Even if you have only a modest patch of garden lawn on your smallholding, there will be grass growing along fencelines, driveways and sidewalks, as well as around important infrastructure such as water tanks and pumps, that will need periodic cutting. Therefore, one of the most useful and versatile pieces of machinery you can acquire will be a brushcutter, which is sometimes conflated with its smaller cousin the string trimmer, known in Australia as a strimmer, and sometimes also called a weedeater (which is a brand).
If the plethora of names given to these devices is a hint of anything, it is to show the vast variety of models available, and the uses to which they can be best put. And while it is common for newby smallholders to make the mistake of buying a machine that is too small for their purposes (we have all done it) because it is all they can afford at the time, manufacturers design their machines for specific work cycles.
So, just as the “goedkoop is duurkoop” option would be to buy a machine designed for an urban townhouse garden and then wonder why its motor burns out in one season when confronted by one’s smallholding, so it will be overkill to buy a top-or-the-range machine designed for municipal use with an operating cycle of eight hours a day for six days a week. Here, therefore, is a guide to what is available across the spectrum of the trimmer and brushcutter market.
At the smaller end of the market are the bent-shaft models, often powered by mains electricity (a long extension cord is thus necessary with all the inconvenience this entails). Small models exist with the motors positioned at the bottom of the shaft right above the cutting head, and at the top. When the motor is at the top the curved tube of the shaft contains a flexible drive contained in a series of bearings along its length and connecting the motor to the cutting head. Bent-shaft trimmers are going out of favour with manufacturers.
On these small models the cutting is done by nylon line, usually two lengths emerging from a storage container through two steel ferrules positioned opposite each other. The storage cylinder contains a spring-operated mechanism whereby tapping or bumping the string head on the ground while it is spinning causes another short length of line to emerge. Such heads are referred to as “bump feeds”. Newer battery-powered electric models are now available that obviate the need for a mains cable.
The advantage of electric models, whether mains- or battery-powered, is that they are much quieter than their bigger petrol cousins with, also, no emissions. The nylon line heads of both the smallest models and their bigger brothers are useful for trimming soft plants such as grass growing up against fences and brickwork, and weeds growing in paving. A certain amount of practice is required to ensure an efficient cut without wasting line as it tangles with fencing or wears down when encountering bricks or paving.
Another use is to turn the cutter on its side, so that the strings are spinning vertically. In this position one can quickly and accurately trim away grass that is encroaching one one’s flower beds, ie, as a makeshift edging tool. In addition to the newer electric and battery models small petrol powered bent shaft trimmers are also available.
Users will find these small trimmers ideal for work in their gardens, but too small for use on the larger expanse of a smallholding. For this a two-stroke straight shaft brushcutter is more suitable. Apart from having straight shafts, (with the angle of attack of the cutting head being levelled with the earth through a small gearbox at the bottom of the shaft) brushcutters give users much greater flexibility, as they can be fitted either with a nylon line cutting head or a blade.
While the nylon line head performs in the same way as it does on the small machines, trimming lawn grass up against brickwork and paving, the blade enables the machine to efficiently cut thicker swathes of veld grass and weeds. At the top of the range there are also professional models that can be fitted with circular saw blades, enabling them to cut through saplings and hard, woody material such as bamboo.
As the bigger cutters are heavy (at least in extended use) they are usually supplied with a harness which fits over the shoulders and helps to distribute their weight. The machine itself is attached to the harness by a quick-release catch. To give the operator greater control over the movement of the machine a slightly offset handlebar is fitted, on one side of which is a pistol-grip throttle and on-off switch.
One of the problems of any fast-rotating piece of equipment is vibration, and early machines were very fatiguing to use for any length of time, with one’s hands quickly becoming numb. And, woe betide one if one wore a wrist-watch as its mechanism would be quickly destroyed from the shaking. Happily, brushcutter manufacturers have made great strides over recent years in damping the inherent vibration caused by the engine, shaft and cutting head.
Given the nature of these machines and the use for which they are intended, they are inherently dangerous. Although they are fitted with high-impact plastic safety shields to the rear of the cutting head or blade, that is between the cutting head and the operator, the fact that the cutting head is spinning at such high speed can lead to soil, twigs, bits of wire or stone, or glass shards flying off in unpredictable directions, not to mention bits of nylon line and even chips of blades. For this reason the operator should at the very least wear heavy closed shoes, and long trousers such as denim jeans, although high-impact plastic leg protectors which strap on to the lower leg over one’s trousers are supplied for professional use. And, of course, eye protection is vital. For those who don’t wear spectacles safety goggles are best, but spectacle wearers will find these fog up very quickly. But another necessary health precaution, particularly when using a petrol-powered machine, is ear protection from the lasting effects of exposure to excessive noise.
Fortunately, the top brands such as Husqvarna and Stihl incorporate into their product lineup a full range of protective and safety wear, and both supply a combined safety hard hat fitted with ear muffs and a full-face nylon visor which enables one to wear one’s spectacles with ease underneath.