When we purchased our rural land several years ago, one of the first tasks I hoped to accomplish was clearing land for a storage building. I also wanted to plow some small, fallow fields that had become overgrown with brush over the years. One of the lessons I learned from those early projects is that whether you’re clearing land or harvesting timber, land management is much easier and more efficient if you have the right tools for the job.
The only tools I had available at the time were a chainsaw — which was underpowered for the tasks at hand — a shovel, and a mattock. I also owned an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and a trailer with all-terrain wheels designed for hauling material. After about a day of extensive work with these tools, I only managed to make a small dent in clearing the needed space for my building project. On my way home that night, I stopped at my local hardware store, and, after a discussion with a knowledgeable salesperson, I walked out with a new chainsaw. I also rented a self-propelled brush mower to use the next day.
The new chainsaw and sharpened chain allowed me to cut trees faster and much more efficiently than my underpowered saw. Using the rental brush mower, I was able to cut brush and saplings that had grown up at the field edges and clearings — some up to 2 inches in diameter — with minimal physical labor, and much quicker than before.
In the years since those first projects, I’ve cut and maintained trails through the woods and felled many trees for heating and firewood; along the way, I’ve compiled a list of the equipment I’ve found most helpful.
A good chainsaw is probably the best investment you can make for clearing and maintaining rural acreage. Chainsaws are an invaluable tool for trimming trees, cutting up blown-downs, clearing trails, and providing fuel for your home. Deciding what type and size of chainsaw you’ll need involves taking the time to evaluate what your primary uses of the chainsaw will be. If you plan on using it only occasionally for trimming branches or cutting up a downed tree, you can get by with a lighter-duty chainsaw. However, if you need to cut enough wood to heat your home, or if you’re planning to clear large tracts of woods, you’ll need a chainsaw that can handle heavy-duty, prolonged work.
Two things determine chainsaw power and capability: bar length and engine size, or displacement. Medium-duty bar lengths run in the 16-to-18-inch range and are most suitable for cutting smaller trees and limbs. They’re typically lighter in weight, and when matched with a good engine, they can be efficient for day-to-day use. Chainsaw bars that are 20 inches or longer can handle larger trees and are suited for projects such as storm cleanup and cutting firewood. Longer bars require larger engines, and the weight of the longer bar coupled with the heavier engine can put a lot of strain on your body when used for extended periods of time.
I’ve used a chainsaw with a 16-inch bar for many years, and I’ve found it to be efficient for the majority of the felling and trimming jobs I’ve encountered. It’s lighter than a 20-inch bar, which means less fatigue at the end of a long day of cutting wood. That being said, although I’ve downed larger trees with the 16-inch chainsaw, it’s really pushed to its limit in those situations, which makes the job more difficult.
Before you buy a chainsaw, do some research and talk to knowledgeable salespeople. Ask to lift various-sized chainsaws to gauge their weight and your comfort level. A chainsaw that’s too heavy for your ability can be both tiring to use and hard to control, ultimately leading to an increased risk of danger.
Pole saws allow you to keep your feet on the ground instead of using a ladder to trim limbs that are higher than you can safely reach. They come in both manually operated and powered models. Manual versions have a single fixed blade that’s pulled back and forth to create a sawing motion; they’re designed for limited duty on smaller limbs. Powered pole saws use either gas, batteries, or electricity, and have a chainsaw-type bar and chain attached to the pole shaft instead of a fixed blade. They’re a great choice for areas that require a lot of limb trimming and tree maintenance. Like chainsaws, pole saws come in various engine and bar size options. Evaluate your needs, and choose one that’s appropriate for your workload and type and frequency of use.
Cutting overgrown brush is time-consuming, difficult work. When I use the term “brush,” I use it to describe anything from tough waist-high grasses to deciduous brush — red willow, buckthorn, etc. — to small tree saplings. If you own a tractor that has a three-point hitch and power takeoff (PTO), a brush mower will be an invaluable addition to your woodlot equipment. Mowing fields overgrown with heavy weeds and grasses, cutting brushy areas that infringe on field edges, and cutting and maintaining trails through wooded areas can all be easily accomplished with a brush mower paired with the appropriate-sized tractor.
