Trimming Tools for the Homestead
By Tim Nephew | Sep 14, 2020
When we purchased our 80 acres, it was pretty raw land. The truck and tractor trails back to a few small fields were overgrown with brush and weeds, and the fence line that separated our property from others was barely visible through the tall grass. Trees lined the road into the property, but left unattended, they had started to grow over the road, and limbs needed to be trimmed and cut back.
I was excited to start clearing and trimming, but I quickly found out that I would need a new set of tools much different than the kind I had hanging in my garage in town. Trying to clear the tall grass and weeds with my light-duty string trimmer soon turned into frustration with the weeds clogging the trimmer due to lack of power. I had a light manual pole trimmer, but it would be no match for some of the limbs I would need to cut back over the road. Here are a few maintenance tools that I’ve found helpful, if not necessary, to have in the shed when it comes to trimming and rural acreage maintenance.
Clearing grass around buildings, trees, fence posts and fence lines can be a time-consuming task. You can greatly reduce the length of time you spend trimming with a quality string trimmer.
Most people are familiar with the basic makeup of a string trimmer: It consists of a two- or four-cycle gas engine attached to either a curved or straight shaft that ends with a trimmer head that holds spools of heavy nylon “string” or cord. The type of string trimmer typically used by homeowners tends to be more of a light-duty trimmer with a smaller engine and a curved shaft.
These light-duty trimmers are quite adequate when used for basic trimming like around sidewalks, trees, and flowerbeds, but they lack the power to handle overgrown grassy areas that may contain taller, thicker weeds such as Canadian thistle or milkweed, which will end up wrapped around the trimmer’s head instead of being cut off.
Heavy-duty professional-type string trimmers are a good choice around the farmstead or rural acreage. These trimmers have a more powerful engine that is usually attached to a straight shaft. The professional-type trimmers may also be equipped with a loop or bike handle configuration to aid in control of the added weight and to help ease arm strain with prolonged use. An added feature of these trimmers is that many allow for the interchanging of various attachments by replacing the head of the unit. Switching out the trimmer head for a grass edger, mini garden cultivator, or even a hedge or pole pruner is easy and saves the cost of purchasing individual tools.
One of the best attachments of a professional trimmer that I have used extensively is the brush cutter. The brush cutter replaces the string trimmer with a circular saw blade. Matched with the correct power head, these brush cutters can make quick work of overgrown brush or saplings up to 2 inches in diameter. The brush cutter attachment allows you to get into areas where a pull-behind mower would be impossible to navigate. The straight shaft on the trimmer even allows you to reach under decks or overhangs to get at tough-to-reach areas.
I don’t know too many people who own rural property and don’t own at least one chainsaw. They’re an invaluable farm tool.
Deciding on what type and size of chainsaw you need involves taking the time to decide what your primary uses of the chainsaw will be. Do you plan on using it occasionally, or will you use it to heat your home? If you are planning on clearing large tracts of woods, you may need a chainsaw that can handle heavy-duty, prolonged work.
But fatigue in operating a chainsaw is not a good thing, so try to choose something adequate for the job at hand, but not too big simply for the sake of “more power.”
The first step is to determine the bar length that you will need. Medium-duty bar lengths run in the 16- to 18-inch length and are most suitable for cutting smaller trees and removing limbs. They are typically lighter in weight, and when matched with a good engine can be very efficient for day-to-day use.
Most professional grade saws have bars that are 18 to 20 inches or longer and can handle larger trees and things like storm cleanup or cutting firewood. Longer bars — 20 inches and higher — require larger engines, and the combined weight of the longer bar coupled with the heavier engine may put a lot of strain on your body when used for extended periods of time. Again, it’s important to determine your primary use before deciding what saw will best meet your needs.
I have had the same 16-inch chainsaw for over 20 years and have used it for both trimming limbs and major storm cleanup, and I have been very satisfied with its performance. I have also cut down some very large trees with it, but it is not as efficient and pushes the saw to its limits for those types of jobs. If I were planning on cutting firewood to heat my home or clearing large numbers of trees, I would definitely look at a chainsaw with an 18- to 22-inch bar to handle the increased workload.
When looking for a chainsaw to purchase, make sure that price isn’t the first consideration. You may spend more for a quality chainsaw, but if you follow proper maintenance, you will get many years of reliable service from it.
It’s imperative — especially with chainsaws — to go to a dealer and discuss your needs. Ask to lift the saw to determine if it’s something you will feel comfortable handling for long periods of time. Chainsaws can cause life-threatening injuries if mishandled, and using a heavy, long-barred saw can cause fatigue and lead to accidents. Safety gear is a necessity with chainsaws, and I recommend a good combination helmet that has ear protection and a face screen, and either protective chaps or pants.
Pole saws are just what their name implies — saws on the end of a long pole. One of the most important benefits of the pole saw is that it allows you to keep your feet on the ground instead of using a ladder to trim out-of-reach limbs
Pole saws can be found in either manual or powered versions. The manual saws are nice for limited duty on smaller limbs. Most have an extending pole to which a fixed, typically curved, saw blade is attached. They are operated manually by pulling the saw on the back stroke across the limb. They work surprisingly well on small- to medium-sized limbs, but can be quite tiring to use for an extended amount of time.
Powered pole saws are typically gas powered, and instead of a fixed blade they have a chainsaw-type bar and chain attached to the pole shaft. Powered pole saws are a great choice for properties that require a lot of limb trimming and tree maintenance. Like most power tools, pole saws come in various engine and bar size options depending on the workload or the type and frequency of use. As mentioned earlier, some models of string trimmers allow for the interchange of work heads such as pole saw attachments. It is much less expensive to add a pole saw head to the shaft of your existing trimmer than to purchase a standalone powered pole saw for limited use. However, if your use of the pole is more extensive, a dedicated pole saw tends to be more powerful and efficient.
Pruners and lopper shears
Pruners and lopper shears are usually used in conjunction with each other when doing lighter trimming, and are excellent with newly planted young trees of any variety.
Bypass pruners are used for just about any type of trimming or pruning of plants, bushes, and trees. They get the name “bypass pruner” from the way the blades overlap like scissors. They are spring-loaded, which allows for one-handed use, and they are used for trimming living wood. These are popular for use on fruit growers that require annual pruning. If you invest in a good pair of pruners, you will have them for life. Cleaning, sharpening, oiling after use, and avoiding cutting too-large material will help ensure their long-term use.
Lopper shears are designed to cut larger material than pruners and can cut branches up to 1-1⁄2 inches in diameter. There are two types of loppers: bypass and anvil shears. Bypass shears are best for cutting live branches or final cuts after the initial cut has been made. Anvil shears have a blade that cuts against a soft metal plate and are best used for cutting large dead branches, as their action tends to crush the wood as they cut.
Both shears have longer handles of varying length depending on use. Lopper shears also require cleaning and sharpening after use. Some models have enhanced ratcheting capabilities to power through thick wood and to act as an aid to people with less strength. Again, purchasing quality shears means years of service if they are well maintained.
A regular GRIT contributor, Tim lives in rural Minnesota, where he owns and maintains 80 acres for wildlife habitat.
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