Fighting Fungus On Trees

Tree roots cut

Fighting fungus is an endeavor indeed. However, it’s a battle worth waging, regardless of the difficulty factor. Though a bit on the trite side, the phrase attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty,” is often shortened and modified to “nothing worth having is easy” and certainly applies in this case.

Though it’s sometimes a difficult task, the challenge of keeping trees healthy and fungus-free is best accomplished through a multifaceted approach. Identification, monitoring, evaluation of methodologies, preventative measures and conducive growing conditions are some of the more important considerations.

Fungus vs herbicide damage

Dig deep to determine if this is due to fungus or herbicide damage. Photo: John Fech

Regular inspection

Whether you call it monitoring, scouting or inspection, a regular close-up look at trees on a customer’s property is a tried and true part of integrated pest management and integral to fighting fungus. If the goal is to keep fungi at bay, you need to know when and where they are attacking, or at least present. If you don’t look, there is no real way to know.

So, what is “regular?” In terms of tree inspection, regular means frequent and thorough. Since many fungi that cause problems for trees are active in the spring, regular inspection should be more frequent in the spring than in the summer or fall. As a result, symptoms are noticed sooner and there is more time left in the year to treat. When maladies are noted in the fall, the action is more a matter of notation and recommendation for follow-up applications in spring, especially if the treatment threshold has been surpassed.

The often underutilized part of inspection is profit. In short, do it, do it often and make money from it. When one considers the investment of time, training and effort that a qualified tree worker puts into their career, it needs to pay off in one way or another. If certification through the International Society of Arboriculture or a state arborists association has been achieved, the knowledge, skill and experience must be factored into the equation. After all, the ISA doesn’t hand out certification to just anyone.

Knowing the species is important. At first glance, this appears to be a disease of ash, not ash flower gall. Photo: James Kalisch, UNL

A good way to be sure that inspections are an integral part of the income stream is to explain to customers that inspections are just as important as spray applications. Depending on where your customers live, it may be wise to equate monitoring for insects with a fall furnace checkup or a spring air conditioning service. No one wants to suffer through a cold winter or hot summer without relief. If the temperature outside is the same as it is inside in summer or winter, then the equipment is broken or it’s an anomaly.

In terms of the number of site inspections, it’s dependent on the disease susceptibility of the species on the property and the localized conditions. For example, if a given customer has a ginkgo, a red oak and an Osage orange tree, they would need fewer inspections per season than one with a crabapple, an Austrian pine and a cottonwood; the former are generally considered to be disease-resistant trees, while the latter are more likely to develop fungal problems from time to time. Likewise, since many fungal pathogens require high moisture content on foliage to develop and infect a tree, properties with low air flow across leaves are more likely to be conducive to ongoing problems than ones with good air circulation. These factors should be made clear to a customer when pitching the service of regular inspections.

Inspect for all factors

When inspecting a tree, consider all factors: rough windy winters, turf competition, poor pruning, etc. Photo: John Fech


Determination in the endeavor of fighting fungus on landscape trees is important from two perspectives: determination in the sense of persistence, and determination in the sense of identification.

First, identification. Even after years and years of diagnosing unknown maladies, determining which exact causal agent is responsible for the symptoms that have been produced on a tree can be challenging. How can you fight something if you don’t know what it is?

Determination, or diagnosis, can start in many ways. My preference is to begin with known maladies of the tree species. For example, crabapple has a long history of susceptibility to powdery mildew, apple scab, fire blight and cedar apple rust. If the customer has a crabapple, your first step is to get to know the symptoms of these diseases and compare the current presentation of the leaves, stems and trunk to those established characteristics.

A good second step is to consider the micro and macroclimates of the property. When I was starting out in horticulture and arboriculture, a wise arborist did me the favor of teaching me how to walk the entire property, as well as the adjacent lots and neighboring areas, looking for clues as to what might be influencing the current situation. He taught me to carry a clipboard and use it to make notes on wind patterns, sunlight penetration, coverage of the root system with impervious surfaces, and competition from other species.

Leaf scorch on dogwood

Leaf scorch on dogwood underscores the need for regular inspection. Photo: John Fech

Knowing the history of a site is useful as well. Interviewing the owner and possibly the neighbors about recent herbicide applications to the turf, soil modifications, utility work, and the performance of other woody species can be helpful in determining what’s causing the tree’s health to decline.

It’s not all about fungus. To eliminate possible nonliving/abiotic organisms as causal agents, items important to learn to distinguish between fungus and non-fungus. In fact, one of the little known secrets of determination is that less than half of the causes of tree problems are related to fungal or bacterial organisms. Overwatering, lack of separation of turf and trees, planting errors and mower blight are just some of the non-fungal inputs that can cause trees to suffer.

Next, persistence. Because it’s not easy, sometimes it just takes time to get it right. After a good first look, take the time to check the resources on your bookshelf. Go online and type in phrases such as “maple diseases in the Northwest” or “ash problems” into Google Images or Yahoo Image Search. You’ll be amazed at what you find. Talk to other service technicians in your company and university extension faculty about possible causes.

As you move through the process, stay in communication with the client. They’ll appreciate your thoroughness and your persistence.

thousand cankers disease of walnut

Look closely: thousand cankers disease of walnut produces symptoms on stems and leaves. Photo: Mark Harrell, Nebraska Forest Service


Whether you’re delivering a joke at a dinner party or buying an airline ticket, timing is undeniably crucial. The same is true when fighting fungus on broadleaf and evergreen trees. Too early or too late with inspection, determination or treatment is not going to cut it. Correct timing is important for each of these factors. The timing needs to be right for inspection in order to be ahead of the curve, to read and react in relation to the clues given by the plant. The determination of the causal agent needs to be on track, and needs to be done in advance of the treatment application if one is necessary. Treatments applied before or after the vulnerable stage of the fungus or plant part are simply not effective and should be viewed as a disservice to the customer.

Each is important on its own, but the correct timing of all three needs to occur in order to conquer fungus. With time, training and experience, as well as due consideration of the key elements presented in this article — regular inspection, species vulnerability and characteristics, the history of the site, differentiation between abiotic and biotic causes, persistence and timing — the fight can be won.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2014 and has been updated.

