How Do You Use a Sod Cutter?

A man uses a sod cutter

Is it time to cut old grass out of your life? Whether you’re replacing your sod with an eco-friendly alternative or giving your tired, patchy lawn a makeover, a sod cutter will do the dirty (or grassy) work to get your lawn grass-free quickly.

We’ll guide you through how to use sod cutters and give you an overview of each type so you can choose which sod cutter makes the cut for you.

In this article, we’ll cover

What is a sod cutter?

A sod cutter is a manual or motorized device that slices horizontally through soil to cut grass at the roots to create strips of grass you can: 

  • Roll up and transport
  • Compost in place or in a compost pile
  • Replant in another location

A sod cutter 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, cutting sod is the way to go. 

When to use a sod cutter

A sod cutter comes in handy when you need to remove a lot of your lawn fast. Cutting sod won’t give your soil the nutrient benefits of sheet mulching (smothering grass by layering paper, cardboard, and other organic materials over it), 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 (like a fountain, patio, or walkway)
  • Want to transition to a drought-friendly xeriscape
  • Have a grass type with a relatively shallow root system, like Kentucky bluegrass or bentgrass
Man lays a new grass roll
Anna Shvets / Pexels

7 steps to use a sod cutter

Step 1

Remove rocks, twigs, and debris from your lawn. 

Step 2

Mow your grass on the lowest lawn mower setting a few days before cutting sod.

Step 3

Water your lawn one to three days before removing 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 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 you begin cutting up your entire lawn. Check that the depth is correct (generally 1.5 to 3 inches deep) and that the sod cutter blade is level with the ground. 

Step 6

Overlap your sod cutter with each removed strip, so you don’t accidentally leave small strips of living grass.

Step 7

Once you’ve finished a pass, cut sod into 3- to 5-foot sections (using a sod knife) for easy transport and composting. Alternatively, you can roll strips of sod into circular bales after each pass. 

Don’t throw away your sod. Lay it grass-side-down over your grass-free area and let it decompose. It’ll act as natural compost and add nutrients to your soil. 

If you can’t wait for your sod to decompose, spread another type of compost or planting mix over the bare soil. Because you’re removing nutrient-rich topsoil, the ground needs a healthy boost before new plants can grow.

Design of a sod cutter

Different types of sod cutters have different mechanisms, but a sod cutter at its most basic consists of: 

  • A horizontal blade to cut evenly through the soil underneath the grass, like skimming the cream off fresh milk. Depending on the type of sod cutter, the blade depth may be adjustable.
  • Wheels or a metal crossbar (or simply a sturdy handle) to move or kick the sod cutter forward.
  • Side blades to cut vertical strips of sod.
  • A roller to smooth down the grass and remove air pockets.

The 4 types of sod cutters

There are four types of sod cutters:

1. Self-propelled walk-behind

2. Square-edge cutter

3. Manual kick-plow

4. Tractor mount

Which one is best for your lawn? Let’s cut to the chase.

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

Self-propelled walk-behind sod cutter

Best if: You have an average-sized lawn (approximately 5,000-20,000 square feet) and don’t want to kick and sweat your way to a grass-free lawn.

Self-propelled walk-behind sod cutters (AKA motorized sod cutters) are the most popular sod cutters for homeowners, and they operate similarly to a big, powerful lawn mower. You’ll want a four-wheel drive variety to ensure a straight cut on hills and slopes. 

Though motorized sod cutters require less elbow grease than a square-edge cutter or a kick-plow cutter (more on those below), they aren’t a walk in the park: They can be difficult to maneuver and shake as they move. If you’re not sure about handling heavy-duty lawn equipment, you can hire a lawn care pro to operate the bulky machines for you.

How to use a self-propelled walk-behind cutter

1. Make sure 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.

2. Use the height adjustment knob to set the blade to your desired depth.

3. 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.

4. Put the sod cutter in gear and push the throttle so that the blade cuts into the ground. You’re ready to cut sod! 

5. After each pass, lift the blade handle to bring the blade out of the sod. Keep squeezing the throttle as you pivot the sod cutter. 

Pro Tip: Put on protective clothing, safety glasses, and gloves before operating a walk-behind sod cutter. 

Square-edged Manual Sod Cutter in Ground
Kyle Adams / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Square-edge sod cutter

Best if: You have strong arm muscles and only need to remove grass in a small area (under 500 square feet).

A square-edge cutter, also called a landscaper spade, looks similar to a shovel, except it has (you guessed it!) four square edges. It’s the cheapest of the sod-cutting options, but you’ll certainly pay in sweat. This is the best option if you just need to remove sod around your mailbox or alongside your driveway.

How to use a square-edge sod cutter

1. Use your boot to wedge the cutter into the soil at an angle, about 3 inches deep. 

2. Cut into the soil and move horizontally (or as horizontally as possible) with the cutter. Listen to hear the slicing sound of grass roots (that means it’s working!).

3. Remove small portions of sod (about 3 feet long) at a time. Lift them away with your cutter. 

4. Level out the soil.

Manual kick-plow sod cutter

Best if: You have a small yard and want to save money – and you’re not afraid to break a sweat. 

Ready to give your legs a workout? Operating a manual kick-plow sod cutter (AKA kick sod cutter) is no easy task, but it will save you money and you won’t have to use gas. 

