Josef Strobl, a professional timber faller from Bavaria in Southern Germany, has developed several products to improve the productivity and safety of tree fellers. The ValFast & ValFix spindle wedges are from the felling range of products that meet these criteria. FMM has had both these spindle wedges for trial over the last few months.
The ValFix is the smaller and lighter of the two felling wedges and has a 15 tonne lifting capacity and weighs just 1.4kg, the larger ValFast has a 26 tonne lifting capacity and weighs 5.5kg. The ValQuick cone wedge can be used in conjunction with the Val Fast and will hold the tree in place if the ValFast needs a second bite to gain more lift, this is ideal for trees with a backward lean.
I have done my fair share of felling over the years on both thinning and clear fells and there is nothing worse than working in a coup where just about every tree requires some physical effort to get them on the ground. Some of the smaller trees would go over easy enough with a breaking bar but others required a hammer and wedge and a shitload of energy to get them past the point of no return. Such jobs are particularly harder work during the summer. After a lot of exertion you are likely to experience “hill hunger”, where you get light headed and your legs turn to jelly. The only way I found to combat this was to get a quick sugar boost in the form of a Mars Bar or can of Coke. Felling was on piece work, usually on a price per tree basis, so obviously spending more time and energy felling each tree would affect your pay packet at the end of the week.
The BaSt-Ing spindle wedges are a big help in improving safety. When they arrived, I thought they looked simple but well-engineered and would stand up to extensive use. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating so I was looking forward to getting feedback from our testers.
Our first visit was to Doune, not far from Stirling, to see Kenny Ferguson who was harvesting a mature crop of Sitka Spruce with his Komatsu 931XC harvester. Kenny’s chainsaw operator, Stewart Walker, was working ahead to clear any trees that were too big to fell or too heavily branched to process. Stewart decided to try the smaller ValFix wedge with the Milwaukee 12-volt impact driver on some of the Spruce within this area.
The ValFix worked really well. Its narrow design meant it needed just a slight angled cut above the felling cut to allow the wedge to slot into the back of the tree. Stewart was surprised with the lifting power: “I have been using a sledgehammer and wedge to help fell most of these trees. Having to carry so much equipment from tree to tree and swinging the sledgehammer for a large part of the day certainly takes its toll on you. Being able to carry the ValFix (standard wedge holster) and the Milwaukee impact driver (Gunni Tool Holder) attached onto your logger’s belt saves a huge amount of time and energy.”
“It really is a powerful wedge and I was very surprised at how effortless it was to fell the trees – I thought you might need a couple of bites to get the desired lift but fully opened it is wider than my felling wedges. It is strong and really well made, yet not overly heavy.”
Watching Stewart working I could see the many advantages of using the ValFix over the sledgehammer and wedge. Combining the ValFix with the impact driver, he was able to look up at the top of the tree when lifting it and see if there were any overhead obstacles or branches with the potential to cause injury. This is not possible when swinging a sledgehammer as the operator’s vision is directed to the base of the tree to make sure the wedge is struck. The ValFix is a continuous, gentle lift as opposed to the shock travelling up the tree by striking the wedge – a far safer system when dealing with dead and dying trees or diseased Ash.
We decided to finish off the day by felling a heavily branched edge tree which was leaning against the felling direction. Stewart decided to use the larger ValFast wedge as the tree was quite large. The ValFast needs a slightly wider entrance to allow the wedge to secure itself into the sapwood; a narrow cut above and below the back cut keeps the wedge level in the tree and allows it to work more effectively, while the metal plates have small, round, aggressive ridges so that it lifts the tree rather than winding itself out.
There was a lot of back lean and when the wedge was fully extended it still couldn’t quite achieve the balancing point, so Stewart inserted plastic wedges to hold it in place; this allowed him to unwind the wedge and insert it further in the tree for extra lift. A few more winds on the spindle shaft were enough to encourage the tree to fall in the intended direction.
Stewart was mighty impressed: “It would have taken a fair bit of work with the hammer and wedge to fell that tree but with this wedge it was effortless. You are able to look around more and make sure no one is entering the risk zone. It’s also quiet enough to use that you can remove your ear defenders and hear a lot more of what’s going on.”
“We all know that regardless of what we do to alert people to the risks of entering a working harvesting site and even with diversions in place some people will still choose to ignore the warnings and come through.”
“This is something I would definitely consider purchasing as it saves a lot of physical effort and being less tired reduces the chances of things going wrong.”
Our next trip took us to a hardwood forest near Kelso in the Scottish borders, a severely steep site being hand felled by Blair Amos. William Laing was helping to extract the wood with his Tigercat 615 Grapple Skidder and thought it would be an excellent site to trial the wedge. We met Blair at the top of the very steep valley (this was a huge relief – if it had been at the bottom I would probably still be there trying to climb back up today).
