The Tree Master: Tigercat LX830 Tree Feller and Buncher
Paul Bunyan Never Had it So Good With This Tigercat Feller
The ancient riddle of the Egyptian sphinx asks, “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in midday, and three in the evening?” The answer was, of course, the three ages of man, from infancy to old age, starting out on all fours and ending up with a cane. Now here’s a more modern version of that riddle: What has the turret of an armored tank, the whirling blade of a sawmill, and the appetite of a dinosaur? It’s a Tigercat LX830. As lumberjack/operator Karl Baumann quips, “It’s a wood-eatin’ machine.”
What does this tree-devouring rig have to do with readers of Work Truck Review? Well, it’s clearly a hardworking rig, and Karl’s support vehicle is an ’09 Dodge Ram 2500, fitted with a leveling suspension kit and 105-gallon auxiliary transfer tank for refueling. But even more relevant to owners of work trucks is what it takes to run this sort of operation, from the hazards of cutting down trees in the wild to managing the financial challenges of the lumber business. Karl provided an insider’s perspective on the life of a modern-day lumberjack. And it sure isn’t as idyllic as a Paul Bunyan story—or even more modern lore and legend.
Produced by AP Creative Media
“Forget everything you know from the Ax Men TV show,” he says, shaking his head in disdain. True, as portrayed on the series—logging is one of the top three most dangerous jobs—right up there with commercial fishermen and iron workers. But that’s about where any similarity with legendary lumberjacks ends. To start with, instead of using Bunyan’s Old Blue, the big ox that hauled logs, Karl relies on several pieces of modern machinery. Just traveling to the Tigercat is a challenge, along with transporting it to the designated cutting areas (clearly marked with specific boundaries to avoid encroaching on the habitat of spotted owls or other ecologically sensitive issues). The logging roads are pretty much what you’d expect—remote, rugged trails Karl slogs along on for hours just to begin his workday, which usually starts around 3 a.m. and ends after sunset.
A low-bed trailer transports the Tigercat to the edge of the forest, but it can only go so far. That portion costs about $110 per hour. Then Karl drives the Tigercat into the forest. Running in high gear, he can manage about 2.6 mph, max. “It’s no sports car,” he laughs. Before cutting, he first checks that the 18 tempered-steel teeth on the base of the circular cutting head are still sharp. Hitting a rock can chip them, but each tooth has four sides, so he can rotate in a new face if it’s damaged. Once they’re all dull, replacing them costs about $17 per tooth.
After firing up the Tigercat’s Cummins QSL9 diesel engine, Karl then starts out by carefully threading through the forest, picking out the trees to slice and dice. He can’t just clearcut the forest. He has to choose the right size of trunk, about 2 feet in diameter max. (Bigger trees are cut down by hand with a chainsaw.) He also evaluates the condition of the tree. “We have to leave a number of ‘snags’ as homes for wildlife,” he points out. Before heading into the woods to cut down trees, Karl had to attend several classes on forestry to get his permit as an LTO (Licensed Timber Operator). In addition to knowing how to identify various types of trees, he also had to learn a stack of forestry regs about where he can and can’t cut trees (such as next to a stream bed or gully). Also, the local RPF (Registered Professional Forester) marks areas that are off-limits to the LTO. He can get be fined and his license can get pulled if he strays into these areas..
Once selected, a tree has no hope of holding up to the Tigercat. The blade buzzes through the trunk in a split-second, spewing a blizzard of chips and sawdust. The feller rips through thick trunks like a weapons-grade weed whacker. As for the “buncher” part, a large claw of steel arms encircles the tree at the same time, holding it in place. Then Karl deftly relocates the tree to a stack, gently lowering it in place like a big twig. Processors follow later on to remove limbs before loading the logs on a truck using a claw-shaped scooper.
What powers this Tigercat? A 300hp Cummins 8.9L, churning out 1,200 lb-ft of torque to drive a transmission that turns three main pumps, plus four secondary ones, which feed an intricate web of hydraulic lines that move the tracks and leveling cylinders and actuate the head unit (saw blade, rotating element, hold, and accumulator arms).
Karl says a Tigercat can claw up inclines as steep as 26 degrees (52 percent) going forward and handle a side slope as much as 22 degrees (44 percent). Easier said than done, of course, since a big tree in the clutches of the buncher can exert tremendous leverage on the Tigercat, especially when a thick trunk has to be turned sideways and laid down on the ground. Karl makes it all look easy, like a child playing with Pick-Up Sticks.
Since uneven terrain poses a serious risk of flipping over, Karl maneuvers the Tigercat with special care. The controls in the cab are multifaceted, using both hands and feet, allowing him to handle a wide variety of movements and cutting angles, much like operating a robot from the movie Pacific Rim (but without the telepathic interface, of course). But Karl does have a close connection with the machine and says it’s better not to “overthink” the controls and just let muscle memory handle them. Unseen rocks are another hazard, as they not only dull the teeth on the blade but also generate sparks. “I’ve started a few fires,” Karl admits. But he has a fire-retardant system with a special chemical additive that provides many times more than the suppression potential of plain water. (Three gallons of water with the foaming chemical solution is comparable to about 50 gallons of water, he says.)
Karl has considered other brands and types of feller/bunchers, but the Tigercat is better suited to his work environment in the thick forests of the High Sierras near Lake Tahoe, as it’s lighter and has a minimal rear overhang, both providing better maneuverability. A new Tigercat LX830D model runs nearly $700K, but Karl found a ’13 LX830C for about $400K. These rigs hold their value really well, but he prefers not to run it more than a few years. That’s because repairing an aging rig can get very expensive, especially when a specialized mechanic has to travel into the forest. Rates run as high $100 per hour, plus travel. About every 4,000 hours the injectors need to be replaced. Karl personally changes fuel and oil filters himself every 500 hours and the air filter as often as once a week during a dry, dusty summer. Hydraulic fluid filters can go as long as 1,000 hours, and when the fluid itself needs changing after 2,000 hours or so, he carefully drains it into buckets for recycling back in town.
Overall, why does Karl tackle such a challenging operation? Pointing to the overlook of a pristine mountain lake rimmed by a lush green forest and spectacular cliffs, he says with a smile, “That’s the view from my office every day. You’re not going to get rich, and it’s lots of hard work, but you’ve gotta love it.” And that’s the simple answer to a riddle about how to handle a tough job.
Baumann Timber Falling916-765-1559