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New Product Roundup: August 2017

Wood rings

Mulching Attachment
Fecon recently introduced the newlydesigned Bull Hog mulching attachment for CTL’s and skid steers. Features of the new design include a severe-duty body, bolt-on skid shoes, stronger push bar and improved mulching chamber, Fecon says. Also, the top of the body is now smooth to avoid the debris and water build-up that occurred in the trough in the previous model. The Bull Hog is offered with Fecon’s smooth-drum FGT rotor, paddle-style HDT rotor and the DCR depth-control rotor, according to the company. In addition, the hose sling is now standard, which creates an improved sealing of the body and easier add-on functionality of the trap door and pressure gauge options.
Vermeer has extended its whole-tree chipper product line with the introduction of the tracked WC2500TX. According to the company, the WC2500TX offers the same performance and compact design as the recently-released WC2500XL whole-tree chipper, but is equipped with a tracked undercarriage to aid in maneuverability in the woods and on tough land-clearing sites. The WC2500TX features a compact design and has a 600-hp, Tier-4 Final engine to meet jobsite production demands, according to the company. This new chipper can be equipped with either the microchip drum that produces chip sizes between 0.125 to 0.625 inches, or the macrochip drum that produces chip sizes between 0.625 and 1.25 inches, the company says. Knife position is easily set by two bolts — no babbitting needed — which makes change-out on jobsites easy, according to Vermeer. Areas of high-wear material flow on the machine — such as the drum, discha rge chute, cutter housing and infeed conveyor floor — are designed with replaceable, bolt-in wear parts to help extend the life of the machine.

Forestry Tool
The new LogOx forestry tool is a 3-in-1 tool set designed to allow users to pick up stove-length logs without having to bend all the way over, according to LogOx, LLC. The tool is built around the LogOx Hauler, which can be used as a short cant hook to roll over substantial logs, the company says. Also, the cant hook extension quickly converts the Hauler into a full cant hook for greater leverage with larger logs, the company says. By adding the Timber Jack Accessory, the full cant hook can be converted to a timber jack, designed to lift logs off the ground easily, allowing for safer sawing. All attachments secure to the Hauler using hitch pins.


Have a new product? Send a 75-to-100 word description and a high-resolution color photo to us at with the subject line “New Products.”

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Incorporating Trees On A Budget

When presented with a proposal for tree work, no one wants to review a hastily assembled bid. A thorough, well thought out piece not only addresses the needs of the site, but subconsciously transmits the message of respect, that the arborist cared enough to take the time to give their trees the proper consideration.

Prioritization of needs for the client

When drafting proposals for planting trees on a budget, consider using a three step approach:

1. Meet the customer on-site for a “walk and talk.” Carry a clipboard or PDA for note taking and sketching. Key in on hot buttons of the client. Largely, it’s a respect issue. If the eventual proposal contains ways to address issues or desires that are particularly important to the client, it carries the message that someone paid attention to them. Include new as well as replacement plantings. As you chat with the client, make sure you ask about absolute most important new plantings on the property.

2. Carefully assemble the plan. Allow for the eventual width and height of each specimen by drawing circles in the proper locations to the correct scale. Remember that plants grow under or over other plants in nature, and plans for incorporating trees should reflect this. Understory trees, such as redbud and serviceberry, should be included under shade trees to replicate natural settings.

To save money, shade or otherwise mark the understory trees with a “second phase” designation to indicate that the shade trees will be planted first, then after five to seven years or so, the understory trees can be installed, saving money and following the tenet of right plant, right place by placing trees that prefer half shade in the right location.

3. Present the plan to the client and explain how it will solve identified problems and address their specific interests. Draft some simple, but guiding, principles that are specific to the client’s property. In formal landscape design they’re called “program statements.” These are summarizations of input that the client put forth in the walk and talk. Typical program statements are “want trees that cast dense shade” or “need to reduce costs with future tree plantings.”

Damaged trees in the landscape should be replaced. Photo: John Fech

Tree function can dictate prioritization

As part of the prioritization process, especially when budget is an issue, the function of a tree should be considered as a high influence in placement and selection of species. Think of this as sort of a trump card, in that no matter if the rationale for using a particular tree is historical, aesthetic, functional or to maintain property value, the functional issue should be the primary factor. For example, if the walk and talk reveals that the client must have a shade tree on the southwest side of the house or patio, or else it’s unusable, then consider all other factors as secondary.

Develop Plan A and Plan B

There’s budget, and then there’s budget. In some situations, the customer may indicate that they want to keep budget in mind as they move along in the process. Other situations call for the absolute minimum in expense.

Because it may not be readily apparent which notion is the real one, hedge your bet by presenting bids to customers with price tags. If you don’t present a second, more extensive/expensive plan, you won’t get it.

Incorporating trees with features such as fall color enhance the quality and impact of new plantings. Photo: John Fech

Develop a master plan

It’s pretty unlikely that a budget-minded client will want to install everything in the first 30 days. More likely, a three to five-year time frame is what they have in mind. Some customers will think of this concept in the back of their minds, but will rely on the arborist or landscaper to help them see that a master plan will address their need for replacement trees, as well as the desire to save money.

A master plan is simply an overall set of plans that contains a yearly planting schedule. It’s useful as it helps customers see that they will eventually get all the trees they want, but it will just take a few years longer than if they had unlimited funds.

Sell with visual aids

The old adage of “a picture is worth a 1,000 words” is still true today. Decision makers are usually not well versed in what trees look like, especially trees with names like Japanese pagoda tree or amur corktree.

To overcome this lack of familiarity, assemble a simple picture book using photos of previous projects, as well as images downloaded from the Web. Botanic gardens are excellent sources for these photos. Some clients will respond better to an electronic version of a picture book; software programs such as PowerPoint make their creation easy.

When assembling these visual aids, keep in mind that some sources are public domain and others are copyright protected. Legally, you must ask permission before using the ones that are attributed to a company or person. Common courtesy and professional ethics dictate that crediting the source of public domain photos be done to recognize that the source of the photo is someone other than yourself.

Trees such as red horse chestnut add diversity to a property and are a welcome change to overplanted species. Photo: John Fech

Money-saving trees

When customers are focused on budget savings, keep in mind that it’s just good customer service and good environmental stewardship to include trees in the plans that are disease and insect resistant. In some scenarios, this might work against you in the long run, due to a lesser need for pest control agents to be applied. However, incorporating pest-susceptible plants could backfire on you. For example, if you suggest disease-prone crab apples, regular/weekly fungicide applications will be necessary to keep the foliage clean, which will help you earn money in the short run, but may upset the

Tree size can save money

As you assemble the project bids, if you’re trying to save money for the client, choose slightly smaller plants. For example, instead of 4-inch, try 2.5-inch caliper. This is effective as smaller trees cost less to ship, which lowers the price, and take fewer years to grow, which allows them to be sold less expensively.

Using 2-inch caliper trees is generally a better arboricultural practice than larger ones that offer “instant landscape.” Why? With 2-inch caliper trees, a proportionally larger percentage of original roots is transferred from the growing field, which results in higher establishment rates than with larger plants.


Regardless of whether budget is a primary concern, tree diversity remains a supremely important guiding principle. As you create and implement the master plan, resist the temptation to buy all of one species for new or replacement plantings. Sure, it’s wise to take advantage of available bargains, just make sure they are from a diverse group of choices.

Overall, endeavor to utilize less than 10 percent of any single genus as part of the master plan. This guideline adds visual interest and avoids problems when a pest species rears its ugly head.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in October 2010 and has been updated.

