Reel Mowers vs Rotary Mowers

Most people do not understand that there are different types of lawn mower, they just assume that pretty much all mowers are the same as long as the cut grass.

The truth is that there are two main types of design for a lawn mower, a rotary mower, which cuts the grass by spinning a large blade horizontally, like a large helicopter blade, and a reel mower, which cuts by trapping grass between a blade attached to a rotating cylinder and one attached to the body of the mower, like a pair of scissors.

Reel Mowers

Reel Lawn MowerReel mowers are the push type of mowers you normally see in old movies or remember your grandfather using.  Back then it was the main type of mower available because it didn’t need an engine to work, all of the power needed to cut the grass could be gained from the movement of the mower as the user pushed it along.

The reel mower normally uses a series of gears and chains to allow the cylinder or reel containing one half of the cutting blades to spin at a much faster speed that the wheels that are moving the mower along.  The other cutting blade is normally fixed to the underside of the mower at the height the grass will be cut to, and as the mower moves along grass gets trapped between these two blades and precisely cut in the same way it would be between two scissor blades.

On most modern reel mowers the height of the blades can be adjusted, normally by raising or lowering the main drive wheels moving the entire mower up or down to reach the desired grass height.

There are reel mowers with both gas and electric motors attached, which can make mowing quicker if you have a larger yard as reel mowers with motors are usually self propelled, meaning it drives itself forward, and your job is just to steer and stop as required.

Pros of Using a Reel Lawn Mower

  • Produces a clean cut, which is better for healthy grass
  • Produces less pollution (noise and gas/exhaust smells)
  • Safer, slower spinning blades reduce the risk of ‘launching’ stones or other debris
  • Easier to use, no mixing of gas or complicated starting procedures
  • Easier to push (as most don’t have a 50lb motor attached)

Cons of Using a Reel Lawn Mower

  • Doesn’t cut very long or wet grass very well
  • Takes longer to cut the same amount of grass than with a powered rotary mower
  • Requires blades to sharpened more often

Rotary Lawn Mowers

rotary mowerRotary mowers are the type of lawn mowers you are most likely to see if you walk down a suburban street while people are doing their yardwork, or for sale in a department store.  They cut the grass by having a large blade quickly spinning horizontally driven by a small gasoline motor attached to the top of the mower.  This spinning blade has two jobs, to create airflow from underneath the mower out through the collection bag to create suction which lifts the grass up closer to the cutting blade.  The second job is to actually cut the grass, but due to the fact there is no second surface to cut against, it tends to be more of a tearing action that a cutting action as you can see in the comparison picture.

Comparison of grass cut with a reel mower and grass cut with a gas rotary mower.

Comparison of grass cut with a reel mower and grass cut with a gas rotary mower.

The sucking effect also creates the problem of sucking up any dust or dried dirt, creating much more pollution in the air than just the motor fumes by themselves.  It can also suck up smaller stones into the path of the fast moving blade, causing them to be fired out of the side of the mower in random directions.

While the blade on a rotary mower does need sharpening less frequently than the ones on reel mower, it still needs sharpening much more frequently than most people do it.  Luckily for them the blade is still able to tear the grass to the desired height, but a sharper blade would cause less damage to the grass.

Pros of Using a Rotary Lawn Mower

  • Copes better with long or wet grass than a reel mower
  • Is normally slightly quicker to cut the same area of lawn

Cons of using a Rotary Lawn Mower

  • It’s cutting style damages the grass
  • Overall, more maintenance is required
  • Even though they have an engine, most still require pushing and are far heavier than their reel mower equivalents
  • Normally more expensive to buy, and have higher ongoing costs (gas)
  • Can be dangerous due to the fast spinning blade and sucking up debris


It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to you given you are on a site about reel lawn mowers, but we in the battle of reel mowers vs rotary mowers, we think the winner is the reel mower.

While the rotary mower may be slightly quicker to use, the fact that it is bigger, heavier, noisier, more expensive, more dangerous and worse for your grass means we think the reel mower is the hands down winner here.

If you have a very large plot of land that you need to cut, there are tow behind reel mowers that can be attached to small tractors and conventional ride on mowers so you don’t need to revert to a rotary ride on mower and suffer the damage to your grass.