Removing a Tree Stump
Warning! The methods described here apply to removing tree stumps up to approximately 12 inches in diameter using basic hand tools such as the mattock and splitting maul. In addition to requiring considerable amounts of physical effort, these techniques may also result in an unexpected sequence of bad language when the going gets tough!
Tree Stump Removal Options
Tree stump removal is one of the most difficult tasks facing the hands-on gardener and is definitely a job reserved for folks who don’t mind hard exercise - especially when dealing with established stumps. There are several ways to remove a tree stump and some methods are more suitable than others depending on the size, position, species and age of the stump. The most important considerations are:
Has the tree been felled yet ?
If you’re planning on removing a tree from your garden and you also want to get rid of the stump, don’t cut the main stem to ground level. The ideal situation is to have at least 6 feet of the main stem remaining as this will provide much needed leverage and an attachment point for a sling should a winch be required. The digging method will be the most suitable for this situation.
Is the stump at ground level?
This is the most common scenario. The tree has already been cut down and the stump is no more than a few inches in height and feels as solid as steel. There are three options for removing it:
- Digging it out
- Splitting the stump and then digging it out
- Using a stump grinder
Digging Out the Stump
Start by removing as much soil as possible directly around the stump. The objective is to expose the roots so they can be severed using a mattock or an axe. If you prefer to use a saw, make sure it’s not your brand new pruning saw as the soil particles on the roots will dull the blade very quickly. Chainsaw users will also know that one of the quickest ways to ruin a chainsaw blade and bar is to use it on dirty wood. If you can get hold of a 5lb mattock, you'll soon appreciate how useful a tool it is. A mattock is a cheap, dual purpose tool capable of cutting through hefty roots and digging through the toughest of ground. If possible, get a mattock with a fibreglass shaft.
Hunt the Roots
You may need to use a smaller hand trowel to get amongst the roots in order to uncover more. Different species of tree will have different root formations, but there will normally be two or three main culprits that will need severing in order to achieve any movement in the stump.
When cutting through roots, make two cuts so you actually remove a decent sized section of root. This will help the stump move more freely later on and will allow access to deeper roots. If you’re using an axe or mattock, make the first cut towards the thinner end of the root and the final cut adjacent to the stump - the root will be less springy and much easier to sever.
Some stumps will be ready to come out at this stage, others though will be just as solid as when you started and you will need to continue digging and cutting. Make the crater bigger to allow easier access to the underside of the stump as this is where the stubborn roots are likely to be. The picture below shows the stump of a rowan tree removed using just a mattock and spade. The top of the stump is 11 inches in diameter and you can make out the severed roots.
Try using a sledge hammer to strike the stump sideways, this can break smaller roots and help to reveal the position of others. Remember, the main thing holding the stump in the ground is the root system and you need to cut as many as possible to get the stump moving. Once the stump starts to move, you should be able to identify where the remaining roots are. If you’ve had enough by this stage, have a cuppa and come back in half an hour. If the main roots are all sideways to the stump (lateral), then the task should be quite straightforward. If there is a main taproot that travels straight down, you'll need to remove enough soil to be able to see the root and create enough room to either swing the mattock or use an old saw to sever it.
Applying leverage to the stump
Two tools that will save you hours of hassle are the Mutt Pro cutting spade or a straight steel fencing bar which is essentially a 1.5 metre long thick steel pole with a wide chisel tip. A fencing bar can be used to cut roots, split the stump, and to actually help lever the stump out of the ground.
Winching the Stump
If you are lucky enough to have a few feet of stump above ground level, you can use a winch to pull the stump over. You will still need to sever some of the roots (on the opposite side to the winching direction) and you'll need a suitable anchor point. Attaching a suitable pulley to the stump and running the line to and from the anchor point will double the mechanical advantage, effectively giving you twice the pulling power. A winch can be a lethal weapon in the wrong hands so make sure you know what you're doing before you start. If in doubt, dig it out!
Splitting Method of Stump Removal
The objective with this method is to split the stump whilst it’s still in the ground, removing pieces of timber until all that's left are the remnants of the roots. This is a effective way of removing stumps with minimal digging, but be prepared for some serious maul swinging. The picture below shows a conifer stump approximately half removed using this method.
The splitting method of stump removal works well on stumps up to around 10 inches in diameter and requires a splitting maul or splitting wedge to work effectively. A conventional axe can also be used but a maul is heavier and specifically designed to split timber.
Small stumps can often be split straight down the middle, allowing you to hack and lever out the loose pieces. This is a particularly good way to quickly remove lots of small stumps; hedge removal for example. Larger stumps will need splitting from the outer edge working towards the centre breaking off pieces as you go. The split pieces will often pull away without any trouble, even where they connect to the roots, sometimes though you may need to remove some of the surrounding soil to sever the pieces.
With large stumps that present a problem to split, drive a splitting wedge into the stump as far as you can and then drive in a home made wooden wedge. Remove the metal wedge and repeat the process further along the split. Leave the wooden wedges in place for a week or so and then hammer in another larger wooden wedge. Pouring water onto the wedges will make them expand, help the splitting action slightly. Over time the stump will open up enabling you to remove a piece at a time. Several wooden wedges can be used in this manner to gradually dismantle even large stumps. This method will also help large stumps to rot by exposing more of the timber.
For larger stumps in awkward positions such as close to walls, paths and foundations, a stump grinder may be the best option. A stump grinder uses a spinning blade fitted with carbide tipped teeth that scrape away at the stump. Bear in mind that a stump grinder can only work to a limited depth, normally up to 10-12 inches. If you feel up to it, stump grinders can be hired by the day at most local hire shops. If you decide to use a contractor to do the work for you, expect to pay a minimum of around £65 plus VAT for the smallest of stumps. A quick tip - always check your windows after the job has been done for cracks and stone chips. Stump grinders are notorious for sending stones and debris flying all over the place at high speed.