Triage for Trees

When it comes to tree care, spray and pray doesn’t cut it. Predetermined, automatic, one-size-fits-all applications are not only unnecessary, they’re bad for the industry. The once-a-month method needs to be replaced by accurate triage techniques and inspections.

What you’ll need

At least three skills are needed to become proficient at triage. First, a good diagnostician has worked long enough in the tree care industry to be able to identify any woody plant in front of them, as well as the typical causes of tree injury and best management practices to create an environment that supports healthy tree growth. It’s important to keep a wide spectrum of possible causal agents in mind instead of quickly leaning toward an insect or disease. Causes for tree decline may include nonliving factors, such as adverse environmental conditions, mechanical injury from construction or human activity, nutrient deficiency or planting errors. Living organisms, such as mites, insects and fungi, can also be responsible.

Second, well-developed observational ability is necessary. The ability to differentiate between normal plant appearance and that which could be caused by a damaging factor is a skill that can be both taught and learned through on-the-job experience. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s not difficult to see, but if you are unaware of the normal pattern of growth, you are not likely to be successful at the diagnosis.

Lastly, the personal trait of inquisitiveness is necessary. Like the trait of extroversion, everyone has the ability to be curious about what is causing a particular tree to be ailing; it just comes more natural to some than others. And, like becoming more extroverted when the situation calls for it, this trait can be developed to assist with triage.

Sumac aphids

Sumac aphids. Aphids are common sucking insects. Photo: James A. Kalisch, UNL

Don’t jump to conclusions

As best you can, fight the natural tendency to decide on a certain diagnosis too soon. Keeping your mind open as long as possible greatly increases your chances for accuracy. For example, a tree suffering from an unknown malady produces what appears to be generalized nondescript symptoms of brown leaves. There are at least 40 or 50 possible causes of such a malady. As you systematically work through the symptoms, finding clear, definitive signs that are germane only to a specific disease, insect or abiotic causal agent, the chances for finding the actual cause of the decline increase.

Keep in mind that two or three causal agents can be responsible for the decline of a tree. In fact, after an initial diagnosis has been made via triage, ask yourself, “What else could be responsible for the way that the tree looks?” Start triage by observing symptoms and signs, arriving at an initial decision, then consider other major groups; if the diagnosis is anthracnose, look for evidence that causal agents in the insects and abiotic groups could have contributed to the demise of the specimen.

Tapping affected branches over a white card is a good triage step to look for sucking insects and mites. Photo: James A. Kalisch, UNL

Think insects

By looking closely at the damage caused to tree leaves, insect damage can be classified as being caused by chewing insects, sucking insects and leaf changing insects. The remnants of insect feeding will be good clues; of course the presence of actual insects in large numbers is also quite useful, but that should be considered a bonus during triage.

Chewing insects leave the telltale signs of irregularly shaped holes in leaves and round holes in bark and wood. Some chewers, such as pine sawflies, eat entire leaves, which can lead to confusion. Frass, or granular fecal material, may also be present on leaves or stems, which is also a sign of chewing insects. Cankerworms cause classic chewing damage to broadleaf trees, such as birch and oak, but at first glance the damage may be confused with a bacterial shot hole disease, which may look similar. Some leaf miners use chewing mouthparts to enter and consume the tissues inside the leaf, known as the mesophyll. When present, a meandering or serpentine pattern of damage is evident. The beetles, caterpillars and sawflies are the most common within the chewing insect group.

Sucking insects create a stippled or lackluster appearance of the leaves that they feed upon. Insects in this group possess a piercing stylet that allows entry into plant tissues during feeding. Joining with the maxillae and other internal mouthpart structures, a two-channel extraction arrangement is set up. One channel injects saliva to liquefy plant tissues, while the other is used in conjunction with a small hydraulic pump in the head to suck the partially digested liquid cell sap into the digestive track of the insect. Trees that have been fed upon by sucking insects often have sticky leaves, caused by the deposition of honeydew as a waste product of the insect feeding. Aphids and lacebugs are classic sucking insects. While not true insects, various mite species have similar feeding habits.

Leaf and stem changers cause damage to trees by distorting, cupping, rippling and creating oddly shaped structures on the stems and leaves. This is somewhat of a catch-all group, with insects that use a variety of feeding and adaptive methods to create damage. Most notable in this group are the galls, which are frequently caused by cynipid wasps. They distort plant tissues by disrupting the normal growth process of leaves and stems. For the most part, they do not pose a significant threat to tree health.


Sawflies are chewing insects that eat entire leaves in most cases. Photo: James A. Kalisch, UNL

Think diseases

Diseases, either foliar or systemic, can be a major contributing factor in the demise or success of a tree. While foliar diseases, such as tar spot, are not usually serious in the long run, systemic pathogens, such as Dutch elm disease or oak wilt, can move a tree from healthy to hazardous in a couple of years.

Diseases that cause spotting on tree leaves are fairly conspicuous in terms of the signs they produce. If a pattern of round or oblong spots are evident on tree leaves, working to confirm a foliar disease as the initial diagnosis is a reasonable step. However, injury from certain insects can mimic this, especially if the insects are not present and the disease has progressed far enough for infected tissues to fall away from the leaf. Apple scab, dothistroma needle blight and cedar apple rust are diseases representative of this group.

Another category is characterized by pathogens that induce a softening of tissues. Armillaria root rot and heartwood decay of hardwoods are good examples. As the tree is inspected, pay close attention to the integrity of the wood, stems and leaves, as this may be a good indicator that pathogens from this group are responsible. The development of soft and punky heartwood is usually due to the invasion of wood-decomposing fungi after a limb has been removed or a crack in the bark occurs. The most important consideration with decay is to evaluate the relative amount of sound to weak wood present. Quite a bit of inner decay may be present, yet if a solid mass of wood surrounds it, it may not be a primary concern.

Pathogens that don’t fit either of the other two groups are maladies less obvious in terms of signs and symptoms, and include the blights, where various parts of the tree turn brown in random or nondescript patterns. Phomopsis blight and Dutch elm disease are good examples. Further investigation is necessary when faced with these types of scenarios.

Some insects distort the growth and appearance of the leaves, but don’t usually cause significant damage. Photo: James A. Kalisch, UNL

Think abiotic

In addition to the maladies caused by living organisms, there are a significant number of potential responsible agents that are nonliving. Many factors fit in this group.

The various components of soil (drainage, nutrition, pH, organic matter content, compaction, residues from construction) create the rooting and water/nutrient extraction capacity for tree roots. If any of these factors are not optimal, such as pH values that limit the uptake of iron or manganese or inadequate soil porosity that prevents adequate gas exchange, tree vigor can be compromised. Recent soil activities, such as application of additional soil or trenching, are also important considerations. Any factor that reduces infiltration of water and nutrients is a concern. Measure the degree of slope and consider it in conjunction with compaction and other soil factors.

