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Handtools for Trail Work

Tools for Brushing

Lopping and Pruning Shears

Photo of a man using lopping shears on tree branches.
Lopping shears allow branches to be cut
cleanly and flush with tree trunks.

Lopping and pruning shears are similar in design and use, although lopping shears have longer handles to improve reach, and gear drives to increase leverage for thicker stems. Cutting edges vary, but generally one blade binds and cuts a stem against an anvil or beveled hook. We recommend the hook and blade shear for overhead cuts because the curved blades transfer the weight of the shears to the limb. Quality shears have rust- resistant steel blades. Handles are wood or aluminum. Handles range from 26 to 36 inches long. Limbs up to 3 inches can be cut with shears.

Image of lopping shears.

Image of hook and anvil blades with labels on the cutting blade, and hook on the hook blade and labels on the cutting blade and anvil on the anvil blade.
Hook and anvil cutting blades.

Image of a lopping shears with the cutting edge and the hook.
Lopping shears

Transport shears with the blades closed. Grip the tool on one handle just behind the blade and carry it by your side. Clean moisture and sap from blades after use. Keep metal parts lightly oiled to prevent rust. Frequently check nuts and bolts for tightness, and always carry replacements in the field.

To sharpen, spread the handles apart, resting one or both ends on a flat surface. Use a mill bastard file on the cutting blade only; neither hooks nor anvils are sharpened. Maintain factory bevels while filing toward the cutting edge. Use a whetstone to remove the wire edge.

Image showing the sharpening of a lopping shears.
Sharpening lopping shears.


Image of a heavy-duty lopping shears.
Heavy-duty lopping shears are ideal for the forester.
They have ash handles, make a 3-inch diameter cut,
and are 37½ inches long. Weight is 5½ pounds.

Image of a forester heavy-duty brush cutter.
"Forester" heavy-duty brush cutters make a 2-inch
diameter cut for heavy-duty jobs—hardwood, deadwood,
branches, or brush. The rugged steel construction
is even strong enough to dehorn and clip cattle.
Both blades cut to reduce bark damage. The shears
are 27 to 34 inches long and weigh 4 to 8 pounds.

Image of a snap-cut lopping shears.
Snap-cut professional lopping shears make a 1¾-inch
diameter cut. They are a gear-driven lopping shear
with tremendous cutting power—10 pounds force
applied to the handles gives 300 pounds of
cutting power. The shears are 30 inches long
and weigh 5½ lbs.

Image of a true-temper lopping shears.
True-Temper lopping shears give a 1½-inch
diameter cut. The tubular steel handles
provide extra strength and the rubber
cushion grips absorb shocks. These are used
by biologists to remove deer jawbones.
The shears are 26 inches long and weigh
2¼ pounds.

Image of a hi-tork lopper.
The Hi-Tork lopper makes a 1½-inch diameter
cut. It is designed for hardwood, frozen wood,
brush , and deadwood. The shears are 27
inches long and weigh 3 pounds.

Image of a point-cut pruner.
Point-cut pruners make a 1¼-inch diameter
cut. The blades open wide to cut suckers or
sprouts at blade point. Weight is 3 pounds.

Bank Blades and Bush Hooks

Bank blades and bush hooks are designed specifically for cutting through thickets of heavy brush or saplings. Their long handles and heavy heads will add momentum to the force of your swing, but their curved blades also pose extra safety hazards. Always maintain a firm grip with both hands on the handle. Cut with a slicing rather than a hacking motion. Remember that bank blades have cutting edges on both edges of the blade. Stay clear of other workers. Be aware of the increased possibility of glancing blows, and always control the swing to avoid cuts to the legs or feet. Wear shin guards when operating these tools. Blades are available in 12- to 16-inch lengths. Handles are 36 inches or 40 inches long. The tool weighs from 3½ to 5 pounds.

Image of a bank blade and a bush hook.

Carry bank blades and bush hooks with the head forward like a shovel. Grip the handle near the head and hold the hook away from the body and down.

