How to Use a Sod Cutter

A man uses a sod cutter

Whether you’re replacing your sod with an eco-friendly alternative or giving your tired, patchy lawn a makeover, you must let go of your old lawn first. When it’s time to cut old gross out of your life, you need to use a sod cutter (the right way). 

Before you start doing the dirty (or grassy) work to make your lawn grass-free quickly, learn more about how to use a sod cutter and the different types so you can choose which one makes the cut for you.

How to use a sod cutter

Man lays a new grass roll

To transform your overgrown, patchy lawn into a lush, smooth canvas for your outdoor oasis, you need the right landscaping tool: the sod cutter. It’s a manual or motorized device that slices horizontally through the soil to cut grass at the roots to create strips of turfgrass that you can:

  • Roll up and transport
  • Compost
  • Relocate

Tools and materials needed

  • Sod cutter
  • Safety gear
  • Measuring tape or wheel
  • Marking spray paint or flags
  • Hose or watering can
  • Wheelbarrow or garden cart
  • Shovel
  • Rake
  • Edger
  • Utility knife or sod knife
  • Roller (for large sod installations, if needed)

Pro tip: Wear protective clothing, safety glasses, and gloves before operating any type of cutter.

Prepare your lawn

Step 1: Remove rocks, twigs, and debris from your lawn.

Step 2: Mow your grass on the lowest setting a few days before removing sod.

Step 3: Water your lawn one to three days before removing the sod. You want your lawn to be moist so it’s easy to cut, but it shouldn’t be drenched.

Step 4: If you aren’t removing sod from your entire lawn, measure and mark the area you want to remove. Use chalk spray or another lawn-friendly, water-based paint. Remember to mark your sprinkler heads, too.

Step 5: Test out a small section of sod (about 3 feet long) before cutting up the entire lawn. The depth should generally be 1.5 to 3 inches deep, and the cutter blade must be level with the ground.

4 types of sod cutters

Different types of cutters have different mechanisms. So, you must know how to use the specific type of cutter suitable for your lawn:

Man uses a self propelled walk behind sod cutter
Comcast Washington State | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

1. Self-propelled walk-behind cutter

Also known as motorized sod cutters, self-propelled walk-behind cutters are a top choice for homeowners. They operate like powerful lawnmowers. But if your home is on a hill or sloped terrain, opt for a four-wheel drive model to ensure a straight cut.

While motorized cutters demand less physical effort than square-edge or kick-plow cutters, they can still be tricky to handle and may vibrate during operation. If you’re uncertain about operating heavy-duty lawn equipment, consider hiring a professional to do the work instead.

Steps for using a self-propelled walk-behind cutter:

  • Ensure the wheel drive lever is in the off position and raise the cutting blade. Walk the cutter to the area where you want to start removing sod.
  • Use the height adjustment knob to set the blade to your desired depth.
  • Lower the blade and start the engine. Let the cutter run for at least a minute before you begin moving the machine across your lawn.
  • Put the grass cutter in gear and push the throttle so that the blade cuts into the ground.
  • After each pass, lift the blade handle to bring the blade out of the sod. Keep squeezing the throttle as you pivot the cutter.

Recommended for: Homeowners with an average-sized lawn (approximately 5,000 to 20,000 square feet).

Cost: A self-propelled walk-behind cutter costs $65 to $80 to rent for four hours and $90 to $110 for an entire day. If you have the budget, buying a new one will run at least $3,000.

2. Square-edge cutter

A square-edge sod cutter, also called a landscaper spade, is like a shovel with four square edges. It’s the best budget-friendly option, but be prepared to put in some effort. Because of the backbreaking work involved, this cutter is ideal for minor sod removal projects, like removing sod around your mailbox or driveway.

Steps for using a square-edge cutter:

  • Use your boot to wedge the cutter into the soil at an angle–about 3 inches deep.
  • Cut into the soil and move horizontally with the cutter.
  • Remove small portions of sod (about 3 feet long) at a time. Lift them away with your cutter.
  • Level the soil.

Recommended for: Homeowners who only need to remove grass in a small area (under 500 square feet).

Cost: Expect to spend between $45 and $80 for a square-edge cutter. 

3. Manual kick-plow cutter

The manual kick-plow cutter, or kick sod cutter, might call for a leg workout, but it’s budget-friendly and gas-free. It has two handlebars, a metal crossbar at knee level, and a rectangular frame with a sod roller and a slicing blade underneath it. You hold the handles and kick the crossbar to move the frame forward, cutting into the sod.

Steps for using a manual kick-plow cutter:

  • Position your kick-plow cutter at the outer edge of the removal area. 
  • Kick down on the metal crossbar.
  • Kick the manual sod cutter forward in a straight line. 
  • Continue kicking until you get to the end of the pass. 
  • At the end of each pass, roll up the sod to avoid re-cutting it.

Recommended for: People with a small yard who want to save money–and are not afraid of backbreaking work.

Cost: Using a manual kick-plow cutter will cost around $25 to rent for a day or $340 to $400 to buy. However, manual cutters are harder to find in stores as homeowners opt to rent self-propelled cutters instead.

4. Tractor-mounted cutter

The tractor-mounted cutter is generally used by farmers to cut up large sections of land, and it can be very expensive for the average homeowner to rent both a tractor and a mount. It’s the way to go if you have a large area to work on and are willing to pay for convenience. Otherwise, any of the first three options will do.