Other plants in the landscape can limit the amount of water and nutrients available to trees. When placed too closely, shrubs, grasses, ground covers and even nearby trees can compete for necessary inputs, causing stress, inadequate growth and overall unhealthy specimens.

Largely a phenomenon of proper placement in the landscape, weakness can occur when a tree that is favored by full sunlight becomes shaded by a new building or growth of nearby trees. This is common when the crowns of adjacent trees become larger. In certain cases, the effects of phototropism become evident, where young shoots begin to orient themselves in the direction of the available sunlight.

If evidence of new hardscape (benches, concrete slabs, tree surrounds, patios, brickwork, etc.) is present, it’s likely that some roots were damaged in the process. In some cases, damage is minimal and trees can recover easily, but more often than not, construction activity leads to a degradation of tree health, especially if combined with other stress factors.

Although an important concern, root maladies can be quite difficult to observe. In some cases, surface rooting symptoms are obvious and can be noted during triage. Root girdling, damage from construction, compaction or hardpan are the most common concerns.

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

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Climbing Hitches: Open Vs. Closed

Whenever and wherever climbers gather, they will discuss their hitches, often to the point that non-climbers’ eyes will glaze over and many begin to display distinct symptoms of a lack of consciousness. These non-climbers’ incomprehension is understandable; after all, it is highly unlikely that they have ever been 85 feet up in a tulip poplar with a running chain saw and their very exposed and vulnerable position dependent on a work positioning lanyard and their personal choice of climbing hitch.

Even if, as a climber, you have never been in that particular position, your climbing hitch is a choice that affects your well-being almost every day and in every way. The number of hitches currently in use, or even being developed and refined as this article is read, far exceeds the available space to discuss their use and care, but a discussion of some basic open and closed climbing hitches will assist climbers to gain a better understanding of what climbing hitches can and cannot do, and where they might find the hitch they are looking for.

Left to right: The Schwaebisch, Distal and Michoacán, three basic closed climbing hitches with arrows to illustrate how they are tied. Photo: Michael Tain


Climbing hitches, by their very nature, need to be secure and reliable. A hitch that requires constant fiddling and maintenance for the climber to maintain his position is one that, sooner or later, is going to lead to problematic situations. When trying out a new hitch, the best place to experiment is “low and slow,” or on the ground. After all, 50 feet up is not the time to discover the new “best hitch ever” seems to creep copiously.

Ease of use

In what can seem to be direct conflict with security is the need for the hitch to be fairly easy to use. This does not mean that it doesn’t require an instruction manual, although with some hitches this might be valuable. Instead, it means that when the climber wishes to ascend or descend, the hitch responds well without undue effort; and that when the climber wants to stop, the hitch does as well.

Open hitches

Open climbing hitches are hitches in which only a single end of the cordage is attached to the climber’s harness, and the other end is used to form the hitch around the climbing line. The end of the cordage extending beyond the hitch should then be tied into a stopper or safety knot. The end of the climbing line itself can be used for an open climbing hitch, though for ease of use, a separate length of cordage, either spliced or tied with an appropriate attachment knot, is often used as a split bridge or tail. Three commonly seen examples of open climbing hitches are the Tautline, Prusik and Blake’s.

Tautline hitch

The Tautline is probably one of the most commonly used climbing hitches in North America and has been around since the days of natural fiber ropes. Unfortunately, unlike natural fibers, modern synthetic ropes are slippery, and as a rolling hitch, the Tautline can untie under load, or even tighten into immovability. This hitch is formed by making two turns around the standing part of the climbing line in a downward direction, and then taking the tail up above the original two turns and making two more turns around the standing part of the line downward in the same direction as the first two turns.

Individual user preference and rope choices may dictate more or fewer turns around the standing part of the line for greater or reduced friction. The lines should exit the Tautline from opposite sides in the middle of the hitch. The tail should then be formed into a stopper knot to prevent the hitch from untying itself when under load.

Prusik hitch

The Prusik hitch does not roll under load like the Tautline, but does tend to tighten, although it can be loosened by pushing against the formed bar of the hitch. This hitch is formed by making two turns around the standing part of the climbing line in a downward direction, and then taking the tail up above the original two turns and making two more turns around the standing part of the line downward in the opposite direction from the first two turns.

Once again, individual user preference and rope choices may dictate more or fewer turns around the standing part of the line. The lines should exit the Prusik from the same side in the middle of the hitch. The tail should then be formed into a stopper knot for additional security.

Left to right: The Tautline, Prusik and Blake’s, three basic open climbing hitches with arrows to illustrate how they are tied. Photo: Michael Tain

Blake’s hitch

The Blake’s hitch does not roll, nor does it bind as tightly as the other open climbing hitches, making it much easier to move either up or down after loading. It does focus a great deal of friction on one specific point, which can result in glazing on long, fast descents.

The Blake’s hitch is formed by making four turns around the standing part of the climbing line in an upward direction. The tail is then brought down between the user and the bridge, crossing beneath and capturing the bridge, then brought up beneath the bottom two turns on the other side. The tail should then be formed into a stopper knot for additional security.

Closed climbing hitches

A closed climbing hitch is one in which, after the hitch is formed around the climbing line, both ends are attached to the climber’s harness, typically by a carabiner. This closed nature means that closed climbing hitches cannot be formed in the end of the climbing line and require a length of dedicated cordage intended for that use. This also means they are only used as part of a split bridge or tail system, unlike open climbing hitches, which may be used in either. Three commonly seen examples of closed climbing hitches are the Schwabisch, Distal and Michoacn.


The Schwabisch looks very much like an asymmetrical Prusik around the climbing line. It is asymmetrical in that unlike a standard Prusik, which has an even number of coils or wraps each side of center, the Schwabisch, if tied correctly, will have one turn on the bottom and multiple turns on the top.

This hitch is formed by making one turn around the climbing line in a downward direction, and then taking the end of the eye and eye tail or piece of cordage up above the original turn and making four more turns around the standing part of the line in a downward direction, going around the climbing rope in the opposite direction from the original turn. The ends should both exit from the same side of the knot beneath the bar and are then secured to the connecting link, either through the use of spliced/stitched eyes or with appropriate attachment knots.


The Distal is tied in a similar fashion to the Schwabisch, with one key difference. The hitch is formed by making one turn around the climbing line in a downward direction, and then taking the end of the eye and eye tail or piece of cordage up above the original turn and making four more turns around the standing part of the line in a downward direction, going around the climbing rope in the same as the original turn. The ends will exit from opposite sides of the knot beneath the bar and are then secured to the connecting link, either through the use of spliced/stitched eyes or with appropriate attachment knots.