This was probably one of the most awkward felling sites I have ever come across and Blair certainly had his work cut out. To avoid tumbling down the slope, he had to secure himself with a climbing rope which was anchored at the top and attach it to his climbing harness. For the same reasons, his chainsaw was attached to his harness by a rope strop. He had to use the rope both to abseil down to the trees at the bottom of the slope and to pull himself back up to each tree to be felled in turn.
Blair was keen to try out the smaller ValFix wedge with the lighter Milwaukee ½” impact driver.
“These Beech trees are not that big, probably about half a tonne each,” Blair said, “but some of them need a bit of help to go over and getting a secure footing to gain some lifting pressure on a Cant hook or to use a hammer and wedge is nigh on impossible.”
Blair fuelled up his Stihl 500i, put the ValFix into the wedge pouch, and clipped the impact driver onto his belt and proceeded down the slope. Having watching Blair fell a few trees it was clear that he is an exceptionally skilled chainsaw operator, a real professional. He had two bearer trees about 8m apart straight up the hill, which were then used to slide the felled trees down to the bottom of the valley. Another chainsaw operator de-limbed them and then William moved them with his grapple skidder to the opposite side, at which point the third chainsaw operator crosscut them ready for collection by the forwarder. On this type of job the operator requires a good team that can work together and look out for each other, as demonstrated by this group with everyone working safely and good production being achieved.
Blair’s Stihl 500i had been ported and, although a bit noisier than standard, it sounded very responsive and pretty damn nice from where I was. I spent some time trying to think up a good reason to justify why we needed yet another chainsaw, but as a geriatric woodcutter who now only uses the saw once in a blue moon I was at a complete loss!
Blair was certainly making good headway through the standing trees; there were one or two leaning in the right direction that went over unaided, but most needed a bit of persuasion. After about an hour, Blair climbed up to the top to refuel his saw and I asked what he thought of the ValFix:
“When I heard you were coming down I was pretty sceptical and thought it would be another expensive gadget to prise more money out of us cutters, but this is the real deal and works brilliantly. It’s light, powerful, and easy to use and lifts these Beech trees over quickly and effortlessly.”
“I was using a hammer and wedge to get the trees over and trying to find a secure footing on banking like this is not easy. The ValFix is brilliant and a much safer alternative.”
Blair had nothing negative to say regarding the wedge, with work completed faster due to reduced felling time. Everyone has to get well out of the way before Blair can fell each tree – they slide down the bank on
the bearer trees at a fair speed and no one is sure exactly where at the bottom they will end up. A few minutes saved on felling each tree can add up to a lot more trees felled and processed each day.
Regrettably, there was only about a day’s felling left; otherwise, Blair said he would have purchased a ValFix spindle wedge. He must have been impressed though as before the week was out the Logset Forwarder operator, and the Skidder operator, had both ordered a wedge on his recommendation.
Our final trial for this issue took us to see Joe White of White Tree Services just outside Lockerbie, where mature Larch trees in mixed species woodland were being removed. This site was being worked in a combined effort by Joe’s team and Graham Hodgson. The contract itself was Graham’s, with Joe extracting and processing the trees and helping with some of the felling. The felling at this location was not straightforward as the felling direction for each tree was determined by the smaller hardwoods that had to be left undamaged.
As some of the trees had a significant back lean, Joe and Graham were using the ValFast spindle wedge. It was proving very effective at persuading the trees in the desired direction. Graham was enthusiastic about the performance and could clearly see the benefits of the ValFast. He thought the ValLink, which locks the impact driver and wedge together for remote operation using a logger’s tape, is a particularly useful innovation. The tape attaches to the ValLink in such a way that it is routed over the trigger for the impact driver. The chainsaw operator can then walk a safe distance away from the tree and any possible debris that might be dislodged from the crown of the tree.
Pulling gently on the tape operates the trigger and expands the wedge to assist with the felling of the tree; this is a simple and inexpensive solution for dealing with diseased, unstable and brittle trees – like we are seeing with Ash dieback. We spent some time with Graham and the other chainsaw operators, who all took the opportunity to try the system.
The feedback was excellent during all three trials with both wedges – although purchasing them involves a substantial initial outlay, the general consensus is that they would soon pay for itself. Both wedges are labour-saving felling aids which make directional felling easier while also helping to protect chainsaw operators.
Stewart trialling the ValFix and ValFast on some reasonably sized Sitka spruce.
Blair felling Beech trees with the smaller valFix on the steep and slippery conditions.
Directional felling of the Larch trees to avoid any damage to the young hardwoods.
Remote operation of the ValFast and impact driver using a loggers tape and ValLink. Operators are out of harms way from hung up or falling debris.
Robust and waterproof case with a specially designed insert suitable for carrying the ValFast, impact wrench and spare battery. Also space to carry chainsaw and the option to securely attach a Combi can.
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