Steps for using a tractor-mounted cutter:

  • Slide the mount onto your tractor’s hitch arms (they should be level to the ground) and latch it on.
  • Set your tractor’s weight transfer to zero.
  • Set the cutting depth of your cutter to 1.5 to 3 inches.
  • Use your tractor’s lever system to place slight downward pressure on the hitch arms so the blade is firmly on the ground.
  • Drive the tractor forward so that the sod cutter blade settles beneath the turf.
  • Drive your tractor over your lawn. Once you’ve finished one pass, lift the hitch arms. The grass cutter will lift out of the ground naturally.
  • Turn at each corner as if you were mowing your grass.

Recommended for: Property owners with a very large lawn or farm.

Cost: For a tractor-mounted cutter, it costs between $80 and $100 to rent for a day, and renting a tractor for a day costs about $260 to $360, so you can expect to spend a total of $340 to $460.

Why use a sod cutter

Roll of Grass (sod)
slgckgc | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

This home improvement tool gives you options for what to do with your grass that you can’t get with other grass removal methods (like tilling or applying herbicide). When you want to quickly remove grass without resorting to harmful chemicals, using a grass cutter is the way to go.

When removing a lot of grass, this type of cutter is super handy. Cutting grass won’t give your soil the nutrient benefits of sheet mulching, but it will remove grass without a waiting period, and you won’t have to worry about harsh herbicides or soil compaction.

Sod cutting is a great choice if you:

  • Need to get rid of grass to install new hardscaping
  • Want to install new sod or plant fresh grass seed
  • Want to transition to a drought-friendly xeriscape
  • Need to change the type of grass in your yard
  • Want to convert part of your grass lawn to a flower bed, rock garden, or rain garden
  • Have a grass type with a relatively shallow root system, like Kentucky bluegrass or bentgrass

Pros and cons of cutting sod

Depending on your landscaping needs, you may opt to apply herbicide, rototill, solarize, or sheet mulch to remove your grass lawn. But sod cutting is tough to beat for quick, efficient, chemical-free grass removal.

Pros of sod cutting

  • Delivers a precise, even cut
  • Can be used for sheet mulching
  • Sod can be reused and replanted
  • Straightforward, one-step process
  • Decomposing sod returns nutrients to the soil
  • No herbicide is needed–except for persistent weeds
  • Inexpensive if using a square-edge cutter or manual kick-plow
  • The quickest method to remove grass–it only takes a day

Cons of sod cutting

  • Can be highly labor-intensive
  • Motorized sod cutters require gas
  • It takes time for the sod to decompose
  • Aftercare may take longer than expected
  • Can damage shrub and tree root systems
  • Not effective for deep-rooted grass or weeds
  • Bare soil requires compost or planting mix before grass can grow
Square-edged Manual Sod Cutter in Ground
Kyle Adams | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

FAQ about using a sod cutter

What should I do with the sod once I’ve cut it?

Since you’re removing nutrient-rich topsoil, the ground needs a healthy boost before new plants can grow. You can use the cut grass as compost by laying it grass-side-down in an area of your lawn that needs a nutrient boost.

Cover it with 6 to 10 sheets of newspaper, 4 to 6 inches of compost, and 3 to 4 inches of mulch. Sheet mulching will give your yard or garden healthy, nutrient-rich soil without the price tag.

Alternatively, you can skip the sheet mulching and simply till the soil once your sod has decomposed. Tilling mixes the composted sod into the ground for rich, uniform soil. So, don’t waste your free, organic soil enricher by tossing sod to the curb. You also can roll strips of sod into circular bales.

What are some other ways to remove my grass?

If you don’t know how to lay sod or sod cutting isn’t for you, check out these alternative options to remove your grass:

  • Solarization
  • Black plastic sheeting
  • Herbicide applications
  • Tilling
  • Sheet mulching

How can I handle rocks, roots, and other underground obstacles?

You don’t want a boulder to destroy your grass cutter. Clear the area of all aboveground debris before you start removing sod. If you hit a large root or rock underneath the soil surface during the process, stop and dig up the debris so your cutter doesn’t get damaged.

Grass cutters are generally safer than tillers when it comes to rocky soil. Because these cutters only skim off the top inch or so of soil, they don’t hit as many obstacles as tillers, which dig deeper into the ground.

How do you cut sod on slopes?

To achieve an even, straight cut on slopes, it’s best to use a powerful, self-propelled cutter like Ryan 18” Jr. and Classen SC-18. Set it to your desired soil depth and drive it up and down the hill.

Make the final cut

If your grass isn’t cutting it anymore, a sod cutter can snip it out of your life. Depending on the method, sod cutting can be a labor-intensive DIY project, but the result is an even, grass-free space that’s ideal for a creative landscaping alternative such as a rock garden, patio, or wildflower meadow.

If you’d rather not sweat it out with giant lawn scissors, call a local lawn care pro who knows how to use a sod cutter. They can make the cut while you sit back, relax, and envision your new lawn.

Main Photo Credit: Donald | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Melanie Joseph

After discovering her passion for writing through her beauty blog, Melanie left her engineering job in California, became a writer, and never once looked back. When she isn't writing, she loves dipping in the pool, tending to the garden, or doing simple home improvement projects.