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Abiotic Problems And Tree Care

Abiotic Problems And Tree Care

The age-old question of, “Why is that tree looking so sickly?” is one that is at the crux of integrated pest management, plant health care, diagnosis, monitoring and scouting. Another way to describe this time-honored query is more along the lines of what most customers think, which is, “What’s wrong and how do we fix it?” In a landscape with healthy soil, abundant light and appropriate rainfall, problems tend to be few and far between. Sure, living organisms can cause injury; we see it every day. But arborists would be doing their clients a huge disservice if insects and diseases were the only influencers that were considered as causes. Nonliving, or abiotic factors, must be considered as well.

Typical chlorosis symptoms.

Eyes wide open

Experienced tree service providers know that the list of possible causes of a particular perceived illness is usually long and sometimes uncertain. It helps to add clarity by working through a step-by-step process that contains several components:

  • Identification of the tree species — the starting point for all problem causes.
  • Gathering of relevant historical information about the site and surroundings, both in recent times and over the past five to seven years. This could include utility line trenching, soil moved for construction, cold winters, hot summers, neighbor’s pool parties, lawn service applications, etc.
  • Consideration of the three basic categories of causal agents: (generally) diseases, insects and nonliving influences.
  • Review of previous maladies of/on the tree: what the tree has been treated for by your company or other companies.
  • Matching the general appearance of the tree with the general symptoms of previous tree problems: spots on leaves, holes in trunk, thin crown.
  • Investigating known influences of the tree in question by species, such as spruce and spruce spider mites or poplar and cytospora canker; comparing the appearance of the leaves, bark or branches to the photos of documented resource guides.
  • Gaining outside information and assistance from university extension personnel and fellow arborists.

When the above series of steps is utilized, the list of possibilities usually shrinks from many to few. A sometimes known, sometimes unknown “X-factor,” or little-known secret, is that well over half of the primary causes of tree decline or symptom expression are due to nonliving or abiotic influences.

Easier when…

Diagnosing tree problems can be difficult, especially in one-off situations, such as when a new customer calls out of the blue and asks for the diagnosis of a sick-looking tree, and the only information provided is that, “it just started looking that way last week.” Such a scenario usually brings the internal response from veteran arborists, “Oh, yeah, and if that’s true, pigs should be flying right about now.”

Instead of looking at a tree for the first time, it’s much easier to find success with causal determination if a scouting and monitoring protocol has been in place. Scouting, sometimes referred to as inspection, is usually a one-time endeavor. It’s used for both investigation of a poor-looking tree or proactively in an effort to investigate the entire property, much like an air conditioner inspection at the beginning of summer or an annual doctor visit to detect early signs of heart disease.

Utility line trenching and repair is always a concern.

While these types of inspection are helpful, it’s wise to go one step further, to scout on a regular basis through the season – to monitor. Weekly, biweekly, monthly or seasonal scouting pays big dividends through being able to spot a disease, insect or abiotic causal agent. Spending time in a landscape gives the inspector an important feel for the issues at hand and the changes that are occurring over time. As well, it’s a great bottom line profit center for tree service companies, as monitoring is a legitimate arboricultural service that utilizes the technicians’ training, experience and education for the good of the customer.

After each scouting, a quick but pithy report on the trees in the landscape should be generated, noting current age, condition and location of concerns for each species. This type of tree care that involves frequent inspections puts the inspector way ahead of the game, allowing for the gathering of large amounts of information about the site, the neighboring sites, the planting process and other contributing factors.

Common abiotic problems

When a tree fails to express the symptoms of disease, insect, nematode or animal injury, other influencing factors are responsible. Some of the more common ones are:

  • Moisture:Each tree species has an ideal moisture level for its root system. Others tolerate a wide variety of soil moisture conditions. When trees experience too little for a long period, it is generally referred to as drought. At the other end of the spectrum, when too much water is received, the spaces between soil particles fill up with excessive water, replacing the oxygen. If this occurs for a long period of time, roots tend to rot, soften and fail to function well. Determining if moisture is a causal agent can be difficult, as the excess or lack is present under the soil surface, out of sight of the tree scout. Using a soil probe, such as a piece of rebar or long screwdriver, can be helpful in taking a snapshot of current moisture conditions. Checking the soil moisture level should be a routine part of each scouting inspection.
  • Nutrients: Like moisture levels, it’s possible for the soil to provide too much or too little. Nutrient deficiencies often show up on high or low pH and heavy clay or sandy soils, due to the lack of availability and capacity to retain various elements. A condition known as chlorosis can refer to the lack of iron, manganese or other micronutrients, and express symptoms of yellow and stunted leaves with green veins. Soil testing helps greatly to gain insights into nutrient issues.
  • Planting errors: Much has been written about approved practices for planting trees, and for good reason – get it right from the start or limit the health for a lifetime. The most common planting errors are planting a tree too deeply, digging an inadequately-sized hole and the incorporation of compost, sand or topsoil next to the roots. Each of these has consequences; deep planting results in an overabundance of soil over the roots, which limits oxygen and development of the roots below the soil surface and reduces lateral stability. If a problematic tree has a trunk with a lack of taper or root flare for the species, it may have been planted too deeply.
  • More planting errors: Planting holes that are too small to accommodate the root system results in a crushing or redirection of roots in a circular fashion. Inexperienced tree planters often dig small holes and force the roots inside or actually cut them off to fit.

When tree roots fail to establish themselves laterally, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel, tree health suffers greatly. Well-meaning individuals often feel that they are doing the tree a favor by modifying the excavated soil with compost or other amendments. While this works well for vegetables or small-rooted plants, when this practice is employed with plants with large woody root systems (trees and shrubs), the result is encircling roots or roots that simply grow to an inadequate length. Stem girdling roots often are visible as a result of planting errors. When they develop, a situation is created where the trunk and roots are expanding in width at the same time and eventually begin to compress the tissues of each, causing stress and constriction on the vascular conductive vessels and reduction in nutrient and water movement.

Herbicide injury symptoms.

