String Trimmers to Brush Cutters: The Wide World of Trimming Tools

String trimmers, brush cutters, edgers, and even the humble ax all have a place on your place, saving you time and effort.
By Allan Douglas
2013 Guide to Field and Lawn Care
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Many string trimmers come with head units that can be swapped for different jobs.
Photo By Allan Douglas
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Now that winter’s dormancy is past, our lawns and landscaping will once again begin to flourish with spring growth — often faster than we expect! Before you know it, you’ll need to be thinking about trimming so your backyard paradise doesn’t turn into the lost jungle. Keeping grass trimmed around walkways, decks, planters, under shrubs and around trees is just part of it; trimming the shrubs and smaller trees is also often part of the program. With a little planning and a few helpful trimming tools, keeping your property neat won’t be a hassle.

Power tools

String trimmer 
A string trimmer is an essential tool for anyone with a lot of ground to maintain. It gets into places where even a small walk-behind mower can’t: under bushes and fences, and around poles and landscaping. It’s also handy for mowing grass on steep slopes and in ditches.

A string trimmer is a hand-held power tool — generally using a small two-stroke gasoline engine or battery-powered electric motor — sporting a whirling head, which spins one, two or three strands of plastic “string” with enough force to cut grass and weeds. The plastic “string” wears as it is used, so the machines dispense more from a reel either automatically or manually, using a bump feed, to pay out more string as it wears or breaks off.

Weed Eater is a brand of string trimmer, but the term has been adopted as generic for string trimmers and is often used to refer to a trimmer head that uses pivoting plastic blades rather than string to do the cutting.

When choosing the right string trimmer, one of the first things to consider is whether your trimmer ought to have a straight shaft or curved shaft.

A straight-shaft trimmer is more durable, it transmits more of the engine’s power to the cutting head, and it offers a better reach for getting under ever-present obstacles like bushes and rail fences. It also runs with less vibration than a curved shaft when all other factors are equal. Some straight-shaft machines offer a split shaft that allows the user to change out the end attachment, using one engine to power string trimmer, edger, brush saw, hedge trimmer and a small pole chainsaw. This versatility makes straight-shaft trimmers very popular with professional landscapers and rural home owners with acreages.

On the other hand, straight-shaft machines are more expensive and somewhat heavier (because of the gear box on the cutter head). Also, straight-shaft machines may prove difficult to use for folks of less-than-average height.

A curved-shaft trimmer is lighter and has a shorter shaft, thus is easier to handle and is less expensive to purchase. It offers better visibility on open ground and reduces chances of scalping. These advantages make curved shafts popular with folks who use them for trimming up around a small lawn.

In addition to shaft design, you’ll also want to consider horsepower and ergonomics. If you plan to work in heavy grass or light brush, a larger engine might be worth the extra weight and cost, because the extra power will make your work much faster and easier. Well-placed handles, trigger, and a shoulder strap that fits your frame can take much of the fatigue out of long trimming sessions.

Brush cutter 
Brush cutters are designed to handle the stresses of cutting saplings and bushes up to about 1/2 inch in diameter. A brush cutter can be a heavy-duty version of a string trimmer with a steel cutting blade, or a walk-behind machine similar to a mower. They’re perfect if you have a small patch of scrub to maintain, but not enough to invest in a tractor and brush hog. Note that for really small patches, a heavy sickle or a pair of loppers might be just the ticket, particularly if you’d rather invest sweat than money.

Lawn edger 
Available as a power tool or a hand tool, edgers are difficult to beat for trimming grass away from sidewalks, patios and landscaping features. An edger features a cutting head on a stick with a wheel that runs along the sidewalk and a 6-inch (or so) blade that digs a shallow trough next to the concrete, eradicating encroaching grass or weeds. Electric edgers are common, but gas- and hand-powered models also can be found. Some string trimmers offer a pivoting head that can be turned and locked sideways and used as an edger, but the results are not often as neat and uniform as with a proper edger.

Hedge trimmer 
If you need to keep hedges or bushes shaped, a hedge trimmer is essential. This tool makes use of a reciprocating cutting bar that makes trimming long expanses of hedge or bushes faster and less strenuous than with shears. Hedge trimmers come in gas- and battery-powered models. As with other tools, gas engines offer nearly unlimited range and great power, but are often heavier and more awkward to use for delicate work.

Battery-powered tools don’t offer as much power or run-time as corded electric or gas, but are great for light work far from an outlet. Corded versions are light and easy to handle, as long as you keep the cord away from the cutter.

