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The Ringer

The "Ringer" was brought to my attention by Jim Dempsey (California State Parks). This is a tool that helps slice a groove out of a tree's bark. This is useful for trees that are killed by simple girdling. It can also be used in conjunction with herbicides in a way similar to "frilling" or "hack and squirt" methods. However, the ringer is suprisingly expensive: it costs around $150! I was not happy about the price, but I decided to try and field test this tool. Jim lent me his, and even though I prefer low-cost solutions (OK, I am a cheapskate) I was really impressed by the Ringer. Read on....

The Device & How it Works
A: The Ringer
ringer blade
B: Adjustable blade!
The Ringer is shown in the figures to the right. (Click on photograph "A" to see the Ringer close up.) The main body of the Ringer is made out of a single chunk of cast aluminum. The other components are standard steel hardware pieces. The total weight is about 0.7 kg (1.5 lbs). The handle is shown in a vertical position, the cutting blade is the curved flange that is mounted on the bottom part of the tool. You operate the tool by holding it horizontally, with the bottom edge of the tool against the tree. The tool will contact the tree on the blade, and also near the tool's tip (near the wing nut). Push the handle with enough force to drive the tool forward and the blade will bite into the bark. Do this correctly (and it takes only a few seconds to learn how), and a long curl of bark will be removed from the tree as the tool slices forwards. It is rather like peeling a potato!

The blade is made out of carbon steel, and is very sharp! Even more cool, you can adjust the blade's angle of attack (pitch angle) by rotating the wing nut at the end of the tool. (I bet you were wondering what that was for!) For very large trees, the blade should be adjusted as in the photograph "A" above. But for smaller trees, the blade should be tilted to a different angle. (See the fun animated Figure "B", above to the right, to see the blade's range of motion.)

Field Tests
I took the Ringer to a number of sites in central California where the native species of plants were being displaced by invasive woody species. I was really curious to see how the Ringer would perform---looking at it in my office, it just did not seem to make sense.

I have to hand it to the Ringer, though. The tool is pretty well balanced, comfortable to hold, and easy to use. After just a few seconds of fumbling around with it, I figured out how it worked and I started slicing big curly sections of bark off my target trees. On relatively thin-barked trees like Ailanthus (Tree-of-Heaven), I could ring the trees just about as quickly as I could maneuver around them. The furrow created by the Ringer was about 1.5 cm wide, but it was trivial to make more than one pass over adjacent areas to make wider passes.

ringing medium trees
Using the Ringer on a small tree

Adjusting the wing nut to accommodate different-sized trees was easily done. The wing nut turned easily with finger pressure. Furthermore, I did not detect any drift in the blade angle, i.e. the blade angle did not seem to require any readjustments to stay at the same pitch angle.

On a medium tree
Becky wi/mondo tree
I next tried something more challenging---I selected maturing Ailanthus trees with thick, crusty bark. Again the Ringer sliced through them with ease (see photo of medium tree on the right). Finally, Becky Waegell (Cosumnes River Preserve, California) and I tried the tool on a huge, old Robinia tree. This had complicated, thick bark structure. Ringing this was a real challenge for the Ringer. Even so, we were successful by making about three passes over the same area. The first two passes removed the big irregular chunks of bark, the last pass opened up the cambium. You can see Becky (photo to the far right) making one final pass along the groove. Even though the Ringer was challenged, I do not know if a machete would have had any chance against this tree---I think the only other option would have been a chain saw.

Trees smaller than about 4cm (1.5 inches) diameter are hard to be treated with the Ringer, but really you can ring such trees with a pocket knife.

Additional observations on using the Ringer, courtesy Jim Dempsey

Tree species     Tree diameter (DBH)      Ease of Use    
Pistacia chinensis (Chinese pistache)     5-20 cm (2-8")     Easy  
Catalpa speciosa (western catalpa)     10-25 cm (4-10")     Moderately easy  
Morus sp. (mulberry)     10-23 cm (4-9")     Hard!  
Ligustrum vulgare (privet)     15 cm (6")     Easy, except concave surfaces  
Pistacia chinensis (Chinese pistache)     5-20 cm (2-8")     Easy  
Prunus dulcis (Almond)     5-20 cm (2-8")     Hard!  
Pyracantha sp. (pyracantha)     5 cm (2")     Easy  

The blade will dull with use, especially if it is used on large trees with hard or thick bark. You can feel a difference after resharpening the blade after even just one long day of work. Jim Dempsey resharpens and cleans his using a round file, flat file, and cleanser like "Goo-Gone." If you break a blade, you can buy a replacement.

Safety Notes
Do not get your fingers near the Ringer's blade. It is very sharp; if you do not respect it and instead do something stupid you could send yourself to the hospital. When using this device, be aware of what that blade would cut into if the Ringer jumped out of its groove as you are pushing it. Wear gloves!

Advantages of the Ringer
  • It works well in most cases.
  • It is not as dangerous as a chain saw, or even a machete.
  • With fewer moving parts than a chain saw, malfunctions are rare.
  • Unlike a chain saw, it is quiet to use, so animals are not disturbed.
  • Properly used, it can expose a large amount of cambium which is very useful in applying herbicides.
  • It is kind of fun to use.

Disadvantages of the Ringer
  • At $150, it is expensive.
  • Chain saws or machetes have multiple uses. Ringers can only do one thing.
  • They are hard to use on trees that have very thick or hard bark, like old almonds or mulberries. (But so are machetes.)
  • Not suitable on trees with very complicated surfaces, like twining, multiple trunks or trees with concave surfaces.

The Ringer is an expensive tool, but it is very useful on a wide range of trees. You can go into the woods and easily girdle trees---especially thin-barked species---quietly and without disturbing wildlife. It is an excellent way to prepare trees for a hack & squirt herbicidal treatment, too. It is pretty cool!

Ordering Information
You can buy the Ringer from Forestry Suppliers, Inc. When you get to that site, do a search on "Ringer". You should see a page for this tool. In May 2003 I successfully did this, and got to this page; but be warned that this url looks like the kind that could change any time without warning. The Ringer's manufacturer has a web site too.

The Ringer costs $149.90, shipping adds about another $10. Replacement blades cost $22.95. As long as you maintain the blade manually by keeping it sharp and clean, you will only need a replacement if something happens like if you run into an old nail or some other odd event.

--Barry Rice, TNC/GIST, May 2003

Updated January 2005
©The Nature Conservancy, 2000