PULLING THEIR WEIGHT: Three Tools That Can Move the Big Stuff

In this article you will learn about:

  • block and tackle setups for rope
  • come-along winches for powerful pulling over short distances
  • chainsaw-powered winches

You can always tell how self-reliant you are by looking at your tool kit. The further you move towards the ideal of self-reliance, the better and more varied your collection of tools will become. The two go hand in hand. This fact is especially true when it comes to the gear you choose to pull heavy things safely, effectively and appropriately. I’ve learned firsthand that if you’d like to expand the tasks you can do for yourself on the land, then adding a good set of pulling tools pays big rewards in lots of ways. Besides, this stuff is just plain fun to use.

The ubiquitous choice for pulling heavy things is the tractor, but it’s not always the best option. And while there’s nothing wrong with this technology when used correctly, a tractor is often way too much machine for most jobs around a small holding. Then there’s also the high cost of tractor ownership and maintenance, especially if you’re not using the machine most days. Fact is, there are smaller, more appropriate implements made to drag, hoist, pull timber from a bush lot, haul stone and salvage stuck vehicles, but you won’t usually find them in typical retail outlets. They sit between the usual tools marketed to homeowners on the one hand, and professional equipment designed for people earning a wage in the marketplace on the other. In the zone between these two users you’ll find a handful of small-scale implements that are well-worth looking at. Here are three of the favourites that I use regularly working my 90 acre rural property, with tips for finding and using them on your own place.

Block&Tackle: Good Pull, Long Distances

A block and tackle are to pulling things what gears are on a mountain bike. If you have the budget to add just one serious pulling tool to your collection, look at a block and tackle first. And while no system gives you something for free, it does let you enjoy more pulling power in exchange for pulling greater lengths of rope through the pulleys. You can pull very hard in deed with a block and tackle, but you have to pull correspondingly more rope through the arrangement to make it all happen. It’s a good deal in the right situations. In fact, the block and tackle is so effective that it can multiply your pulling efforts 9 times or more, as long as you have enough rope to make it from one end of the rigging to the other. That’s a typical set up you can see below.

This is a typical block and tackle arrangement. Lifting force is multiplied in exchange for having to pull more rope through the set up.

The main thing to understand is the correct matching of rope and block, and an understanding of how leverage works with changes in the number of pulley sheaves employed. Triple sheave blocks include three pulley wheels each (those are the “sheaves”) ganged together in one wooden or metal housing (the “block”). You’ll commonly find single, double and triple sheave blocks, both new and used. Though you might pay more than $100 for each triple sheave pulley block new (less than half that amount if used), this last version is a good, general-purpose choice because it’s so versatile. By rigging rope back and forth between pulleys in the blocks, you multiply pulling force only as much as you need to. Just because you have three pulleys in each block doesn’t mean you always have to use them.  I bought my first block and tackle equipment in 1986, to let me hoist timbers and stone as I built my house. It includes two sets of triple-sheave blocks, plus a 250-foot coil of 5/8-inch braided nylon rope (about 75 cents/ foot) that I keep on a spool and use for nothing else. Over the last 25 years I’ve used this same equipment to lift machinery, building materials, timber frames, and to help direct the fall of large trees cut near buildings. A good block and tackle is one of those things that finds many more uses than you originally imagined. You’ll find 5/8-inch diameter rope a good choice for your pulley block system because it’s large enough to grab easily by hand, yet not so large that the rope is difficult to store. There are several ways to rig blocks, but the best involves anchoring one block to the item being pulled and another to an anchor point. This could be a stout hardwood tree trunk you need to move, an overhead beam or a vehicle that went off the road. Next, begin threading the rope back and forth through the pulleys in each block, from one to the other. The final step is to tie the rope to the anchor lug on the last pulley in the sequence. Take a look at the illustration above to see how it all goes together.

Come-Along Winch: Short Distances, Big Convenience

While a block and tackle system offers strong, long-range pulling power, it’s also time-con suming to setup, take down and store, especially if you’re committed to putting the rope away correctly after you’re done. That’s why for quicker, short-range pulling, a ratcheting winch is king. Often called a “come-along”, this tool offers serious force multiplication through the action of a hand lever and cable drum. Some models also include a built-in pulley wheel to double the force generated. You can see my come-along below.

This come-along winch has about 8 feet of cable that can be drawn in by pumping the lever handle back and forth.