A manual sod cutter is a throwback to early farming days, and it looks like it comes straight out of Little House on the Prairie. It’s composed of two handlebars, a metal crossbar at knee height, and a rectangular frame with a sod roller and a long blade underneath it (for slicing your sod). You hold the handles and kick the crossbar to move the frame forward, cutting into the sod.

How to use a manual kick-plow

1. Position your kick-plow sod cutter at the outer edge of the area where you want to remove grass. 

2. Kick down on the metal crossbar.

3. Kick the sod cutter forward in a straight line. 

4. Continue kicking until you get to the end of the pass. 

5. At the end of each pass, roll up the sod so you don’t accidentally re-cut it. You don’t want to make extra work for yourself!

Tractor mounted sod cutter

Best if: You have a very large lawn or farm and don’t want to break a sweat.

The tractor mount 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. If you have an expansive yard and are willing to pay for convenience, a tractor mount is the way to go. Otherwise, any of the first three options will do. 

How to use the tractor mount

1. Slide the mount onto your tractor’s hitch arms (they should be level to the ground) and latch it on. 

2. Set your tractor’s weight transfer to zero. 

3. Set the cutting depth of your sod cutter to 1.5 to 3 inches. 

4. Use your tractor’s lever system to place slight downward pressure on the hitch arms so that the blade is firmly on the ground.

5. Drive the tractor forward so that the blade settles beneath the turf. 

6. Drive your tractor over your lawn. Once you’ve finished one pass, lift the hitch arms. The sod cutter will lift out of the ground naturally.

7. Turn at each corner as if you were mowing your grass. 

8. Viola! You’ve removed your grass without breaking a sweat. 

Pros and cons of cutting sod

Cutting sod isn’t the only way to remove your grass lawn: You may opt to apply herbicide, rototill, solarize, or sheet mulch instead based on your landscaping needs and timeframe. But for quick, efficient, chemical-free grass removal, sod-cutting is tough to beat.

Pros of cutting sod

✓ The quickest method to remove grass: Removing sod only takes a day, as opposed to other methods (such as solarization) that can take a month or more. 

✓ Delivers a precise, even cut.

✓ A straightforward, one-step process.

✓ No herbicide required, except for persistent weeds.

✓ Decomposing sod returns nutrients to the soil and can be used in the sheet mulching process. 

✓ Inexpensive if using a square-edge cutter or manual kick-plow.

✓ You can reuse sod by planting it in another location or filling in holes in your yard.

Cons of cutting sod

✗ Not effective for deep-rooted grass like bermuda or weeds like nutsedge, dallisgrass, or bindweed (which require herbicide and several months of monitoring).

✗ Can damage shrub and tree root systems.

✗ Can be highly labor-intensive.

✗ It takes time for sod to decompose: If you’re using sod to sheet mulch the area, you’ll have to wait about six months for it to fully break down.

✗ Aftercare may take longer than expected. If you live in a warmer climate, it can take up to six months to make sure that weeds won’t return. In the meantime, you’ll have to weed out persistent growers (or use herbicide).

✗ Bare soil requires an application of compost or planting mix before grass can grow.

✗ Motorized sod cutters require gas, which is an added financial and environmental expense.

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

FAQ about using a sod cutter

1. What should I do with sod once I’ve cut it out of my yard?

If you have a bare spot on your lawn, now is your chance to fill it in. Simply transplant your sod for fresh green grass without the hassle of seeding.

You can also use your sod as compost by laying it grass-side-down in an area of your lawn that needs a nutrient boost. Cover it with a layer of newspaper (6-10 sheets), 4-6 inches of compost, and 3-4 inches of mulch. Sheet mulching with your sod 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. The bottom line? You don’t want to waste your own free, organic soil enricher by tossing sod to the curb.

2. How much does a sod cutter cost? 

— A self-propelled walk-behind sod cutter costs $65 to $80 to rent for four hours and $90 to $110 for the day. If you really want to invest, buying a new one will run at least $3,000. 

— A square-edge sod cutter costs $45 to $80. 

— A manual kick-plow sod cutter costs about $25 to rent for a day, or $340 to $400 to buy. Manual sod cutters are fading in popularity (and harder to find in stores) as homeowners opt to rent self-propelled sod cutters instead. 

— A tractor mount costs $80 to $100 to rent for a day, and renting a tractor for a day costs about $260 to $360, so you’ll spend a total of $340 to $460.

3. How heavy is a manual sod cutter?

Using a manual sod cutter can be strenuous, but the device itself isn’t too heavy. Manual sod cutters range from 25 to 30 pounds.

4. How else can I remove my grass?

If sod cutting isn’t turning your head, check out these alternative options to remove your grass: 

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

5. How do you handle rocks, roots and other underground obstacles?

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

In general, sod cutters are safer than tillers when it comes to rocky soil. Because sod 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. 

6. How do you cut sod on slopes?

For an even, straight cut on slopes, it’s best to use a powerful, self-propelled sod cutter. Set it to your desired soil depth and drive it up and down the hill. 

Popular self-propelled walk-behind models include: 

BlueBird SC550
Classen SC-18
Husqvarna SC18
Ryan 18” Jr.
Weibang 18″ G200F

Making 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, professional grass removal prices typically start at under $1 per square. Call a local lawn care pro to make the cut while you sit back, relax, and envision your new landscape. 

Main Photo Credit: Donald / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Rachel Abrams

Born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, Rachel Abrams studied creative writing at the University of Virginia. She enjoys volunteering at her neighborhood community garden and growing herbs in her New York City apartment.