How to Remove a Tree Stump Without a Grinder

Tree stump

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After you hire a commercial service to remove a tree, they can also remove the remaining stumps for an extra fee. Or, you can hire a different company to come in and do this work. But if you have felled the tree yourself, the task of removing the stump is left up to you—and it can be as difficult as removing the tree itself. You can hire a firm to come in with a large mechanical grinder to churn the stump into sawdust, but this can be expensive. Commercial stump removal can cost as much as $500 for a large stump or one in a tricky location. You could also rent a stump grinder for $100 to $200 per day, but getting this tool on-site and using it safely is no easy feat. But there are several methods—either manual or chemical—that you can use to do this work without contractor costs or large equipment.

how to remove a tree stump
The Spruce

When to Remove a Tree Stump

A tree stump can be removed at any time after the tree is felled, but manual removal is sometimes easier if the stump has aged and dried out somewhat. If you have the ability to let the stump remain in place for a full year or even two, the dried wood may be easier to cut out than when working on a new stump with greenwood. Chemical removal, however, should begin immediately after you remove the tree.

Manual Method

A small- to medium-sized stump can be removed by good-old-fashioned muscle work. But larger stumps can involve so much work that it's not practical—unless you can drag it out of the earth with a chain attached to the back of a pickup. For larger stumps, use the chemical method instead. A useful tool for manual removal is a mattock, which has a broad end for digging and a sharpened end for slicing. Everyone has favorite tools to use, though, and the more various digging and cutting tools you have on hand, the better. For larger stumps, you may want to enlist the aid of a helper or two to speed the work.

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: 3 to 12 hours, depending on the size of the stump
  • Total Time: Same
  • Material Cost: A sturdy digging bar costs $30 to $50. Bow saws cost $10 to $30, depending on size. A mattock costs $15 to $50. A good ax typically costs $30 to $40.

Tools and Supplies You Will Need

  • Shovel
  • Heavy steel digging bar
  • Mattock
  • Small bow saw
  • Large bow saw
  • Ax
  • Steel-toed boots and work gloves

Instructions

  1. Dig around the stump with the mattock's broad end.
  2. Once you have loosened the dirt in this fashion, shovel it out of your way. Be prepared to clear away a lot of soil. The bigger the stump, the more earth you'll be moving. This is necessary to gain access to all the roots that need cutting.
  3. Use the other end of the mattock to start chopping your way through the tree roots. A small bow saw can also be used to sever the roots as you uncover them.
  4. Dig and chop your way under the root ball to the taproot. For all but the smallest of trees, taproots will be imposing enough to require cutting with an ax or large bow saw. Clean excess dirt off the taproot with a wet rag before cutting.
  5. Chop through the taproot with your ax or with a bow saw. Be careful that the area is clear of people, pets, and objects before you start swinging the ax. Aim the ax carefully so that it does not strike dirt (which would dull the blade). Always wear steel-toed boots when wielding an ax.

Warning!

It's best not to use an ax unless you have been educated in handling one properly. In unskilled hands, axes are dangerous. If you're not confident, try to use a bow saw for all your cutting. It may require more digging to expose the roots, but it will be safer.

Chemical Method

For those who are not up to the physical effort, or where a tree stump is too large to remove by hand, there is an easier—though much slower—method. All wood will eventually decay and rot away, and it is possible to speed up this process by keeping the stump moist and adding nitrogen in the form of a high-nitrogen fertilizer or potassium nitrate stump-removal granules. This is not an instant process—it can take a matter of months or even a year or so before a stump vanishes completely—but it is quite easy.

Project Metrics

  • Working Time: 1 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the stump
  • Total Time: Up to 1 full year
  • Material Cost: Chemical stump removal products cost $5 to $10 for a 1-pound container. A chainsaw can cost between $50 (electric) and $300 (gas-powered).

Tools and Supplies You Will Need

Tools/supplies:

  • Drill and large bit
  • Chainsaw (gas-powered, electric, or battery-powered)
  • Plastic tarp

Materials:

Instructions

  1. Use a chain saw or bow saw to cut the stump down as close to the ground as you can, without allowing the chain saw's teeth to strike the ground (this will dull your chain). Wear steel-toed boots for this part of the job.
  2. Drill holes a few inches deep into the stump in numerous places, using the biggest, widest drill bit you have. The wider and deeper the holes, the better.
  3. Fill these holes first with water, then with a fertilizer high in nitrogen or stump-remover granules.
  4. Soak the ground all around the stump. Cover the stump with a plastic tarp. The tarp will act as a barrier to help retain moisture in and around the stump. Moisture is a powerful ally to have on your side for this project.
  5. Apply an organic mulch over the plastic tarp, and water it thoroughly. An organic mulch such as tree bark or hay will hold additional moisture, keeping the area even wetter. Wet mulch is also heavy, which will help weigh the tarp down so that it doesn't blow away. For additional weight, roll some heavy stones onto the tarp. The mulch also serves the purpose of hiding the tarp from public view. Covered with mulch, the tree stump will be invisible as it begins to rot away. You can even cover the mulched area with various planted pots and container gardens.
  1. Over the coming weeks, periodically remove the mulch and tarp and apply more water and nitrogen to the stump, then cover it again. Some patience is required here, as it can still take quite some time for the stump to completely rot away. But it will be considerably faster than the decay process normally occurs in nature.
  2. After 4 to 6 weeks, the stump may become soft and spongy enough to begin breaking it apart with an ax. Whatever wood cannot be broken up and removed should be treated again with water and nitrogen. At some point, you can bury what remains and let it complete the decay process underground.

Burning Method

There is a tree stump removal product that comes in a powdered form, called "Stump-Out," which is designed to break down the wood fiber of stumps, leaving them porous. The porous wood then absorbs kerosene readily. After the porous wood is soaked with kerosene and ignited, it begins to burn away, and the fire soon becomes a low, smoldering flame. If the use of kerosene and flame is acceptable to you (and allowed in your community), this is another cheap and easy option to remove a tree stump.

Tips for Removing Stumps

  • When digging out a stump by hand, a hose or pressure washer can be helpful to wash away dirt to expose roots as you dig downward.
  • Major roots do not have to be removed once the main body of the stump is severed from the roots and removed. Buried underground, the roots will generally rot away naturally over time. Should they begin to sprout suckers, applying a chemical brush killer will stop their growth.
  • Disposal of large tree stumps can be difficult. Contact your local waste disposal authorities for instructions on how and where to dispose of large garden waste items.