They have names aplenty: knuckle booms, grapple booms, grapple saws, grapple cranes, truck-mounted knuckle booms and knuckle-boom grapple saws, among others. We’ll refer to them as “grapple saws” for this article. Whatever you call them, when you conjure an image of one, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? An ogre-sized piece of machinery rending the urban forest would be a good place to start.
But what if we told you these machines should be synonymous with “the future?” Would you consider that? Would that image stick?
There are some in the industry who think this is precisely what these machines should bring to mind. A number of them recently spoke to TCI Magazine about this issue. They spoke about how the world of the grapple saw in tree work is about to explode. Or maybe already has exploded. Some also talked about the emerging community that has bubbled up alongside these machines as they make their big foray into the industry.
“Like them or not, they are here to stay,” says Doug Anderson of Doug’s Tree Service in Seabrook, New Hampshire.
“Wouldn’t do tree work without one,” says Ray Boychew, CTSP, QCL. Boychew is owner of Rayzor’s Edge Tree Service, an accredited, eight-year TCIA member company based in Stratford, Connecticut. Boychew says he sees the value grapple saws bring to tree work in both production and safety.
Mechanizing some of the most dangerous, onerous aspects of the industry – particularly removals and storm damage – has its benefits, increasing productivity being one of those. Being able to take down multiple trees in a day, sometimes across multiple clients and quotes, has a way of putting money in the pocket that a manual removal might not be able to achieve. That, and the fact that safety for field workers has the potential to see an uptick, has driven their popularity.
It is generally accepted that when a worker remains on or near the ground and outside the work zone, they tend to stay safer longer. Allowing a machine to secure, dismantle and process hefty neighborhood giants is a boon for many. Like Boychew, the other operators we spoke with who own and operate a grapple saw have no regrets.
“It just changes everything,” Boychew says. “My values are production and safety.” Here, he says, the machine simply shines.
Building of community
But this isn’t an article about the virtues of grapple saws, nor is it aimed at convincing would-be buyers to take the leap of faith. Rather, it’s a look at the community these machines themselves engender. It may sound like an odd thing to say – that machines create community. But that’s exactly what these multi-ton pieces of equipment seem to have done.
In speaking with a number of grapple-saw owners, time and again the same theme resounded. A completely unexpected, cottage-industry-like community bloomed around them as they began the process of purchasing one of these monster machines.
Josh Guin, CTSP, QCL, says some of his closest friends are fellow tree care professionals who got into the grapple-saw game at the same time he did. Guin is owner of Oak Bros Tree Care & Removal LLC, an accredited, eight-year TCIA member company based in Bloomington, Illinois. “The relationships are built around these machines,” he says.
Guin’s friends and acquaintances alike interested in grapple saws pay regular visits. This includes those just making the first steps toward potential grapple-saw ownership and veteran owners like himself. He emphasizes the hefty role grapple-saw trucks had in establishing this community he has seen develop and mature around him. “Some of my best friends are fellow owner/operators.”
But can a machine create community? A community is traditionally considered a collection of individuals, families and groups working in concert for mutual benefit. A symbiosis, if you will. So, can a machine effect this same symbiosis? A number of grapple-saw owner/operators think they do just that.
“We troubleshoot, help each other, walk through what issues we might have,” says Boychew. From manufacturers to mechanics to fellow owners, these industry-shaking work trucks are forging strong bonds. They are forming long-lasting, long-distance friendships, while rapidly changing the face of removal-based tree work. It’s a brave new world, and it’s vital that this world is built upon values of mutual respect, understanding and help, according to those spoken with for this article.
When pressed on his thoughts about helping out the competition, Boychew says, “I share tips and tricks and help with troubleshooting.” He recently convinced a fellow industry contact – a direct competitor – to get in on the wave and buy a grapple saw. “There’s enough work to go around,” he states matter-of factly.
But if a machine can facilitate the formation of community, what does that community actually look like, and how does it manifest itself? It exists along the highways and byways of the internet via the usual channels we’ve come to know, such as Instagram, Facebook, email and company websites. But also through good old-fashioned boots on the ground and phone calls.
“I get a lot of calls from guys who have questions about these machines – mostly from people I don’t know,” says Guin. He pauses to admit, with a slight hint of pride, that he, like Boychew, had just talked one of these callers into buying one of these machines.
Conferences and trade shows are the best places to meet fellow operators and owners, according to some members of the group. In fact, Boychew and Guin each sat on a panel discussion on grapple saws at TCI EXPO, Boychew this past year in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Guin in Indianapolis in 2021.
But Doug Anderson talks fondly of getting together with some of the first buyers of grapple saws whenever and wherever possible. They are scattered all over, but several are in the Mid-
Atlantic region. “If time allows, I’ll stop by the Carolinas,” he says, on the way back from his annual vacation down south.
“This [grapple-saw work] is our world,” Boychew says, referring to the community of grapple-saw owners. “I talk all the time to other operators. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to has said this was such a great decision.”
Like Guin, Boychew speaks of the personal relationships that began forming as he dove into the world of grapple-saw tree work. Anderson claims to know “all the operators with the first 15 or so knuckle booms in the country,” referring only to those sold by one manufacturer. He notes that, to his knowledge, his company owned the 14th. Guin says his company purchased the fourth, and talked about the value of the relationships built around the new technology,
“These are friendships that drive the business to the next level,” Guin says. He describes branching out into deeper territory and expansion into different lines of work – including municipal and commercial. It’s an entirely new way of thinking, on a 30,000-foot level, about how the entire business model is structured.
This new wave of mechanization truly is still in its infancy, according to those spoken with. Pruning techniques have been around for centuries, tree climbing since at least the late 1800s (although techniques have evolved) and crane-assisted tree work for a few decades. The first grapple saw debuted only a handful of years ago. The technology and the community manifested around the technology are only now beginning to find their footing.
There’s so much to learn, so many trial-and-error runs to make. This is why Guin insists that education is paramount. Any sort of conversation that results from the use of this new cadre of machines needs to be grounded in professionalism, proper training and proper equipment. He cautions against striking out into mechanization without the requisite education on financials, safety and equipment specs.
“What I don’t want to see is our industry relying too much on mechanization and not enough on training and educating,” cautions Guin.
Remember, the goal here isn’t to convince you to rush out and put your house on the line to get a loan for one of these machines. But if you do, you might find your numbers trending upward. Better yet, you just might get a new group of friends out of it.
Jim Kasper is an ISA Certified Arborist and Climber Specialist. He has a master’s degree in public health (MPH) and is a climber with Gill Tree Care in Decatur, Georgia.