Tools of the Trade

by | Nov 1, 2022 | News | 0 comments

Tools of the Trade
By: Heidi Poca

As stream restoration technicians, we use a variety of tools and equipment to get the job done. From building habitat structures to sediment mats, to wing deflectors, here is a list of our top 10 tools of the trade.

10. Pry Bar

Starting off our countdown is the pry bar. The pry bar frequently tags along with us due to its potential for helping us in a quick pinch, however, we are usually able to manage most situations without taking it out of the truck, hence it’s low ranking. The pry bar is mostly used to remove large rocks and boulders that are firmly stuck into the stream bed. We remove rocks to deepen certain areas of streams. Some locations have large rocks that sit on top of the sediment and the true gravel river bottom, so the removal of the larger rocks allows the system to remove the finer-grained sediment easier, further deepening the channel and resulting in cooler water temperatures.


tools of the trade

Pry Bar: Courtesy


9. Shovels

Shovels are handy and versatile tools that often accompany us in the field. In addition to their obvious uses, such as digging holes for planting trees, we will also bring them in the streams with us. Shovels can be great tools to help deepen channels that have been filled in with deep sediment. We also use them to dig into banks when we are building sediment traps or wing deflectors and we want to anchor a large tree or branch into the ground. Shovels truly shine during spring and fall during tree planting and invasive species removal.


tools of the trade

Chris and Mike holding the roots of a stubborn invasive honeysuckle.


8. Hand saws

Next on the list is our hand saws. These helpful tools join us on almost every trip into the field. We use them to cut down invasive plants, cut cedar boughs for in-stream structures, as well as cutting pieces down to size to fit into our structures. The downfall of the handsaw is they require significant energy and time to cut larger pieces, and overuse can cause muscle pain and blisters. They would be placed higher on this list, but the tool in the #4 spot does the same job in a fraction of the time and is much easier on the body.


tools of the trade

Sara used a handsaw to cut the end off a structural log while building a structure.


7. Biodegradable Twine

Coming in at number 7 is biodegradable twine. Twine is primarily only used during the construction of sediment mats. We use biodegradable twine for ‘spider webbing’ – the last step in building sediment mats. To construct a spiderweb, twine is tied to a post and is then wrapped around an adjacent post multiple times before moving onto another post. By the end, all posts are connected to one another. The web like pattern will contain and hold down the internal materials of the sediment trap so they don’t get blown out in times of high flow. By the time a new bank is formed the twine will degrade and there will be little to no evidence that we were ever there in the first place.


tools of the trade

Example of spiderwebbing


6. Pickaxe

Perhaps not a tool that comes to mind when doing stream restoration, the pickaxe has saved us and our backs multiple times throughout the field season. The main task we use the pickaxe for is dragging large, heavy and waterlogged trees, logs, and root wads to specific sites. The pickaxe gives us a solid grip on pieces that usually have no grip points. Like the shovel, we also use the head of the pickaxe to dig channels into banks to bury ends of logs for stabilization.


tools of the trade

Pickaxe: Courtesy


5. Loppers

Coming in at number 5 is loppers. Loppers are incredibly helpful tools for a variety of our field work projects. They are most often used for trimming cedar branches and other woody material for various in stream structures. Loppers can cut a variety of branch sizes, and they are faster and easier to use than handsaws. They are also very useful when trimming off knobs on logs that otherwise prevent them from fitting into structures. Cedar branches are used in nearly all our structures due to its unique conifer leaves. As with most conifers, Eastern White Cedars do not drop their leaves come winter, and once cut they hold onto their leaves much longer than pine and spruce trees. This makes them great for sediment traps because they are able to capture and trap sediment long after the structure has been built. Small cedar branches work exceptionally well for filling gaps within structures, preventing water from entering. Cedar branches are also very ‘branchy’ meaning they make great material for habitat structures for fish. Loppers are also irreplaceable when removing invasive species. We also use them to cut back branches and the upper portion of small trees to expose the trunk for the weed wrench to then pull out. Additionally, when returning to sites at the start of summer after the spring floods, we are often welcomed by overgrown shrubs and woody debris that has been washed down and caught up in the overhanging branches. Loppers allow us to quickly and easily open up the stream’s path and cut back the overgrowth to prevent woody debris from getting caught in the future. Finally, live staking is a process we do in late fall where we take cuttings of various shrubs and trees that can grow and propagate from a single cutting. A clean angle cut is required for the best success rate. Handsaws would leave jagged edges and chainsaws are too big, while small pruners are not big enough or strong enough to get the job done.


tools of the trade

Loppers: Courtesy


4. Chainsaw

Nearly making its way into the top 3 is the chainsaw. This tool is the reason for handsaws being as low as they are at number 8. Most of the structures that Ontario SWAT builds are relatively large and require larger material that small handsaws are unable to cut through. Large logs are required for the skeletons and foundation of sediment traps and wing deflectors. The chainsaw makes harvesting and trimming these pieces down to size a breeze. In addition to harvesting material, the chainsaw also allows us to cut logs at specific angles which we can then use to fit pieces together for a more secure fit. The chainsaw is also irreplaceable when it comes to clearing woody debris from streams. There are certain locations that we work on that are heavily overgrown or have various downed trees across the stream. The chainsaw makes quick work of these large blockages allowing water to once again flow freely.


tools of the trade

SWAT member Chris using a chainsaw to cut logs for the construction of a wing deflector.


