Wood chipper or limb vaporizer . . . you be the judge

By JimRental

I’ll get it out right up front: For me, there are few more rewarding yard tasks than removing unwanted or overgrown hedges, shrubs and “volunteer” trees from their worldly existence.

That’s why wood chippers exist, and I'm glad they do.

So, after whacking back a laurel hedge that had grown to a spindly 30 feet, it was time to rent a wood chipper. Winter windfall from the big evergreens added to the job. And a few fallen limbs from neighbor Alex's yard were added to the pile.

Previously, we’d cadged a neighbor’s small chipper, but we wanted a larger machine, so we stepped up a notch or two to a towable model that handles limbs up to 6 inches in diameter. It’s a common workhorse in rental yards.

My son Rich and I were just getting going when Alex came over, ready to help. Over the morning, Alex worked his tail off, but little did we know he was there for more than just the thrill of operating a roaring machine that chews up trees.

In fact, it was a real treat that, when we were done with our project, Alex invited us over for a cold beverage . . . it was then that we learned that he needed to move a bunch of furniture before a carpet installation the next day. An outstanding move on his part! Just kidding, Alex is super-great. And (snarky comment) we truly hope he and Karen enjoy their new carpet . . . and don't ask us to move the furniture back in place!

Back to the chipper. Some of our takeaways:

1. Ask the yard guy at the rental shop to go through the operating instructions twice, or listen closely the first time – Chippers have lots of safety features, primarily to prevent you from being dragged into the hopper, ala the movie Fargo. But if all of the safety bars and activation handle aren’t lined up right, you won’t be doing any chipping.

So ask the yard guy to humor you, and to go through the instructions a second time. They've done this walk-through so many times that they tend to blaze through it. And you – or me, more accurately – might (did) get left in the dust. I didn't pay close enough attention to engaging the chipper mechanism, and ended up jamming the machine. Clearly my mistake . . .

2. Safety, safety, safety, and double up on ear protection -- I’d recommend in-ear plugs in addition to over-the-ear protection. And safety glasses are mandatory – once that machine gets up and running, good-sized wood chips start ripping through the air in every direction. Branches whip violently near the hopper. You easily could injure an eye just by being near the chipper, let alone by operating it. Also, if you live in a neighborhood where houses are fairly close, the grand roaring spectacle will draw an audience. Make sure they keep their distance!.

3. Before you pick up your rental, prune away large side branches to make relatively straight “spears,” that you can stab into the hopper. The deal is that the volume of side branches and foliage makes it tough to feed the hopper. Once there, if you haven't trimmed the limbs, the joints where branches grow from the main limb can jam the roller.

And when that happens, you need to reverse the machine by pulling on a safety bar and re-set that and activation handle. It’s a bother and slows you down, so any trimming beforehand is time well spent.

4.Establish roles of “feeder” and “setter upper” – Loading limbs into the hopper is great fun for some of us, but two people doing it at once adds risk, as branches whip around. As far as the bigger limbs, Imagine the Three Stooges with a long plank, and you get the idea.

So, if more than one of you is working at it, I'd suggest that you define the roles: One person feeds limbs into the hopper, and the other brings limbs forward, and sets them with the butt-end of the limb facing the hopper. Change roles every now, and everyone gets in on the fun of watching the limbs disintegrate.

5. Keep the work area clear – Invariably, you'll end up with a clutter of small branches, twigs and leaves in the hopper area. They can trip you up – well, they did trip me up, that much I know for sure. Keeping the work area clear also is part of the setter-upper’s job. And you can always switch, but for safety's sake, the dirty work needs to be done!

Those are some takeaways from our chipper project. We also have a How To regarding chipper prep steps – we cover some here, but you might take a look that as well. Happy chipping!