How to Choose the Right Brush Cutter for the Job

From slicing tall grasses to mulching small trees, brush cutters make quick work of thick vegetation.

Need to expand a lawn, cut a trail through a field or clear an abandoned lot for a dream home? Brush cutters let homeowners and professional landscapers quickly tame properties covered in saplings, tall grass and other vegetation.

But which type of brush cutter should you choose when staring down a great wall of green? Brush cutters come in three styles: handheld, walk behind and tow behind. Here’s a quick guide to choosing the right brush cutter for the job.

Handheld brush cutter

Excellent for clearing tall grass and even saplings and for small brush-clearing projects that require detailing or maneuvering in tight spaces, handheld brush cutters are a more powerful version of a weed wacker. Instead of relying primarily on nylon cord to make cuts, these brush cutters often use various blade attachments to tear through small trees and thick vegetation.

Because their engines (available in electric, 2-cycle or 4-cycle varieties) are on the heavy side, most handheld brush cutters come with a harness and an adjustable ergonomic handlebar to reduce back strain.

Tips: When operating a handheld brush cutter, remember that the blade’s cutting zone extends from the top of the blade to 90 degrees left. Always move from right to left when cutting, pressing the head against the vegetation rather than using a swinging or chopping motion, to avoid kickback and machine malfunction.

Walk-behind brush cutter

Walk-behind brush cutters (or brush mowers) excel at clearing thick vegetation over larger areas. Some are capable of clearing several acres in only a few hours.

The most popular models feature either a single rotary blade beneath the cutting deck (offering fast, rough cuts) or multiple flail knives attached to a single drum (for slower, finer cuts). To enable operation over rough terrain and uneven terrain, walk-behind models include either a limited-slip or a full-slip differential. These machines may be capable of tackling saplings up to 2 inches in diameter, thick brush up to 6 feet tall and grasses and weeds over 8 feet.

Tips: When using a walk-behind brush cutter on unfamiliar terrain, take it slow and set the height of the mowing deck to high. Once you know what’s beneath you, a second pass at a lower setting will give you a finer cut. If you’re clearing brush on a hill, mow from side to side instead of up and down to more easily control the cutter and keep it from tipping onto you.

Tow-behind brush cutter

If you need to quickly clear a large area, consider using a tow-behind brush cutter. These rugged machines, also known as brush hogs, feature an articulating hitch to attach to an ATV or tractor. A power take-off connection (PTO) allows rotational energy to be transferred from the vehicle engine to the blades of the brush cutter.

Unlike with traditional mowers, the blades are generally dull but thick, allowing them to make quick work of large brush while withstanding strikes from large rocks, stumps or other debris. Tow-behinds also scale depending on the size of your project, with cutting decks ranging in size from 48 inches to 96 inches.

Tips: Go slow at first and learn what is and isn’t too big for the brush cutter to cut. (The user’s manual should also give that information.) Keep an eye on the temperature gauge, if the machine has one, to make sure the motor isn’t overheating.

Before you start

For any site you plan to clear, first walk the property to mark or remove hidden obstacles and gauge the thickness of any saplings you may have to cut. Understanding the kind of vegetation you’ll encounter will help you determine the size and strength of the brush cutter you need.

Though you may not have the luxury of waiting, the best time to use a brush cutter is in late fall or early winter, when vegetation is reduced and visibility is improved. For best performance and safety, cut only during dry conditions and during daylight.

While brush cutters, especially walk-behind models, feature deflectors to keep debris from flying great distances, it’s important to keep people and pets away from the area you intend to clear. As with any landscaping project, wear safety glasses, ear protection and sturdy, no-slip shoes or boots.

Michael D’Estries is a freelance writer who specializes in science, innovation and the arts.

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