How to Cut Down a Tree

Cutting down a tree.  It seems pretty easy.  Take a chainsaw or an axe, find a good spot near the bottom and go to town right?  Clearly, this is not the case.  Thousands of people are injured every year using chainsaws, thousands more by falling limbs and trees, and untold millions of dollars in damage is done to property during failed attempts to SAFELY cut down trees.  Make no mistake.  No matter how confident you are in your abilities or your experience, cutting down a tree of any substantial size can be VERY DANGEROUS.   Do the research. Get help if you need it, and take your time to ensure your project is completed with positive results.  Obviously, the size of the tree can affect the type of preparations required and the types of dangers encountered during the project, but safety precautions are a must when cutting down any tree.

Things to Consider Before Cutting Down a Tree

  1. Can I Do This Safely?  If the answer is no, stop and call an insured, qualified professional.
  2. Does This Tree NEED to Come Down? If the tree is very old, very tall, or not causing problems to the foundation or plumbing or any nearby structures, consider leaving it.
  3. Is Cutting This Tree an issue for a HOA or City Ordinance?  You may be looking at hefty fines and legal issues if cutting this tree down conflicts with local property regulations.
  4. Am I Equipped to Process and Transport the Felled tree?  Getting the tree down is often the first part of the project.  Cutting into smaller pieces and moving it somewhere else is often as big a project as getting the tree horizontal.

If you have determined that the tree in question needs to come down, the next step is determining the right tools for the job.  Your budget and your level of physical ability may play a part in what method you choose.  An axe can get the job done, but a good chainsaw will make any job go more quickly.  A chainsaw can cost hundreds of dollars and require skill to use safely.   An axe is inexpensive and you are not as likely to lose an arm if it gets away from you.   Consider these things and the suggestions below when making a decision as to which tool suits your needs.

How to Choose and Use a Chainsaw Safely

  1. SIZE:  Consider the size of the motor and the length of the bar.  A bigger motor and longer bar means faster cutting.  It also means a heavier, potentially more dangerous, and likely more expensive piece of equipment.  If you have never used a gas-powered saw before, consider an electric or find one that is not too heavy to handle for long periods of time.
  2. SAFETY:  Heavy gloves, face and eye protection, ear plugs, and others.  Do not take this part lightly.  If you are buying or borrowing a saw it is  downright foolish to consider using the saw without proper protection.  If the budget does not allow for these things then you do not have enough money to proceed.  You should also consider steel-toe boots, and heavy clothing that can keep you from getting scraped and scratched by limbs.  Carhartt  brand or other clothing designed for tough conditions, along with safe usage practices can often decrease the seriousness of a glancing blow with an errant saw.
  3. ACCESSORIES:  To fully leverage the benefits of a chainsaw you should acquire a wedge and sledge hammer along with all of your chainsaw -related gear.  A wedge and sledge will  keep the weight of the tree off of your blade during the final cut and will allow you use physics to your advantage and allow for a quick escape when the tree starts to fall.

If all this talk about safety has you considering the use of an axe for this tree cutting project, you are not out of the woods yet.  The use of axe raises its own safety concerns and many of the dangers as well as the precautions are the same as when using a chainsaw.

How to Choose and Use an Axe Safely

  1. SIZE:  Consider the overall length and weight of the axe.  If your muscles tire quickly or your heart is unhealthy the axe may not be a viable option. Depending on the tree you may need to swing the ax dozens or even hundreds of times.   It is great exercise and project time will increase over chainsaw use, but expense will drop dramatically.
  2. SAFETY:  Heavy gloves, clothes, boots and face protection.  As you tire, you can injure yourself severely with a misplaced axe swing.   Dress appropriately, swing deliberately, and rest frequently.  The tree has been there for years…a few more hours is not likely to hurt anyone.
  3. METHODS:  The nature of an axe makes for a less precise cut.  A less precise cut makes for a less predictable fall and closer proximity when it happens as you are often unable to use the “wedge and sledge” method mentioned in the CHAINSAW SECTION.