  • Planter boxes/tree surrounds: These devices, used to cover ugly surface roots or simply replace struggling turfgrass with green plants, create conditions where the soil is placed against the tree trunk, keeping it moister than ideal and exclude soil oxygen due to the placement of the soil over the roots. This should be avoided at all costs.
  • Physical injury: Tree parts that are physically damaged, either by humans or weather events, are common abiotic influencers. Perhaps the most commonly seen is damage to the lower trunk by lawn maintenance equipment, such as mowers and string trimmers. The removal of bark and exposure of the cambium to the outside elements can be devastating in terms of moisture loss and the creation of openings in the trunk that allow for the development of decay and canker organisms. Mulching practices that begin placement of wood chip mulch 2 inches away from the tree trunk and extend into the landscape as far as the customer will permit go a long way toward preventing these injuries.
  • Herbicide injury: Careless applications of weed control products often result in injury to trees, especially ones with foliage within 25 feet of the ground. Wind speed and proximity are usually the main contributors to herbicide injury, where products are applied at speeds above 10 miles per hour and/or where foliage is close enough to the turf to allow for absorption.
  • Sunscald: Bark loss on the south, southwest, west and sometimes east side of trunks is often due to sunscald. A common scenario is one where winter sun beats on a tree trunk during the daytime, raising the temperature of the tissue to above freezing; then at night, when the sun sets, the temperature drops to below freezing. When this pattern occurs many nights in a row, the tissue splits, cracks or flakes off, exposing the cambium and sapwood, resulting in drying of inner tissues. Red maples and other thin-barked trees are most susceptible.
  • Soil compaction: Compaction, or the compressing together of soil particles, results in less availability for oxygen and water to be present in the root zone of trees. As well, roots already growing at the time of the compaction force are often crushed and damaged. Common causes of compaction are construction equipment and cars/trucks. However, long-term compaction injury can occur from foot traffic and mowing equipment in a chronic fashion over time. Symptoms of compaction include stunted stems with shortened internodes and off-color foliage.
  • Temperature injury: Mother Nature can dish out some pretty severe weather at times, causing tree tissues to dry out. While this damage can occur year-round, the periods of most common injury are in spring (as new shoots are being produced), midsummer (especially if soil moisture levels are low) and in the middle of winter (when drying winds cause the stems to lose moisture). When tissues appear brown and lifeless as trees are greening up and/or producing new growth in the spring, consider cold and warm weather injury.

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Tips To Keep Your Chain Saws Sharp

There would not be much debate amongst tree pros that few things in daily tree care operations are more infuriating than a chain saw that starts readily, runs well, but cuts wood like a chronologically gifted man gumming his Jell-O at evening chow — lots of energy expended for very little results. A poorly or incorrectly sharpened chain is not only an efficiency issue, slowing down the pace of the workday for the entire crew, but also a safety concern.

Chains that are not sharp, or sharpened incorrectly, require more energy to operate; are harder through vibrations on the operator’s muscles, tendons and ligaments; and, depending on how incorrectly they have been sharpened, can even be more prone to dangerous actions such as kickback. In addition, operators who are focusing on how angry they are with whoever sharpened, or didn’t sharpen, the saw are not paying as much attention as they should to the motorized cutting implement in their hands.

Other dangerous situations can occur due to the inability to line up or set up cuts properly because of the poorly sharpened chains. Many felling or removal cuts require a degree of precision to work properly, and a badly sharpened chain is many things, but never precise. The easiest solution to this issue is correctly sharpened and maintained saws and chains. Any discussion amongst tree folks about sharpening methods and tools will reveal a wide variety of opinions and methods, some that are worthwhile and helpful, and others that are based on poorly thought out ideas or because “we’ve always done it this way.”

While not directly related to sharpening, a side plate that’s filled with this much junk and trash will definitely impact the saw's efficiency. Photo: H. Neustaeter

While not directly related to sharpening, a side plate that’s filled with this much junk and trash will definitely impact the saw’s efficiency. Photo: H. Neustaeter

Some basic knowledge of how a chain cuts wood and how to maintain the proper angles, along with some of the tools available for sharpening, will assist tree people in determining which sharpening method not only works best for them, but can also minimize frustrating moments on the job. As mentioned, there are a number of methods and techniques for sharpening, many of them with value learned from on-the-job practice. This column will focus primarily on techniques and tools compliant with manufacturers’ recommendations.

Sharp chains consist of pieces/parts

At its most basic level, the proper sharpening of a chain means the sharpener has to have an understanding of how a cutter tooth removes wood, good attention to detail, and an ability to consistently apply pressure at the proper angles. A lack of knowledge or ability in any of these areas can make cutting with a newly “sharpened” chain saw a frustrating experience, not to mention dangerous.

A roller guide is used to file the cutter teeth at the proper angle. Photo: H. Neustaeter

A roller guide is used to file the cutter teeth at the proper angle. Photo: H. Neustaeter

Set ’em up — depth gauges

To a casual observer with no understanding of how a chain works, it might seem like the depth gauge, also referred to as the “raker” or “drag,” has nothing to do with cutting. However, it’s one of the most important areas in sharpening a chain saw effectively, as it sets up the cut, but it’s often neglected. The depth gauge determines how large a “bite” the cutting part of the tooth takes, so it must be filed or tuned in conjunction with the cutting parts of the tooth and with each individual tooth.

If the depth gauge has been neglected while the cutting surfaces of the tooth have been filed again and again to perfection, the saw will cut poorly, if at all, as the depth gauges keep the cutter teeth from even coming into contact with the wood. Conversely, if the depth gauges have been taken down too much in relation to the cutter teeth, they will be getting too large a bite, causing at least vigorous chattering and vibration while cutting in hardwoods, and oftentimes vicious kickbacks as the too large bite stops the chain for an instant, causing it to attempt to turn within the chain, throwing it back toward the operator.

A selection of chain saw sharpening and maintenance tools. Photo: H. Neustaeter

A selection of chain saw sharpening and maintenance tools. Photo: H. Neustaeter

Either variation of depth gauge sharpening – untouched or touched too much — is unacceptable for safe, efficient cutting. Fortunately, both are easily remedied through the use of a depth gauge guide. These simple tools allow the sharpener to easily “tune” each depth gauge to its particular cutter tooth with a flat file, assuring the proper distance exists, and generating the efficient removal of a nicely formed chip of wood.

Cuttin’ wood

The depth gauge sets the stage for the cutter teeth. These are the “beasts” of the chain, banging into the wood again and again at a high rate of speed, hopefully chiseling out a finely shaped wood chip with each impact. The point or starting corner of the tooth begins the cut by entering the wood, the top plate and attendant angle begins to chisel a chip of wood down into the gullet as the side plate of the tooth separates it.

A happy tree person with lots of sharpening and cleaning tools available begins the saw cleaning/sharpening process. PHOTO: MICHAEL TAIN

A happy tree person with lots of sharpening and cleaning tools available begins the saw cleaning/sharpening process. PHOTO: MICHAEL TAIN

The design of modern chain saw teeth is based on a logger’s observation of a beetle’s jaws and teeth in removing wood. This logger, Joe Cox, later went on to found Oregon Cutting Systems.

Close observers will notice that the width of a well-formed chip is consistent with the distance from the outer edge of a right-hand cutter to the outer edge of a left-hand cutter, as both work together to fully sever the chip. Cutter teeth that have come in contact with something other than wood – perhaps while the operator was “digging for clams” in the dirt — will show a shiny area along the front edge. A starting point for sharpening is realizing that the tooth will need to be filed until that shine has been removed. Severely damaged teeth may be more quickly sharpened by removing this area with a flat file prior to even beginning with a round file and guide.

A selection of guides for sharpening chain saw chain. PHOTO: MICHAEL TAIN

A selection of guides for sharpening chain saw chain. PHOTO: MICHAEL TAIN

The angle without a dangle

Many tree care professionals have their own personal opinion on the best angle to file the top plate, yet chain manufacturers themselves, after spending millions of dollars on research and development, give fairly specific guidelines on angles for each of the individual types of chains they produce. The choice of angle is obviously up to individual users, but the typical angles from manufacturers range from 25 degrees to 35 degrees, depending on the type of chain and its projected use.