The Michoacn, brought to the tree world by Martin Morales of Southern California, may at first glance appear very similar to the Schwabisch and Distal, but is actually tied quite differently. The hitch is formed by making five turns around the climbing line in an upward direction. The upper end of the eye and eye tail or piece of cordage is then brought down and under the other end of the eye and eye tail, capturing it, before the hitch is completed by feeding the upper end between the standing part of the rope and the first turn. The lower end will exit from one side of the knot, captured by the upper end, which exits from beneath the first turn on the other side of the knot. Both ends are then secured to the connecting link, either through the use of spliced/stitched eyes or with appropriate attachment knots.

As mentioned in the title, the choice of a climbing hitch is a very personal one, suited to each individual’s climbing style, rope choices and even body weight. In fact, some climbers will use different hitches in different situations or applications, feeling that a particular hitch gives them an advantage in removals, while another performs better when pruning. In addition, different climbers may add or subtract turns even to the basic hitches described here, as each will function differently with different ropes and climbers. The short answer is that there is no wrong climbing hitch choice, as long as it is safe, secure and easy to use for that particular climber. Just as the world would be a boring place if all of humanity dressed, looked and acted the same, the tree climbing world would be much more mundane if all climbers used the same hitch. Besides, then what would we all talk about when we got together?

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April 2011 and has been updated.

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Communication & Your Crew

Communication & Your Crew

A tree job begins with a plan that can help eliminate confusion before it starts. Start each job with a pre-job briefing and site inspection. An acronym you may find useful is HOPE.

  • “H” stands for hazards. These are defined by anything that may interfere with the safety of the crew. A common job site hazard is electrical lines. Defining the location of hazards and establishing a protocol for how to safely work around them beforehand eliminates the struggle of having to communicate safety standards or work processes during the job.
  • “O” is for obstacles. These are things that can be broken or get in the way. Examples of obstacles range from pedestrian traffic to swimming pools. In many cases, obstacles can be moved. Other times obstacles demand that the crew alter the work plan. An example of this is the decision to lower limbs as opposed to just letting them free-fall because an obstacle, such as a patio, is in the drop zone.
  • P” is for plan. The crew must develop an appropriate plan, keeping all hazards and obstacles in mind. The plan should maximize job flow, but adhere to safety standards and protocol.
  • “E” stands for equipment. A well-laid out plan complements the equipment and space available. Preplaced equipment helps with a seamless work flow. Sometimes equipment will need to be moved. Add this dynamic to your job briefing and communicate it clearly. The time to get your point across is before the decibels rise and the brush starts flying.

Read more: The Importance of Work Site Communication

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Climbing Harnesses 101

Climbing harnesses are an integral and vital part of every climbing arborist’s daily work life; and though some tree folk may put a great deal of thought and energy into harness selection and purchase, a large number just go with whatever’s available or costs the least. While cost certainly has to be a component of harness selection, particularly given the current economic climate, it should not be the only criteria considered when it’s time to replace “ol’ faithful.”

A climber’s harness not only provides safety and security day after day and job after job, it’s also a piece of gear that is intimately familiar with some pretty important parts of the user’s body. In short, a harness is going to be used on every job involving climbing and is going to affect the user’s comfort and abilities more than any other piece of gear or equipment they might employ, so it follows that a poorly designed harness or one that’s not properly adjusted is going to have just as great a negative effect.

Not all that long ago, climbers simply created a harness out of the end of their climbing line, sometimes adding a board or stiffener for additional comfort for their “seat of power.” This field expedient harness creation is not a bad skill to have, especially for emergency situations, but, in general, current production climbers would be less than happy with the pinching, lack of support and general discomfort that a field expedient climbing line harness provides.

Thankfully there are a wide variety of harnesses available specifically designed and intended for the “rough trade” of production tree work. While this variety allows climbers to find the harness that is right for their particular style and body type, the large number of choices can also be confusing. Some basic knowledge about the intended applications and the features of modern harnesses can help make the process less confusing and result in a more satisfactory outcome for the climber and their pelvis.

Bear LeVangie using both the suspension and work positioning features of her climbing harness while working aloft. Photo: Melissa LeVangie.

Bear LeVangie using both the suspension and work positioning features of her climbing harness while working aloft. Photo: Melissa LeVangie.


Industrial harnesses can be divided into four basic types: fall restraint, fall arrest, work positioning and suspension. Many tree industry-specific harnesses will have elements of each.

1. Fall Restraint.

This harness system is intended to prevent the user from getting into a position where they can get hurt or fall. In general, its use in the tree care industry is pretty limited, and most commonly would be seen in the use of a body belt with the appropriate lanyard in an aerial lift or device. The lanyard used with a fall restraint harness is the key component, as it is what prevents the user from getting to the “bad place” where a fall could occur. Personal experience has shown that using a longer lanyard with a fall restraint harness or body belt is an extremely bad choice, and should a fall be taken, will most certainly lead to an entry to the user’s top 10 unpleasant things they have experienced.

2. Fall Arrest.

A fall arrest system is designed to not only stop a fall, but also lessen the forces and accompanying pain and soft tissue injuries that the “fallee” experiences. In tree care, these types of systems are most often called full-body harnesses, and they are often used in aerial lifts. There are harnesses available with beefy suspenders that at first glance look like a fall arrest harness, but users/purchasers should check carefully that the harness is intended for fall arrest, as sometimes the additional straps over the shoulders are just meant to help support the weight of all the gear that arborists love to hang off their harness, and not to arrest a fall.

A dorsal attachment point is a key indicator of a fall arrest harness and is located on the back of the user approximately between the shoulder blades. A deceleration lanyard should be used with the fall arrest harness to get the maximum benefit out of the system. These types of lanyards have an additional bundle of material sewn into them that is intended to separate under specific forces, thereby slowing down and decreasing the force of the fall. This deceleration works with the full-body nature of the fall arrest harness, which tries to spread the force of the fall over the user’s body as much as possible, instead of focusing it on one or two possibly more vulnerable or fragile points like other harnesses.

As with so many other systems or pieces of equipment used in tree care, the whole purpose and intent of the fall arrest system can be negated by an unfamiliar user or one trying to take a shortcut. In this case by attaching the deceleration lanyard to some other point on the harness other than the dorsal attachment point. For users who climb and work out of a bucket, there are harnesses available for both applications. Fall arrest and the ones listed below, but the typical fall arrest harness issued with an aerial lift or device is not intended for climbing, and to attempt to do so is not only unsafe, but quite uncomfortable.