Honourable Mentions

Before revealing our top 3 tools, I’d like to take the time to bring attention to a few other tools of the trade that are also crucial during field season, however they may only be used in very specific situations, so they are only brought out for particular projects. So here are a few of our honourable mentions:

Extractigators/ weed wrench

The first of our honourable mentions goes out to the Extractigators, a type of weed wrench. These tools are incredibly useful when it comes to removing invasive plants, especially common buckthorn. This nifty tool uses leverage to pull stubborn plants right out of the ground. The extractigator only gets an honourable mention due to it having a single specific use and during in-stream season, it doesn’t get used much.


tools of the trade

Extractigators/ weed wrench: Courtesy


Rachet Straps

The next honourable mention goes to rachet straps. Rachet straps live permanently in the truck and accompany us everywhere. They are incredibly useful and have made it possible for us to safely transport all our gear during multi-day camping trips or when transporting Christmas trees or woody material to sites for use in sediment traps and other structures.


tools of the trade

Rachet Straps: Curtesy



The final honourable mention is the sled. The sled is a useful tool that has made stream work significantly easier. The sled allows us to transport all our tools at once instead of having to do multiple trips back and forth. In addition to being able to transport multiple tools all at once, it also allows us to float tools through the streams with us. This way they are all kept in one place and are not likely to be lost. This is incredibly helpful when banks are covered in stinging nettle, poison ivy and other noxious plants. Although the sled is useful, it is not a required tool to build structures, so it has earned its spot in our honourable mentions list.


tools of the trade

Sled: Courtesy


Top 3 Tools of The Trade

Now for the top 3 tools! These pieces of equipment are always the first things to be packed in the morning prior to heading into the field. Without these tools field work would be significantly more difficult or nearly impossible. So here they are, SWAT’s top 3 tools of the trade as stream restoration technicians!

3. Wooden Posts

Wooden Posts are quite versatile, and they are used in multiple projects. They are used to anchor down logs during the construction of sediment mats and wing deflectors. They are also used as support points when spider webbing. Nearly all our structures are secured in place with posts, so without them our structures would be gone in less than a year. Structures need to be in place long enough to give the system time to react to the structure. For example, the purpose of sediment mats is to collect sediment which will eventually be a new bank. Without anchoring mats down, all our hard work would be wasted and by the time spring comes the structures would be gone and nothing would have been accomplished. The other structure that needs to remain in place for an extended period are wing deflectors. These structures are designed to redirect flow and alter the channel. Redirecting a stream doesn’t happen overnight and the largest changes occur during spring flows when water is at its highest and scours the streambed the most.


tools of the trade

Mike using wooden posts to secure downstream end of a large sediment mat.


2. Mini Sledgehammers and Metal Mallets

Similar to wooden posts, mini sledgehammers are required whenever we are installing any structure, as posts cannot be installed without them. However, mini sledgehammers have additional uses giving them the higher ranking. There are few sites where wooden posts are not suitable, and rebar must be used instead. Mini sledgehammers are used install rigid rebar into banks. They are also used to install rebar for temperature loggers when there is no other appropriate spot for attachment. Metal mallets are also used when installing earth anchors. Earth anchors are installed by driving an insertion rod into the bank. The final way we use metal mallets is to drive branches into banks while building structures to further stabilize the structure and ensure they will be long lasting.


tools of the trade

Sara using a mini sledge hammer to drive nails into cedar branches while constructing fish habitat structures.


1. Waders

Waders are by far our most used piece of equipment during field season. Without them we wouldn’t be able to work in stream, or we would all just be soaked before even getting started. Putting on our waders is the very first thing we do when we arrive at a site. In addition to keeping us dry, they also act as a barrier to sharp sticks, conifer needles and stinging nettle.


tools of the trade

Ontario SWAT crew sporting their waders while building wing deflectors.


And there you have it, Ontario SWAT’s Top 10 Tools of the Trade! There are various other tools that we use that did not make it onto this list, however this list is an accurate representation of what we bring into the field regularly. It also reflects just how versatile we are throughout the year, from habitat structures, sediment traps, tree plantings, live stakings and more! Southern Ontario is a large area to cover, and each site has their own restoration requirements. Without these tools we would be unable to successfully conserve and restore our cold-water habitats, but thankfully with the right tools and a great team we are able to leave sites better off than when we found them.

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