How to Use a Brush Cutter: Techniques, Safety Tips and More

Take down thick vegetation a weed eater can’t handle with this powerful machine.

Need to expand a lawn, cut a trail through a field or clear an abandoned lot? A brush cutter may be just the ticket. Here’s a guide to choosing and using a brush cutter when you’re staring down a great wall of green.

Brush cutters: What they are and what they do

Brush cutters let homeowners and professionals tame landscapes that are too unruly for a weed eater to handle. They are commonly used to clear thick grasses, saplings and other brush from worksites, farms and overgrown residential properties. They’re especially useful in deep ditches and steep hillsides, where regular lawn equipment can’t go.

A brush cutter’s revolving heavy-duty cord or metal blades can quickly cut through vegetation and sapling trunks up to 2 inches in diameter.

Use the right brush cutter

Brush cutters come in handheld, walk behind and tow behind models. Match the brush cutter to the job for best results.

Handheld brush cutters: These are a more powerful versions of a weed eater and can be fitted with attachments such as a circular saw blade to tear through small trees and thick vegetation. They are excellent for clearing tall grass and for small brush-clearing projects that require detailing or maneuvering in tight spaces. Because they are heavy, most come with a harness.

Walk-behind brush cutters: Also known as brush mowers or weed mowers, these excel at clearing thick vegetation over larger areas. They are capable of tackling saplings up to 2 inches in diameter, thick brush up to 6 feet tall and grasses and weeds over 8 feet tall.

Tow-behind brush cutters: If you need to quickly clear a large area, including one with large brush, consider using a tow-behind brush cutter, aka brush hog, which attaches to an ATV, tractor or skid steer. A power take-off connection (PTO) allows rotational energy to be transferred from the vehicle engine to the blades of the cutter.

How to start a brush cutter

Start the machine on even terrain and check that the cutting attachment is not in contact with anything.

If you’re using a gas-powered handheld brush cutter, move at least 10 feet away from the fuel source and start your machine in a well-ventilated area. Follow the starting procedure outlined in the manual, as the procedures are different for different machines. Some machines are much easier to start than others. This gas brush cutter, for example, has a simplified three-step start procedure. Some require you to press a primer button or bulb multiple times, engage the clutch and pull the start cord as many times as it takes for the motor to start.

If you’re using an electric handheld model, you’ll need a long power cord or a fully charged battery. (Keep a charged backup battery handy to save time.) These machines start with the push of a button.

Using a brush cutter: General tips for safety and success

Before using a brush cutter, read the user manual and familiarize yourself with the machine. Use the blades or trimmer line recommended for your machine.

  • Choose your season. The best time to use a brush cutter is in late fall or early winter, when vegetation is reduced and visibility is improved.
  • Wait for a dry day. For best performance and safety, cut during dry conditions and during daylight.
  • Dress the part. Wear long pants made of heavy-duty material to protect your legs from flying debris. Put on safety glasses, a hard hat, gloves and sturdy, closed-toe boots. Use ear protection if you’re using a noisy gas-powered machine.
  • Inspect the site. Mark or remove any hidden obstacles, including rocks. Gauge the thickness of any saplings you may have to cut in relation to the capabilities of the machine (as described in the manual) and the blade you’re using.
  • Clear the area. Keep people and pets away from the area you intend to clear. If your brush cutter has a deflector, use it.
  • Start slow. Go slow at first and learn from experience what is and isn’t too big for the brush cutter to cut.
  • Cool to refuel. If you’re using a gas model, when refueling, turn off the engine and allow it to cool.
  • Clean the machine. Once you’ve finished using the brush cutter, brush off grass, sticks or other debris from the blades and deflector. Follow the maintenance recommendations in the user manual.

How to operate a brush cutter: Handheld brush cutters

When using a handheld brush cutter, adjust the harness first so it’s sufficiently snug; this will reduce fatigue. When you cut, keep the cutting blade parallel to the ground. You want the back of the handle to rest on your hip.

Since the blades rotate counter-clockwise, move from right to left when cutting, pressing the head against the vegetation. If you use a sweeping motion to mow grass, idle the motor when you move from left to right. Never raise the blade above waist height.

How to operate a brush cutter: Walk-behind brush cutters

When using a walk-behind brush cutter, set the deck height to high for your first pass. Once you know what’s beneath the machine, 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. Keep an eye on the temperature gauge, if the machine has one, to make sure the motor isn’t overheating.

Brush cutter blades and techniques for different vegetation

The blade you use matters. Follow these tips for best results when taking down different types of vegetation.

  • Grass and weeds: Use a blade with eight or fewer teeth.
  • Thick weeds and brush: Use a blade with more than nine teeth. Don’t start at the base of the plant; instead, raise the brush cutter for the first pass and lower it as you go, making two or more passes.
  • Heavy brush and saplings less than 2 inches in diameter: Use a circular saw blade, which has more than 40 teeth. Raise the machine no more than 8 inches off the ground and push the left side of the blade into the tree, letting the deflector help keep the machine in place. Let the blade to the work.

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