For those of us with power tools, it's easy to imagine a garden workshop with three or four small-engine tools hanging from the walls. There's a 2-stroke mini-tiller hanging in the corner along with a 2-stroke grass trimmer. Both are single-function tools, but they have similar engines. Sound familiar? Even if you're just a slightly curious tool-minded gardener, you might wonder why those tools couldn't be combined so you could use one machine for several different yard and garden chores.
You may have seen them in the home-supply stores -- multipurpose trimmers that convert to edgers, pruners, hedge trimmers, blowers, vacuums, brush cutters, cultivators, and even snowthrowers. You pay for one engine with a trimmer head, and purchase accessories as needed. The attachments cost less than single-function (dedicated) tools, they take up less storage space, and you have only one engine to maintain.
I tried several of the new convertible trimmers, and they were impressive. They're easy to use, and they perform well. Homelite's Expand-It System and Ryobi's Trimmer Plus line offer the most versatile convertible trimmer products for the home gardener. McCulloch, Black & Decker, Echo, Husqvarna, and other companies offer convertible trimmer/edgers, but with fewer attachable tools. Several other companies specialize in tools for professionals.
String trimming is the most basic function of these tools, but attachments allow you to accomplish tasks usually tackled by dedicated tools. The typical trimmer engine turns a flexible driveshaft, which then turns the trimmer head at high speeds. The idea behind convertible trimmers is that the driveshaft can provide the necessary power to other tools as well. Depending on the action of the attachment, some tools link directly to the shaft (as with brush cutters, for example); others (for instance, a tiller) get power via a transfer case that converts power from the driveshaft to the tool. To wrk properly, the attachment must be fully engaged with the trimmer driveshaft.
One of the best features of the multifunction trimmers is their ability to quickly convert from one tool to another. Converting from a pruning tool to a snowthrower requires little more than loosening a wing-nut, replacing the attachment, and tightening the wing-nut. The flexible driveshaft automatically engages with the tool when it's inserted properly. I was able to change attachments on both the Homelite and Ryobi models in 30 seconds.
Some trimmer/edger models, such as McCulloch's Trimmer/Edger series and Black & Decker's CST1000 convert from one tool to another when you rotate the shaft or handle. This process takes even less time.
How do you go about deciding if a convertible trimmer is right for you? Think about the gardening chores you do most often. For example, if you need a cultivator for frequent and heavy use, invest in a dedicated mini-tiller. But if you're looking for a trimmer and use a tiller only three or four times a year for light cultivating, consider a convertible trimmer with a cultivator attachment. Likewise, if you do occasional pruning, edging, brush cutting, or blowing, why pay for and maintain three or four similar engines to accomplish occasional tasks?
The convertible trimmers probably work better at some jobs than at others. Let's face it: String trimmers are designed to make a particular task easy. Maneuvering some of the heavier attachments can become awkward during demanding chores. Remember, you're holding the engine weight with your arms, but you have to push the tiller tines or snowthrower blades into the soil and snow. The attachments require a little more effort but cost much less than several dedicated tools for either of these jobs.
Another point to consider is that the tools work differently than dedicated units. For example, Homelite's cultivator attachment will cut sod, dig holes, maintain edges. It can also mix fertilizer, mulch, or compost into the soil. Although it can't outperform a good mini-tiller, it's certainly a more versatile tool.
You've got to give companies like Ryobi and Homelite credit for stretching our imaginations with a variety of attachments. Who would have thought a trimmer engine could power a small snow-thrower? During the winter, I cleared more than 6 inches of snow from a narrow path with Ryobi's Trimmer Plus.
Several trimmer manufacturers offer a choice of engine options. If the trimmer you want comes in a range of engine sizes, consider how much work you expect to accomplish with the attachments. Go with the powerful engines for tough jobs, such as cultivating soil or throwing snow. Ryobi's Trimmer Plus series, for example, includes 4-stroke,
2-stroke, and electric versions. The new 4-stroke engine meets California's environmental regulatory requirements. They're quiet and powerful and don't require a gas-oil mix. It can't, however, run when turned upside-down or rotated sideways. Currently, Honda is the only manufacturer to offer a trimmer-sized 4-stroke engine that can operate at 360-degrees.
This year, several manufacturers will introduce new 4-stroke trimmer-sized engines, as well as 2-stroke engines with catalytic converters, such as Husqvarna's E-tech 2-stroke. Ryobi's new 4-stroke will rotate 360-degrees. We also expect a new environtmentally friendly trimmer engine from Homelite this year.
Convertible trimmers vary considerably in price. That's because originally many versatile trimmers were intended only for professional use, but some manufacturers have since introduced them to the consumer market. For example, the Homelite and Ryobi trimmer lines were built with homeowners in mind, a fact reflected in their pricing. Other models, such as Maruyama and Shindaiwa, are professional-caliber tools.
Ryobi (800) 345-8746
Homelite (800) 725-9500
Husqvarna (800) 487-5962
Maruyama (425) 885-0811
Black & Decker (800) 544-6986
McCulloch (800) 423-6302
Echo (800) 432-3246
Shindaiwa (800) 521-7733
Dan Hickey, a former managing editor at National Gardening, is currently the garden channel editor at American Online.