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Lot Clearing Tips

DEAR TIM: I'm going to build a home on a wooded lot that I own. To save money, some friends and I intend to do all the clearing ourselves. What's should I know about lot clearing? Do you think this is a good thing for me to do? What are the biggest challenges and how might you best prepare for them? The estimates I got for this task took my breath away, so I'm trying to save money. Randy C., Moultonboro, NH

DEAR RANDY: I understand your desire to save money. With the economy sputtering along it makes sense to be as frugal as possible. As crazy as this sounds, I wonder if it might not be worth the time to get a few more estimates. Many contractors are not too busy, and you could get some really competitive prices. I'd exhaust that avenue first before I'd do anything else.

If you do decide to go get more estimates, be sure that each contractor is bidding the same thing. This means you must write out a very accurate job description that says exactly what you want done. You must specify what happens with the trees, the branches, the stumps, and any large rocks that might be in the way. You need to describe exactly what the lot will look like, using photos if possible from other cleared lots, when the job is finished.

Be aware that you could have a substantial amount of money in the trees on the land and not be the wiser. It would not be the first time a naive land owner was taken advantage of by a contractor that cut down valuable timber. I know of land owners who paid to have high-priced timber cut down and carted away, and then the contractor makes additional money selling the logs to a timber mill!

If you think you have valuable timber on your land, then you need to call in lumber brokers to get quotes on the value of the timber. Once again, you need to be very careful and have them mark exactly what trees are the money trees and how many of each there are.

Let's say none of this works out, and you and your buddies become weekend lumberjacks. The first thing I want you to know is this is very dangerous work, it's hard, and if you're not used to it, it will wear you out faster than running up the Mt. Washington Auto Road.

Lot Clearing Tips
Many man and equipment hours have been invested just to get this small lot partially cleared. Photo Credit: Tim Carter

Here's a short list of the equipment you'll need to make a dent in this project. You'll need several powerful chainsaws with 18-inch blades, all the safety equipment for each saw operator (chaps, helmet, visor, heavy gloves, etc.), a timberjack tool that will allow you to lift logs to cut them, chains, a tractor, possibly an excavator, etc.

Tool rental businesses should be able to rent you all the mechanical equipment you need, but you'll have to be trained on how to operate them. Be aware that these machines are extremely dangerous, and if you don't know how to make them stable in wet, slippery or sloped ground, be extremely careful.

As for a plan of attack, you should think about the best way to access the building area so you put the driveway or road in the right spot. Think about drainage and ensuring the road is slightly elevated so it doesn't wash out.

You should go in and cut the smaller trees out of the way first so you have room to work when you have to bring down the larger trees. Think about what you're going to do with all of the slash. Slash is all of the tree material that's not taken away to a lumber or pulp mill. You generally have to burn it, grind it up or pile it on the lot so it naturally decomposes. If you decide to burn it, be sure to find out what the laws are about this. You'll undoubtedly need a permit to burn slash.

If you're going to turn the trees into your own firewood, you can either cut the logs up into links as you work, or stack the long logs off to the side to cut up later. Be sure you stack the logs at least 20 feet away from where a foundation wall might be. You have to make sure you give the builder room to work. The last thing you want to do is move giant logs twice.

Stump removal is an art. If you want to do it quickly you'll need large heavy equipment. It can be done with a bulldozer, but you must plan ahead. If you use a bulldozer to remove stumps, you need to leave about 3 or 4 feet of the tree sticking up out of the ground. The bulldozer raises its blade and leverages the stump out of the ground. It can't do this if you cut off the tree close to the ground.

If you have access to a large tracked excavator machine, the bucket on the arm can be removed and in its place a large single-toothed blade can be installed. This monster claw looks like that of a raptor and within seconds an experienced operator can make three swipes and the stump is out of the ground. It's both an impressive and terrifying thing to watch thinking of the raw power those machines possess.

You can watch an informative video that shows how to remove stumps with rental equipment at www.AsktheBuilder.com. Just type "stump removal video" into the AsktheBuilder.com search engine.

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