February 16, 2011

Tools of the Garden Trade- part 2- Pole Saws

 In this episode, we'll look at the next step up from hand-held cutting tools, the pole saw group. It is commonplace to see pole saws at big-box home improvement stores, and for most general home gardening purposes, such pole saw / lopper combinations work fine. As with all tools, there are variations in size, weight, cost, ease of use and durability. The same criteria apply for choosing one of these tools as for hand-held clippers or loppers. Some of the variety of pole tools are illustrated below, and the costs in the illustrated tools vary from about $ 30 to almost $ 300. Some of the extendable pole saws have exquisitely crafted and exceptionally sharp saw blades, with an equally exquisite price ( about $75 for a new blade). One must ask oneself if a really high end tool is really needed. For trimming an errant branch or dead palm frond, almost any pole saw will do, if it meets your needs. For trimming a really tough branch or frond 25 feet in the air, the higher-end tools are needed.
Pole saw / lopper combination
uses a push-pull saw

professional-grade pole lopper

Silky pole saw
uses a pull-stroke blade
One of the real advancements in pole saws has been the advent of pull-stroke saw blades. The old fashioned push-pull motion that was needed 30 years ago often led to tired gardeners, badly cut branches, and ripped tree bark. The higher quality blades use pull-stroke teeth, where you cut through the wood by pulling back on the blade, pushing forward with only as much effort as needed to push the blade back through the cut. Not coincidentally, these saw blades make excellent carpenter saws, and the Japanese have made such tools for a long time. The smoothness of the cut from a pull-cut blade is far superior to the old fashioned double-cut tooth type of decades ago. Naturally, such blades are more expensive and require a bit of training so that you don't break the blade with a strong push through binding wood. The advantages of such blades become evident when cutting branches or fronds far above your head: just park the blade on the branch, and pull down. VOILA ! In many cases, 1 or 2 pulls is all that is needed for a clean cut.     

Hayauchi pole saw
uses a pull-stroke blade

pole chainsaw, extendable

add-on pole saw with fiberglass handles
photo: Add-On Saw company

In some cases, a pole chainsaw is needed or warranted. Such tools should be used carefully, since the saw end is heavier than a blade pole saw, and the weight distribution favors the saw, not the human. In such cases, the idea is to place the saw on the branch, give the saw some power, and let the weight of the saw and moving chain do all the work.Too often I see people trying to muscle the saw around, and put downward force on the saw chain. This often leads to binding the saw chain into the branch or stripped chain gears, which stops the process really fast. This leaves you with a stuck chainsaw 12 feet over your head. Gravity and physics don't favor you at this point ! I encourage people to avoid these saws unless there is a lot of low-level tree cutting to do, wherein a pole saw won't tackle the project. The wear and tear on your nerves, shoulders, and especially your lower back can be tremendous.

I also wish to make a strenuous argument for safety with these tools. The temptation is very strong to buy a pole saw, and start removing those troublesome branches near your phone cables or power lines. STAY AWAY FROM ANY UTILITY LINE WITH A POLE SAW. Aside from the obvious problems of making a great electrical connection with the electric line ( You + long metal pole + power line= trouble), you could easily drop a branch on a phone cable. The repairs for this type of damage are expensive. The consequences of you even getting close to a power line ( you don't have to actually touch a power line) can be deadly or debilitating.

Last and not least, many, many people make the same error when pruning a branch or frond overhead. The mistake is that the branch or frond will break off before the item has been completely and cleanly cut through. This ends up badly, since the partly cut branch will tear the bark on the trunk as the branch falls away. This can be avoided by making a cut part way through the underside of the branch, from a distance off to one side of the tree. Cut about 1/3 of the way through the underside of the branch, then cut from the top down, on top of the "undercut". The branch should fall away cleanly, with no damage to the tree.

For most needs, a better-quality pole saw is a better choice than a pole chainsaw, but both have their places in a garden. Choose them with knowledge beforehand, use them wisely, know how to handle them effectively, and your garden becomes more manageable.

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens        

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