A unique advantage of the come-along is its ability to maintain tension on the steel cable without anyone holding the handle. With the ratcheting mechanism engaged, the cable can only get tighter. I’ve used come-alongs to pull timber frame parts together during assembly, to tighten new fencing during installation, and to pull cars out of ditches. There are many inexpensive come-alongs on the market, and it’s easy to overload and break them. I know because I’ve done it. More than with most other tools, it’s important to spend the money on quality when you invest in a come-along. You’ll also find this tool works much better if you keep the spool of cable lubed with light oil, as well as the ratchet mechanism and all pivot points. A few drops make a big difference. You’ll find a 1 1/2 ton come-along okay for small loads, but that’s about it. A 3 or 4 ton unit will probably last longer and prove more versatile. Expect to pay more than $100 for a good model.

Gas-Powered Winch: Massive Pull, Long Reach

If you need tractor-grade pulling power in a portable, low-impact package, then the chainsaw-powered winch is worth looking at. Unlike the other pulling options you’ve read about here, this one introduces more than just your muscle power into the equation. It’s a leveraged power source with incredible potential. This little-known pulling tool uses a 50cc to 60cc chainsaw engine (with cutting bar and chain removed, of course), bolted to a high-leverage gear box that includes a 1/4-inch diameter steel cable on a spool. Working together these parts create massive pulling power that’s completely portable and leaves no tracks or damage in the forest. You can see my rig below.

Here I am with my Lewis winch a number of years ago, pulling a white pine log from the forest.

This unit I own is made by a company called Lewis Winch, it generates 4,000 lbs. to 8,000 lbs. of pulling force, depending on whether it’s rigged for a straight pull or in tandem with the aluminum pulley blocks that fit on the cable. That’s enough power to pull a fresh-cut 12-inch diameter, 16-foot long log through the thickest bush at a rate of about a foot every two seconds. Half throttle speed is all it takes to haul a fully-loaded pickup truck out of a muddy ditch . The chainsaw winch also offers a long-distance reach, too, about 120 feet with a full spool of cable. It’s the ideal low-impact logging tool, with a pull as hard as a medium-size tractor. The winch itself costs $650 and is able to take a variety of different chainsaw engines. I bought a used chainsaw for this application and it has worked fine over the last 20years of periodic use. Part of the wood I heat my house with comes from wind-blown, dead and beaver-felled trees, but it wasn’t until I invested in a chainsaw winch that I was able to make the most of these salvaged forest resources. I pride myself in low-impact use of the forest, and that means I never take my tractor right into the bush for skidding logs. It’s simply too destructive. That said, without some means of pulling down trees that snag on others after being cut, too much useful wood remains out of reach. But with a chainsaw winch I can now haul logs anywhere within a 120-foot radius of where my truck or tractor is. And when I’m done, all that’s left behind is a small skid mark where the tree traveled over the forest floor once on its way out.

Earlier this year I had a triaxle dump truck deliver some cedar bark mulch, and the soil was wet, slick and slightly sloped where I wanted the load dumped. It wasn’t long before the truck got stuck. The only thing that might have pulled it out was my Lewis winch. There were no trees around to anchor the winch, so I used my half-ton pickup truck. Although I didn’t manage to get the dump truck out (front-end loader had to be called in), that little winch did drag my truck along the ground with the transmission in park and the wheels blocked.

At first glance, you might think that the worth of a good set of pulling tools is the work you can do with them, but that’s only part of their value. When I walk into my tool shed and see nylon ropes hanging neatly next to pulley blocks, or my chainsaw winch all ready to go in the job box in the back of my pickup truck, I feel something else. It’s the satisfaction of knowing I can safely and productively handle big jobs myself. And that, too, is one of the most valuable benefits of the self-reliant lifestyle.

Easy Does It

Unless you’re pulling out some kind of machine designed to take a hook, you’ll need to take precautions to prevent damage to items you’re hauling. And this is where nylon lifting straps can help. Available in a variety of widths and lengths, straps spread out pulling force so nothing gets damaged during the process. I use them when hauling up building materials and especially around trees that I use as a damaged-free anchor point for my chainsaw winch. Straps do a terrific job in lots of applications and are often available in custom lengths from industrial supply outlets. My last set of 4-inch wide x 12-foot long straps cost about $30 each.