Sharpen bank blades and bush hooks with a mill bastard file and finish with a whetstone. Always wear your gloves and use a file guard. Stroke along the straight edges of the blades and swing the stone or file in an arc to maintain the factory edge bevel on curved sections.

Image of a bush hook.
Sharpening a bush hook.


Image showing the council single-edge, eye-and-strap bush hook, the true-temper single edge, eye-and-strap bush hook, the true-temper doube edge, ax-eye type bush hook, and the council double edge, ax-eye type bush hook.
Bush hooks are used for clearing work that is too
heavy for a scythe and not suited for an ax. They
are available with single-edged, eye-and-strap
blade, or double-edged, ax-eye blade type. They
have hickory handles 12 to 36 inches long and
weigh 2 to 4½ pounds.

Image of a true-temper and council bank blades.
Bank blades are used for clearing thick undergrowth
and brush. The blade is sharpened on both sides.
Blade lengths may be 12 or 16 inches. Hickory
handles are available in 36 or 42 inches.
These tools weigh 1 to 5½ pounds.

Clearing Knives and Swedish Brush (Sandvik) Axes

These clearing tools work well in brushy thickets or when clearing in rocky or confined areas. Clearing knives look like small, short, brush hooks, so use, carry, and sharpen them accordingly. Handle length will determine if the tool is operated one- or two-handed. Use and carry a short-handled clearing knife like a machete.

Image of a long-handled clearing knife.

Brush axes have different blades than clearing knives. The replaceable Swedish steel blade has a 5½-inch cutting edge. The ax has a 27-inch long handle. It weighs about 2½ pounds. They have removable blades held in a C-shaped frame under tension. Tension may weaken and cause blades to pop out. Bend the frame outward slightly to increase tension. The blade can be removed for sharpening. Avoid overheating the blade and losing the temper. Replace badly damaged blades.

Image of a Swedish brush (Sandvik ax).
A Swedish brush ax cuts small saplings and
brush easily, safely. The replaceable Swedish
steel blade has a 5½-inch cutting edge. The
hickory handle is 27 inches long overall,
and weighs 2½ pounds.

Image of a brush ax.
Sharpening the brush ax.

Machetes and Woodsman's Pals

Machetes and Woodsman's Pals are used to clear weeds, brush, and small trees along a trail. Machetes became commonly used in Forest Service work after World War II when surplus knives were used extensively for brushing. Machetes have blades from 17 to 24 inches long and weigh up to 2 pounds. The Woodsman's Pal is shorter and sturdier than the machete and includes a cutting hook and a knuckle guard. It is used for cutting, chopping, digging, hacking, and pulling. It is 16 inches long and weighs about 1½ pounds.

Image of a machete and a woodsman's pal.

Because these are single-grip tools, a worker must always maintain a firm grip while swinging. Also, be aware of the location of fellow workers. The hook on the end of the Woodsman's Pal can slip as it is pulled toward you and cut legs or hands, or it may strike the back of an operator's head on the back swing. Both tools come with belt sheaths that make them easy and safe to carry.

When sharpening, use a mill bastard file or whetstone to maintain the factory edge bevel. Sharpen the hook of the Woodsman's Pal using the procedure described for the brush hook. Protect sharpened edges at all times.


Image of a Collins machete and a Barteaux and Sons machete.

Image of two lengths of Seymour machetes.
The Seymour machetes are for cutting heavy
weeds, brush, vines, grass, and shrubs. They
have heavy-duty, hand-forged Swedish
steel blades and polypropylene safety
handles that are 17 to 24 inches long.
Weight is a few ounces to 2 pounds.

Image of a woodsman's pal with a hardwood handle and one with a hand guard and leather grip.
Woodsman's Pal axes are used for cutting,
chopping, digging, hacking, and pulling. They
are 16 inches long and weigh 1½ pounds.

Corn Knives

These tools, also called tobacco knives, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are commonly used for hand brushing on tree and tobacco plantations.

Corn knives are single-grip tools, so hold tightly to the handle while operating. Stand well balanced and bend at the waist. Use your free hand to steady the stems you intend to cut. Wear a glove to protect your free hand from scratches or burns from weeds.