Guides for success

Once again, the use of any of a variety of guides will ensure consistency and accuracy in sharpening the cutter teeth. There are file guides that simply hold the file and provide the angle; roller guides that have a built-in depth gauge guide, providing two tools in one; and file guides that hold the round file, provide the angle, and hold a flat file that files the depth gauge at the same time.

While individual opinions and desires will decide which type of file guide is used, personal experience has shown that for the vast majority of chain sharpeners some type of guide will improve not only the speed and efficiency of chain sharpening, but also the cutting of the sharpened teeth when put into use.

This close-up view of a chain illustrates the relationship between the depth gauges and the cutter teeth. PHOTO: MICHAEL TAIN

This close-up view of a chain illustrates the relationship between the depth gauges and the cutter teeth. PHOTO: MICHAEL TAIN

The general process

While it may seem obvious to most tree folk, personal experience has shown that it’s necessary to mention that different chains may require different size files. A file that’s too large or too small will sharpen the chain poorly, and can also damage it, perhaps leading to sharp metal objects flying around the work site.

The correct file size to use should be noted on the box the chain comes in, or is available from the manufacturer. A general guideline is that the correctly sized file should protrude 20 percent, or one-fifth, above the cutter tooth.

File the cutter teeth from the inside of the bar out to lessen the chance of filings dropping down into the channel of the bar. For efficiency, sharpen all teeth on one side prior to filing them on the other side. Unless an all-in-one guide is used, the typical filing process would begin with sharpening all the cutter teeth using an appropriate file, and then going through with the appropriate depth gauge guide and a flat file and “tuning” each depth gauge to each cutter tooth. A bench vise, or stump vise in the field, will hold the bar and saw immobile during the sharpening process while still allowing the chain to rotate freely.

Sharpeners that have difficulty remembering which tooth they started with might use a marker to darken the first tooth they sharpen; some chains may provide two right or left-hand cutters in a row as an easy starting/ending point.

Most professional-grade chain cutter teeth have a diagonal line running across the top plate at the rear of the cutter known as the witness mark. Though it is intended to inform the user of when to take the chain out of service, it also tends to match the desired angle to file the tooth at, thus providing a visual guide for sharpeners.

The use of bench or electric grinders in the sharpening operation can be quite advantageous, as it will speed the process, but tree care personnel who choose this method must be aware of the grinder’s proper use and setup. The use of the appropriate stones and angles is paramount, as chains are easily ruined or destroyed if sharpened with a grinder that’s set up improperly. Additionally, grinder operators must pay close attention to the amount of time the grinding wheel or stone is in contact with the tooth, as it is easy to overheat the metal, causing it to lose its temper and creating a tooth that will be impossible to further sharpen.

Proper chain sharpening should be a part of every tree company’s training and culture for both safety and efficiency reasons. While there is obviously a great deal more to the topic than the basic information discussed here, this introduction to the actions of the chain components along with some tools and methods for sharpening them can assist tree folk in achieving more consistent wood cutting. In the end, properly sharpened chains will help tree folk cut wood while lookin’ good.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2014 and has bee updated.

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Dealing With The Wildfire Threat

Dealing With The Wildfire Threat

It certainly seems that the wildfire problem is getting worse. Wildfires have ravaged the western states in the past decade, but other areas are also threatened. Florida residents faced one of the worst fire seasons in years this spring. Before that, wildfires in the Plains had burned 1 million acres. Last fall, the Southeast saw unprecedented fire activity — and it’s not just wildlands that are burning. On Nov. 28, 2016, the Chimney Tops 2 Fire roared through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, killing 14 people and damaging or destroying 2,400 buildings. In Alberta, Canada, wildfires have devastated the towns of Slave Lake and Fort McMurray in recent years.

Examining the causes

Increasingly, people have been moving away from urban centers and into natural areas or wildlands. There is an obvious appeal of living close to nature for many. This has created a “wildland-urban interface,” where human habitation meets natural surroundings. Fire has always been a part of nature; in many ways, it’s nature’s way of recycling. Recurrent fires may seem only destructive, but they are followed by regrowth and resurgence. But the wildland-urban interface can be easily crossed by fire and man’s possessions, and even his safety can be threatened. According to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, “Wildfire is a serious risk in 38 states, threatening about 120 million people and their property.”

Even under the best conditions, urban fire departments would be hard-pressed to protect all homes from an approaching wildfire. The scale is much greater than anything they are prepared for.

There are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk from wildfire damage. This is where the tree care industry gets involved.

Wildfire basics

The “wildfire equation” has several components. First, you need fuel. This can be trees, shrubs, grasses, material on the ground such as leaves, or even materials below the surface. Technically, there is a distinction between a “ground fire,” which stays at low levels, and fires that jump into the canopy, the extremely destructive “crown fires.”

In terms of flammability, deciduous hardwoods are less prone to burning. Their leaves have high moisture content and fall off when dry. Conifers with their ever-present needle-like leaves and resins are prone to fires at any time. With wildfires typically starting as ground fires, lower fuels are critical and they must be dry. Although surface fuels can dry out quickly under the right conditions, long-term drought conditions precede most major fires.

In some sections of the country, drought is a seasonal occurrence. In the West, summers are dry. The fire season can start in late spring and continue into the fall until the winter wet season starts. Less precipitation in the winter will exasperate the fire situation later in the year. In southern Florida, winter is the dry season. As we have seen this year, if the sporadic rains in winter are lacking, the fire problem becomes acute. In the southern Plains, warmer and drier conditions even in winter can lead to fire activity. In much of the eastern part of the country, precipitation is typically more evenly distributed over the year. But droughts occur on a sporadic basis.

If dry fuels are available, fire ignition is the next concern. Although lightning strikes start some wildfires, man-caused fires are the major problem. Estimates range up to 90 percent of all wildfires are started by man. Often these are debris burns that get out of hand. Arson is also a cause. The other factor is wind. Fires that occur under calm conditions are typically easily controlled. When the winds are up, wildfires move quickly. And movement is far from consistent. Spotting, a new fire starting downwind of the main fire line due to airborne burning debris or embers, causes fires to jump forward. In some situations, spot fires can occur a mile or even more ahead of the main fire. In reality, it’s the “attack from above” that causes much of the fire damage. When conditions are at their worst with wind and dry fuels, wildfires are unstoppable. In the West, topography is also a problem. The rugged terrain and winds cause erratic fire movement, making fire suppression more difficult.

There are two factors that make the wildfire problem worse. Global warming is causing longer, more severe fire seasons. Significant droughts are becoming more frequent. Also, fire suppression efforts have actually increased fire intensity. Wildfires were a part of nature’s cycle and occurred on a frequent basis in most areas. Fires burned until they had no fuel or rain fell. Understory vegetation was regularly burned off. With fire suppression, areas go for years without fires. Fuel loads increase and when wildfires do occur, they are much more intense and damaging.

