Reviewed - Hedge trimmers

A selection of machines for noise-sensitive sites tested by gardens staff at Saltram. Sally Drury reports.

STIHL HSE 81 & HLE 71 long-reach hedgetrimmer - image: HW
STIHL HSE 81 & HLE 71 long-reach hedgetrimmer - image: HW

The hedges need trimming and, while two-stroke and hybrid-engine machines give you freedom of movement, there are occasions when noise and fumes cannot be tolerated. Perhaps it is a noise-sensitive hospital or school site. Perhaps it is part of grounds environmental policy to run as few engine-powered tools as possible. Perhaps it is the kind of site like the gardens around Saltram House, where visitors want to enjoy bird song rather than exhaust emissions.

Compare hedgetrimmers and see further hedge trimmer reviews and buying advice at

Reviewed This Week

STIHL HSA 86 cordless
Pellenc battery system
Mantis cordless
Makita UH200 & Mantis hand shears
Little Wonder 3020
Makita UH4861 & UH5570

STIHL HSE 81 & HLE 71 long-reach

The Review Panel

Penny Hammond, head gardener, Saltram, Plympton, Plymouth

Martin Stott, gardener, Saltram, Plympton, Plymouth

The new generation of cordless hedge trimmers can provide the perfect solution. In this review, Hammond and Stott try out the latest battery technology from Makita, Mantis and STIHL. They also show me their own battery-powered Pellenc system.

There are instances where the weight of a petrol engine is the main issue. Working long hours with a heavy machine is tiring on arm and back muscles - and tiredness can lead to accidents. Removing the weight of the engine and obtaining power from a generator instead mean longer periods of work can be endured in relative comfort. We look at Little Wonder, Makita and STIHL electric trimmers.

The test was conducted in the grounds and gardens of the National Trust's Saltram House, Devon, home of the Parker family for nearly 300 years. Conditions on the day were cool and dry but with rain clouds threatening to end our trials by late afternoon.

STIHL HSA 86 cordless

When we looked at the HSA 85 cordless trimmer at Alscot Park near Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010, testers Lisa Topham and David Williams found it delivered the same high standard of performance and build quality as the company's petrol-driven models. Two years on and STIHL has made this lightweight cordless machine even better. What's more, it has seriously upped the ante and is set to give the competition a real run for its money.

Now called HSA 86, it still has great manoeuvrability - you can twist it and turn it in all directions and use it at all angles with ease. It still has high-speed blades that ensure a swift and precise cut. But all you hear is the sound of blades gliding over one another and the sound of the vegetation being cut. What makes the difference is the new brushless STIHL EC motor.

Compared to its predecessor, this latest version of STIHL's professional cordless hedge trimmer boasts 40 per cent extra running time - now up to 100 minutes - while STIHL's EC electronic control provides a constant stroke rate, even under load. What's more, a wider tooth spacing combines with the new EC motor to give more aggression in cutting. All these bonuses and yet, remarkably, the designers and engineers have managed to shave another 400g off the weight. This one comes in at 3.3kg excluding battery.

Back in 2010, we used the HSA 85 with STIHL's AP160 battery plugged straight into the end - costing an extra 1.7kg in weight. Since then, the company has brought out a battery belt capable of carrying up to two batteries and connecting to the tool via a short cable to a battery adaptor on the trimmer. But now the best news of all - STIHL is going backpack. After testing the machine with the belt pack, we are privileged to run the HSA 86 with the pre-production AR900 backpack battery. Its extra-high capacity gives up to 660 minutes run time. We love it.

Hammond, who already uses a Pellenc with backpack battery, is pleased to see competition developing in the market. "It's quick. A chunky, typical STIHL trimmer but with the battery pack on your back it is very comfortable to use and I much prefer it to an electric with a lead," she says. "It means you have less weight in your hand and it makes the use time that much longer."

Stott feels that the battery is slightly heavier than the Pellenc but says it does not make any difference when it is on your back. He likes the comfort of the backpack and the sturdiness of the trimmer as well as the resulting cut. "This gives a really good cut. I've tried it on some thicker material and, from the power point of view, it has coped really well." The backpack battery is expected to be released in early spring 2013 and the price has yet to be decided.

Hammond looks at the belt pack. It is clear from her expression that, initially, she is not excited about this option. However, ten minutes later, she admits it is "okay". She adds: "I prefer the backpack because it is more comfortable and the weight is better distributed, but the belt is all right and I can see that, with it costing less, there is a market for it."

Stott finds he has to have a spare battery in the second pocket to balance the belt and make it comfortable. He wonders whether that means you need three batteries - one working, one balancing and one charging?

