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He Built His Own Giant Tree Spades
When he couldn’t find a commercial tree spade big enough, David Onderdonk decided to build his own. He also built an oversize tree wrapper to handle the big trees he moves.
“I started with a commercially built, 60-in. tree spade in 1990, and then I went to a 90-in. spade,” recalls Onderdonk. “When I became one of only three certified master arborists in the country in 1995, it opened the door to wealthy clients who wanted me to move bigger trees. I wanted a bigger spade.”
Onderdonk learned a lot about hydraulics working on helicopters in Vietnam. He does all the fabricating of his tree spades except for bending metal. He leaves that to a metalworking shop.
The first spade he built was 100 in., but he quickly outgrew it. At the time, there were a couple of larger tree spades out there but they couldn’t be taken on the road. Onderdonk wanted one that was street legal in width, weight and height.
Onderdonk built a 142-in. tree spade mounted on a custom-built trailer. The tires on the trailer were out to the full 142 in., which was 2 in. under the legal width. The design also kept the tree spade under height restrictions.
The trailer was 55-ft. to the kingpin but getting it into position was a challenge. He needed to be able to steer it, so he bought a 25,000-lb. steering axle. Back in his shop, he stretched it out to match the other axles.
“I could move 70-ft. trees, tipping them over 90 degrees so they laid flat,” says Onderdonk. “But it was cumbersome. Also, counterbalancing the weight of the root ball was a challenge. I had to put a water bladder over the kingpin, but even 900 gals. wouldn’t hold it down.”
He advertised the trailer and spade for sale, and an international broker found a buyer in St. Petersburg, Russia. Onderdonk determined to make his next tree spade easier to use.
“I found a 6 by 6, all-wheel-drive, 100-ft. bucket truck with a Cummins 475 that already had outriggers on it,” says Onderdonk. “I repurposed the bucket lift cylinders for the tree spade.”
The frame was 54 in. off the ground versus the normal 43 in. To mount a tree spade and be able to lay the tree down horizontal, he cut the back end off. He then redesigned the frame for an extended and lower back end.
Initially, he built a 100-in. spade. He wanted a larger one, but street legal on a truck-mounted unit was only 102 in. He designed a 130-in. spade that would be hauled to the job site separately and then mounted.
“I was hired to move trees away from the Arthur Ashe Stadium when it was being rebuilt,” says Onderdonk. “We moved seventy-five 45 to 50-ft. trees, 30 of them set aside in a parking lot. When the construction was done, they had me come back and move the 30 back.”
The truck mount gave him the control he needed, and the size let him successfully transplant the trees. The truck was cab-forward, which gave him an extra foot of space for the tree end to lay without exceeding the street height limit of 13 1/2 ft. Sometimes that wasn’t enough.
“When you move a deciduous tree with a large crown, it can’t be squashed down to only 4 to 5-ft. over the cab,” notes Onderdonk.
His solution was to build a tree wrapper. It mounts to a separate truck. It has a 90-in. inside dia. with a 100-in. outside dia. When the arms are partially closed around tree branches, a roller chain is connected and tightened like a come-along, pulling the arms and branches together. The arms are mounted to a mast similar to a very large forklift, allowing it to travel up the tree.
“It can go up to 32 ft. in the air,” says Onderdonk. “The 90-in. diameter is optimal as after a tree is wrapped. It’ll expand a little, but still be street legal.”
At 72, Onderdonk is starting to downsize his business. He has sold his big spade and truck, as well as the wrapper. However, he is not yet ready to get out of the business.
“I have designed a new and better, not bigger, tree spade,” says Onderdonk.
Work on the spade, which he first mocked up in balsa wood, was delayed until he had a truck to mount it to. After looking at different options, he bought a Spartan fire truck with a 105-ft. rear mount ladder. It has a frame height of only 37 in. and a 48,000-lb. rear end.
He has since stripped the truck of the ladder, turntable and other extras. He is now working with a steel company to engineer and cut the metal needed.
“I’m changing the angles for the lift and radiuses so it will dig a shallower root ball,” says Onderdonk. “There is no point to digging deep. Every extra yard of dirt is an extra 3,000 lbs.”
He explains that while some manufacturers make 5 or 6, even 8 blades. His will have 4 large ones.
“Each spade adds resistance,” he says. “The bigger the spade, the easier it is to push it in.”
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Onderdonk’s Tree Care, 1470 Schodack Landing Rd., Schodack Landing, N.Y. 12156 (ph 518-732-4233; davidgonderdonk@gmail.com).

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2022 - Volume #46, Issue #2