Renting a Sod Cutter - A Personal Experience

By RentalGuy

Sod Cutter Rental

History

It was around 2007 and I had a front lawn that was in desperate need of attention. It was full of moss and weeds. Everything but grass seemed to be growing in it. One day a laborer knocked on my door and asked if I was thinking of replacing the lawn and he offered to tear the top layer of soil up so I could start over with fresh soil and grass. I agreed to pay him and within hours there were several more laborers kneeling over and methodically scooping up small 1" to 2" deep chunks of the yard. It took them days to finish the process and I was left with a huge pile of tiny soil chunks. I paid over $250 for all of this work and I was left wondering if there were a more efficient way to do the same job.

Several years ago started an equipment rental business. One of the first machines I purchased was a gas powered sod cutter. At the time, I had no idea what a sod cutter was used for, but I was told by the manufacturer it was a mainstay of any rental operation. Boy, they sure were right. Our rental business rented that sod cutter more than any other item.

Why Rent A Sod Cutter

It turns out that homeowners and professional landscapers rent sod cutters for a number of reasons, but primarily to avoid the expense and labor associated with removing lawn and turf manually (as described above). There are two types of sod cutters: manual and gas powered. In my opinion, if you are going to rent a sod cutter then rent a gas powered machine. They are designed to be heavy and self propelled, requiring the operator to steer and control the machine.

Sod cutters are ideal for replacing an entire lawn (like I did). However, there are also commonly used to clear section of yard/turf for new patios, walkways, gardens, shrubs and parking pads.

Sod cutters are fast and efficient at slicing through grass and turf and if the root structure of the turf is even somewhat healthy then the strips of turf that it creates can be easily rolled, lifted out of the ground and neatly stacked for removal.

Before You Rent A Sod Cutter

Before renting a sod cutter there are a number of things to prepare for. Sod cutters are self propelled, but they can also weigh as much as 400 pounds. Make sure there is direct access to the area being cut. If you have stairs or large obstructions then make sure to either have several strong helpers available to lift the machine into place. Ideally, there is direct access to the work area.

Gas powered sod cutters run on regular unleaded gasoline. They are extremely fuel efficient, but if you plan to operate the machine for more than 15 minutes then plan to have at least a half gallon of clean and fresh regular unleaded fuel available so you can top off the fuel tank when finished. This is to avoid fuel charges when returning the machine to the rental company.

Even the best sod cutters will have a very difficult time operating on hard/dry ground. If the turf you plan to cut has not been watered for a week or more then run a sprinkler on the area for several hours the evening before starting the project. This has to be done many hours in advance because you are not trying to drench the top layer of soil, but rather get water to soak deep into the ground. The moist soil will be easier to penetrate and cut through. If not sure then I recommend doing the screwdriver test. With just the force of one arm, try to smash a screw driver down into the ground. If the screwdriver can't penetrate to the depth you intended to cut then the ground is to hard and might need water added.

Identify sprinkler heads. A sod cutter will easily destroy an underground sprinkler head.

Identify obstructions. Tree roots, rocks, pavers etc. These are all hard obstructions that you probably don't want to hit. Knowing where they are located will allow you to lift the sod cutter blade out of the ground in order to avoid them.

Mark the area you plan to sod cut. Using chalk or string can be helpful. I have even seen customers use a garden hose to mark the curved path they were trying to cut out of their yard.

Think about how you are going to transport the machine home. Most rental companies will deliver the sod cutter for you, but delivery costs can be significant. Picking up the sod cutter from the rental yard is the most common way to get it to the project location. Don't plan on fitting a sod cutter into your car. Most sod cutters will fit in a minivan or large SUV, but ideally you will have a truck or trailer to load it into. Don't forget to strap it down!

When Renting The Sod Cutter

Regardless of whether you are picking up the sod cutter or having it delivered, there are several things to look for before taking possession of it.