Image of a corn knife.

When carrying, grip the knife on the handle near the blade. Carry the tool by your side with the blade pointed away from your body and down. When sharpening, maintain factory edge bevels. Corn knives may have curved blades that are sharpened on only one side like brush or weed hooks, or they may have straight or adjustable blades that are sharpened on both sides like machete.

Image of a tobacco knife.
The tobacco knife blade is tough alloy steel that is
12 inches long by 1 inch wide and 3/32-inch thick.
It is beveled and sharpened with an ax stone
only on one side. The round hardwood handle
is 1¼ inches in diameter.


Scythes efficiently mow open areas of weeds or grass. Grass or weed scythes have 24- to 40-inch blades and long handles. Brush scythes have shorter, sturdier blades and handles and are often preferred by trail crews.

Operate the scythe by grasping the handles (nibs) projecting from the bar (snath) and rhythmically sweeping the blade low to the ground across and in front of you. A "grass nail" placed between the bar and the blade keeps vegetation from catching in that junction.

Image of scythe parts showing the tang, blade, grass nail, snath, and nibs.
Scythe parts.

Carry scythes by your side in one hand, blade forward and handle behind. Keep control of the blade by grasping the handle near the blade and pointing the blade away from your body with the tip down. Stop and change hands if the tool becomes too heavy. Transport scythes well behind a line of workers, and work only in areas clear of others.

Before sharpening the scythe, stand the handle on its end so the blade is horizontal and the tip points down. Use a whetstone or scythestone to hone the blade from back to front (tang to tip) on both sides. Maintain the factory edge bevel. If the blade is badly chipped detach it from the handle and reshape it with a grinder or file. Return the edge to a bevel of 10°. Although some argue that the wire edge facilitates cutting light vegetation, we recommend removing it. A lesser known method of sharpening involves beating the blade with a special hammer to shape and sharpen it without grinding. Finish with a whetstone.

Sickles and Grass Hooks

Image of a grass hook.

Image of a sickle.

Sickles are curved knives used to cut weeds or grass in limited space. The single grip handle angles upward so the blade cuts parallel to the ground while the operator stands bent at the waist. The blade is 12 inches long and the handle is 4 to 5 inches long.

Carry the sickle by your side with the cutting edge away from your body and pointed down. Maintain a firm grip on the handle when carrying or using.

Maintain sickles with a whetstone or scythestone. The blade is beveled on the top side only. Remove the wire edge by working the stone flat against the backside.

The grass hook combines features of scythes and sickles. It can be operated like a scythe from an upright position, but the small blade is maintained like a sickle.

Weed Hooks

Workers can easily trim annual vegetation along a trail with a weed hook. These tools have a curved inside blade that cuts by pulling through stems toward the operator and a straight top blade that cuts by pushing. Long handles allow the operator to remain upright.

Since these tools are light enough to operate with a single grip, carry them by the handle with the head away from the body and down and weed as you walk. Always maintain safe distances between workers. Remember that the tool has two cutting edges and that swinging it could be especially hazardous. Sharpen weed hooks with a mill bastard file and finish with a whetstone. Use a curving stroke on the pulling cutter that follows the inside edge around to the tip. Sharpen the pushing cutter on the top side only.

Image of the head of a week hook.  Diagram has the pushing cutter at 1 1/2 inches wide and the arc of the pulling cutter at 3 1/2 inches.
Weed hook and head diagram.

Weed Cutters (Grass Whips)

Weed cutters are used for cutting light growth like grasses and annuals that grow along trails. They are lightweight and durable and usually swung like a golf club. The sharper the blade, the less energy needed to cut. Both edges are serrated and cut on the forward and return strokes. When sharpening the edges of these tools, remember that different models have the blade bevels on different sides. The frame may interfere when sharpening top-beveled blades. It may be best to remove the blade and screw it to a block of wood for sharpening. Maintain a 25° bevel on both serrated and straight blades. Cutters usually have a 9- by 2-inch blade and a 40-inch long handle.

Image of a weed cutter/grass whip.