Hand tools

Pole pruner 
A pole pruner is handy for trimming smaller branches in trees that are too high to reach from the ground. Most manual pole pruners use a telescoping pole that extends up to 18 feet to reach high up into the tree. The rope-activated pruning cutter uses a pulley system and a levered cutting blade to give the mechanical advantage needed to cut limbs up to 1 inch in diameter. Most also have a curved saw mounted behind the cutter head for dealing with thicker branches. A powered pole saw also is available; it uses a motor on the ground end of a pole and a small chainsaw-style cutter on the business end. These come in both fixed-length shaft and telescoping shaft models.

Loppers 
This pruning tool has long handles to give you the leverage needed to cut through tough brush and small green branches up to 3/4 inch in diameter. Loppers are extremely handy for seasonal pruning of fruit trees, shaping small ornamental trees, cutting out heavy branches in shrubbery, and removing unwanted saplings at ground level. The long handles also make it easier to cut out brush at ground level without the need to get down on your hands and knees.

Loppers come in two styles: anvil and bypass. The anvil-style uses a straight blade that closes on a steel or brass “anvil.” This high-leverage design allows you to cut with increased force; this works perfectly on tough or woody branches and brush. The bypass-style pruner uses a curved pivoting blade that shears against a jaw giving a cleaner, scissorlike cut on light branches, flowers and vegetables. For trimming live branches, the cleaner cut of the bypass style is recommended by professional horticulturists because it limits the plant’s exposure to pathogens. Bypass loppers won’t stand up as well to use on tough, dead wood, however, so think about how you’ll use your tools before purchasing one style or the other.

Hand pruner 
A hand pruner is perfect for most small pruning chores like nipping off unwanted new growth in fruit trees or grape vines, as well as minor shaping of shrubs and bushes. They’re also helpful for harvesting in the flower garden and the vegetable patch. Pruners will fit neatly into a pocket or tool belt and, like loppers, they come in both anvil and bypass styles.

Ax or hatchet 
You can’t beat a hand ax or its smaller cousin, the hatchet, for cutting out roots of trees or bushes that have become exposed. Exposed roots are not only unsightly, but they also pose a tripping hazard and a threat to your lawn mower blades. Saws won’t work unless you dig out around the root, and dirt will ruin a chainsaw’s chain faster than you can say “Jiminy Cricket.” But an ax will push dirt aside and cut through the root with great efficiency — be vigilant for rocks, though!

Keep in mind that a hatchet also can be used for pruning limbs, but it leaves a ragged cut that might be more vulnerable to disease than that left by a saw or appropriate lopper. You might also consider adding a machete and splitting maul to your arsenal; the machete can often slice through clumped vegetation — such as shrub stems — that your hatchet bounces off of, and the maul offers the power to drive through the dirt surrounding a pesky root. In the same situation, an ax might get bogged down, and its fine cutting edge certainly wouldn’t benefit from the soil abrasion.

Choose the right trimming tools for the job at hand, and you’ll be able to accomplish your pruning tasks with much less time and effort.


Don’t own a home without it

The undisputed all-around champion of land maintenance is the chainsaw. Chainsaws are manufactured in a wide range of sizes, and you may be tempted to go for the “rancher” sized saws because of their superior bar length and horsepower. However, for trimming work, you’ll want one of the smaller saws that is nimble and light, making it easier to handle in close quarters and easier on your muscles for those long cutting sessions.

Small chainsaws also are available in electric and battery-powered versions and are great for light work. Battery-powered electric saws will handle branches up to 12 inches in diameter. For felling and bucking larger trees, a heavy-duty corded electric or gas model will provide the needed muscle.

Chainsaws are measured by bar length, from the tip of the cutter to the point where the chain enters the engine housing — the active cutting surface. Bar lengths for “homeowner” saws run from 14 to 24 inches (Stihl goes to 25 inches) in 2-inch increments. A 14-inch chainsaw is plenty big for trimming work, and for cutting small trees and firewood. If you need to cut down big trees and chunk up large logs, get a larger chainsaw suitable for that work, and use the small one for trimming.

You can get a chainsaw with a bar up to 6 feet long (Husqvarna 3120XP), but let’s leave those for the loggers, shall we?

For hand-tool enthusiasts, manual limb saws come in a variety of styles, from a light-duty bow saw for pruning branches to a two-man buck saw for felling trees and bucking logs. Choose a size and style that’s right for both you and the task at hand.


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