How to Cut Down a Tree

Cutting down a treeBringing down a tree is dangerous work. If you’re not physically fit, don’t attempt it. If you don’t understand the proper techniques, or have never done it before, don’t try it. At a minimum, do your research and ask someone with experience to help you. One mistake can mean serious injury or death, to you or someone else. There’s no second chances with a tree that will crush you or a chainsaw that will shred you. Even experienced loggers make mistakes. Education and practice can minimize the chances of an accident, so keep reading and practice good techniques. This article is a brief overview of a how to cut down a tree; the basic steps before you cut down a tree, the cuts required for notching, and how to deal with the tree once it’s on the ground.

Tree Selection

Look for trees that are straight and have a diameter of at least 24″. Spiraling of the bark indicates spiraling of the wood grain insides. Stay away from these trees. The lumber from these trees will twist horribly when drying. Look for dead branches or pockets of rotten wood.

Avoid dead trees, trees with major damage, or trees with rotten limbs. Dead trees can be extremely dangerous. Limbs from above can suddenly snap off, falling and killing you. A good friend of mine was cutting some dead Ash trees (not fresh dead, but falling apart dead) and was by himself (big no-no, I use the buddy system), and had no head protection (again, not smart), when a huge limb of the tree snapped above him. He didn’t see it, but it knocked him out cold. He came to with a nasty gash and broken glasses. He was lucky he didn’t end up in the hospital or worse dead. If a tree looks “iffy”, don’t harvest it. Trees with loose or broken limbs just dangling up in the canopy… those are called “widow makers” for a reason.

Examine the base of the tree. If the base is hollow or one side has rotten wood, all bets are off. The hinge that we so carefully cut to control the fall can be comprimised by rotten wood. Unless you know what you’re doing, stay away from trees that have any rot whatsoever. You can test for rot by knocking the tree with your axe and listening for a hollow thud, or cutting into the tree just a bit and feeling for softness and looking for rot.

Hang ups are trees that have fallen and are being held up by another tree. These are really dangerous to deal with because you can’t cut the either tree down without risk. The best way to deal with hang ups is to use heavy equipment to free the hang up. You can also use cables and a winch to pull the hang up off of the tree. Another way to deal with a hang up is to fell another tree into the two trees and hope the falling tree will crash into the hung up tree and free it. This is probably the safest way to free a hang up but also requires the most skill.

Falling Direction

Once you’ve selected the tree you need  to read the tree and try to figure out which way IT wants to fall AND which way YOU want it to fall. To determine where IT wants to fall stand back from the tree, walk around the tree, and stand beneath the tree: try to determine what direction the bulk of the limbs lean. While standing at the base of the tree, look straight up. Imagine a plumb line or hold a plumb-bob or axe handle up to visualize a plum line, extending from the base into the sky. You can make a plumb bob with a rock and a string. Sling it over a branch and settle the rock. The string will show you true vertical (a vector perpendicular to the ground plane). The lean of the tree will be apparent. Large branches high up in the tree produce more torque than lower branches. Heavy, thick branches, high up in the tree on one side will pull the tree in that direction.

There are a few things to consider when deciding where to land the tree. Besides the obvious, not hitting a house or anything important, there are other considerations. You’ll want to pick a direction that allows the tree to fall without any of it’s limbs getting hung up on other trees. This not only is dangerous but it wastes a lot of time clearing hang-ups. Make sure that any logs already on the ground won’t get crushed by the falling tree and whip around an hit you. Consider the direction you’ll be towing the logs out of the woods. Walk the path you intend to fall the tree and look for rocks, rough terrain, or stumps that could snap the timber when it falls.

If you’re restricted which direction the tree can fall (i.e. next to a house) you’ll want to hire professionals or use professional equipment.

Escape Route

Plan your escape route. You’ll need an escape route to safely move away from the tree once it starts to fall. You should be back and to the right or left, 45 degrees from the line of fall. Cut away any brush or vines that may trip you up. You’ll want to be a good 20 ft. away from the tree when it hits the ground. Plan your escape route accordingly!

Put on your safety equipment. For chainsaws make sure you wear gloves, eye protection, ear protection, head protection, and steel toed boots. For axes you just need head protection and steel toed boots. Wear cutting chaps and/or other kevlar protective clothing if you don’t want to get maimed by your saw. Make sure you understand your chainsaw, how to operate it, what safety features it has, how to work them, etc. Also make sure you chainsaw is sharp and in proper working order.

Make sure anyone around you is aware you’re about to start cutting. Tie up your dog if you got one. Always assume the tree will fall in EVERY possible direction and take measure to make sure nothing can be harmed no matter which way the tree falls.

Felling Using an Ax

If you’re doing this by hand, you’ll need a sharp ax, a little technique, and a lot of stamina. Make sure you have the right kind of axe. You can use a single or double bit axe to chop the tree down. Don’t try to use a splitting maul to chop a tree down, it’ll work but you’ll hate yourself for it, especially after you’ve used a proper felling axe. A maul is made for splitting wood, a felling axe is made for popping out wedges of wood.

