A top string trimmer is the secret to a perfectly manicured lawn.
String trimmers leave a crisp edge along the driveway, cut grass growing beyond your lawnmower's reach and tidy up growth along fence lines. Also called grass trimmers, weed whackers, lawn trimmers and weed eaters -- the last a brand name that has become a generic term, much like Kleenex for tissues and Xerox for copy machines -- the setup is the same: A power source rapidly turns a cutting head, using tough, nylon line to shear grass and weeds.
People generally mow first, then trim, so be sure to read our reports on lawn mowers or, if you have lots of property to look after, lawn tractors to round out your lawn-care needs.
Grass trimmers pack lots of power. Roy Berendsohn of Popular Mechanics notes that "the speed measured at the string's tip can run about 28,000 feet per minute," or strong enough to strip bark, mar a wood deck and fling debris up to 50 feet away. This makes safety equipment a must. Always wear safety goggles to protect your eyes and ear protection if the noise of the trimmer is above 85 decibels; keep the head of the tool angled away from your body. Long pants, sturdy shoes and a good pair of gloves are also recommended to protect against flying debris.
Consider your property when selecting a string trimmer. A smaller weed whacker is enough to manage trimming around flowerbeds and a walkway. Berendsohn recommends heavy-duty weed eaters for the "rural homeowner with a long driveway, orchards, fence rows and outbuildings to keep neat." Durable machines like this are typically heavier and more expensive.
Ergonomics are important, too. A balanced trimmer will hang at the right angle for easy maneuvering, whether you're trimming flat or turning it to edge. Most trimmers automatically advance the trim line, although some require you to tap the trim head on the ground to do so; reviewers say either type is acceptable as long as it works smoothly. Reloading new trim line into the spool should also be uncomplicated.
String trimmers come in three main varieties:
Cordless weed whackers give you the mobility of gas models (discussed below), but without needing to deal with gasoline and its downsides -- fumes, higher maintenance, and harder starting. However, they are best for smaller properties as they will only go as long as the battery will last before needing a recharge -- though keeping a charged spare battery on hand is a popular workaround for that.
Corded electric string trimmers are the lightest and least expensive type. They have the power to deal with even tall grass, but their range is limited as they must always be tethered to an AC outlet. Still, if your property is on the smaller side, they are a reasonable alternative to a cordless model.
Gas string trimmers are best for those with large properties, and for gardening and landscaping professionals. They are heavy, harder to handle than electric models, and require more maintenance. However, if you need to clear a fence line, or have lots of tall grass and weeds that need trimming, a gas string trimmer is the way to go.
Finding the best weed eaters
To find the best string trimmers, editors looked to experts at ConsumerReports.org, Popular Mechanics, ProToolReviews.com and elsewhere to see which weed whackers excelled in hands on testing. To see how well string trimmers performed in real-world conditions, and often over the long haul, we turned to user reviews. Sites such as HomeDepot.com, Lowes.com, Sears.com and Amazon.com were most helpful for that. Considering factors such as performance, safety, ease of use and more, the results of our research are our picks for the best string trimmers for anyone from a casual gardener to landscaping pro.