If you don’t own a tractor, you can rent or purchase a brush mower that can be pulled by an ATV. There are also walk-behind, self-propelled models that are amazingly tough and able to clear large areas of brush or overgrown fields in a day. These smaller brush mowers have their own power source — usually a gas-powered motor — and they come in various engine and mowing deck sizes. The walk-behind brush mowers are self-propelled, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require a lot of physical labor to operate. They can be heavy, and they require great attention to safety when operating because of their power and weight, especially when operated on rough terrain.
If your need for clearing brush is more limited, or if you need a tool to maintain previously cleared areas that aren’t too extensive, you may want to consider a heavy-duty string trimmer with a string head that can be swapped for a brush-cutting blade. Matched with the correct power head, these brush cutters make quick work of overgrown brush or saplings up to 2 inches in diameter. The brush cutter attachment will allow you to get into areas that would be impossible to navigate with a pull-behind or self-propelled mower, such as against buildings or fences.
After you’ve cut down trees and cleared out the brush, there’s likely to be some stumps left behind that you’ll want to remove. Stump-removal techniques range from chemical application to burning, but if you have a lot of stumps to take out and need to level the land, using a stump grinder is often the best solution.
If you’re unfamiliar with stump grinders, they resemble push lawn mowers, but use a multi-toothed cutting wheel powered by a gas engine to repeatedly strip away small pieces of wood as the blade is worked back and forth over a stump. Stump grinders come in many different sizes, and they can be rented at most equipment rental stores. They can be hazardous to operate, and they require both the strength and stamina to continually move the blade over the stump. If you aren’t confident in your ability to safely handle a grinder, hire a professional.
If you cut trees and clear brush near a road with good access, a standard trailer works well for hauling wood. However, you may find yourself working away from a decent road, which can make it difficult to get your cut firewood or logs back home. If you own an ATV or a smaller subcompact tractor, you may want to invest in a trailer that’s designed for off-road work.
These all-purpose trailers are usually constructed of either polyethylene or powdered coated steel, and they’re equipped with large flotation tires that allow for driving over rough terrain. They come in single- and double-axle versions, and can haul loads up to 2,000 pounds. Some all-purpose trailers come with electric brakes to help control large loads, and are equipped with the ability to dump the load by either a manual lever, a winch, or electric power.
I’ve used my ATV to tow an all-purpose trailer for more than 10 years, and I’ve found the trailer to be extremely useful for all sorts of projects. Besides being a great asset in the woodlot, it also makes moving gravel, soil, and rocks much easier. It’s also useful when erecting or maintaining fences, and the compact size allows me to get into tight spots that would be impossible with a larger trailer.
Other Tools for the Woodlot
Here are some additional tools I’ve found useful when cutting trees or clearing brush:
Timberjack. A Timberjack is a log lifter and roller with a long handle that’s equipped with a pivoting hook at the end and a balancing “foot” at the bottom. The tool works by hooking the log and rolling it back onto the foot at the bottom of the hook. This allows you to lift the log so you can use a chainsaw to cut off lengths of the log without hitting the ground. It’s also helpful in moving logs for loading.
Sawbuck. A sawbuck is a device for holding wood so it can be cut into sections. You can make a sawbuck by using 2x4s to form two or more X-shaped legs, spaced several feet apart, and connected with straight boards along the sides. Logs are laid horizontally across the sawbuck, making it easy to cut them to the desired length. There are lots of designs online for sawbuck construction, and portable metal versions can be found in farm supply stores or online.
Mattock. Sometimes called a “grub hoe,” a mattock has a hoe on one end and a cutting head on the other. Mattocks come in weights of 5 to 8 pounds and are used to dig up and expose roots. The sharp end can then be used to chop through roots when clearing brush or stumps.
Brush grubber. A brush grubber is a great device for pulling shallow-rooted trees and brush with the aid of a tractor or an ATV. The grubber has two sets of teeth on a spring-loaded jaw that’s attached to a steel bar with a hitch attachment on the end. The teeth clamp onto a tree or brush, allowing you to pull it out along with the roots.
A regular Grit contributor, Tim Nephew lives in rural Minnesota, where he owns and maintains 80 acres of wildlife habitat.