3. Work Positioning.

This system is meant to give the climber exactly what the name implies, the ability to position themselves safely and correctly to carry out the needed work — hopefully with both hands free — and preventing or lessening the likelihood of a fall.

An example of a work positioning setup in tree industry harnesses is the side attachment points, commonly called D-rings. Climbers use these with some form of lanyard around the pieces/parts that make up the structure of the tree to position themselves securely or to maintain a desired spot while carrying out work. The D-rings are meant to be used with the lanyard attached on one side, going around the branch or trunk, and then reattached to the opposite side D-ring. Having the lanyard returning to the same D-ring on the same side can set the climber up for an awkward and moderately painful body position should a fall occur. Should the user need to have the lanyard attached at the same point, a much better option would be one of the front center attachment points discussed below in suspension systems, as these would allow for an easier recovery in the event of a fall.

4. Suspension.

A suspension system is one that is probably most familiar to climbing arborists and the one most often used in ascending, descending and working in the tree. The suspension system’s intent is to somewhat cradle the user in a relatively comfortable and stable semi-seated position while suspended from an overhead tie-in point (TIP). When set up and used properly, the system allows the user to work with both hands safely and securely on the task at hand.

Most tree climbing harnesses currently available incorporate components of both suspension and work positioning systems, though some are also available with the addition of a fall arrest component.

Matt Logan preparing to foot lock while wearing a full-body Buckingham Ergovation while using the sliding D attachment ring. Photo: Photo by Scott Prophett.

Matt Logan preparing to foot lock while wearing a full-body Buckingham Ergovation while using the sliding D attachment ring. Photo: Photo by Scott Prophett.


Many of the types of harnesses described are available with different leg position options, particularly in tree industry specific harnesses. This is going to be a very personal choice for climbers, one that should be carefully considered — hopefully by hanging in the options — prior to purchase.

The two typical options are a sit harness or a leg strap harness. Sit harnesses, though they may have supplemental leg straps for security, primarily bear the climber’s weight on a strap beneath their buttocks, often supplemented by a batten or stiffener. This setup provides a great deal of support to the user, and in a quality harness can almost feel like sitting in a swing. Sit harnesses without stiffeners can tend to push the hips and legs together, not only decreasing comfort, but also limiting leg movement during climbing operations.

A harness with individual leg straps will put most of the weight of the climber on those individual straps, which in a quality harness can be adjusted to the point of greatest comfort for the climber. The individual straps can allow greater freedom of movement for the climber, but if poorly adjusted or worn by the wrong body type can pinch and bind.

Typical applications should be considered when deciding on the type of leg positioning, as the sit harness option will be most comfortable when hanging free for extended periods of time such as cabling, bracing and crane operations; and the leg strap more comfortable and user friendly when a lot of canopy movement is involved.

Matt Logan prepares to foot lock while wearing a full-body Buckingham Ergovation and using the sliding D attachment ring. Photo: Photo: Scott Prophett

Matt Logan prepares to foot lock while wearing a full-body Buckingham Ergovation and using the sliding D attachment ring. Photo: Photo: Scott Prophett


There are a variety of attachment options for suspension available to today’s climbing arborist, but they can be divided into two simple types: sliding or fixed. In addition, many of the newer models offer both options on the same harness, a distinct advantage as experienced climbers will often find that the different attachment options are better or worse in specific situations or positions they may find themselves in aloft.

The simplest type of fixed attachment point is a single one on the front of the harness, but multiple ones at various spots in the front will not only help to better distribute weight, but can also separate the climbing system to the user’s advantage.

A sliding attachment point, or sliding D, usually uses some type of strap or rope in the front of the harness that the attachment moves or “slides” along. This is intended to adjust to the climber’s movement, easing the amount of torque on their hips and back.

James Luce uses a rope wrench with the sliding D attachment ring on the treeMOTION harness. Photo: James Luce

James Luce uses a rope wrench with the sliding D attachment ring on the treeMOTION harness. Photo: James Luce


Although it is not always possible, prospective harness purchasers would be well advised to try out or hang in a harness for at least a short time before laying down their hard-earned cash. This could be as simple as borrowing a bud’s harness for a job or trying it out after work, though some arborist supply retailers have tie-in points in their stores for just this purpose.

The reality is that every climber’s body structure is going to be subtly or widely different, and while modern harnesses have a lot of adjustment options to “personalize” the harness, one size is not going to fit — let alone be comfortable for — all. What looks so cool and hip in the catalog or on the video may feel like some form of medieval torture device after only an hour aloft in that shagbark hickory. A climber would be well served to find that out beforehand.


The cost of a comfortable, high-quality harness certainly has to be a consideration to production climbers. After all, it may come close to equaling a week’s wages if not more. The first and most important consideration for the climber has to be researching and trying out harnesses to make sure that comfort, safety, security and ease of use are all a part of their new harness. However, once the right harness has been selected, the climber should view the price realistically.

A quality, well-designed and manufactured harness, properly used and cared for, should last a production climber at least a year, most likely longer. Breaking down how much the harness costs for each day of climbing should show that it’s actually costing the climber less than all those cups of coffee and bags of pork rinds, making the purchase a little easier to swallow.

Climbing arborists use their harnesses every day in pursuit of their livelihood and the professional care of trees, making this piece of equipment a vital part of their work life. Given the importance of a safe, comfortable climbing harness, a little bit of extra knowledge and time spent in research cannot help but lead to climbers getting the job done more comfortably, safely and efficiently, which is what the whole industry should be about.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in December 2011 and has been updated.

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Tree Spotlight: Acer Rubrum

Acer Rubrum

TRADE NAME: Red maple

GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: One of the most widely distributed trees in eastern North America, its range extends from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia (Canada) west to southern Ontario (Canada), Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois; south through Missouri, eastern Oklahoma and southern Texas; and east to southern Florida. Is a common dominant in many forest types and is considered a major species, or associate, in more that 56 cover types.

WOOD VALUE: An important source of saw timber and pulpwood, but is often overlooked as a wood resource.

OTHER USES: Is characterized by showy fruits, flowers and colorful fall foliage. They were first cultivated in 1656 and many cultivars are available. Can be used to make maple syrup, although sugar maple is much more commonly used in these cases.

FAMILY: Sapindaceae.

VALUE FOR REHABILITATION OF DISTURBED SITES: Can be planted onto many types of disturbed sites. It can be propagated by seed or by various vegetative techniques.

SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: One of the first trees to flower in early spring. Specific flowering dates are largely dependent on weather conditions, latitude and elevation. Flowers generally appear several weeks before vegetative buds. Bud break may be affected by soil factors. Fruit matures in spring before leaf development is complete.