Battery technology: Lithium-ion
Motor type: EC (brushless)
Weight: 3.3kg without battery
Blades: Double sided, double edged, 62cm long
Tooth spacing: 33mm
Blade speed: 3,000 strokes per minute
Max cutting thickness: 26mm
Blade tip guard: Standard
Price pounds: 199.17 + VAT
AP: 160 battery 1.7kg, 160Wh/4.5Ah capacity, 100min running time, 60min
charge, £145.83 + VAT
AL: 300 quick charger £54.17 + VAT
Battery belt: £65.83 (additional bag £15.83, harness for
belt £15.50, carry bag £16.67) + VAT
AR: 900 backpack battery 7.1kg, 900Wh/25Ah, 660min running time, 250min
charge, price to be decided
Tel: STIHL - 01276 20202

Pellenc battery system

Powering a range of lightweight handheld tools all day long, this comfortable Pellenc backpack battery system took the world by storm when it was introduced a couple of years ago.

Overnight, operators could forget their concerns over noise, emissions, mixing fuel and engine vibration. It also meant a day's work for under 10p and gave professional gardeners and contractors a choice of hedge trimmers. Although carrying a not insignificant price tag, Hammond was quick to buy into the option.

"We'd had Pellenc equipment on trial from Exeter dealer Radmore and Tucker and, because of the way it performed, decided we had to add them to our armoury permanently," she says. "I have to make a case for a fixed asset purchase like this, but it wasn't difficult because it fits neatly into the greener technology policy the National Trust is adopting."

Hammond and Stott show me how well the standard trimmer works on yew and the long reach on thick holm oak. "It's ultra lightweight, though it doesn't have the feeling of sturdiness of the Makitas and STIHLs," says Stott. "We find an advantage in the cutting power - it will cut pretty much anything you get in the teeth."

The long-reach hedge trimmer, with +90 degs/-45 degs head adjustment, also has a D-handle with a wing nut so the position can be altered to suit the user. Variable speed is a major benefit. By using the four-speed selector, the trimmer can be adapted to match the material. Yet another clever touch is the automatic discharge to give safe storage if the battery is not used for four days.

Battery technology: Lithium-ion
Motor type: 1,200W motor developed by Pellenc
Weight without battery: 3.9kg (Helion pole hedge trimmer with 63cm
Battery weight: 5.5kg (700 battery without harness)
Blades: Single or double, 51cm and 63cm
Tooth spacing: 33mm
Blade speed: Four speed settings
Max cutting: thickness 26mm
Price: £450 + VAT (Universal), £650 + VAT (telescopic),
£520 + VAT (pole), £990 + VAT (700 battery)
Tel: Etesia - 01295 680120

Mantis cordless

Well-known for its small petrol tiller, Mantis's product diversification has led to the introduction of this well-balanced, lightweight hedge trimmer. It is clear that it comes from a clean-sheet-of-paper design. We find features on this unit that we have not seen anywhere before.

For starters, there is the roll handle - why hasn't anyone thought of that before? Then there is the rotating top handle. It is a simple swivel-click adjustment to allow for both horizontal and vertical cutting without changing hand position, but takes a bit of getting used to when you have got accustomed to the rotating rear handle on most models.

Something else we were not expecting to find is the variable speed. When we first run the machine, we think it unpowered, but the realisation that there are high and low speeds makes us think again. "It is working noticeably better on high speed," Stott comments. On the right speed for the material, the diamond-cut blades give a good finish.

Running time is up to one hour but it does take three-and-a-half hours to recharge the battery - you would definitely want a couple of spares if you had a lot of work to do.

By comparison with Makita and STIHL, the Mantis feels a bit flimsy and gives the sense of being more for the domestic market. However, the price tag means that it offers serious value for money - providing the durability aspect is proved.

Battery technology Lithium-ion 24V
Weight 2.9kg without battery
Battery running time: Up to one hour
Battery charging time: 3.5 hours
Blades: Single or double, 50cm
Tooth spacing: 20mm
Blade speed: Two speed settings
Price pounds: 209 including VAT
Tel: Mantis - 0161 474 1525

Makita UH200 & Mantis hand shears

Who has not looked at these dinky tools and thought: "What's the point?" They could prove useful for intricate work, especially topiary, unless you are really attached to your clippers and scissors.

There is loads of technology packed into the small Makita 10.8V li-ion trimmer. It weighs just 1.2kg and has a 20cm bar. What surprises us is the soft-start and smoothness of operation as well as the LED battery power warning light. We like the smooth, comfortable grip but find the scoop an unnecessary encumbrance. It cuts boxes well and copes with young growth on yew.

The Mantis weighs 550g with the short blade, but we like the option of a quick-change, click-and-go trimmer bar. Although the shorter blade is a grass blade, we reckon that it might be useful for getting into corners and trimming the intricate parts of topiary, while the diamond-cut and zinc-coated bar is more suited to the longer runs of, say, box edging. Running time is 40 minutes.

