So I bought a new toy, and I'm thrilled with it. But before I tell you about it, let's talk about small tree branches. Because those buggers are a problem!
I'm not talking about big branches the size of my arm or whatever. Those are just logs and poles that we haven't processed yet. Cut 'em down, cut 'em up, haul 'em away, done.
I'm talking about little branches, all kinds of twisty and branchy (and usually thorny), smaller than my thumb.
I don't know who designed trees, but they put too damned many of those little-fucker branches on there!
Before we get up to sawing size, the standard tools for cutting small branches are pruning shears and two-handed loppers. I mean, you can saw small branches; a chainsaw rolling at high speed just lasers through almost anything. But it's a safety nightmare; you're waving a dangerous instrument around your head and branches are catching, whipping, springing, flying ... it's not prudent.
Hand saws slow that process down and are somewhat safer, but not much. The branch moves with the saw, and you have to put your hand in there somewhere close to the danger zone to stabilize things. Even if you don't shred yourself, you'll catch a lot of thorns and sharpies. Gloves only do so much.
No, hand pruners and loppers seem best. But here, I've always had durability and workflow problems.
Durability: If your tool has enough leverage to cut a hardwood branch, you've got enough leverage to bend or break the tool. Sure, not true on smaller workpieces, but you're always going to cut until you can't. I hear rumors of really high quality (and expensive) tools that don't break at this point, but the nicest ones I've ever owned have all tended to break on me. Yeah, I'm sure I could try harder to not cut things that I think should cut, but honestly? My biggest branch problems are thorny trees with ludicrously hard/dense branches, like Osage Orange and HoneyLocust. I've been trying different hand tools for years with some success, but never much joy.
But then what?
I mean, we talk about chop and drop. But if you cut a seven foot branch and drop it, it's a trip hazard, and if it's one of the really durable tree types like the ones mentioned (or Eastern Red Cedar, also prevalent on this property) it won't rot away for a couple of years. It's also gonna complicate any sort of mowing or weed removal. Plus, and this is worse, the workflow is all wrong. Cut a branch with the loppers, it falls to your feet. If you don't put down the loppers and move the branch (to a pile?) you'll trip on it when you move your feet while reaching for the next branch. So you put down the loppers, pick up the branch, you can't practically cut it up without some different tool, so you throw it on a pile. Then you come back and try to find the loppers in the grass. Rinse, lather, repeat, a continuous blend of stumbling, tripping, and bending all the way to the ground. It sucks.
This is why I am delighted with my new toy, which is a one-handed electric pruner (sometimes called electric shears or electric scissors) from China, that works off a 21v 2000mAh lithium-ion battery. I have never seen these for sale in the USA, although some $300 ones of different design are said to be available. These ones cost me $140 with two batteries, two chargers, and a spare set of blades:
Yeah, that's a lot of money for electric loppers. I whiffled and wobbled a long time before I pulled the trigger. But here are the two Youtube videos that sold me on the product concept:
Watching these things in use made me think: hey, I could cut a branch, hold onto it with my left hand, and snip it into little pieces, dropping the twigs for the soil and collecting the finger-sized chunks in a bucket for firewood.
Let me tell you, it's been revolutionary for me. No moving my feet. No trip hazards left behind, just a carpet of twigs that will be brittle by spring. No bending to pick up branches or tools. Just work with tool and branch held in front of me at a comfortable height. It's a little bit slower than working with loppers, but the end result is much cleaner and more useful, and I'm at much less risk of hurting my aging body from tripping or too much bending.
The model I got is visible in the picture, but don't pay any mind to that brand name you never heard of. There are literally hundreds of different brands on Amazon, all from China. I strongly suspect there's just one manufacturer selling through Ali Aba and handling order fulfillment and drop shipment for all the different "brands" of resellers. But the offers do differ a bit on price and accessories. I found the sweet spot for me with this one, but you can type "electric pruners" into the Amazon search box and spend a few hours comparison shopping, perhaps fruitfully.
Working today on the huge osage orange tree in my front yard with branches drooping all the way down to the ground, I found that the shears would cut any branch up to about the size of my thumb (which is big as thumbs go):
As you can tell from that not-so-very-clean cut, I was being slightly ambitious. At that size I had to press the trigger several times while working the pruner around the branch. My goal is to avoid that, but it can be hard to predict exactly how big you can go on a given branch to get a single clean cut with one trigger press.
Because the unit is one-handed, I found that I could reach up and grab a soft branch tip way above my head (eight or nine feet up? I'm six-four) and pull it down with my left hand. Then, reaching up with the pruner (that extends 4-6 inches past where my hand can reach) I'd cut the branch. When the remainder of the branch snapped back up out of reach, the cut end would be at least ten feet up. Which is pretty awesome.
Now I'm standing with a branch in my hand. I found it worth the time to trim off the smaller twigs and branch ends (letting them fall back to the soil) until everything left in my hand was the size of a carpenter's pencil or so. Then I chopped up that -- well, now it's a stick -- into six inch chunks that I allowed to fall into a five gallon bucket. (When I go out in the woods I'll put several buckets or larger containers in my garden cart). The cuts go quickly -- pull the trigger, zhzhzht, release the trigger, zhzhzht as the jaws open automatically -- but you do spend a couple minutes on each limb. To me it's worth it though, because of the end result. Instead of an ugly brushpile or a lot of walking so that the ugly brushpile is out of sight, I get a bucket of firewood and a shallow carpet of small twigs (nothing bigger than a pencil, or more than a couple feet long) that will help build soil quickly. No trip hazard, no mower problems, and no frustration because I kept the same tool in the same hand for 45 minutes and only moved my feet a few times as I moved around the tree.
