Even homeowners with small pieces of land will occasionally need to cut down a tree or two, but for those who own large properties or those with particularly thick woods, felling trees can become a fairly regular activity. After all, there are always reasons why trees need to come down, from damage and rotting to simply making more room on one’s property.
Of course, if you want to hire out a landscaping company to handle the hard work, you might end up shocked at the final cost, as even small trees can end up being pretty expensive to have professionally removed. If you’re up to tackling the job yourself, however, there are some techniques and tricks that can be used to cut down a tree with a chainsaw safely, easily, and cheaply.
- So, how do you get started?
- What types of equipment and tools do you need?
- How do you manage the process without injuring yourself (or others)?
We’ll cover all of these in the sections below.
Before You Get Started (Gear and Safety)
Anytime you plan on revving up a chainsaw, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re wearing the proper safety equipment. In the case of felling trees, this is especially important, as using improper cutting techniques can quickly turn tree cutting into a potentially dangerous situation. On top of that, inconsistencies in the natural wood itself or interference from other objects around the cutting area can cause a bounce or even chain breakage, which can cause injuries to life and limb in the blink of an eye.
The following safety gear is recommended for anyone looking to cut down a tree with a chainsaw:
- Ear and eye protection for sawdust and flying chips.
- A helmet to protect one’s head from falling branches.
- Kevlar chaps to prevent injuries in the case of chain breakage.
- Gloves that enhance grip (not just any utility gloves).
- Long sleeves to protect arms and shoulders from flying debris.
NOTE: It is also important to note that anyone who doesn’t know their way around a chainsaw (including maintenance and upkeep) should reconsider felling a tree on their own. This is advanced work that will require hours of saw use, and a lot can go wrong if you’re not experienced or careful.
Tools To Do the Job Right
As with anything that involves building (or tearing down), there are correct tools for the job, and there are incorrect tools for the job. While smaller trees (less than a foot in diameter) will usually pose little problem, larger trees (up to the size of your chainsaw’s cutting surface) will require careful planning and specific tools.
In order to fell a tree safely and effectively, you’re going to need the following:
A good condition chainsaw – cutting down trees is a heavy duty job, and you’re going to be asking a lot from your saw before it’s all said and done. Make sure your chain and your engine are in good working order, and also make sure your chainsaw is designed to handle a job like this (electric saws, small saws, or underpowered saws will usually prove no match for a good solid tree trunk).
For instance: if the diameter of the tree is wider than the cutting area of the saw, different techniques will need to be employed in order to properly fell the tree.
Felling wedges – whether you make them yourself or buy them from a store, felling wedges are an essential tool to keep your saw from getting pinched while cutting. They can also provide the leverage one needs in order to drop the tree from a standing position without having the chainsaw in hand. This is crucial to the safety of any individual or team, as the last place you want to be when the tree starts falling in an unplanned direction is still underneath it. For these reasons, almost every large diameter tree should be felled using these wedges whenever possible.
Sledge or Hammer – this is what you’ll use to insert the felling wedge and, ideally, topple the tree. Though some people cut with the chainsaw until the tree goes down, this can be a bit risky for obvious reasons. It’s best to use the wedges just before the point where the tree will fall, as it is much easier to hit one of the designed escape routes without having to drop a running chainsaw first.
Ropes (optional) – in the case of trees that are touching various obstacles, some people prefer to use ropes and a few friends to make sure the tree goes where they need it. In most cases, simply tying the rope to some healthy branches will be enough. In others, some sort of pin attachment will be needed in order to give whoever is pulling the rope the proper leverage. It’s important to note that anyone pulling a tree toward them should be well beyond any potential falling point, including any potential for rolling or sliding.
Designing the Fall Direction
Of course, the most important part of felling a tree is making sure it falls where you want it too. So, how does one do this properly?
Contrary to what many think, the procedure is not only simple but also quite quick, as the majority of time spent when cutting down a tree with a chainsaw is in preparation and cutting the tree into manageable sized pieces.
Now, depending on the size of the tree, designing a proper fall direction can involve a lot of different procedures or equipment. Most people can get away with using an axe handle or stick to estimate the tree’s height, but it’s always best to leave plenty of extra room on top of that. To do the former, hold the handle or piece of wood at arm’s length and close one eye. While walking, match the top of the wood / stick to the top of the tree. Where you’re standing is roughly where the top of the tree will land.