General botanical characteristics:

  • A deciduous tree that grows 30 to 90 feet tall and up to 4 feet in diameter.
  • The bark is smooth and gray, but darkens and becomes furrowed in narrow ridges with age.
  • Twigs are stout and shiny red to grayish brown.
  • The small, fragrant flowers are borne in slender-stalked, drooping axillary clusters.
  • The fruit is a paired, winged samara approximately 0.75 inches long. Samaras are red, pink or yellow.

Management considerations:

  • Is a conservation concern in Canada and several bur oak communities in the Plains region are considered imperiled.
  • Is tolerant of water-logged soils and flooding and is intermediately tolerant of ice damage. Is also susceptible to decay after mechanical damage.
  • Loopers, spanworms, the gall-making maple borer, maple callus borer, Columbian timber borer and various scale insects are common damaging agents.
  • Has experienced periodic declines in past decades. Although the precise pathogens have not been identified, evidence suggests that insects can weaken the trees, making them more vulnerable to decline.
  • Butt rot, trunk rot fungi, heart rot and stem diseases are common in damaged trees; even increment boring can cause result in serious decay.
  • Is resistant to herbicides and girdling. Picloram or cacodylic acid injected directly into the stems can be effective for control.
  • Is often poorly regarded as a timber species due to its susceptibility to defects and disease.
  • Usually grows rapidly after heavy cutting or high grading; crop tree release may be a low-cost management option.

Source: U.S. Forest Service (FS.Fed.US)

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Climbing Systems

Modern-day arborists have a wide variety of systems available to get them up and about in canopies an almost overwhelming amount in comparison to the choice of spurs or rope of yesteryear. While this helps climbers select not only the system that works best with their particular skill set and preference, but also the requirements of the individual job, it can create confusion and possibly unsafe acts by users who don’t realize that not all systems are alike in their actions and use. A knowledge of some of the basic methods and specific actions of different climbing systems helps crews understand their use, and help employ them more appropriately and effectively.

  • Old favorite: Spurs, hooks or gaffs, though more properly a climbing method rather than a system, are certainly a type of climbing that most tree care professionals, and indeed civilians, are at least somewhat familiar with. While to the uninitiated, spur climbing may look like the simplest of activities, it actually has a lot of moving pieces/parts, and requires a fair amount of thought, not to mention physical coordination on the part of the user.

First and foremost, spurs should only be used on a tree that is being removed. This is due to the inherent nature of spurs to punch numerous holes in the bark and living tissue of the tree, providing access for a wide variety of pathogens and causing irreparable damage. The individual techniques of spur climbing have been discussed in other columns, but with an eye toward climbing systems one of the factors that a user needs to consider is the use of some form of rope-based system in addition to the spurs. This will allow the climber to have an additional means of support and stability, along with an escape route to the ground other than spurring down if something happens. The rope-based system may be dynamic or static depending on user preference and situational appropriateness, but its use will make the job easier and more efficient, as well as infinitely safer.

  • Dynamic systems: These systems are ones that many climbers think of as “rope and saddle” or “rope and harness” climbing, and involve both parts of the rope moving when in use. In their most basic form, the rope simply goes over a branch or through a crotch and back down to the climber, though a lot of friction can be removed and energy saved by the use of some kind of friction management device.

A hybrid system (dynamic on a static) properly backed up being used in pruning operations. Photo: Michael Tain

One of the largest advantages of a dynamic system, and one that makes it fairly easy to ascend, is that the weight of the climber is divided between the two parts of rope, thus the climber is only having to “pull up” half their weight with each ascent movement. This advantage can also be viewed as a disadvantage in that the user has to move twice as much rope to ascend, as to move up 1 foot the climber has to pull 1 foot down on the running end of the rope and 1 foot up on the working end. The forces experienced by the tie-in point (TIP) will be equal to roughly the weight of the user, though this can be magnified fairly seriously by a “drop” into the line or other occurrences that generate some velocity.

Climbers using dynamic systems have a variety of attachment/ascent methods available to them, including mechanical devices, closed climbing hitches and open climbing hitches. The most traditional is to not only tie in with the end of the climbing line, but also leave a long enough tail to create the climbing hitch, typically a Taut-line or Blake’s hitch; and while this method is often neglected by arborists who have “moved on” to more sophisticated and demanding knots, it should be learned and known by all practitioners. After all, if a climber drops their heat-resistant ultra-strong eye and eye while retying in the top of the tree, their options for work, let alone descent, are going to be pretty limited if they don’t know how to use a traditional system.

There are a number of methods to ascend with a dynamic climbing system, most of which require the user to coordinate a number of body movements fairly smoothly. The body thrust is one that many climbers are familiar with, though many may not think of it with fondness, as using this method for long ascents can sometimes seem to be a physical torture designed to punish a climber’s past transgressions. A fairly straightforward, and to most users instinctive, method is to “hand over hand” up the rope; and the addition of a slack-tending pulley beneath the hitch and an attentive ground person can also make this method a safe one by not allowing dangerous slack in the line that could lead to a major “drop.” The footlock can even be used in dynamic systems or even a variety of appropriate ascenders, but, once again, due to the nature of the system, twice as much rope will have to be moved.

  • Static systems: This system is one where no part of the rope is moving while it is being used, and includes a variety of uses, including footlocking on both parts of the rope, single rope ascent with ascenders and the like, and even working the whole tree on a single line with the new tools available like the Unicender or Rope Wrench. In addition, a dynamic system may be placed upon a static system, creating a sort of hybrid where the static system is used in the ascent and the dynamic system attached to it used for movement and work within the canopy.

A static system that employs both parts of the line does not change the forces experienced by the TIP all that greatly, regardless of whether it is being used for ascent or in combination with a hybrid system for work, though once again “drops” into the line and possibly rope angles/bending moments can magnify these forces. A static system using a single part of the line, or single rope technique (SRT), does change the TIP forces. Since only one part of the line is being used, both it and the anchored part of the line are seeing the full weight of the climber, which puts twice the user’s weight on the TIP, magnified by any “drops” or impositions by gravity. While this should not be a problem if the climber is judicious in their choice of TIPs and takes the additional precaution of running the line over and through multiple crotches/branches, it is certainly something to be aware of when using single-rope static systems.

The “old favorite” spurs being used during a removal. Photo: Michael Tain

Static systems have their own unique requirements that distinguish them from dynamic systems, and in addition will be influenced by what method is being used to ascend. For example, the use of simple footlock technique on both parts of the line can lead the climber into an area of trouble if they advance their hitch into the “spread” of the line, the area immediately beneath the branch or crotch that holds the two parts of rope separate. This can cause the hitch to fail and not grab when the user’s weight is placed on it, but is easily rectified by running an Alpine butterfly or other midline hitch up to the branch to hold both parts of rope fairly close together and eliminate the “spread.”

