How to Wreck Your Lowering Device

Ed Hobbs created a sensation at the 1979 Northern California Tree Trimmer’s Jamboree when he gave the first public demonstration of the first commercially feasible, ratcheting lowering device in recorded arboricultural history, aptly named the Hobbs Lowering Device. I was there. I was mesmerized, as were most of those in attendance.

The author, in orange hard hat, in his earlier years using a Hobbs Lowering Device while rigging big trees in California. Ken Johnson, holding the line, was clear of the drop zone but close to the Hobbs due to restricted space. Also, the photographer asked him to move in close for the photo, according to the author. TCIA archive photo by William Dunniway, courtesy of Don Blair. A version of this photo graced the cover of TCI Magazine in November 2001.

Hobbs said the greatest compliment he ever received was when my father, Millard F. Blair, commended him on inventing a tool that would change the way we did tree work forever. Having done tree work since 1911, my father knew what he was talking about, and more than 40 years of use and development have proven his words were prophetic as well as right on the mark.

Not long after that fateful demonstration, Ed Hobbs and I made a deal – he would build them, I would sell them. Through the M. F. Blair Tree Experts, Noonan Tree Care and other close associates in the California Arborists Association, we worked to develop techniques and protocols for making the best use of what became known as the “Hobbs” and his rigging blocks as a system.

A few years later, I bought the patents and manufacturing rights and made some improvements, and later, Ken Johnson made the greatest improvements of all. Through all of the changes, some things are still constant – Ken is building them and I am still selling them.

The point to this little bit of history is only to establish the earliest beginnings of the “Revolution in Rigging” that really defined the 1980s, as far as advances in arboriculture were concerned. Drawing upon this background of experience, I’ll present here some anecdotes that illustrate exactly how to wreck your lowering device.

Make sure you know how to put it on the tree!

In 1975, I had established Sierra Moreno Mercantile Company on Latham Street in Mountain View, California, where Blair Tree Experts was also headquartered. Around 1982, I could hear an argument in progress way down the street that got louder as it got closer to the shop. Three “Euc men” (those who work in eucalyptus trees, but it is a state of mind that transcends tree species – and arboriculture, as far as that goes) came in. One was carrying a Hobbs with the mounting strap ripped to within an inch of total separation.

The owner set it down in front of me with a simple challenge, “How do you put this on the tree?”

I picked it up by the top handle and lifted it about three feet from the ground. Before anything more could take place, the owner spun around and decked one of his nervous-looking employees, who went sprawling into a stack of orange road cones. The owner pointed an accusing finger at the ground worker lying in a heap on the floor and yelled, “I told you it was upside down! That new strap is coming out of your pay!”

The owner/climber was up in a euc (what else) and called for the Hobbs to be mounted on the tree. The guys put it on upside down. The owner/climber kept yelling down that it didn’t look right, and the soon-to-be-slugged ground worker argued that it was OK. The climber roared, “I’ll prove it,” and dumped a big piece into the rigging. Being upside down, the impact yanked the device up and away from the trunk, tearing away the webbing mounting strap. Only an inch of webbing prevented a total catastrophic failure.

Fortunately, that is the only such incident I have any knowledge of. I would have thought the top handle was such an instinctive clue that no one could get it wrong. I didn’t allow for a Euc man’s
innate ability to screw things up.

Take it off the tree before free-dropping heavy sections of trunk!

Unfortunately, this scenario is probably the most common cause of lowering-device failure/destruction as well as the easiest problem to avoid, and yet …

Whichever device you use, whatever amount you paid, it is a capital investment in your company’s triangle of “Quality, Safety and Production.” Although it has always seemed obvious to me to take it off the trunk before free-dropping wood, I’ve been amazed at the number of times this has occurred. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: “Hello, this is Don Blair, may I help you?”

Them: “Yes, can you repair my lowering device?”

Me: “Possibly, what seems to be the problem?”

Them: “Well, the guys – it’s always ‘the guys,’ when quite often it turns out I’m talking to the ‘guy’ himself – brought it back today, saying the spool won’t rotate and ratchet anymore.”

Photo 1: Photos 1-3 show the aftereffects of chunking down large trunk sections before removing the lowering device from the tree, from an incident described in the accompanying text. From the top down: a) Log flattened the carrying handle on one end so the winch bar will not slide completely through; b) rope guide hook is bent down; c) log hit very end of spool with enough force to bend the heavily reinforced axle shaft down until the back of the spool jammed hard against the ratcheting mechanism; and; d) the main frame shows that it is bowed. These units are strong but not foolproof, because new and improved fools are coming into the market every day. Photos courtesy of the author.

In the early days, I’d ask “them” to bring it in so I could have a look at it. I don’t have to do that anymore and haven’t for years. The device invariably shows the following signs of “not taking it off the tree” before: the spool is bent downward so far that the inside ratchet block is jammed into the frame of the device; the 1-and-1/4-inch, reinforced axle is bent accordingly; and, usually, a big chunk of bark is embedded in the top of the spool where the free-falling section of trunk slammed into the device still mounted in place on the tree.

These days, if the customer says the spool won’t rotate, I recite the description of the device and what I think happened. I can’t remember a time when I was wrong. To answer the customer’s original question, if the device took such a hit that the spool and axle shaft are bent, too much metal fatigue has taken place and it cannot be repaired.

Photo 2. After 15 years, there are still traces of bark embedded in and around the “signs” portion of “Designs.”

To sum up, if you’re not going to use it anymore, take it off the tree and put it away. Consider this to be a “shall do” and not a “should have done” standard of operation. Setting it on the ground in the drop zone isn’t much better; it just sets the device up to be ruined in some other way.

Just when you think you’ve seen it all

Again, back in the early days, a trio of big, young, strong Euc men (this fact is important to the story) came into the shop with a first-generation Hobbs (built by the man himself). The axle shaft was severely bent sideways! First and only time I’ve ever seen one like this.

Me: “OK, what did you guys do to this one?”

Them: “Well, we got our chipper stuck in the mud and we thought we could winch it out with this. The chipper was stuck pretty good and deep. We weren’t making any progress with the standard winch bar, so we slipped a 6-foot pipe over the handle and all three of us got on it. All we succeeded in doing was bending the axle shaft. We ended up having to call the tow truck we were trying to avoid spending money on.”

Photo 3: Showing just how bent the frame is from impact damage. The full length of the frame should be straight against the ruler.

So, in trying to save a tow-and-recovery bill, they wrecked a lowering device that cost more than the recovery and still had to hire the tow truck. That is why Euc men often are not successful businessmen.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these “True Stories from the Trees,” but far more important, I sincerely hope you can learn from the mistakes of others. At the very least, it is a lot less expensive and potentially less painful.

Every tool, device and machine we use in our work has specific do’s and don’ts. From a $25 handsaw to a $250,000, self-propelled, articulating aerial lift, they all have the capability of helping you or killing you. How carefully you read the manuals, how disciplined you are about taking the lowering device off the tree and how well you plan your work and control the job site is ultimately going to determine how successful you are in the long run or dead in the short term.

The best advice I can leave you with is a maxim that is applicable in almost all situations you may encounter in your personal and professional life. Think about a time you weren’t too sure about something, but you slapped aside the doubt and quickly regretted it: “If there’s doubt, there is no doubt!”

Donald F. Blair, CTSP, is president of Blair’s Arborist Equipment LLC, in Hagerstown, Maryland, and a member of TCIA since 1982.

1 Comment

  1. An “Oak Man”, would have incorporated several pulleys into his rigging system when it came to winching out that chipper !…

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