Make sure the axe is sharp. Read my article on how to sharpen an axe if you want more informaiton. Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first 4 sharpening the axe.”

Stand alongside the tree. You want to stand so that when the axe strikes the tree, and your arms are fully extended. The plan is to chop a wedge out of both sides of the tree, with a strip of holding wood in the middle called the hinge. A hinge swings forward or backward so we have to make sure we cut the hinge so the natural lean of the tree causes the tree to fall forward in the direction we want. Unlike a chainsaw, we can’t cut a kerf in the tree to insert wedges. With an axe we have to cut big wedge shape out of the tree. There isn’t room for wedges so you have less control to fall the tree against it’s natural lean. With an axe, work with the lean of the tree.

The first swings of the axe make the face cut. The face cut is on the side of the tree with the lean. The bottom of the face cut should be roughly flat or slightly below level. The top of the face cut should be about 45 degrees above level. Start by chopping out a small notch and make it bigger and bigger until the face cut is 50% of the tree’s diameter. The top and bottom planes of the face notch should be straight and parallel to the ground.

Felling Using a Chainsaw

Using a chainsaw a lot faster and easier than using an axe. The chance for injury are greater, so protective clothing is required.

Cutting down a tree with a chainsaw involves only 3 cuts. The “Face” (wedge you cut out of the tree on the side “facing” the intended falling direction) requires 2 cuts to remove a wedge, and the backcut from the opposite side of the tree.

Conventional facing of tree.

Conventional facing of tree.

Humboldt facing of tree.

Humboldt facing of tree.

Face Cuts

Facing the tree involves 2 cuts. The first cut you make is the horizontal, level cut. Use the gunsights on the chainsaw if it has one, or sight along the handlebars. Aim the chainsaw in the direction you want the tree to fall. Make sure the saw is level. This is important. If it’s not level the hinge won’t work properly. Cut into the tree at least 1/3 of the diameter of the tree. The second cut is an angled cut, either from the top (Conventional Notch) or bottom (Humboldt Notch) of the tree. The angle at which you cut the angled cut determines how far the tree will fall before the notch closes and snaps the tree from the stump. The goal is to get the tree as close to the ground before the hinge snaps. If your angle isn’t steep enough, the notch will close too quickly, allowing the tree to break from the stump while still far from the ground. This is not only dangerous, it causes the tree to land off target and can damage the timber. Also, the angle cut must meet the end of the horizontal cut. You don’t want to over or under cut. If they don’t meet up, re-cut or shave the notch so that they meet up nicely.

Backcut

The backcut is the 3rd and final cut. Contrary to popular belief, the backcut should be perfectly level. Most stumps that I see when I’m in the woods have an angled backcut. This is wrong. Your backcut should be level with the ground, at least 2″ above the horizontal face cut. The 2″ height difference creates a little cliff called the “Stump Shot” that prevents the tree from kicking back as it falls. It’s a safety feature that works only if your backcut is cut properly. Larger trees may require more than a 2″ stump shot, smaller ones less. As soon as the bar of the chainsaw disappears into the tree, pound a wedge in behind your chainsaw bar. As you cut keep pounding the wedge in to prevent the bar from getting pinched. The uncut wood between the backcut and the face form the hinge. As you’re cutting the backcut the hinge is getting smaller and smaller. The wood that remains is called the “holding wood”. Don’t cut all the holding wood! You want to leave enough wood to form a hinge, that will hold as the tree falls, breaking off once the face closes. You want the hinge to swing the tree into the face notch. With a narrow strip of holding wood and wedging the tree should start to fall. As soon as the tree starts to move, immediately escape the area. Pull your saw out and execute your escape route. If your saw gets stuck, leave it. Don’t hesitate.

Limbing and Bucking and Moving Logs

Remove the branches along the trunk. Cut the branches off flush with the log, otherwise they’re hard to role and could hold up the sawmill operator.

If you have a tractor or other heavy equipment to move logs then you’ll want to leave the logs whole, or as big as can be reasonably hauled at once. Later when they’re at the milling site they can be cut up into sections.

Mark the logs with crayons or spraypaint. If you’re building a timber frame, save your straightest, best quality logs for beams. Cut the sections 1′ longer than you actually need. This will allow you a little wiggle room to shift your layout and square the ends.  Everything else can be cut into boards.

If your posts are 12′, you’ll want to cut logs about 13′-14′ to leave done room when the logs get squared off.

Making square timbers out of your logs. You can DIY this by hand the way the old timers did it, or you can use a portal sawmill and make short work of it.

Stacking and Preparing Timbers for Milling

I’ll cover how to prepare logs to be milled in a separate article coming soon. Stay tuned!

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