Unlike hoes or other cultivators that remove or kill weeds, weed cutters are designed not to kill weeds but to make them shorter. Weed cutters are used primarily to control weeds along roadsides, in areas used for waste, and in unused fields.
Basic hand tools used to control weeds and brush include the sickle, scythe, grass whip, swing blade, and brush cutter. They all have a sharp steel blade, but each is used differently. The most common weed cutters used by today’s homeowners are the grass whip and swing blade. Brush cutters are used for chopping away heavy weeds, brambles, or light brush. Sickles and scythes are now used infrequently.
When buying one of these tools, look for high-quality steel. Although you can’t determine the metal by looking at the blade, ask a salesperson to inform you of what material has been used. Good-quality steel blades are hardened by a high percentage of carbon; they will hold an edge well and will resist nicking or cracking. Feel the difference by comparing the weight of cheap and expensive models.
Next, check that the blade is firmly fixed to the handle. It should not be loose or flimsy. The blade end should be set deep in the handle and held with two or more rivets.
The grass whip has a steel handle, but the swing blade has a wooden handle, which should be straight-grained ash or hickory.
The grass whip is best used on grass or light weeds; heavier material may bend or damage it. Since it is made to be used with one hand, cut the weeds or grass by gaining a lot of momentum in a long swing and letting the power behind the swing cut the weeds for you. Handles come in varying lengths; try out a few different models to find one that suits your height. Since most blades are riveted to the steel handle, it is generally more practical to buy a new grass whip than to try replacing the blade.
The swing blade is similar to the grass whip, but it is used on slightly heavier weeds. It generally has a straight wooden handle about the diameter of a broomstick. In comparison to the grass whip, the metal straps of the swing blade attach to both ends of the cutting blade, not just to one. Also, the cutting blade is thicker and stronger; the handle is thicker; and the construction is stronger. The swing blade is held in both hands and used the same way as a grass whip—with long, looping swings.
The short-handled brush cutter is sometimes called a bill hook; those most commonly seen in this country are machetes. Its shorter handle enables it to make a small cutting arc and thus to provide a controlled swing. Thus it is good for working in close areas. However, in heavy thorny brambles, such as overgrown blackberry vines, you must first cut your way into the interior in order to reach the base of the plants.
For safety purposes, drill a hole in the end of the handle and loop a leather thong through it and around your wrist. This way if you lose your grip, the tool will not fly toward a bystander.
Brush cutters also come in long-handled versions to give you more reach.
After using weed cutters, wipe them clean and dry them. Apply a light coating of oil to protect them in storage.
Weed cutters need to be sharpened regularly, so keep an oval-shape whetstone handy. You can also use a smooth 8-inch mill file. Many gardeners keep the sharpening stone in their pocket so that the tools can have a perfect edge at all times. What is “perfect”? The blades should slice through the grass or weeds with very little drag.
Grass whips may have smooth or serrated cutting edges, and the bevel may be on the bottom or the top. Whether the edge is serrated or not, if the bevel is on the bottom, place the grass whip in a vise, bottom-side up, and file down and across each bevel in a single stroke. The bevel angle is usually about 25 degrees. Remove the burrs on the opposite side by running the file on the top side, making sure that it is held flat or parallel to that side.
If the bevel is on the top, place the grass whip bottom-side down on a bench, and let the edge to be sharpened hang over the bench slightly. With one hand, hold the whip securely; with the other, file from the heel toward the tip. When you are finished with the beveled side, remove any burrs on the unbeveled side.