Climbers using the single rope technique may wish to set up their systems in such a way that the longest part of the line is on the anchor side of the system. This additional rope, and the use of an appropriate belay/lowering device, would allow the climber to be lowered by ground personnel in the event of an emergency, a distinct advantage over a dynamic system. While static systems are not necessarily more complex than dynamic ones, users unfamiliar with them should not only educate themselves on their use, but also practice “low and slow” before incorporating them into work practice, particularly when new devices are being used as part of the ascent/climbing method.

The climbing systems discussed here are no more than a very basic introduction to their individual natures and uses, but that basic knowledge can help interested users start to expand their skill sets to employ different systems in different situations. No one system is going to be perfect for every job; and though individual climbers will certainly develop a “favorite” system, understanding and being able to use all the systems will certainly not only make them a well-rounded climber, but also help them to not force a system into a tree or situation that is not right for it. As always, a climber’s most-effective tool is their own creativity and imagination, used within the parameters of safety and security, so taking the basic natures of the systems and then developing the most personally suitable methods and techniques to use them is going to lead to the most satisfying, and safest, results.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2012 and has been updated.

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Right-of-Way Work

Right-of-way clearing might seem less artistic and scientific than other aspects of tree work. After all, the shape, structure and health of the tree aren’t necessarily the primary concerns. The goal is usually to simply clear growth away from power lines, gas pipelines and other utilities, but there’s definitely an art and a science to handling the work safely and efficiently.
Warrensburg Tree Service Company in Warrensburg, Illinois, expanded its traditional residential and municipal tree work to include line clearing several years ago, becoming one of a select number of smaller companies that specialize in both arenas. Owner Brandon Keppler says there was a desire to diversify the company into a new area, and Warrensburg Tree Service was fortunate to land a contract with a utility company.

“We were just a small company and decided we wanted to move in a new direction,” explains Keppler. Getting into the utility line clearing segment was challenging, he adds. “You’ve got to be able to offer the whole ball of wax. When you approach a utility company, you have to have your structure set up to be able to handle all aspects of the job, from cutting to herbicide applications.”

Warrensburg Tree Service Company also provides utility line clearing in urban and roadside settings. Specially trained crews climb and use a bucket truck to remove growth near electrical lines. Photo: Warrensburg Tree Service Company

Many right-of-way clearing jobs take place in wooded settings, where crews battle unpredictable terrain and overgrown trees and bushes. Keppler says that the use of mulching mowers represent a relatively new approach to maintenance, and have attracted the interest of utility companies for several reasons.

“We’re using a new Bobcat Forestry Cutter. It’s great for the back-in-the-woods right-of-way clearing, where you’re dealing with all sorts of bushes and small trees,” says Keppler.

Machines like the Bobcat Forestry Cutter leave a fine mulch residue, which makes it easier for line crews to travel the right-of-way in the future. “Skid steer mulching machines are also more compact, which makes it easier to get into tighter areas than using big front-end loaders with mulching heads,” adds Keppler. “If you want to get into new utility line construction, or for maintaining more than single-phase lines out in the middle of the woods, that’s when you want to bring in the real big machines.”

Keppler chose the Bobcat Forestry Cutter in part because it includes a safety device that shuts the cutting head off if the skid steer door opens, preventing debris from being thrown into the cab and striking the operator.

“The one thing to remember with right-of-way clearing: When you use a forestry mower, you have to follow up with herbicide, it’s absolutely essential,” says Keppler. Two years after his crews clear an area, they return to apply an application mix of Garlon 4, Stalker and Impel. “A dye is included, which lasts quite a while, in case the utility company wants to come out to inspect what areas your men have sprayed,” he explains.

For light-volume applications such as this, the company sends out three-man crews equipped with Stihl SG20 backpack sprayers. (The line clearing crews also use Stihl 361 and T200 arborist saws.) The herbicide application eliminates saplings along the sides or remaining in the middle of the right of way before they get big enough to be problematic. “You just spray the ground and 6 inches up the tree, and that should kill it,” says Keppler. “I can’t stress enough the importance of the herbicide. Forestry mowing without herbicide is just pointless. The two really go together.”

Read more: Land Clearing in Alaska

Warrensburg Tree Service Company in Illinois began as a residential tree service provider and has expanded into utility line clearing. Crews use a Bobcat Forestry Cutter and follow-up herbicide applications, as well as manual cutting, to control growth on lines in wooded settings. Photo: Warrensburg Tree Service Company

Warrensburg Tree Service also performs utility line clearing in urban and roadside settings. “That’s something we’ve done for about three years,” says Keppler. He sees some correlation between urban utility line clearing and right-of-way clearing in wooded environments. “Any time you do anything involving electricity, from the guys in the bucket trucks to the herbicide applicators, you want to have some idea how it works. No matter what the setting is, electricity is always looking for a way to ground, so safety is always the number one concern. You could be electrocuted whether you’re working up over a line or underneath it,” he says.

That means safety is the top priority in either type of work. “We carry all the ANSI books with us, mandatory safety data sheets with all of our equipment, and we have two safety meetings a month, which are mandatory attendance,” says Keppler. Warrensburg Tree Service crews also receive training through ACRT. “I like to outsource the training rather than having me certify my own men. That way there’s no conflict of interest or risk that an owner might certify someone who really shouldn’t be,” he explains.

Keppler also meets with utility company representatives about once a month to learn about any new hardware that’s been put on utility poles that crews might need to know about from a safety standpoint. “There’s a lot of different minimum approach distances that must be maintained, depending on how many kilovolts are running through the line,” he says. He also holds a morning meeting with crews to discuss the day’s job and any specific safety issues on the line being cleared.

“Efficient production and safety are the two biggest things in right-of-way clearing,” says Keppler. “That’s what utility companies are looking for in a contractor.” And, to be able to compete from a bidding standpoint with large national companies with right-of-way clearing divisions, a smaller contractor must have hard-working crews that know how to get the job done efficiently, he stresses. “Employees are so important in this business, even more so than in residential tree work. Anyone can get a chain saw and a ladder, but to work around electricity and to do the job efficiently takes a special breed of person.”

Keppler has seen three types of bidding in the utility industry: lump sum bidding, an hourly rate and fixed-unit pricing. “A lot of utility companies are getting away from hourly pricing, because of the simple fact of shady contractors,” he explains. That means that bidding accuracy is critical. “You have to look at what the vegetation is so you know what work is involved; that means you need to go drive the line,” says Keppler. The company uses a Kubota RTV 900 and a Polaris 850 sportsmen four-wheeler to access rights of way and move men and equipment in and out of the unpredictable terrain.