Tree care specifics

The wildfire problem is so acute in the western U.S. that fire mitigation services are routinely provided by tree care professionals. The goal is to reduce the risk of fire damage to property. In some locales, insurance companies actually require such actions to keep your property insured.

The key to fire mitigation is to provide a defensible space around the house (or other structure). A defensible space means that firefighters could safely occupy this area while battling the blaze. It will also greatly reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of a wildfire engulfing your home.

A three-zone defensive perimeter is recommended. Zone 1 extends from the house to 30 feet away. Trees should either be removed or, if kept, at least 5 feet from the home and pruned to a height of 10 feet (especially conifers). Any limbs hanging over the house and all flammable or dead vegetation should be removed.

Zone 2 extends at least 100 feet away from the house. Natural vegetation is permissible with some alterations. Dead or dying branches or trees should be removed. Branches should be trimmed below 6 or even 10 feet. Understory vegetation should also be thinned or totally removed. The goal would be to stop or at least slow any approaching fire along the ground and/or keep it from crowning.

Zone 3 extends at least 200 feet from the house and will eventually blend into the natural vegetative cover. Even here, some of the same steps used in Zone 2 could be done to reduce fire risk, especially thinning of vegetation. Of course, all debris produced in these zones should be removed.

Two excellent sources of information are, “The Basics of Defensible Space and the Home Ignition Zone” by the National Fire Protection Association and “Protecting Your Home From Wildfire: Creating Wildfire-Defensible Zones,” a Colorado State University-Forest Service Guide. These provide detailed instructions for homeowners or those who offer such services to homeowners.

Although wildfire mitigation is a service primarily in the western part of the country, as noted above, wildfires can occur in many other areas. Mitigation services could be provided in many locations.

After a wildfire, tree care professionals may be asked to assess fire damage. They may be asked to determine if fire-damaged trees can be saved. They may also be involved in the cleanup and restoration efforts. This would include the removal of badly-damaged or dead trees and the planting and caring for new trees and/or vegetation.

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Customer Service Comes First

A successful company is all about going that extra step with a customer, and Randy Owen realized that right from the beginning. In fact, he started his own tree service company because he saw the job requests that could not be taken on by the company he was working for at the time.

The company, which works in five counties in southern Michigan out of headquarters in Attica, began as a part-time job for Owen. He worked for a utility line maintenance company, and customers kept asking the crews to do other types of tree work. He started by taking on those jobs in his spare time. That was in 1985. By 1989, he had started RJ Owen Tree Service, later shortening the name, but expanding the services. It now boasts three corporations reflecting the different jobs they offer to their clients.

One of those jobs is general landscaping and maintenance, including turf. Owen listens to his clients and takes on those little jobs they need done, even if it is fertilizing a lawn.

“It’s just evolved from that. If a customer requests a service, and we can do it, we do that,” Owen says. He doesn’t do landscape construction, and still refers most of the general landscaping jobs to other companies, but if a client needs some mulch or turfgrass fertilizer and the company has a crew on the spot, they will provide it so the client doesn’t have to bring another company in.

Tree care is still the core business for this company, which specializes in high-end residential and commercial jobs. There are several ISA-certified arborists on the sales staff, including consulting arborists, and the company does everything from tree removal to disease diagnosis and treatment. Chemical management, from insect treatments to soil conditioning, has become a big part of the business and makes up its own division. The company also now offers perimeter pest control.

For Owen, customer service starts in the field. “Customer service is based on how the plants will function, and that will radiate out through the whole company. That’s a big thing for our company, that people believe in our company and that we will do the job right.” Owen says his goal is to set customer expectations on the correct course right from the beginning, and that starts with his advertised company guarantees, items he informally calls his “golden rules.”

Workers, foremen and salesmen are all trained to promote good customer relations, and that has saved Owen Tree Service from some of the ill effects of the recession. Photo: Owen Tree Service

They are in the form of a list of guarantees, which begins with, “All employees will be in uniform and professionally trained to perform his or her assigned tasks on your property. Our entire staff will treat you with respect.” It ends with, “You will be completely satisfied with all aspects of the work we do for you.” In between are several specific promises, and Owen and his employees take them seriously.

Owen devised the golden rules based on years of experience with people in this area, and what local tree care customers expect. Owen Tree salespeople are trained to speak respectfully, not block the driveway, let the customer know when he arrives on-site and have a final explanatory walkthrough when the job is completed.

The second part of setting expectations is in the early dealings with customers and potential customers. The first rule is to listen carefully to them and be honest about how the company can comply with their wishes. Never promise something that can’t be carried out. Realistic expectations set at this stage will carry the tone for the entire project, and beyond, because a happy customer will keep coming back.

The sales staff is also taught to carefully analyze client requests, says Tom Morgan, sales manager. “Sometimes what they need done isn’t what they want done.” He cites tar spot as a common example. This fungal disease looks bad, and the company gets requests to treat for it, but it is not a major health threat to the tree. It builds goodwill to tell the customer the truth and save them some money.

Morgan says it is important for salesmen to put all of the details of the project in writing in the estimate. A lot of misunderstandings can be averted by good communications up front and a detailed contract. He makes sure the wording is exact. For example, a client may get the idea that the company will remove all preexisting waste from a site in addition to the tree trimmings, and it is important to avoid a conflict by saying that “waste from removals” is all that will be hauled away.

Field workers are also indoctrinated with the mantra of customer satisfaction. There are weekly tailgate safety meetings, where company philosophy and problem issues are often the topics of discussion. Safety in itself is a part of customer service, Owen believes, because apart from the issue of employee health, a client who witnesses an accident in his yard is a stressed and inconvenienced client.

Morgan points out that training employees is ongoing and can consist of studying videos or text, as well as foremen or managers giving hands-on tutorials. Foremen are also taught to work with clients and given latitude in the field to undertake small jobs, sometimes at no cost, if the customer has a “reasonable” request. If it will cost extra, the foreman will come to an agreement with the client, or call in a salesman on more complicated extras.

“If you can accommodate the client, accommodate the client,” Morgan says. Foremen are an important part of the customer/company relationship, because they are the face of the company.

Another customer service issue in Michigan is language. Clients expect landscape workers to speak English, and Owen promises that to them. Since many of his workers are Spanish speakers, he has hired English instructors to come to the office and teach classes on the subject. Now, one of his receptionists is a Spanish speaker who helps train field workers. The company has receptionists, as well as a 24-hour live answering service, which will contact the appropriate employee in an emergency; The company is also installing a voice over IP system this year, which will allow customers to contact employees in different ways, including forwarding to their cell phones.

The final walkthrough after a completed job is an important step in customer relations, Owen says. That is usually done by the foreman on the project, but the company also has a follow-up customer survey, conducted either by phone or a personal visit by a salesman. It may also consist of a salesman going out in the fall after a busy summer and talking to customers in his region to make sure they are satisfied.