There are other, less common options like two-man or “crosscut saws” that could be considered.  The safety concerns mentioned above will apply to these as well.

Whichever tool you choose, consider purchasing an OSHA approved helmet.  It is not uncommon for the commotion, activity and focus near the bottom of the project tree to cause things to fall, unnoticed from the top.

Now that you have picked your tools and gear there is still the method and preparations to consider.  Situations will vary widely so, if there is any question about getting the job done without injury to you or nearby property, stop and consult an experienced professional.

Preparing to Cut a Tree Down

  1. BUILDINGS, POWER LINES, VEHICLES and PEOPLE. Make certain the tree is no where near power lines.  If these are pulled down and come in contact with you or someone else they could cause serious injury or death.  Even if there are no injuries there are power outages and property concerns if this happens.  A falling tree can damage surrounding trees.  Do your best to “aim” away from any trees you do not want to affected by the falling project tree.  Any vehicles should be moved clear of the project area.  If the tree is 50 feet tall, move your car 60 feet away.  If you are inexperienced and the tree is within reach of your home, you should consider enlisting the aid of a professional or consider leaving the tree.
  2. WHERE WILL YOU BE WHEN IT ALL GOES DOWN. Before you make the first cut, clear an escape path.  Eliminate any trip hazards to make sure you have a clear path to run in any direction if the tree falls in an unexpected way.  You should also clear any vines or loose limbs away from the tree.

You should take notice of the top or “crown of the tree.  If the tree leans to one side or has more or larger limbs on one side or the other this will help determine where to make your initial cuts, and will help predict what direction the tree will likely fall.   If possible, your may consider tying a rope mid-way up the tree to another secure point to encourage the tree to fall where you want it.  Use caution and consult a professional if you are considering this as a taut rope tied to a tree can also be VERY dangerous.

The tools are in hand, the safety gear is on, an escape plan is in place, and this tree is ready to come down.  Here goes.

Cutting Down a Tree

  1. FACE NOTCH:  Professionals recommend the face notch be cut at 70 degrees and should span approximately 80 percent of the diameter of the tree (if your tree is 20 inches across your FACE NOTCH cut should be approximately 18 inches across ).   If you are cutting or chopping at the recommended angle you will reach a relatively safe depth
  2. BACK CUT:   You must create a hinge or predictable pivot for your tree to fall where you want it to.  This is accomplished by making a BACK CUT.  A BACK CUT leaves approximately 10 percent of the diameter of the tree intact behind the corner your FACE NOTCH.   This cut is made by either a “plunge cut” starting in the center in line with or slightly above the corner of your FACE NOTCH or by a cut from the back of the tree  in line with the corner of your FACE NOTCH.
  3. WEDGE and HAMMER:  Tap your wedge in the BACK CUT to support the weight of the tree using a sledge or the flat side of an axe until it is snug.  Place the wedge on the opposite side of whichever side you have chosen to make your FINAL CUT
  4. FINAL CUT:  Standing at a 90 degree angle to your FACE NOTCH, cut the remaining 10 percent strap on the hinge side.  The tree should being to take forward motion on the hinge.  When it does, immediately run to safety!  Even the most experienced tree cutters making the most precise cuts can be injured if a tree the shifts or rolls unexpectedly on its hinge.

With any luck the project tree is on the ground, there was no collateral damage, and no one was hurt.  The most dangerous part is over.  If you are responsible for removing the felled tree, continue to use caution when cutting it smaller parts.

If you are able to pay a licensed professional to do the work you should do so.  You are very literally risking your life and the well being of your family to cut down a tree of any substantial size.   If it is a sense of accomplishment you are after, there are plenty of home projects to do where lives are not in jeopardy.  If you choose to proceed, do so with caution using the general tips in this article and as much other reliable information you can find.

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