Pioneers transform hand-held equipment

Not very long ago, grounds maintenance crews did everything, except mowing, with hand tools. These weren't power tools-the crews did the work manually. As late as the 1960s, maintenance workers had no gas-powered string trimmers or blowers. Back then, they had to use grass shears, brooms and rakes.

Evolution of power Before power string trimmers, crews trimmed grass with scissors-like grass shears, recalls Walter Clauss, president of Clauss Brothers, Inc., in Streamwood, Ill. In the 1950s, crews tidied up turf edges with spades. Brooms, not backpack blowers, swept away clippings; rakes collected leaves.

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"Today we have a lot more equipment than we did 30 or 40 years ago," Clauss says. "Blowers save an unbelievable amount of time, versus sweeping up with a broom. They cut the time in less than half. String trimmers allow one person to do all the trimming in almost no time. These power tools save an enormous amount of labor-nobody can work without them now."

The evolution of hand-held gasoline-powered equipment followed innovations in the 2-cycle gasoline engine. The 2-cycle (or 2-stroke) engine is a design modification of the "Otto-cycle" gas-powered internal combustion engine, invented by Nikolaus August Otto in 1861.

The "Otto-cycle" engine is a 4-stroke engine, and its basic design is still used in walk-behind and riding mowers, as well as cars. Two-cycle engines do not have valves like the 4-strokers. They require oil be mixed into the gasoline, and they fire once every revolution (compared with once every other revolution in 4-stroke engines). But 2-cycle engines are lighter and provide more power in less space. Their light weight and power-and the fact that you can operate them from any angle, even upside down-make them perfect for hand-held equipment.

In the 1930s, chainsaw manufacturers were using 2-cycle engines in their machines. And as reel, and then rotary, lawnmowers came on the scene in the late 1930s and 1940s, some of them, too, were powered by 2-cycle engines. By the late 1940s, Briggs & Stratton in Milwaukee, Wis., was one of the largest manufacturers of small gasoline engines used in home and farm equipment. Tecumseh Products Co., in Tecumseh, Mich., acquired two Wisconsin-based small engine companies in the 1950s and increased its presence in the burgeoning outdoor power equipment market.

Most hand-held equipment on the market today gets its power from 2-cycle gasoline engines, but each tool has its own story. Many companies claim to be the "first" with this or that innovation. Who was really first is not always clear; therefore, this article merely offers an overview of some equipment pioneers.

Chainsaws were first The granddaddy of hand-held tools is the chainsaw. In fact, the Portable Power Equipment Manufacturers Association (PPEMA) in Bethesda, Md., was formed in 1956 as the Chain Saw Association. Its all-tool-inclusive moniker did not come about until 1983.

Motorized saws were around in the early 1900s, but they didn't resemble our modern chainsaw. In 1926, Andreas Stihl from Stuttgart, Germany, invented a portable bucking chainsaw with an electric motor. The saw weighed 140 pounds and required two people to operate it, but it resembled the chainsaw we know today.

The German mechanical engineer bettered his first chainsaw in 1929 with his gasoline-powered "tree-felling" machine. By 1931, Stihl's company was exporting chainsaws to America and Russia. When U.S. relations with Germany became strained in the pre-war late 1930s, Stihl's exports were curtailed. American companies stepped in, including Mill & Mine Supply Co., in Seattle, Wash.

In 1950, Stihl introduced the first one-man, gasoline-driven chainsaw, the Stihl BL. He improved on that in 1959 with his Stihl Contra. By 1971, the firm claimed to be the world's largest chainsaw manufacturer. In 1974, the German company incorporated in the United States in Virginia Beach, Va.

After World War II, a few more American companies began to compete with Stihl, according to the book Barnacle Parp's Chain Saw Guide, by Walter Hall. The McCulloch Chain Saw Co. began in 1948. The Poulan Saw Co., then headquartered in Shreveport, La., also began manufacturing chainsaws in the early 1950s.

Hedge trimmers In 1922, Little Wonder (today a division of Schiller-Pfeiffer, Inc.) in Southampton, Pa., sold a commercial-grade hand-cranked hedge trimmer. This manual model featured high-carbon steel blades flattened by hand. It was manufactured until the mid-1950s.

In 1940, Little Wonder produced an electric-powered hedge trimmer. This model featured a single reciprocating blade. In 1945, the company introduced the concept of double reciprocating blades on an electric hedge trimmer. In 1955, Little Wonder began selling gasoline-engine-powered hedge trimmers. Other manufacturers followed, and in 1999, according to PPEMA, 319,080 units were made and shipped.

