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Reel vs. Rotary Mowers

When it comes to purchasing a new lawn mower, homeowners are often faced with the decision of choosing between a reel and rotary lawn mower.

Frequently asked questions are: What is the difference between the two options? Which mower best fits the needs of my lawn? What is the cheaper option?

This blog explores the differences between each type of mower along with the various factors a homeowner may consider when making this purchase.

Homeowners must consider several factors when making the decision between a reel vs. rotary mower.

The decision should be dependent on the type of grass the homeowner has, the way the lawn is most commonly used, the shape and size of the terrain that needs mowing and how often the homeowner plans to provide maintenance on the mower.

What’s the Difference?

Reel lawn mowers use a helical blade that meets a bed knife—almost like scissors. It is important to note that there are two types of reel mowers: a push reel lawn mower and a gas-powered reel mower. Manual reel mowers are human propelled and therefore do not leave a carbon footprint whereas gas-powered reel mowers do. 

The main difference between a reel and rotary lawn mower is the cutting mechanism. Reel mowers blades spin with a horizontal shaft. The blades spin on a central axle that causes the reel to spin. The blades also create an updraft that makes the grass stand up so it can be cut. On the other hand, rotary mowers cut by high-speed impact similar to that of a machete that “whacks” the blades of grass like a helicopter wing. They cut in a horizontal position driven by a small engine. For this reason, reel mowers have a better quality cut. 

See the images below to get a better idea of how the different mowers work and what their blades look like:

The two images above illustrate the differences between a reel mower blade (left) and a rotary mower blade (right).

Terrain Shape & Size

Reel mowers are preferred for lower mowing heights (under an inch) whereas rotary mowers perform better at higher mowing heights. Reel mowers are more effective when the grass is not too long, wet, or undulating. Reel mowers also have a hard time chopping up twigs and going over rocks.

As you might expect, reel mowers are typically used for the lower mowing heights required for sports or golf surfaces, which are generally mowed several times a week.

For homeowners, reel mowers work best on warm season grasses such as St. Augustine, zoysia and bermuda grass due to the coarse texture of the varieties, making it easier to cut.

Rotary mowers cut a wide variety of grass species and heights. Manual reel mowers are human-propelled, meaning a person is pushing the mower.

This is why reel mowers are good for smaller plots of land and rotary mowers are useful for larger plots of land.


Reel mower blades work like scissors on a lawn. For this reason, the blades have to be regularly sharpened—for homeowners, typically annually.

Neglecting to sharpen the blades on a reel mower will result in ineffectively cut grass—perhaps damaging the grass and making it more susceptible to disease.

Although rotary blades are easier to sharpen than reel mower blades, gas-powered rotary mowers require the same annual maintenance as gas-powered rotary mowers (oil changes, air filter replacements and spark plug replacement).


Use correctly, both rotary and reel mowers are equally safe to use. Rotary lawnmowers have a blade that spins at around 3,000 RPM whereas gas-powered reel mowers have blades that run between 2,000 to 2,500 RPM.

The RPMs on a push reel mower are lower but increase as you walk faster. When using a manual reel mower, don’t run—that’s not safe—a brisk walking pace will generate sufficient RPMs to provide a good cut.


Manual reel mowers are more environmentally friendly than rotary mowers because they do not use gas. Electric and gas mowers require energy, and that energy requires fossil fuel. A human-powered mower relies on nothing but the human operator to make it work.


In general, push reel mowers cost a lot less than gas or electric rotary motors. However, gas-powered reel mowers can in some cases get just as expensive as rotary mowers, if not more.


A manual reel mower virtually makes no sound, eliminating the worry of waking neighbors on an early summer morning. Any gas powered or electric mower will make noise.

In conclusion, a push reel mower is a great tool to use for smaller lawns. If you don’t mind the workout, you can use it on larger lawns as well. However, if you want to save yourself the energy, you can use an electric or gas-powered reel mower, which will still cut your lawn cleanly without requiring excess physical exertion.

A rotary mower is always gas-powered or electrical, requiring less energy on your end, but it doesn’t cut the grass blades as cleanly or as low (under 1 inch) as a reel mower. However, a rotary mower with a sharpened blade is sufficient and very effective for most home lawns.

To learn more on lawn mower maintenance and how to prepare it for the winter, read our Winterizing Your Lawn Mower blog post. Our How to Sharpen Your Lawn Mower Blade article is also helpful.

For more information on mowing heights and frequencies for your specific grass breed, check out our Mowing page.

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