Tools of the trade

Give us the tools, and we will finish the job … Winston Churchill, 1941.

Although this one might take some time … Sunart Diarist, 2019

Rhododendron jungle

Rhododendron jungle

Whatever the job, having suitable tools usually makes it much easier. And safer.

One of my top priority jobs at the moment is clearing a large amount of heavily overgrown rhododendron from our plot. The site is steeply sloping in places, with lots of protruding rocks. The only access to the extremities of the site is on foot, so portability is paramount.

Some of the rhododendron were cut back 10-15 years ago but the roots were not killed off. Consequently they regrew, even more vigorously than before. The dense growth makes ‘bushwhacking’ through some of the denser thickets almost impossible.

This makes safe use of a chainsaw problematic.


After a bit of trial and error I’ve settled on using a small number of tools that make short - or at least manageable - work of the rhododendron bushes, some of which are 4-5m in height.

Like a hot knife through butter

Like a hot knife through butter

The Wilkinsons Sword pruning saw costs less that £20. Its coarse teeth are razor sharp and cut on the pull stroke. The blade is a good thickness and the teeth clear the cut efficiently, preventing jamming.

The handle is fixed, slightly soft, reasonably comfortable and provides excellent grip. I’ve used folding pruning saws in the past and, not being rigid, they feel much less secure in use. To protect the saw, or to protect anything the saw is in contact with, there is a sheath with a useful belt loop.

I use Screwfix site gloves to improve the grip and prevent blisters.

This handsaw easily cuts through rhododendron stems up to 3" in diameter (which is a very large bush). The relatively short (250mm) and shallow (top to bottom ~35mm) blade easily fits between the growing stems, making short work of clearing dense regrowth.



Smaller stems are best tackled with loppers. I’ve had mixed success with Fiskars PowerGear Anvil loppers. My first pair failed dismally on a smallish rhododendron bush. I’d only had them a month or so and they were replaced under warranty. The current pair are sharp and effective but I’m careful not to ‘overface’ them by tackling stems or branches that are too thick.

Slash and burn

Having felled the main stems of the rhododendron I use a Fiskars billhook to clear off the side branches, leaving a long stem for cutting up into firewood.

Sharper than a sharp thing

Sharper than a sharp thing

I’ve got a couple of these Fiskars billhooks. The older version is more curved at the end with a less pronounced hook (I think it was called their brush axe). It’s much less useful than the one pictured above. The hook means you don’t have to bend down quite so much; you can pull stems towards you with the hook. The blade is good and easily cuts through stems up to an inch or so in diameter.

Using these brush hooks efficiently requires a bit of practice. Once you get the hang of things they can be used to quickly strip off the side branches from a stem, then slice the top off leaving it ready to cut up for firewood.

The handle is hard and a bit slippery in the wet. Use of the rubberised-palm site gloves pictured significantly improves the grip.

Power tools

Rhododendron burns well (and carves well). To stack and dry it before burning it needs to be cut into suitable lengths. You can do this with a handsaw, or the pruning saw shown above. However, it’s a painfully slow process if you’ve got a hundred ~3-4m stems, all needing to be cut into 50cm lengths 1.

This is where a chainsaw saves the day. However, a chainsaw (usually) needs to be held with both hands. Since rhododendron stems tend to be relatively long and light they need to be held securely to use the chainsaw on them.

A useful third hand

A useful third hand

The Mitox Saw Horse and chainsaw holder acts as a third hand. The chainsaw 2 is held securely on a pivot with the chain protected with a metal cover.

The chainsaw can used used singlehanded simply by depressing the trigger and pivoting it so that it cuts through the stems 3. The latter are held down with the left hand in the “V” of the saw horse.

This is easier to do than describe. It feels very safe and secure in use. The left hand 4 is kept well away from the chain and, with suitably straight stems, you can cut multiple lengths at once.

Mitox saw horse

Mitox saw horse

The saw horse has a length guide, folds flat for storage and has broad metal feet that work well on uneven ground. It needs to be assembled after delivery. The instructions are clear but very small. You’ll need a socket set for assembly and it’s worth noting that the wrench sizes stated in the instructions are incorrect.

If you look around you can find these saw horses for anything from £50 to £100 … shop around!

Safety first

Anything with sharp edges, loud engines or rotating blades needs to be treated with respect. Using appropriate safety gear gives you confidence and can protect from disaster.

The Screwfix Superlight site gloves are a couple of quid a pair and provide some hand protection and much improved grip on hand tools. They will not protect you from a chainsaw or poorly used slasher or brush hook. For the former you need proper chainsaw gloves. For the latter you need to use the brush hook more carefully … keep your hands well away from the blade.

I always wear safety glasses when working in the garden. Current models provide much improved visibility and comfort than the super-geeky old-fashioned laboratory overglasses. For less than a fiver you can save your sight from whippy foliage and flying wood chips.

Chainsaw safety requires chainsaw overtrousers, gloves, steel toe capped boots and a protective hard hat with eye protection and ear defenders. I do without the overtrousers when using the Mitox saw horse as the chainsaw is fixed and cannot come into contact with my legs.

Yes, wearing that lot makes what is already a tough job a hot, uncomfortable and tough job … but it could save your sight, your hearing or your life.

And on that cheerful thought …

  1. Some of the regrown rhododendron bushes have 15-20 stems, so this sort of volume isn’t unreasonable for an afternoon’s work. ↩︎

  2. Any make. Mine is a Husky but others work as well. The saw horse adjusts for different length bars. ↩︎

  3. Or logs … it can comfortably handle logs up to ~10" in diameter. ↩︎

  4. Or the entire setup can be reversed for left handers. ↩︎