Battery life? Well, it came with two, and these are small enough that the spare fits in the right front pocket of my denim overalls. It burns enough juice to become warm to the touch in the palm of your hand that's holding the tool (I really should have worn gloves anyway). But you see that bucket; I must have made hundreds of cuts on the first battery, and it wasn't even slowing down after 45 minutes when my bucket got full. I never touched the extra battery.
Durability-wise, it seemed good. Unlike my loppers, it won't let me get too ambitious. The jaws don't open much farther than the biggest thing it will cut, and there's no way for an idiot human to apply sideways twists or torques that bend and break steel. The fact that it came with spare blades has primed me to expect breakage, but they seem thick and robust, and replacements are readily available from some of the same sellers as the tools.
Why did I call it a silly toy in the subject line? Well, it is a power tool that's roughly ten times the price of an old-fashioned hand tool that can be used to attack the same work. And it's uncertain to me how sustainable the whole industry of battery-electric tools is, although they seem to be preferred by most permies over gasoline-powered tools. So yeah, I fully some permies will see my rant about branches and respond with suggestions for better hand tools and better-designed systems that allow for more rational workflows. That's all fair enough.
But this thing is a genuine delight in the hand! It's just so much more fun to stand there, comfortably, and reduce annoying branches to useful fuel and mulch without bending, twisting, dropping tools, picking up branches, slogging, carrying, tripping, picking up tools, or cussing. We'll see if I still feel the same way in a month, but presently I am filled with glee over my too-much-money purchase.
A note on safety: For me, a heavy and not-very-fit person, the biggest safety hazard doing any kind of forest management work is always trips-and-falls. A flooded gopher hole got me three weeks ago and I pulled tendons in my left hand and right ankle going down and keeping my face out of the mud. I've upgraded my boots for better ankle support (because of the painful ankle tendon) and am more sure-footed now. But, bottom line, limbing trees is full of trip hazards, and the more you move around, the more chance of tripping. So that's my baseline risk, along with a lot of painful thorn pokes due to handling and moving branches of long and unwieldy sizes.
By letting me keep my feet still a lot more, carrying away nothing but buckets of firewood, I feel like my safety has greatly improved. And the cutting process itself moves no branches. Nothing moves but the blades, and they don't move much. So it's harder to make dynamic bloody mistakes. But you will have noticed, this thing looks like it would be exceptionally good at chewing fingers off the person who was careless enough to get the off-hand fingers between the cutters. I don't have a good suggestion there except for... well... don't ever put my fingers too close to the blades? Cutting things with hand tools is always going to have an irreducible quantum of risk to fingers, I think.
I have noticed that very-different-looking tools with similar functionality are available in US or famous international brands, at prices two or three times the Chinese units. Research tells me that they have some sort of fancy fast-reacting conductivity circuit in them (may account for some of the extra cost) that refuses to cut damp salty conductive things like fingers. The Chinese units emphatically do not have that circuit, so says everyone. There are also reports that green or wet branches of some species of trees mimic the electrical conductivity of fingers too closely, making the expensive units less functional. I am also just enough the cynic to suspect the protection circuit is a $20 item designed to reduce manufacturer's liability insurance costs (because they can claim they took every safety precaution in design) and the rest of the money is to compensate them for residual liability risk. Whereas a product liability judgement is never going to reach a Chinese company that's little more than an Ali Aba white-label. But I am well beyond knowledge and deep into speculation now.
I could not find any discussion here on Permies by anybody who has this toy/tool. It seems excellent for many chop-and-drop tasks. If you've got one, chime in! What do you think?
So, last night my 150lb white floof-dog (pet LGD) got put in the side yard for our temporary convenience. Side yard is a temporary no-money-spent enclosure around one of our doors that I made by sinking bark-on softwood pole/logs into our native clay subsoil in holes dug with a dirt auger, then strung with recycled chain link fencing and gate. Couple years later, their expected lifespan is nearing its end. A few red cedar poles cut at the same time are doing just fine. Anyway, monster dog got excited and reared up against the most vulnerable fence post (adjacent to the brick wall of the house but not affixed to it, also in the dripline from the roof so a very wet environment). Snapped that bad boy right off at ground level, leveled that end of the fence, and took off howling into the night. Fun, exciting, entirely predictable. What it means is that today I need a new cedar log to fix the fence.
It just so happens that there's a total mess of a red cedar tree choking off one of the gateways out of our yard. The tree itself is fine, growing as they do along the fenceline. But its fifteen foot branches sticking out into our travelways need to go. At ground level it's a mare's nest of dead branches, vines, and at least one mulberry sapling growing up through the branches that I'd like to save. But the tree as a whole presents as an impenetrable thicket, with no way to even get close enough to the base of any of the offending branches to cut them. The pain factor has prevented me from chopping my way in with loppers, and I haven't had a good enough reason to get after it. But now I need a pole, and one of the offending branches is just big enough.
Enter my new toy. I have been out there chewing on the tree with my electric pruners. After about an hour, I have a pile of limbs that still need processing, about 8 gallons of little sticks, and I have exposed the desired log/branch (jutting up and to the left in this photo) enough to get in at the base with my electric chainsaw:
Still very pleased with the toy. Took slightly longer than diving in with a gas chainsaw or heavy loppers, but much less painful, messy, or chaotic. I don't have any scratches or puncture wounds. I'm not exhausted; a cup of tea while I post this, and I can get back out there.
Today the rest of the tree gets a reprieve once that limb comes off, because I have a fence to fix. But now that I'm through its defenses, it will get a total shave on the side facing my yard, up to a height above my head. In my experience in this location red cedar trees have about a 50/50 chance of surviving such a severe haircut. I hope it does (there's an oil access road on the other side of that fence, so it serves a privacy function) but it's no harm if it dies. I can plant something a lot more columnar in that space.