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How to Fell a Tree

Make them safely fall where you want them

By Dan Armitage
Published: September 1, 2008
fell a tree
Photo by Dan Armitage

If the only time you get to cup a hand to your mouth and yell “TIMBERRRRR!” is during the annual trek to the cut-your-own Christmas tree farm, you may not be entirely prepared to tackle the real task of felling a tree on your property.

There’s a technique to downing something larger than a family room-sized fir, and you may want to become familiar with it in the event you need to topple something larger.

As a source of warmth, shelter and transportation, trees have been chopped down by people as long as there have been people. Those who survived the effort probably passed along those special felling genes that encouraged safety in a process that does have deadly potential.

Potential for Accident
Our capable tree-cutting ancestors developed a simple method for safely taking down everything from pine to pin oak. Upcoming paragraphs describe that method, which is equally effective whether you are wielding an axe, manual saw or chainsaw. The key word “safely” being somewhat slippery, I always place tree cutting and wood splitting in the same safety category as a certain north country activity: ice fishing. No matter how many precautions you may have taken, there is always the potential for an accident.

So when in doubt about your ability to tackle a particular tree, don’t try it. Call in an experienced friend or a pro, then stand safely back and watch.

Most experts advise against attempting to take down a tree with a diameter of 10-plus inches; call in a pro. They also advise working your way up the skills ladder by taking on smaller stuff until you are comfortable toppling trees of 6 inches in diameter – and can make them safely fall where you want them.

Time-proven Technique
Following are the basics of the time-proven technique for hitting your felling target:

1. Check It Out. Study the tree to determine which way it is naturally leaning. Most trees develop an angle of growth, and you should never attempt to fell a tree against the direction it naturally wants to topple. If the tree looks to be standing with no apparent lean, look at its growth to determine if there are more or heavier branches on one side which might make it twist or fall in a particular direction. Make sure that the tree has a clear path in which to fall and that you have a clear path in another direction in which to step back a safe distance without tripping over anything.

2. Make the Face Cut. Using a chainsaw, cut a notch on the side of the tree that faces the direction you want it to fall. Make the top cut first, angling down at about 60 degrees to a depth of about one-third the width of the tree’s trunk. Remove the saw blade and make the lower cut, horizontal to the ground, to meet the angled cut and remove the wedge of wood that is cut free.

3. Make the Back Cut. About 2 inches above the horizontal cut on the face, make a back cut. Keep the cut horizontal to the ground and stop just before the cut is above the edge of the vee-shaped spot where the face cut ends. Make sure you don’t cut all the way through. The tree should start to fall in the direction of the wedge, and the 2-inch back cut – called the “hinge” – should keep the trunk from kicking back at you as it topples.

4. Stand Back. Remove the saw from the back cut, turn it off, and back away at an angle from the direction of the tree’s fall. Never stand directly behind the tree as it falls; if it does kick back, you’ll be in perfect position to be punted out of the gene pool for good!

Dan Armitage is a frequent contributor to Cabin Life and a cabin owner from Ohio who is too cheap to buy firewood.

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