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DIY: Stump Removal

How to pull stumps the right way – and have fun doing it!

By Andy Nygren
Published: August 20, 2010
Photo by Tanya Bäck
Lake life is great. At our cabin we look forward to the loons, owls, fishing and everything else that cabin living provides us – even a tree removal project.
Dead trees, weak trees, in-the-way-of-my-renovation trees: Whatever the tree problem may be, the do-it-yourself fan can get it done, and have fun doing it. But what happens once those trees are down, cut up and cleaned up? Stumps. More fun!

Be Prepared
First things first: Safety glasses, steel-toed boots and hard hats (or hockey helmets!) are a necessity when doing battle with those pesky pieces of rooted demons. You’ll also want at least one extra pair of hands.
We start by cutting the trees, leaving 4 to 6 feet of stump above the ground. This gives enough leverage on the stump so when the truck is hooked up, we can get the stump out of there. The study of simple machines from ninth grade science is all the knowledge you need to understand the physics of stump removal. The stump is acting as a lever against the roots and soil at ground level. The longer the lever, the easier it is to move something.
Our initial pull is always in the most convenient direction, but if there is a choice, examine the roots to see which side looks the weakest and pull from the opposite side.

Chain placement is the key to smooth stump removal.
Photo by Tanya Bäck
Choose Your Weapon
We use a heavy chain rather than a tow strap because of the limited space we generally have in which to pull on our property. A tow strap relies on momentum of the tow vehicle – a stretch of the strap and a rather sudden pulling of the stump as the strap shrinks and the vehicle moves forward. A chain allows for a less violent, slower, steadier removal of the stump so the roots and dirt that follow do not go flying around smashing into things.  
If you have a really stubborn stump, however, a tow strap will probably work the best. In those cases, try gentle jerks at first, and work up to more violent jerks.

BEFORE: Notice how little slack there is in the chain. You don’t need much.
Photo by Tanya Bäck
The chain needs to be around the stump close to the top, and fastened with very little slack around the stump. It should be far enough from the top, however, so that it will not slide off the top as the stump starts to tip towards the tow vehicle.  
If the chain slips off the top of the stump, it will want to do a little dance, so when the pull is ready to happen be sure everyone is standing very clear.  
Carefully tighten the chain, and increase the power of the pull smoothly. If the tow vehicle starts to spin, let the vehicle get pulled back slightly and try a few more times.  
If there is no stump movement at this point, try from a different direction. It may help to strike at the roots with a sledgehammer and loosen the dirt on the opposite side.

AFTER: A slow and steady pull on the chain is all you need to topple most stumps.
Photo by Tanya Bäck
The initial pull may only bring the stump partially out. In that event, pull that leaning stump in the opposite direction. Before doing so, straighten the stump as far as possible by hand, so the chain can be placed in the correct position near the top.  This usually gets that stump out. A bit more wiggling, either by tow or by hand may be necessary.
A dead stump often breaks off on the initial pull. I have found that if the stump is weak enough to break, it can also be pounded apart with a sledgehammer. The final cleanup of roots can be a problem, as some of them will inevitably break off and stay in the ground. I use a long handled scraper to chop and remove them. It seems a little safer than a hatchet, but using a hatchet works great if there are no rocks to deal with.  
At our last stump removal party, it took us about eight hours to get ready, cut down eleven trees, remove the stumps, have lunch, have soda breaks, clean up and haul everything to the fire pit or local municipal mulch area, with, of course, some time left over to stand around admiring our handiwork.

Andy Nygren looks forward to everything that cabin living provides – even a tree removal project.

Photo by BeeLine
If this fine leverage system doesn’t work, go to your local rental center and rent a stump grinder. Then use a chain saw to cut the stump close to the ground before grinding. It works wonders for the stubborn stumps, but it is not nearly as much fun as pulling them.

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