'Dusty' blowers The concept for the gas-powered backpack blower-which came before the hand-held blower-started in the 1950s with an agricultural dusting tool. In 1950, Echo Inc., (today in Lake Zurich, Ill.), introduced the first engine-powered backpack duster/sprayer. It was used to disperse pesticides in nurseries and on specialty crop farms. In 1955, Echo created a "cousin," the backpack duster/mist blower DM-9. Then in 1971, Echo unveiled a dedicated gas-powered backpack blower, the PB-9.

The PB-9 was mentioned in an article in Popular Science magazine soon after its introduction, and thousands of people wrote and called the company, says Robin Pendergrast, Echo spokesperson. "They wanted this product because they saw the efficiencies of it-particularly commercial landscapers, who had not seen anything like it before."

In the 1960s, Vandermolen Corp., a manufacturer in the Netherlands, was making and exporting a 2-cycle engine backpack blower, as well.

In 1978, Echo came out with its PB-200, a gas-powered hand-held power blower. Later, the company issued the PB-210E. Both consumers and commercial landscapers now had access to a blower, and other manufacturers began to enter the market.

Weed Eater began producing a hand-held gas-powered blower in 1985. Stihl began making backpack blowers in 1989. Today, Pendergrast estimates that 10 companies manufacture blowers. According to PPEMA, 1,647,850 hand-held blowers and 290,230 backpack blowers were shipped to distributors in 1999.

String trimmers & brushcutters In 1971, George Ballas sought a better way to trim around the trees in his yard. After visiting an automatic car wash and noticing how the bristles stood out straight as they swirled, Ballas had a brainstorm.

He went home, found a tin popcorn can in the trash, punched holes in it and inserted knotted fishing line to simulate the car wash bristles. He then attached the string-and-can to his rotary electric edger and tried it. It worked.

Ballas dubbed his invention the "Weed Eater." Ballas refined his idea and formed his own company, Weed Eater Inc., of Houston, Texas. Today, it is known as Poulan/Weed Eater, a division of Frigidaire Home Products, in Nashville, Ark..

The original Weed Eater was powered by electric motors and had optional attachments, including a brushcutter blade.

In 1977, Echo launched the first flexible-shaft trimmer capable of using blades. The company improved this idea in 1986, when it created the industry's first 1,000-hour flexible cable. This switch allowed trimmers to "work in high-shock load applications such as blade use," says Pendergrast.

In 1982, Tanaka Power Equipment in Auburn, Wash., introduced the concept of color-coded nylon line. Prior to this notion, all trimmer line was whitish and ide ntified only by line diameter measurements, such as 0.095 inches, says Jim Elmer, Tanaka's vice president of marketing.

Tanaka began making its line different colors to correspond to the different diameters. For example, blue was 0.065 inches, green was 0.080, and orange was 0.095-inches. "Those colors and size correlations are still used today and are very common in the industry," says Elmer.

Tanaka also introduced "The Brain" commercial-grade automatic line feed adjustable head. This system automatically feeds line according to cutting speed and line length. As the line becomes shorter, the rotation of the head gains speed, which activates the internal feeding system, thus releasing more line.

Swept away At a trade show in 1994, Shindaiwa, Inc. of Tualatin, Ore, introduced a gas-powered power broom. The 2-cycle engine and straight shaft were similar to those on other landscaping products. Shindaiwa created the PowerBroom by marrying the engine and shaft with rubber-like fins on a rotating drum. In 1997, the company put nylon bristles on the rotating drum to create a power bristle brush.

Power in the air In the 1990s, most of the innovations in hand-held outdoor equipment occurred in response to more stringent air pollution regulations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) have tightened emissions standards for hand-held power tools. The CARB Tier II standards required an emissions reduction of about 70 percent and took effect on all 2000 models. So how are emissions standards affecting equipment as we know it today?

Most hand-held equipment has been driven by 2-cycle engines, but some manufacturers have switched to cleaner-burning 4-cycle engines. In 2000, Ryobi North America of Chandler, Ariz., presented a professional-grade string trimmer powered by a 4-cycle engine. The trimmer, model 1079r, weighs 12.9 pounds and features a split-boom aluminum 55-inch shaft. The engine can be operated in all positions, even upside down.

Other hand-held equipment manufacturers have dealt with the emissions conundrum by improving their 2-cycle engines. Tanaka's PureFire Low Emission Two-Stroke Engine, unveiled in 1998, was a 2-cycle engine that met CARB's Tier II emissions regulations. According to Tanaka's Elmer, this engine reduced emissions by up to 70 percent and increased fuel efficiency by up to 30 percent.

Today, the 2-cycle engine is still king of the hand-held equipment realm, but its future reign is a bit "in the air."

Michelle Byrne Walsh is a freelance writer based in Lake in the Hills, Ill.

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