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

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New Product Roundup: June 2017

Compact Loader

ASV LLC, a manufacturer of all-purpose and all-season compact track loaders and skid steers, recently introduced the large-frame, radial-lift Posi-Track RT-75 heavy-duty compact track loader for forestry and excavation. The RT-75 Heavy Duty uses ASV’s patented Posi- Track undercarriage to provide the industry’s highest ground clearance, lowest ground pressure, longest track life and best traction over all types of surfaces, according to the company, from brush and mud to snow and ice. “The RT-75 HD makes our already-tough RT-75 even stronger,” says Jim DiBiagio, ASV general manager. “The design ensures our customers have a machine built for maximum durability, serviceability and productivity in rough and dirty applications. The RT-75 HD allows workers to limit downtime, get more jobs done and achieve a high return on investment.” The RT-75 HD is a customization of the ASV RT-75. The HD features upgraded durability and optimizations for forestry work.

Manufacturer News

ArborMAX Insurance now provides special consideration for tree care companies that are operating brush chippers equipped with Morbark’s ChipSafe Operator Safety Shield. The consideration is applicable to general liability and worker’s compensation coverages. “We recognize that the ChipSafe Operator Safety Device from Morbark offers operators an additional layer of protection when operating a brush chipper,” says Brian Tunge, ArborMAX vice president of marketing. “We encourage all of our client companies to be safe by providing ongoing training, proper equipment and now by exploring the benefits of having a ChipSafe device on all their brush chippers.” ArborMAX Insurance is the only insurance company endorsed by the Tree Care Industry Association. Special considerations, such as the one for using brush chippers with ChipSafe — in addition to factors such as amount, type and value of equipment for general liability or number of employees and pay for worker’s compensation insurance — are examined, along with loss history, when determining policy premiums.

RAC Chaps

Arborwear’s new RAC chaps, designed to address issues with traditional chain saw chaps, are now available to be purchased in the safety green color (safety orange is also available). With Arborwear’s patented Daisy Fit system, the RAC chaps feature a strap system where the straps are replaceable if broken or lost. The company’s RAC chaps are also adjustable to various leg sizes and shapes and are engineered for comfort during all-day wear, reducing discomfort and fatigue. Additional features include a six-layer blocking material, heavy nylon with PU coating and DWR for water resistance, left-facing wrap-around pads and 180 degrees of leg protection (apron style only).


Does your company have a new product that you’d like featured in this space? If so, send materials to with the subject line “New Products.” Include a 50- to 75-word description of the product and a high-resolution color photo.

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We Want to Hear From You

We Want to Hear From You

Our goal at Tree Services is to provide you with content and information to help you build better businesses and become better arborists. A big part of that is increased and constant communication between you and us. How can we make this happen?

We need to hear from you.

We want to share your stories.

No matter how many certifications or decades of experience in arboriculture you may have, there will always be new problems and scenarios that you come across on the job site that you haven’t had to deal with before.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow once said, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” We can spin this to become applicable to tree care by interpreting it to mean the following: You need more than a hammer in your problem-solving toolbox. Because not every problem is the same – not every problem is a nail. What better way to learn different methods to solve problems you come across than by reading about what one of your peers did when they encountered it?

Naturally, the first avenue to take when trying to solve a problem — with a pesky tree removal, a tree health issue or even a problem — is to assess the situation and determine whether your knowledge, experience and available resources can provide a positive solution. But as you well know, sometimes we all need help. Arborists and tree care professionals are a growing network of highly-skilled and educated people. When you encounter a tree issue you’ve never seen before, chances are one of your fellow arborists has dealt with a similar issue. Also, chances are they have valuable insight to offer.

But how do you access this insight?

One way is to attend regional and national tree care conferences. Another way is through the pages of Tree Services magazine and our various online and digital methods of reaching you.

This is where the process of you communicating with us comes into play:

  • Have you had a positive learning experience on a recent job?
  • Have you found yourself, or your crew or company, in an interesting scenario?
  • Have you discovered a new solution to an old tree care problem?
  • Have you had to come up with creative solutions that made an unhappy customer happy?

If you answered yes to all, or even some of these questions, you’re in good company. Your solutions to these common quandaries could go a long way in helping a colleague overcome them.

So, share your story with us. You can do so by any of these methods:

  • Draft your story and send an email to
  • Visit our online forum,, where you can start a conversation about industry- related subjects.
  • Contact us on Facebook by posting on our page or sending a message.
  • Contact us on Twitter @TreeServMag by tweeting at us or sending us a direct message.

Tell us your tale and we may publish it. Who knows, you may indeed have the answer that someone has been searching for.

Collaboration and networking are powerful and readily available tools. Thanks to technology, it’s never been easier and more convenient to connect with people all over the globe — use it to your advantage.

We’re waiting to hear from you. So, what are you waiting for?

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Splicing 101

Rope splicing is an old skill passed down to arborists from the days of tall ships on the high seas. Like knots, splices were a rite of passage and often served to separate the old salt from the landlubber. Today, splices permeate the arborist marketplace. A rope’s ability to be spliced and in what configuration are often major factors for deciding which rope to climb or rig on.

Ease of splice, compactness and loss of overall line length are but a few considerations. Splices have some distinct advantages. Their ability to retain 90 percent or more of the rope’s ultimate strength, their ease of use and trimness, or lack of clutter, at a connecting point, whether it be log or harness, all make splices appealing to the modern arborist.

However, with the plethora of materials, constructions and braid choices, splices and splicing has become a bit of necromancy. The uninformed may choose or use splices that are not appropriate either for the application and/or material. Furthermore, as Clifford Warren Ashley said in his tome “The Ashley Book of Knots:” “A knot is never nearly right; it is either exactly right or it is hopelessly wrong, one or the other; there is nothing in between.” The same holds true for splices, but unlike knots, splices do not reveal their flaws as readily. However, a proper splice has an external form that allows for the user to determine its “rightness.” It is this inspection process we will explore in its most basic form.

By providing you with general guidelines on splice inspection and use we will empower good choices, with a firm grounding in function. While space limits the amount we can cover, and no article should be considered the ultimate resource on all things splicing, we can get a good start. To further narrow our scope, we will specifically discuss the most prevalent splice in arboricultural operations, the eye splice as formed in double braids, 16 and 24-strand and hollow braid constructions.

Photo: Tony Tresselt

Manufacturer’s recommendations

Half of the parallel lock sticking can be seen at the red arrow. The other half goes in from the opposite direction, holding the horizontal wraps in place. How this is accomplished is often the trademark of individual splicers.