Model: Makita UH200/Mantis hand shears
Battery: 10.8V lithium-ion/3.6V lithium-ion
Blade length: 20cm/8cm and 16cm
Running time: 40mins/40mins
Price: £175 + VAT/£64.99 including VAT
Tel: Makita - 01908 211678/Mantis - 0161 474 1525

Little Wonder 3020

Little Wonder electric hedge trimmers have a reputation as a professional's tool and this model is no different in that respect. It leaves a remarkably clean cut on yew.

The 3020 is well built. It lacks the adjustability of a rotating handle but does come with a long cable - by far the longest in the test - and a solid yet somewhat clumpy connection.

If you are used to the single-sided electric Little Wonders, you will find this one noticeably heavier. But then, look at the length of the blades and feel the quality. This model has doubled-sided, double-reciprocating blades - and at 30in they are the longest blades offered by the firm.

The two separate blade covers, however, are an absolute pain. They are far too fiddly and we would much rather see a chainsaw-type protector.

The blades, capable of cutting material up to 12.7mm in diameter, are made of hardened high-carbon steel and are said to maintain their sharp edge for up to 10 times longer than other steel blades. The transmission gears are case-hardened steel for durability and the high-torque motor is quiet and double insulated to avoid shock. The cover is quickly removed for cleaning.

Motor: 460W
Blades: 75cm double-sided, double action
Max branch diameter: 12.7mm
Blade speed: 2,700 cuts per minute
Weight: 4.6kg
Price: £220.79 + VAT
Tel: Little Wonder - 0161 474 1525

Makita UH4861 & UH5570

The first thing we notice about these two trimmers is the extraordinary low weight. The second is the fabulous build quality - in fact, it so impresses Stott that he keeps referring back to it all day. Third is the attention to detail, like the belt clips to hold the cable close to the operator.

"It shows they are thinking about everything," says Stott. Safety is also built in. Both machines have a slipping clutch and mechanical brake that bring the blades to a complete stop in 0.05 seconds.

The UH4861 with 400W motor, is really an entry-level machine. It is lightweight but nicely balanced and feels durable. The small tooth spacing means it is not meant for heavy growth but it is more than capable of trimming box and yew.

"Because of the fast speed and smaller tooth spacing, it copes better with the annual growth and gives a better finish than the larger UH5570," Stott notes.

The 5570 is the professional unit, and initially makes the generator splutter. It has a 550W motor, longer blade with tip protector and larger tooth spacing, and it will cope with much heavier material. It flies through box, gives a nice cut to yew and takes 16mm or 17mm laurel.

The rear handle, being an open oval shape, is unusual but gives a comfortable grip and allows vertical and horizontal work without having to twist and rotate. Hammond sums up: "It's a nicely balanced, comfortable and well-built machine, with a good blade length. It's a flexible machine for a range of material."

Model: UH4861/UH5570
Motor: 400W/550W
Blades: 48cm double-sided/55cm double-sided, double-action
Max branch diameter: 15mm/18mm
Blade speed: Unknown/1,600 strokes per minute
Weight: 2.9kg/3.6kg
Price: £121 + VAT/£137 + VAT
Tel: Makita - 01908 211678

STIHL HSE 81 & HLE 71 long-reach

The HSE 81 is a powerful 650W trimmer with long blades ground on both sides. Tip protection is standard. It also boasts a five-position rotary handle for comfortable work positions, an additional switch at the back to enable greater reach, vibrating/damping con/rod drive and mechanical overload protection. But all this comes at a cost - weight.

"It is heavier than the Makitas and the hand grip doesn't feel as friendly," says Stott. Hammond starts to agree: "Yes, it's heavier, but it's STIHL quality, substantial and well-built." Looking back at her work, she adds: "It has produced a nice finish. I also like the orange cable. The black one on the Little Wonder was difficult to see against the ground."

The HLE 71 is also packed with STIHL technology and should make a useful addition to the tool shed if you do not want the weight of a petrol long-reach trimmer or the expense of a battery one. Including cutting head, it weighs 5.9kg and will set you back £308 + VAT.

We try the 2.1m short shaft version with the shoulder strap and then with the RTS harness. "The strap is good but having worn the RTS for some time I can say it's doing a good job of transferring the weight and pressure," says Stott. However, he would appreciate more padding at the collar. He would also like a quick adjustment to the loop or D-handle. You need your toolkit for this one.

The cutting head is adjustable through 125 degs in 12 positions, giving plenty of flexibility for working on sides and topping off hedges. Performing well in the yew and noticing the wider teeth spacing, we try the HLE on the holm oak but find it slightly wanting in power. "It could do with a bit more beef."

Model HSE 81/HLE 71
Motor 650W/600W
Blades 70cm double-sided, double-edged/50cm double-sided, double-edged
Tooth spacing 36mm/35mm
Blade speed 2,800/4,000 strokes/min
Weight (excluding cable) 4.4kg/5.9kg
Price £208.33 + VAT/£308.33 + VAT (RTS harness: £70.83
+ VAT)
Tel STIHL - 01276 20202

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