NOTE: Be sure to take into account any slopes in the fall zone, which could cause the tree to roll or slide.
In order to design the fall direction:
The cutting procedure for felling a tree with chainsaw begins with a “hinge cut,” which is a roughly 90-degree cut (30 degrees at the bottom and 60 degrees at the top) made into the side of the tree in the direction you want it to fall. The rule of thumb is to cut it to a depth of anywhere between 1/5th and 1/3rd the diameter of the tree. Go too deep, and you risk the tree falling while you’re standing in front of it. Go to shallow, and you risk it falling in an unintended direction, or worse, turning unpredictably on the stump.
NOTE: Once you make this cut, you have determined the direction in which the tree will fall, and you cannot change it. The actual “felling cut” will be made from the other side of this cut, toward the point where the two hinge cuts meet.
Before Making a Single Cut
Site preparation and tree analysis are arguably the most important part of the tree cutting process, and the vast majority of injuries happen because people failed to do one of the following things:
Clear the cutting zone – you need to make sure both the cutting zone and the fall zone are completely clear of all debris that could impede or alter the direction of the fall. This is especially true of any other trees that may have intersecting branches or any vines from nearby foliage. It doesn’t take much to alter a fall angle by tens of degrees so all of these will need to be cleared away. Vines, in particular, can pose a problem, as they are hard to see and can be incredibly strong, causing all sorts of unpredictable behavior in a falling tree.
Clear escape routes – when using a chainsaw to cut down trees, there is no choice but to be underneath the tree until pretty much the last possible second. This makes clearing at least two escape routes absolutely essential. Ideally, they would be at least a 45-degree angle from the “drop zone” and each other. Make sure there is no debris, logs, or other objects that would keep you from getting away from the falling tree quickly.
Check the tree carefully – if the tree is leaning heavily to one side, it’s going to go that way no matter which way to you cut. You also need to check for any dead branches that might fall on your head while you’re cutting, as well as anything else that might prove problematic. If the tree is heavily damaged or rotten, for instance, it may not behave in the same way a healthy tree would. This includes premature breakage, cracking, or even having the trunk collapse during cutting.
Do Your Math and Make Your Cuts:
You can usually get away with estimating the angles required to make the hinge cut, but some chainsaws come with built-in tools to help make the cuts more accurate. It is also a good idea to use chalk or a “chalk line” tool to give yourself a clear spot to shoot for.
Of course, no matter how accurate you want to make your cuts, there is still a clear procedure that needs to be followed to do the job safely.
- Clear the fell path and the escape routes
- Make the top cut of the hinge (ensure you make it at a height that there will be plenty of room for the lower cut.
- Make the lower cut.
- Go to the side of the tree and begin working your way to the back.
- Once you are 2-3 inches from the angle of the hinge cut, stop.
- In some cases, the tree will begin to topple at this point. If not…
- Insert wedges and hammer until the tree begins to topple.
- Quickly move away from the tree while maintaining eye contact with it.
NOTE: Never turn your back on a falling tree! This is one of the easiest ways to get injured.
Limb and Buck Your Fallen Tree
Once the tree is down, you’ll want to begin cutting off the limbs one by one. This is a point where an injury is still a real potential, so it’s important to make sure you have good footing when hacking off the limbs, and never to lean over too far or try to extend one’s leverage when using the saw. It’s usually best to start from the area furthest from the top, as the branches will be thicker and you can use the heavy trunk to support your cut.
NOTE: Don’t try to saw all the way through in one cut! Use a combined upward and downward stroke to keep the saw from being pinched or you from losing your balance.
Once this is done, and the limbs are all reduced to a manageable size, you must do the same with the trunk. This procedure is called “bucking,” and takes the most time of the entire tree cutting procedure. Once finished, you can either enjoy your new found supply of firewood, haul the wood away, or sell the wood for a small profit. In some cities, there are specific ways to dispose of the debris, while others may have lumber yards that will pay a premium for the wood (and pick it up to boot).
If you follow the steps here to the letter, felling trees of even substantial size should be little to no problem and will save you tons of money down the line. Keep in mind, however, that if there is ever a situation in which you find yourself needing to take down a tree that is dead, very tall, very thick in diameter, or in a dangerous spot – please call a professional.
After all, doing things yourself should never take a back seat to do things safely.