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Chippy McCulloch

I'm a composter

One of these days, I may get around to writing a page about my attempts, successful and otherwise, to turn garden and kitchen waste into rich black soil-enhancing compost. For now, I'll content myself with describing my relationship with one of my favorite composting tools.

See, I get my composting genes from my father, who used to maintain a modest bin at my childhood home (he's since gone upscale with a fancy three-bin system and several humongous slow-composting piles). My brother and I used to earn a quarter for each bucket of horse manure we'd haul in from a nearby meadow (walking half a mile each way, and risking the ire of horses who delighted in galloping right up to us and scaring the living daylights out of us. Talk about poor pay!). But I'm getting off topic. The point is - this childhood compost bin was located in the Netherlands, legendary for its soggy climate. I'm convinced that you can get anything to turn into black gold over there. No such luck in Pennsylvania, where the composting materials are frozen for three months every year, and dried from heat for most of the remainder of the year. My first attempts at composting yielded a mess of moldy black sticks and strings - partially decomposed, but hardly usable for any gardening purpose. I christened the stuff notpost, but set out to find better methods.

Comminution is my friend

So if a stick in a compost pile is destined to become a black moldy stick, and a stalk a black moldy stringy substance, the solution is to just not put sticks and strings in. And that's where tools come into play. At first, I used some manual pruners to cut larger pieces to size. When it became clear I was well on my way to carpal tunnel syndrome, I turned my attention to power tools. My first purchase was a second-hand Mighty Mac gasoline-powered shredder (it made no claims for chipping). A fearsome monster of a machine (especially after the muffler fell off) using brute force rather than sophistication (or even sharp edges) to beat yard waste into submission. It wasn't ideal, but it was something. I never did like the gasoline engine, with all its problems starting up and its foul fumes, though. So when Mac finally failed altogether, I was determined that its replacement be of the electric variety. Minor problem: nobody around here sells electric chipper/shredders. Of course there's always the web, which revealed that I had two options: a really expensive high-powered unit, or a wimpier version that was easier on the pocketbook. I believe I mentioned before that I'm a Dutchman... So the cheaper one it was.

Chippy McCulloch, my yellow buddy

It was a Christmas present to myself (in fact, he arrived just in time to eat the spruce that had graced our living room through the holidays). Chippy is a McCulloch model 1400 garden shredder — but luckily, he shreds my garden only selectively. After I affixed some screws and bolts, he was ready to go. The picture at right shows him in all his glory, shiny yellow metal with black plastic parts, and some debris for extra authenticity. In this configuration, Chippy was adept at taking dry stalks and medium branches and turning them into a surprisingly small pile of wood and fiber chips underneath the chute.

Unfortunately, not all garden waste is dry and rigid. Getting leafier or fluffier materials in through the top-feed slot proved to be a hassle — worse: it would often clog up the barrel, requiring tedious intervention to get things going again. So I committed an unspeakable act of civil disobedience — I circumvented Chippy's wholesome, sensible safety features by removing the plastic parts protecting both its inlet and outlet zones. Warning - don't do this at home! The picture at left shows a stripped-down Chippy, ready for action.

The scoop on shredding

As is the case with any tool, it took a while to figure out how to get Chippy to perform at its peak. The first part is easy - flip the switch, and marvel over the steady electric hum (quite an improvement over Mac!). Model 1400 has two ports of entry - material can be fed into the main barrel from the top, where it will meet with a stubby grindifier before it passes through the knife blades and out of the machine, or via the side chute straight into the slicing blades.
The side port is meant for woody branches (and handles them quite nicely), but I found that it is also the best way to deal with just about any dry stalky material - even waste that in itself is too floppy to be pushed through will often pass when bunched together, or combined with small sticks. The advantage of using the side chute is the perfect control over the feeding rate - when I'm too ambitious, Chippy tells me by changing the pitch of his hum, and I can back off to let him pick up steam again.

Leaf material, fine grass blades, and other odds and ends don't fit through the chute and must be top-fed. Here you lose control - if a wad of fibrous material wraps itself around the grindifier in just the wrong way, Chippy will come to an unceremonious halt, hum unhappily for a bit, and then turn itself off altogether. At that point, the only recourse is usually to disconnect him at the waist, using three hand-knob bolts, clear out any material, put everything back together, and start back up. Takes a minute or more, so you don't want to do that too often.

Another possible source of trouble is the exit chute. Anytime the material being shredded is leafy or otherwise moist, it tends to build up in the bend where the stuff's direction turns from outward to downward. Not Chippy's best design feature, I'm afraid. The solution, once again, comes from experience: a sturdy short stick is ideal for dislodging the clumpy material, and can be used while the machine is running. Chippy helps by changing his pitch when the chute is clear. I found it was much easier to complete the unclogging operation with the plastic end removed.

With those precautions, I manage to run for quite a while between the almost inevitable stop-ups. Not surprisingly, everything is much easier when the blades are sharp. Over the course of the first year of use, the knife blades had slowly but noticeably dulled. Early this year, I turned them around (they are reversible, with two sharp edges), and was amazed at the difference it made, especially in processing larger branches. See the section on replacement parts below for sources of fresh blades.

Play it safe

I may have defeated some of the machine's safety features, but I prefer not to put myself in harm's way. The removal of the top-feeding arrangement results in a few shreds and chips being thrown out once in a while, so safety glasses are indispensible. A pair of good gloves makes all the handling (think rose briars and hawthorns!) much easier on the hands. And with three small children in the household, I never walk away from Chippy without disconnecting him from the extension cord that powers him.

Harvest time

At the end of a long session of shredding, there's the reward - a pile of compost-bin food. Depending on the raw material, it can be more like wood chips or clumpy mulched leaves - but it will certainly break down much faster than what I started with.

So that's how Chippy helps me works towards my goal of preventing any plant material originating in our garden from leaving the premises. After about fifty years of applying the resulting compost, the soil may attain that same dark crumbly consistency I remember from my father's garden. In gardening, you gotta keep the long view.

Replacement parts

As you can read in the comments from other Chippy owners below, it's not always easy to find replacement parts, especially blades. You can read the blow-by-blow account of which sources are current, but I'll also try to keep a list of links to possible sources right here. Let me know if you find additional sources, or if the ones listed here are no longer good. Note that Chippy comes loaded with two cutting blades, so you'll need to order two for a full refurbishment. Jim from Boston sent a nifty link to the the service parts document, a useful reference.

  • Mowerpartsweb.com. They list a replacement item for the cutting blade, but no longer carry it.
  • Lawnmowerpros.com. Likewise, they no longer carry it
  • Partstree.com. They carry the blades, with part number MC 6250 200001(P). Available as of 22 Nov 2009, at $18.45
  • MTD Lawn Mower Parts. They carry the blades, with part number MC 6250 200001(P). Available as of 22 Nov 2009, at $18.48
  • M&D Mower was a good source for quite a while, but I can no longer find the cutter blades on their site. They do still carry the V-cutter blade, $22.71 as of 22 Nov 2009
  • Ordertree.com has most recently offered a good price for the blades, about $4 each. Try visiting the McCullogh part of the site, and search for part number 6250-200001.

 


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Last modified: November 29, 2009
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