Cuttin' Up

They're the big brothers of string trimmers. They come in lots of sizes, from light-duty models handy for home-owner control of occasionally encroaching blackberries to big clearing units that are more efficient than chain saws for cutting vines and trees up to 4 inches thick. They're brushcutters, powerful saws-on-a-stick that have become indispensable for wood lots, tree farms, large residential grounds and farm maintenance.

Brushcutters are easy to recognize. Unlike trimmers, they require a harness to operate, have wide handlebar controls, special shock damping and shaft pads for comfort, and sport a rotary blade on the business end. Blade configurations are available from flails to 3- and 12-tooth blades and full-on saw blades. You can even mount a trimmer head if you like.

Regardless of the brushcutter you choose, when you start it up and wade in, you'll have more whack now than ever before. Brush, beware.


In British Columbia, battalions of forest keepers use brushcutters to clear out around desired trees and shrubs in forests, parks and tree farms. Woodlot owners across the United States use brushcutters to groom their grounds and trees. Builders often clear new homesite lots with brushcutters. And in the southern states, brushcutters keep kudzu at bay.

Because of their power, versatility and ability to cut tree trunks up to 4 inches thick, brushcutters are often preferred over chain saws in more and more maintenance situations.


There are some tricks to the brushcutting trade; however, a few things are best learned before you head out into the brambles.

For one thing, especially if you have a saw blade mounted, there is a definite cutting area to use. You can't just jam the tool into the trees any old way. The blade rotates counterclockwise. You can only cut right-to-left. And the cutting zone is from blade top to 90 degrees left. That's it. Hit a stiff stem with any other part of the blade and you'll have to deal with kickback.

Second, you should know when to switch blades. Soft stems are best handled by a saw blade; hard stems are not. For hard stems, you need a low-kick blade cutting attachment, such as a steel disc with chain saw teeth spaced around the outer edge.

In rugged country, with steep slopes or a lot of undergrowth, a low-kick blade is the best choice again. Why? Because with these blades, the cutting zone expands; there is no special 90-degree slot to worry about. You can position your tool in many directions, which is handy in tight quarters.

Rather than cutting with a chopping motion, feed the blade in slowly. That way you won't have to worry about bind, pinch or “smoke-and-stop.” You just keep cutting.

And last, never start your brushcutter up without checking blade sharpness. Cutting with a dull blade is hard on the machine, hard on you and can be a safety hazard. Besides, it's easy to renew the edges. All you need is a 7/32-inch saw chain file.


All brushcutters are engineered for performance and safe operation, but the fact remains they are powerful tools that are designed to cut. Observing proper procedures and being sensible and careful are critical for avoiding difficulty. Some tips include:

  • Wear the harness at all times. It's integral to suspension of the tool from your body and control of it in use.

  • Don't operate a bladed brushcutter that's not equipped with a handlebar or barrier. Period. The handlebar is what allows you to control the tool. It's also a barrier to injury if the tool is knocked loose in your hands.

  • Be mindful of the engine as you swing the tool. Don't let brush ends jab into it.

  • Wear eye protection. The spinning blade can throw things, so be ready.

  • Keep people at least 50 feet away from you, especially kids. This is important — most brushcutter accidents involve bystanders that move too close.

  • Rocks and wire — barbed wire in particular — can cause problems if your blade hits them. So be alert to conditions in your work area.

  • If you're using a small displacement tool to cut back blackberries or other vines, start at the top and work your way down rather than trying to cut from the bottom.

  • Equip your cutter with a strong debris shield. And if a special shield is recommended for the task you're doing, put it on.


Brushcutters are usually put through pretty harsh conditions and wear and tear is accelerated. If you work yours hard and want it to last, regular service is key. Keep fuel and fuel lines clean and stabilize fuel if you store yours for more than 30 days. Change spark plugs, air filters and fuel filters periodically so the engine tune stays sharp. Clear debris and dust from intake, cooling fins and muffler.

Engine care also is a factor. New-generation low-emission engines that are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California Air Resources Board (CARB) run hotter, use leaner mixtures, have tighter tolerances and allow a smaller margin of tuning error than older powerheads. Observing recommended service intervals and using correct settings become a much bigger deal.

Today's brushcutters can do a lot for you and your business, as long as you treat them right. Follow these proper usage and maintenance tips and your client's back 40 will not only look more orderly than ever, but your machine will enjoy a long and productive life.

Jay Larsen is a marketing manager at Shindaiwa, Inc. (Tualatin, Ore.).

Want to use this article? Click here for options!
© 2020 Penton Media Inc.

Interactive Products

Equipment Blue Book

Used Equipment Valuation Guide

Riding mowers, lawn tractors, snow throwers, golf carts


Grounds Maintenance Jobs

search our jobs database, upload your resume