As stated earlier, the sheer volume of materials and constructions in modern arborist lines is astounding compared to just a decade ago. There are few, if any, single sources of information on every rope of every material. The splicer must refer to the individual manufacturer’s specific recommendations for each rope. These are the “rules of engagement” when it comes to splicing and application. While we will review some general specifications to look for in splices, the manufacturer’s guidelines should be followed exactly for every splice. A firm grasp of these for the ropes you routinely employ will go a long way to determining the quality and functionality of a splice or spliced product.

Pieces and parts

Like knots, splices have specific parts that make up their whole. Unlike knots, there is not much familiarity in these terms. For the purpose of this article I will lay out a basic nomenclature so we can clearly discuss splices. This is not a researched terminology, just terms I have found most commonly used and most descriptive.

Eye — The eye of the splice is the bite or termination formed. It is the reason for eye splices and the interface between rope, splice and connecting link.

Bury — The bury of the splice is the amount of cordage fed back into the rope to create friction to hold the splice together. The amount of bury is splice, cord and material dependent. Remember that bury length is determined more by fiber type than construction. While Tenex and Amsteel (both Sampson rope products) have common constructions, the bury distance is hugely different.

Taper — This is the section of the bury where individual strands are removed to allow for a snug bury, as well as to reduce stress risers of possible weaknesses in the finished splice.

Throat — The throat of the splice is the area of the bury that was not tapered. It lies immediately below the eye. In a double braid splice, the throat also contains the crossover.

Crossover — The crossover is the section of a double-braid splice where the core enters the cover and the cover enters the core. This is the thickest section of the bury, and the one most likely to have discrepancies if not spliced properly. It also refers to the point in some hollow braid spliced products where the ends of individual tapers may cross. In either case, the crossover should be smooth and nearly undetectable.

Lock stitching — This is the added-on stitching after the splice is run home and firmed up that is applied along the bury of the splice. It comes in as many shapes and forms as there are splicers. It is often the trademark of a specific technician. It keeps the eye from elongating under low load. It also prevents a splice from being teased loose when not under load. The greatest load provides greatest friction, thus a splice is most secure when loaded. Unloaded splices with fibers relaxed can snag on a branch and possibly tease out. Lock stitching is vital on all arborist splices.

Manufacturer’s tag — This is a numbered label attached to some premanufactured splices and all commercial slings. Depending on the application, it may be required by regulation. It may or may not give load ratings for specific configurations, a serial number and date of manufacture.

Here the end pre-trim of an invisible lock stitch can be seen, as well as the smooth transition of the top of the throat entering the rope at the base of the eye. Photo: Tony Tresselt


When looking to purchase a splice from a vendor, look for the manufacturer’s tag or label. While simply slapping a marked piece of paper held in place by a shrink tube is no guarantee of quality, it does give the end user some benefits. The tag should contain a serial number and a name of either the splicer or the company he works for. This is not a law, but a good indication of an in-place quality control system, knowledgeable, trained splicers and a fallback should there be problems with the splice during use.

This is not to say that high-quality splices are not available from talented splicers in an “off-market” situation. I am only recommending that if you purchase a splice and do not know who spliced it and trust them implicitly, then a tag can go along way to assuring you are receiving a quality, tested product.


Part of the necromancy of splicing is the ubiquitous fid length. For all its mystery, it can be equated down to a simple formula:

Long fid = 21 rope diameters
Fid = 14 rope diameters
Short fid = 7 rope diameters

Notice the multiples of 7 for easier recall. Also, this is a general rule. Please refer to the specs for a particular rope and its manufacturer for exact numbers.

Here the core 9white) and the sheath (green) can be seen entwined before a class 1 double braid splice is run home. Photo: Tony Tresselt


With a common terminology, we can now delve into what to look for. First and foremost, you need a firm understanding of what material you are inspecting and what its application will be. The myriad of line choices available today is incredible. The types of applications on just one tree job can be staggering. The days of one line fits it all are gone. Choose your lines wisely and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Some lines, due to construction and materials, cannot be spliced. As a consumer, you will not be able to tell unless you know what line you are looking at and its limits.

Some splices require very long buries, thus making the bury of the splice stiff away from the working end of the line for some distance. This may make a choker hitch as a termination difficult on small diameter anchors.

The length of throat and, hence, the length of the bury is a measurement determined by the rope manufacturer. It is measured in fids and should not be altered. Knowing the fid length and how to determine it on the splice itself leads us to our next point. A last warning on fids; this is also the name of a splicing tool that is sized to measure as well as bury. If you are using an actual fid as a length measurement, make sure it is scaled 1:1 for the rope size. Some larger fids are scaled down to make them physically manageable.

Bury length

Once you determine the material, run your hand along the splice and feel the throat, taper and bury. The bury should smoothly taper off as you move your hand away from the eye. The length of the bury should match the manufacturer’s specs. On excellent splices, the end of the bury will be difficult to determine. This alone is sign of a high-quality splice. The throat should be smooth without frayed strands, bumps or other signs the crossover is malformed or distorted. A high-quality splice, like a well-formed knot, is smooth and nice to look at in its symmetry and form. Never accept mediocrity. Sloppy splices are compromised splices and should not be trusted.

Half of the parallel lock stitching can be seen at the red arrow. The other half goes in from the opposite direction, holding the horizontal wraps in place. How this is accomplished is often the trademark of individual splicers. Photo: Tony Tresselt

Lock stitching

Finally look for the lock stitch. It should be high up on the splice as close to the crossover as the stiffness of material will allow. It should be neat and tight, but not distorting the splice. The stitching should engage the rope in multiple dimensions along its length.

There are some forms of lock stitching that are not readily seen. Approach these as you would a manufacturer’s tag. If you know the splicer and are sure that a lock stitch has been applied properly, then use the splice. Hidden lock stitches can also be checked by trying to pry the bury back out of the rope or elongating the eye. If this can be done by hand, the splice is suspect. If you do not know who formed the splice, then I would recommend you insist on visible lock stitching.


There you have it. A basic splice inspection system combined with basic terminology. As with all life support system elements from knots to harnesses, thorough understanding of limits and applications is necessary to assure safety and function. Splices are no different, and together we have laid out a good basis for splice inspection.

We have by necessity only covered the basics. I encourage you to research and increase you splice knowledge. This topic is also the subject of a short audio podcast.

If it seems we have ignored the venerable three-strand splice, you would be correct. Unlike braided ropes, twisted ropes do not conceal splicing flaws as readily. Hence, they are slightly easier to inspect. However, three-strand ropes have their own peculiarities and still serve many arborists and as such deserve an article of their own.

Remember to regularly inspect all your equipment. Err on the side of caution, and when purchasing any cordage product including splices, a knowledgeable consumer is a safe consumer.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in May 2011 and has been updated.

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