“There is a cost to customer service,” Owen says regarding the effort his company puts in to make sure customers are satisfied. He points out that the expansion of Owen Tree services over the last few years has been in response to customer requests. Some of these services grew naturally, for example, six years ago the company began mulching its own tree waste, and it was easy to segue into providing bedding mulch for clients who requested it. Some work, such as turfgrass maintenance, wasn’t as easy and required extra training for the company’s sales and field employees.

Owen says that these moves by his company, and the “continuous” attention to customer service, show results in an economic downturn in a state like Michigan. The unemployment rate in his service area has been around 18 percent, and although Owen Tree business has dropped off, the company is still healthy; much of that comes from retaining long-term clients.

Owen Tree also belongs to a lot of tree associations and accreditation organizations, listing them prominently on its Web site. Apart from the practical implications for company quality control, Owen says his clientele is informed and impressed by such associations.

“I always thought that if we were going for the high road, we should market that to our customers,” Owen says. The end result is obvious: A company that pays attention to its customers can keep them and thrive over the long haul.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2010 and has been updated.

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Summer Safety

Summer is often the busiest season for production tree workers. Dormant season’s end, summer storms and active insect and pathogen populations all add to the pace of tree care operations. Many tree care companies depend on the summer months to sustain them through the rest of the year. For most it is a make-it-or-break-it time. Therefore, a successful summer season is important.

Just as any tree job has specific concerns, so too does the summer tree season. Never is safety and efficiency more important than when workloads increase and the difference between a good year and a bad one may boil down to the activities of a few short months.

Make sure the crew has plenty of cool, clean water to drink on hot days. Photo: Tony Tresselt

Safe work practices are always necessary and cost-effective. However, each season brings its own challenges. Tree workers can do many things to stay safe and productive this summer; we’ll look at three. By avoiding heat injuries, watching out for summertime pests, and ensuring proper equipment maintenance, this summer can be safe and successful.

How about this heat?

For many parts of the country, summer months mean increased temperatures and/or humidity. Heat injury, from mild dehydration to outright heat stroke, is a constant worry. Review the additional hazards of working in high heat and humidity during site safety briefings. Be sure the job plan includes breaks and that plenty of cool, clean water is available.

Include the many hazards summer can entail in job site safety briefings. Photo: Tony Tresselt

Focus a longer safety meeting on recognizing heat injuries in yourself and other crew members. Look at abatement strategies and proper treatment. If caught early, heat injuries can often be lessened or entirely avoided. Should a crew member become incapacitated by the heat, be sure he receives proper medical care promptly.

Heat injuries are serious and must be acted on accordingly. Just because there is no blood and gore does not mean a crew member may not need quick, thorough medical care. Just as with so many things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Saw and equipment maintenance is even more important in the busy season. Photo: Tony Tresselt


Warmer weather also means that many other forms of life are more active. Bees, wasps and other stinging insects can be hidden in thick tree canopies or trunk cavities. In early summer, wildlife may be breeding or already have young broods. Beware of animals that may be more aggressive because of these cycles. Animals and birds are also more likely to be in nests and dens and may not appreciate your daytime visit to their lofty perches.

Be thorough in your risk assessments and inspect for evidence of wildlife before starting work. If crew members have any allergies, be sure the entire crew is aware and knows what to do should an incident occur. Make ready any necessary medications or other forms of treatment, and be trained and ready to use them when needed.

Not all pests are four-legged. Be aware of and able to identify poisonous plants. Even a mild allergic reaction to plants can cause discomfort and add to fatigue and frustration at the end of a long day. Be sure crew members can identify the major reaction-causing plants in your area, and develop a plan to avoid the risk or minimize the exposure.

Take special care when fueling hot equipment on hot days. Photo: Tony Tresselt

Equipment woes

Production tree care is dusty, dirty work any time of year. Add high temperatures and longer hours and summer work takes its toll on workers and equipment alike. Be sure all motorized equipment is serviced and running well. The frustration of malfunctioning equipment and long, hot days can be hazardous, if not fatal.

Sharpen saws and brush chippers regularly. Dull tools are no fun and can be dangerous. Be sure to clean radiators and cooling fins often. A clogged radiator might not make a difference when the temps are below freezing, but it can ruin efficiency on a warm day, not to mention the time lost and repair cost of a cracked block or other damage.

Mechanics will tell you they get more service calls on days with extreme temperatures. Make sure tires are at the correct pressure and in good shape. Tighten lug nuts and check brakes regularly. Top off fluids as necessary. Machinery without proper fluid levels has to work harder to do the same job. Low fluid levels usually mean higher working temps, and greater and quicker wear. What you may squeak by with on a mild day will catch up with you as time and temperature increase.

Learn to identify poisonous plants and inspect carefully for all manner of pests before working. Photo: Tony Tresselt

Be sure to store fuel and oils in shaded or cooler areas, as direct sunlight can cause unvented cans and/or storage bins to become pressurized and/or explosive. Saws and other gas equipment are slower to cool, so extra care when refueling is wise. Clean up spills promptly and use good judgment when filling hot equipment on hot days.

The summer season can be a great time to get a lot of work completed. However, increased workloads and temperatures, active hazardous pests and plants, as well as more demanding equipment usage can all add to the stress of a busy season. Make sure that safety briefings reflect these added concerns. Prepare workers and equipment alike with the tools and knowledge necessary to deal with the summer heat. Plan your work and work your plan. This becomes especially important as the summer months settle upon us.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2013 and has been updated.

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TCIA Awarded OSHA Training Grant

TCIA Awarded OSHA Training Grant

The Occupational Safety Health Administration recently announced more than $3.6 million in fiscal year 2016 Susan Harwood Targeted-Topic Training Grants to 28 non-profit organizations. Notably, OSHA funded the Tree Care Industry Association for a third consecutive year to continue safety training throughout the country. Awarded $137,532 in funding, the TCIA will present training to employers in the landscaping and tree care industries through the end of September.

“This grant will allow us to continue to provide specialized safety training programs for the arborists who need it most,” said Mark Garvin, TCIA president. “It is an important step in reducing occupational injuries and fatalities in our industry.”

Training will include recognition, avoidance, preventing hazards when using aerial lifts, operating chain saws and chippers and working near electrical conductors. Target audiences include small business, limited English-proficiency and low-literacy workers. TCIA was awarded just under $125,000 in fiscal year 2015 for similar training.

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Port-A-Wrap: The Tool That Keeps On Giving

A key component of daily tree care operations is being able to lower large pieces and parts of woody debris with a fair amount of control and accuracy. Although all climbing arborists secretly dream of an endless stream of “freefall” jobs where the property owner will take care of the brush, the reality is that many removals, and even mildly significant pruning jobs, involve some obstacle or target that must be avoided. As gravity seems to be the law no matter where a tree crew works, and wood can generate a fair amount of damaging velocity from rather insignificant heights, rigging, and the control that should be a part of it, is part and parcel of the tree care industry’s daily existence. Knowledge of how to acquire, and the ability to build, systems that provide rigging control not only will assist in avoiding damage to property, but increase the safety and efficiency of the work site. After all, an energized conductor beneath a branch to be removed is not only an obstacle that has to be undamaged, but also a palpable threat to the climber and crew if not avoided safely and under control.

