New blades defang power lawn mowers

A few years back, Buford Whitman was relaxing in his South Haven, Miss., home when a TV commercial attracted his attention. It was promoting the need for care in operating power lawn mowers. To emphasize the point, some graphic accident statistics were presented. There had to be a safer way to keep the lawn trim, he reasoned, and he promptly set about trying to find a way.

Even earlier, Richard Houle of Phoenix, Ariz., had set about tackling the same problem after his own rotary mower had picked up a stone and hurled it at a nearby child.

Working quite independently, the two men have come up with a solution: a flexible safety blade that cuts the lawn as well as rigid steel but which will do little more than vibrate a shoe-covered foot, should one accidentally come in contact with the spinning rotor. Nor will they sever garden hose or cut the power cord of electric mowers. In addition, the give in the blades is such that they will not turn wayward stones or other hard objects into missiles. The two products are known as the Miracle Grass Blade and the Safe-T-Blade, respectively.

At a recent Garden Industries of America trade show here, I put my foot into both types of spinning safety blades, which had been attached to electric mowers. The action did little for the shine on my shoes, but my foot felt no discomfort at all. Movies of the two blades in action indicated that they cut every bit as efficiently as steel.

A writer for Popular Science magazine, who tried out the Safe-T-Blade, had this to say: ''If a rubber blade for your rotary walk-behind sounds a bit silly, think again. After cutting some heavy, damp, spring grass with one, I couldn't tell the difference in performance from a conventional steel blade, except that it seemed a bit quieter.''

The Safe-T-Blade is a rubber-and-nylon adaptation of the conventional steel rotary blade; the Miracle Grass Blade, in contrast, is a multibladed, fan-type cutter. It is made up of a central metal hub with 24 replaceable nylon blades.

The Safe-T-Blade has a central, balanced metal bar embedded in a bond of rubber and ballistic nylon. The flexible cutting edges of the blade protrude some three inches beyond the metal bar. As the cutting edges wear away, the woven nylon cutting core is constantly being exposed, so that the blade is self-sharpening. The blades are designed to fit 17- to 22-inch mowers, the ends being readily trimmed off to fit the smaller diameters.

When Mr. Whitman began working on the Miracle Grass Blade, he quickly found that a central hub with limp cords attached would readily cut grass and that, within limits, the more cords he added the easier the cutting and the better the cut. He tried everything from fishing line to leather boot laces, but none of them were durable enough.

Eventually he hit on a tough, nylon-type substance that, when formed into narrow (1/4-inch) blades, would provide several seasons of good, clean cutting. He made the blades flat, because round cord rips rather than cuts the grass (so do dull steel blades), resulting in the grass tips turning brown.

Daily mowing over several months suggests that the replaceable blades will last for three seasons on the average home lawn. The central hub is such that ''your great-granddaughter could still be using it when she is an adult,'' Whitman says.

Both blades, which anyone with a wrench can readily attach to a conventional rotary mower, are being made available through garden centers. The Safe-T-Blade currently retails for $12.95; the Miracle Grass Blade for $24.95, but the bulk of that cost is for the durable hub. Replacement blades are $2.95 for a set of 24. For further information write to Safe-T-Blade Inc., 6040 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, Ariz. 85014 and Whitman Enterprises, 4400 Martin Moline Road, Milbury, Ohio 43447.

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