  1. Make sure the gas tank is full of gas. If it is not then make a note of that with the rental employee.
  2. Check the engine oil or ask the employee to do it. These small engines don't have big oil reserves. They work hard and it's easy for them to run low on oil. Once low on oil, it takes very little time to burn out the engine. You will be doing yourself and company a big favor by asking them to do a quick oil check or just doing it yourself.
  3. Inspect the blade. The sod cutter blade is the primary wear item on a sod cutter. You want to make sure the bolts that are holding the blade to the machine are tight and secure. Also, look for any stress fractures or cracks in the metal. It's not uncommon for a rental yard employee or the previous rental customer to overlook a broken blade or blade arm. Don't be alarmed by small dings or metal chips on the leading edge of the blade. The blades do some very hard work under the ground and it's expected that rocks and concrete will have them chipped-up.
  4. Fire it up and have the rental store employee engage it for you. The machines are loud, but listen for loud rattling or banging. Have the employee explain where that noise might be coming from.
  5. With the machine turned off, walk around the machine and push or tug on anything you can get your hands on. Careful, the muffler might be hot. Feel for anything that might be wiggly or loose. Sod cutters work hard and they shake more than any other machine I have owned. Things come loose on them all of the time so feel around for loose items. Most sod cutter handlebars will have a suspension or dampening system that reduces vibrations to the operators arms. Therefore, don't be surprised if the handlebars seem to wiggle.
  6. Ask about cleanup. Make sure you know exactly where to clean the machine after you have completed your project. Typically, spraying off the blades and the wheels with a garden hose will be sufficient, but it's always a good idea to double check with the rental yard employees.
  7. Take pictures. As with any rental item, it's always good to take photos (from all sides) with your smart phone before and after your rental.
  8. There are a lot of controls and moving parts on a sod cutter. Pay very close attention to the demonstration or tutorial that the rental store gives you. It's very common for first time sod cutter renters to completely forget how to operate the machine once they get it to their project site. Watching usage videos online ahead of time is always a good idea.

Operating A Sod Cutter

Some sod cutters have wheel speed controls that alloy you to run the engine at full throttle, therefore sending as much energy as possible to the cutting blade, but with the wheels only turning at a speed that is comfortable for the operator. Other machines require that the engine speed be reduced to slow down the wheels. In either case, ensure that you find an engine and wheel speed that works best for you.

Most sod cutters have a rear castor wheel that can lock or turn, therefore allowing for straight line cutting or cutting contours in the grass. If your sod cutter rental has a rear castor wheel then be sure to unlock it for making cutting tight turns or even gradual curves in the grass.

Be very careful of operating on hills. Sod cutters can be very top heavy so be very careful when operating on side hills. Additionally, most small engines have an oil level sensor in them that will turn off the engine if the machine is tilted in one direction. Keep this in mind as nothing is worse that having the engine cut out while operating on a side hill.

Most sod cutters have variable depth settings capability. Some have one or two pre-set depth settings. If you are just removing old yard and turf to make room for a new yard or garden then you probably only want to blade to go 1" or 1.5" inches in the ground. This should be deep enough to cut out the old grass roots. Limited the cutting depth will reduce the amount of excess soil that must be disposed of while also being mindful of your back. The thicker the cut, the heavier the roll. After all, someone has to roll up all of that sod then lift it out of there.

If clearing the way for a driveway, walking path or patio then you will want to go for the maximum depth setting, often 2" to 2.75". This will leave you with a deep enough cut to allow for ample gravel, sand, concrete, pavers etc.

Ideally, you can cut long strips of sod. When you get to the end of one strip, pull the blade out of the ground, turn the machine around, drop the blade back down into the ground and cut the next strip. Unlike mowing, overlapping the blade into a strip that has already been cut is not always a good idea. As a sod cutter operator, you should try to line the edge of the blade up with the seam of the last sod strip that was cut. It's also a good idea to leave the last strip in place (don't remove it yet) until the sod cutter is two strips away. This guarantees that the sod cutter is operating on flat soil and you won't have to worry about the machine driving down into the lower grade area where the sod was removed.

Many sod cutter rental customers will cut the entire area first, return the sod cutter to the rental yard to save money and then go back to roll up the sod. Often they realize that they missed a spot and then don't have a sod cutter to finish the project. If you are going to cut first then roll everything at once then use a shovel, garden hoe or even your boot heel to tug or kick on each strip of sod. You just want to see that everything can move just a little bit. You will know if you tug on a section that has not been cut. It will be very firm.

Conclusion

Unless you are cutting sod every day for a living, you probably don't want to own a sod cutter and Renting a sod cutter is the best way to quickly remove that nasty yard or section of turf to make way for a new yard or other yard features. However, as with any other project, being knowledgeable and prepared are the best ways to ensure a successful sod cutter rental.