A Port-a-Wrap III set to take a load during a training session. Note the ability of the ground person to be out of harm’s way. Photo: Michael Tain

Additionally, a growing awareness through research and training has made many in the industry aware of the forces trees are exposed to during rigging operations. Some of which, if improperly handled/controlled, can have catastrophic physical results for both tree and crew. In years past, and on many work sites currently, the method for gaining control over a large piece of woody debris descending at a high rate of speed was to take wraps around the tree or an adjacent tree, thereby generating the required friction for some measure of control. This technique, though still useful at times, has a number of disadvantages, including friction generation that varies with species due to bark differences, ground personnel that must be experienced and knowledgeable enough to take an appropriate number of wraps, and the dizzying number of times a ground worker has to circle the tree to put on or take off wraps. One of the simplest, lightweight and most economical tools available to provide rigging control is the Port-a-Wrap, designed and developed by working climbing arborists Scott Prophett and Norm Hall. This safe and efficient lowering device not only provides consistent friction with attendant strength regardless of tree species, but also is simple enough for efficient use with a minor amount of instruction and training. However, as with anything new to the gear bag, it must be used correctly to reap its full benefits, while avoiding improper use and situations that could lead to its failure.

Buckingham’s large aluminum Port-a-Wrap III. Photo: Michael Tain


Attaching the Port-a-Wrap to the trunk of the desired tree is a simple and straightforward process requiring only an eye sling of proper length and knowledge of appropriate rigging sling attachment knots. The use of connecting links of any type to attach the sling to the Port-a-Wrap is not recommended in any rigging situation; and particularly not in a situation involving dynamic loading where the connecting link could become cross or side-loaded during movement and subsequently fail. Rather, the best and safest way to attach the sling to the device is by girth hitching the sling around the larger or longer of the U-shaped brackets beneath the barrel. Rigging slings with larger eyes that are large enough to pass all the way around the Port-a-Wrap will make this girth hitching process even easier, and avoid the possible weakness of a connecting link. A cow hitch with a better half is an excellent choice for securing the sling and device to the tree, although in the event the sling is too short, a timber hitch may be used. If additional eye slings are available, they can be tied to one another with a double sheet bend, creating a longer single sling, allowing for the use of the cow hitch. If the timber hitch is used, ground personnel should make sure it is loaded correctly after every load to ensure the timber hitch’s coils have not gotten too close together.

This is not the time for the ground crew to be figuring out how many wraps they should have on the Port-a-Wrap. Photo: Michael Tain

Setting the rigging line

In order to prepare the Port-a-Wrap to lower a load, a bight of the rigging line is fed through the smaller angled “U” on top of the barrel, around and under the forward end of the barrel itself, and beneath the protruding pin, between the pin and the “U,” thus securing the line in place. At this point, the operator should pull down on the part of the line leading up to the load and up on the part of line exiting the device. This will assist in removing slack from the line and rigging system, and though not eliminate the Port-a-Wrap sagging at the instant the piece or branch is cut free, will lessen the severity somewhat. The line is then passed completely around the barrel behind the “U” until the number of desired wraps and attendant friction is created. More wraps around the barrel obviously mean more friction, but personal experience has shown that the most common mistake among new users is too many wraps rather than too few. Two to three complete wraps will provide total control for all but the most extreme loads. The ground person can then stand out of the landing zone at almost any angle from the device as the two pins on the end of the barrel of the Port-a-Wrap direct the line into the barrel correctly. These pins also provide a place to “cleat” off the line, keeping the load from moving in the event of a static load or to enable ground personnel to cut some pieces off a large load while stable. The barrel should be filled with wraps in this application to provide enough friction to prevent the “cleat” to become overtightened to the point where the only option for removal is a knife.


The goal when lowering a load with the Port-a-Wrap, as with any rigging control device, is to lower the load smoothly and safely with a minimization of forces at the anchor point, which is typically quite near the climber aloft. This is not accomplished by snubbing the piece or load off and bringing it to an abrupt stop. In fact, that is the worst thing that can happen in regard to forces experienced by the anchor point and the climber. By using the proper amount of wraps on the Port-a-Wrap, the operator is able to gradually slow the piece, bringing it to a stop where required by obstacles and the level of the ground beneath the tree. This gradual deceleration will allow the elongation of the rope to absorb some of the generated forces, dissipating their severity at the anchor point. In cases where circumstances or obstacles dictate snubbing the piece off, all personnel involved should be aware of the possible forces that are going to be generated, examine the tree and gear for expected survival of such forces, and plan accordingly.

An example of an eye sling girth hitched appropriately to the Port-a-Wrap. Photo: Michael Tain


The Port-a-Wrap is most commonly used in rigging systems to control the descent of loads, but with a little imagination and common sense it has a wide variety of applications in other facets of rigging or tree care. The smaller version can be used as a personal descent device in place of a figure 8 on long descents, though gear used once for rigging should never be used for climbing after its rigging use. The device also works well in applications involving lifting, pulling and/or mechanical advantage to take up and hold the slack generated by the fiddle blocks or other system, or to create an adjustable “floating anchor” in tree pulling situations.


The Port-a-Wrap III, as well as earlier versions, are made by Buckingham Manufacturing, and are available in a number of sizes, materials (including steel and aluminum) and coatings from a variety of arborist retailers. Their safe working load (SWL) is dependent on model and material, but is generally in the 2,000-pound range for the larger models. A newer version has recently come on the market that is made overseas for SherrillTree. This is called the Port-a-Wrap IV, and is available in medium and large sizes in steel and stainless steel with a working load limit (WWL) of 2,000 pounds. This version also includes a cap at the end of the barrel intended to protect the bark and trunk of trees not being removed during rigging operations. The size of the device, regardless of manufacturer, will dictate what diameters of rigging line can be used with it, so operators should take that into consideration when selecting one. Personal experience has shown that the Buckingham Port-a-Wrap III and earlier versions are strong, durable and well-built. Hopefully the newly released Port-a-Wrap IV will live up to the legacy of its forefathers, and exhibit the same tendencies.

From left: large aluminum, medium steel and small steel powder-coated Port-a-Wraps made by Buckingham Mfg. Photo: Michael Tain

Rigging operations in tree care are, by their nature, dangerous undertakings, involving attempting to move large weights in a controlled fashion, while ropes, gear, trees and climbers are all possibly experiencing extreme forces. The Port-a-Wrap is an excellent tool in these undertakings, one that once understood and used correctly cannot help but increase the safety and efficiency of tree crews everywhere during rigging operations, and whose versatility will prove useful in a wide variety of applications. Simple, strong and easy to use, the Port-a-Wrap is definitely a tool that keeps on giving.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in May 2010 and has been updated.

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