There is no doubt a reel mower can mow grass lower compared to a rotary mower.

This is the reason golf course groundskeepers use powered cylinder reel mowers to keep their greens tight to the ground.

A reel mower with 10+ spiral blades can cut grass below 1/2″. A rotary mower can not cut grass lower than 1″.

Most people will not need to go lower than 1″.

However, there is no doubting the bedknife and rotating spiral blades combination gives you the tightest to the ground mow.

Verdict

Reel mowers cut lower.

Safety of Rotary Mowers vs. Reel Mowers

Both rotary and reel mowers are using a rotating sharp blade to cut grass.

The reel mower is much safer because the blades are turning much slower than the RPMs of the rotary push mower.

The reel mower is human powered – as you push the blades turn – so the faster you push it the faster the blades turn.

A rotary mower uses a small engine or electric motor to rotate the blade(s) at 2,500 RPM.

Both can be dangerous in the wrong hands but there is no doubt a rotary mower has more risk due to the high speed blade.

Verdict

Reel mowers are safer.

Which is More Expensive?

A normal push mower using a rotary blade will cost you between $200 and $1,000 depending on brand and features.

A top of the line reel mower won’t cost you more than $150. And you can find good quality ones for $75.

Verdict

Reel mowers are more affordable.

Rotary vs. Reel Mower Maintenance Needs 

The only maintenance a reel mower needs is sharpening the blades and bedknife.

A walk behind rotary mower using a gas engine will require regular maintenance – including:

Verdict

Reel mower requires less maintenance than a rotary mower.

Noise They Make

Rotary mowers are much louder because they use an engine or motor to power the blades.

A reel motor is human powered and is quiet – you don’t even need hearing protection headphones to listen to music when mowing.

Verdict

Reel mowers are quieter than rotary mowers.

Convenience (Or…Why Rotary Mowers Are More Popular) 

A reel mower requires you to push it for it to work. And it isn’t a walk in the park. You are pushing it hard through your grass. It burns double the calories as walking behind a rotary mower.

A rotary mower powered by a gas engine or electric motor is more convenient than a reel mower because you just turn it on and walk behind it. And it goes through tough, thick grass with ease.

If you get a reel mower you will need to keep the grass short and mow it at least once a week. Otherwise it will be too hard to push the reel mower through the longer grass.

If you get a rotary mower you don’t need to have a mowing schedule – you just mow as you feel like it. This is why rotary mowers are more popular… Despite being louder, requiring maintenance and costing more – they are more convenient because they mow tough grass and they require little effort compared to a reel mower.

Verdict

A rotary mower is more convenient.

How To Start Mowing With a Reel Mower

There’s nothing special you need to do to start mowing with a reel mower.

First, you will need to buy a push reel mower from Amazon, The Home Depot, Lowe’s or your local mower centre.

Then, you will need to mow your lawn and keep it below 2″ so pushing the reel mower isn’t too much effort each time.

From there: Keep a regular mowing schedule and sharpen the blades every season.

What About Powered Cylinder Reel Mowers?

To combine the amazing cut quality of a reel mower with the convenience of powered rotary motor you can get a powered cylinder reel mower. It is a reel mower setup powered by a gas engine or electric motor instead of you walking/pushing.

These lawn mowers are used by professional sports field maintenance crews around the world. From baseball field grass to soccer fields to football fields to golf greens – powered reel mowers are the greens equipment of choice.

Let’s have a look at the gas powered and battery powered reel mowers on the market.

Gas Powered

A gas powered cylinder reel mower uses a small gas engine to turn the spiral blades at speed. They have self propelled options and combine the best of rotary and reel mowing.

You will pay $1,000s for the convenience and mow quality, which is out of reach for most.

Battery Powered (Allett Stirling)

The first battery powered cylinder mower is the one pictured below by Allett Stirling.

Allett Stirling battery powered reel mower

It uses the 56V EGO Power+ battery system and comes with various cartridges to go from mowing to aerating to de-thatching in under 1minute.

This cylinder reel mower is the best of the best and will not be ideal for most homeowners because it costs $7,000+.

Something to dream of…

Here’s a video talking about the Allett Stirling and how good it is:

The Bottom Line

If you want the best quality mow for your lawn grass then the reel mower is better than the rotary mower. But you will work for the highest quality cut by powering the reel mower yourself (pushing it).

If you want the most convenience, including a self propelled mower, then you will want to buy a Honda or Toro rotary mower.

About your guide: Jamey Kramar is a certified Lawn Care Manager and a Mechanical Engineer by trade. He has been writing about outdoor power equipment for 11 years and has been quoted in NYTimes, Popular Mechanics, HowStuffWorks, iFixit, Realtor.com, and more. He spends his spare time disassembling things and also building an off-grid cabin at his 200-acre property.