Manual Stump Removal: Tools & Technique

Stump1If you are clearing land there comes the universal problem of stump removal. There are big stumps (if you are clearing trees), or small stumps (if you are clearing brush), but in either case clearing land has the final step of stump removal. There are a number of ways you can go about stump removal, depending on your situation. If you have the funds, certain tools such as a stump grinder or brush grubber all have their uses for making stumps disappear. Such tools make stump clearing easy. My advice: use the appropriate piece of machinery if you can.

But what if you don’t have any machinery on hand and you don’t have cash for any new cool tools? Are you out of luck? Not entirely, but you will have to use a bit more sweat and elbow grease. In the good old days of pioneer America, stumps were sometimes removed by burning them out. You could pile some wood over an offending stump and have a marshmallow roast. While that can be effective, if you have more than one stump it is a rather tedious process. (Clearing more than a few stumps could end up taking all summer!) An alternative is to dig out the stump by hand, but that is very hard and slow labor. If you intend to turn an area into garden this is your only option, but if you are simply looking to turn an area into a mow-able expanse there is a much easier method.

The best option in this situation is to level the stump to the ground. In some cases if you have a chainsaw you can use that to cut a stump flush to the ground. But if you don’t have a chainsaw, or it can’t be used, you will have to do this process by hand. In my recent chore I had a stump with wood grown through woven wire, and I didn’t want to use my chainsaw on the mess. For me, taking care of it by hand was my only option.

You can apply the following technique to whatever stump situation you have.

ToolsFirst, you need a cutter mattock, which has an axe-like blade on one side and an adze blade on the other. Second, you need an axe which is of a comfortable size for you to use. Finally, pruning shears are helpful for any stray trimming that might come up, but they are not required. An added bonus would be sharpening stones to keep your axe blade in fine shape, but unless you are doing a lot of stump removal you can live without that.

In the days of my youth I would attempt to remove a stump flush with the ground by simply chopping completely through at ground level. But that is a difficult angle to swing an axe, and the deeper into the stump you cut, the harder it becomes. The addition of the cutter mattock makes the procedure much easier. Swing the axe blade on the cutting mattock down on the stump, near the edge, much as one would work to split firewood. After the blade is firmly wedged, move the handle back and forth to widen the crack in the piece of stump. Then remove the mattock from the stump and use the axe (which is lighter and sharper) to strike at the bottom of the split. The piece of stump will come free with a cut or two.

Hack1Repeat the process of splitting away a piece of the stump with the cutting mattock and then removing it with the axe until the stump is shaved away to nothing. The time required will vary with the stump being removed, and your personal fitness level, but a small stump I can take out in maybe fifteen minutes. Compared to the old method of cutting a stump through with an axe in one go, I found this new method requires less time and a fraction of the effort. See, I am getting smarter as I age.

With all that said, this method is admittedly not as easy as using a handy piece of power equipment, so if you have that option I suggest you take it. But the advantage here is that, with a bit of sweat and effort, the stump removal is practically free. Just don’t come complaining to me when you are sore the next day!

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  • Kem Mcelyea

    We just stack wood around the stump that came from that tree ,start a fire ,drink shine and in to weekend’s the stump was history

  • MendoChuck

    I like just gutting them down to ground level.
    Been using this method for about 30 years now . . . works great.
    Plus in a short time, about 2 to 3 years the little bugs have done the rest of the work.
    Well maybe 4 to 5 years, depending on what kind of tree it was.

  • Old Farm Kid

    When I was a kid we used to use a quarter stick of dynamite. Properly placed it would launch a 40 inch stump 15 feet into the air- roots & all.

    Unfortunately, getting dynamite and blasting caps have gotten very difficult… so many state & federal government regulations. Plus it can be dangerous if you don’t know how to use it properly and safely. From a safety standpoint (we used to call this common sense), you shouldn’t do this near buildings. Especially if you have neighbors close by. If you weren’t careful, you could do more than just rattle their windows.