How to Use a Brush Cutter
Tips for Handheld Brush Cutters
Mowers are great for maintaining a lawn, but they’re simply not designed to trim every space.
A brush cutter is one of the most versatile lawn care tools you can have at your disposal. Not only can handheld brush cutters trim the edges of your yard the way string trimmers would; they also can be fitted with blades instead of line to take down thicker kinds of growth:
- Tall prairie grasses
- Reeds and ferns
- Shrubs and brush
- Small trees and saplings
Because handheld brush cutters can cut down larger, heartier plants, using them involves a lot more care and a few tips and considerations beyond what you’d keep in mind while using a regular string trimmer.
Brush Cutter Safety Gear
A note of advice: nothing in this article is meant to replace the instructions provided in a product manual or in the brush cutter use and safety training required for many outdoor professionals and volunteers. Always read the product manual before use and comply with safety training standards.
If that advice sounds severe, it’s because brush cutters truly are powerful pieces of equipment. You can tell from the amount of safety gear required and recommended when using one.
There are the pieces of safety gear that OSHA requires:
- A hard hat
- Hearing protection
- Eye protection (mesh face shields are acceptable, but they provide more protection when paired with safety glasses)
Additionally, many work sites and professional organizations require long pants or chaps for anyone using a brush cutter. The shins and lower legs are well within the range of a brush cutter’s line and blades and should be protected as much as possible.
There also are the pieces of safety gear that are strongly recommended if not required by most work sites:
- Boots (steel toe, non-slip)
- Padded gloves (for protection and absorbing vibrations)
- A safety vest if working in public areas
With the right gear in place, you’ll be on your way to putting your brush cutter to good use.
Brush Cutter Blades and Attachments
As mentioned above, a brush cutter can use line to trim grass around the edges of a property. However, the real advantage of using a brush cutter (aside from the high engine power it offers) is the ability to fit it with metal blades.
Different types of brush cutter blades work best for cutting different kinds of growth:
- Blades with 8 or fewer teeth: grass and weeds
- Blades with 9-40 teeth: thick weeds, brush, and shrubs
- Blades with more than 40 teeth (also called circular saws): brush, small trees, and saplings
One exception is the tri blade, also called a brush knife. Its design allows it to cut through scrub brush and reeds. However, certain manufacturers’ brush knife attachments are lightweight and designed for cutters with lower horsepower engines (around 25 cc). Only use the blades recommended for your brush cutter.
Whenever you change the blade (which you always should wear gloves to do), you also should change the debris shield or deflector. The deflector is the plastic shield that covers the string or blade closest to the user’s legs. For each kind of brush cutter attachment, there’s a deflector designed to fit it:
- Deflector with cutting blade: for use with string trimmer line; automatically trims line that has been pulled out too far from the head
- High-visibility deflector: for use with string trimmer line and grass blades
- Deflector with skirt: for use string trimmer line, grass blades, and brush blades; provides extra protection from flying debris but not from metal fragments
- Limit stop deflector: for use with circular saws; holds the brush cutter steady against small trees
Every brush cutter blade also will list its arbor size. The arbor size is the diameter of the hole at the center of the blade through which the mounting screw passes. A common arbor size is 1”; always check your brush cutter’s manual to determine the arbor size its blades should have.
After you’ve fitted your brush cutter with the right attachment for the work you need to do, the next question to tackle becomes how to use brush cutter blades.
How to Use a Brush Cutter with Blades
Using brush cutter blades is easy to do, provided that you pay attention to your technique.
No matter what style of brush cutter blade you’re using, always hold your brush cutter with the cutting blade parallel to the ground while it’s in use. Adjust the cutter’s harness so that the brush cutter sits comfortably in this position, with the back of the handle or barrier bar resting against your hip.
Every brush cutter is a straight shaft trimmer. That means that every brush cutter has blades that rotate counterclockwise. And that means that it’s best to cut with the left side of the blade and move your brush cutter head toward the left.
If you use the right-hand side of the blade to cut (especially the front right section of the blade), you risk what’s called kickout or blade thrust. Kickout is a quick jerk or jump of the brush cutter, almost as if it struck a barrier and recoiled.
Kickout is less of a concern when trimming grass than it is when cutting saplings. The harder and denser the object you’re cutting, the greater the risk of kickout.
In addition to holding the cutting blade parallel to the ground and cutting denser growth with the left side of the blade, there are tips to keep in mind for each type of vegetation you might face:
- Grass and weeds
- Thick shrubs and scrub brush
- Trees and saplings
Cutting Grass and Weeds
To trim clusters of grass and weeds with your brush cutter, sweep your cutter back and forth in long arcs as if you were using a scythe.
Hold the cutter so that the head and the blade hover just barely above the ground.
Cutting Thick Brush
To cut down thick, tangly shrubs with a brush knife, starting at the base of the plant might not be the easiest option.
Instead, start by raising the brush cutter’s head about as high as your waist, keeping the blade parallel to the ground. Slowly lower the cutter’s head onto the brush until the blade is just above the ground.
Never raise the blade above waist height.
Cutting Small Trees and Saplings
A brush cutter with a circular saw blade is best used on trees with trunks less than 2” in diameter. Trees larger than that should be felled with a chainsaw.
Hold your brush cutter with the blade 2-8” above the ground. Start the cutter and bring the left side of the blade against the right side of the tree.
Let the left side of the limit stop deflector rest against the tree to help hold the brush cutter in place.
Keep the cutter steady until it has made its way through the trunk of the tree.
The Versatility of Brush Cutters
Brush cutters are some of the tried-and-true tools of landscaping and habitat restoration professionals. Their versatility makes them useful for clearing and maintaining even the most challenging spaces.
However, with some care and attention to detail, homeowners and professionals alike can clear their way to a neat, healthy outdoor property.