Avoiding Widowmakers

Work safely in the woodlot when cutting wood and dealing with widowmakers.

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You can determine a lot about the skill involved and manner in which a tree was felled by looking at the stump and wedge-hinge that is left behind. Trees can roll off the stump, crack and split up the trunk, hang up, buck, you name it. Trees are unpredictable and should be treated with respect and caution when cutting.

Photo by Getty Images/Martin Fredy

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Felling trees is one of the most satisfying — and dangerous — endeavors for a homesteader. Whether it’s for spring cleanup or to harvest profitable hardwood, nothing changes the look and use of a property quicker than the removal of mature timber. Regardless of your experience level, the risk of injury or death is remarkably high, with OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) calling logging the most dangerous occupation in the United States. It is for this reason that I preface this piece with a simple warning: If you choose to do your own tree work, you could be injured or worse.

The persistent threat of injury and death in logging is made pretty clear by one simple industry term: “widowmaker.” A widowmaker is typically a limb or branch that is no longer attached to a tree, but is still in the canopy either wedged in a crotch, tangled in other limbs, or miraculously balanced on another limb.

For purposes of safety, I’d like to extend this definition to include any overhead hazard that could dislodge while performing work on a nearby tree. This includes treetops that have been struck by lightning, limbs that are dead from rot or fungus, felled trees resting on living trees, and even rock or stone if you happen to be felling near rock faces.

Checking for hazards

Prior to predicting the fall of a tree, experienced loggers and trimmers carefully scan their target trees and surrounding trees for widowmakers — the best time of year to do this is after the last frost of the season. This gives any remaining, weak limbs their final opportunity to break and fall, or any existing widowmakers time to further settle or fall to the ground. This time of year also allows better visibility through the tree since the canopy will not be full of mature leaves, and it provides more predictable limb behavior since there will be no leaves to affect drag or catch wind.

Each tree should get a top-bottom-top Z-scan. That is, starting at the top of the tree, your eyes should make a Z-shape as they scan left to right, moving down the main stems, then back up the canopy in the same Z-shape. You’ll be able to quickly see any limbs that deviate from the natural balance of the others: limbs that stand vertical or near-vertical while the others are horizontal; long, thick limbs near the ends of branches; and, in early spring, branches with no new growth surrounded by limbs with plenty of fresh buds. A careful inspection of the trunk and main stems will also help identify any loose bark (a sign of dead timber), lightning burns, or hollow cavities.

Some widowmakers are more easily identifiable than others — especially when you witness, or cause, their occurrence. A felled tree tangled in the branches of a live tree is common occurrence, and not impossible to remedy. If you witness a tree falling and then stopping within another tree’s branches, you’re at an advantage. You can take what you’ve seen — the angle from which the tree fell, the momentum with which it fell, how quickly it stopped, and whether it had any rotation — and formulate a rough idea of how the rest of the felling process will play out. If you come upon a tree-on-tree scenario but have no idea how it came to be, then your job just got a little tougher. Don’t forget that when one tree falls against another, you’re most likely creating a whole family of little widowmakers from branches and limbs being snapped off during impact, and many hazards may be hidden behind trunks, stems, and broken branches.

Tree felling, limbing, and bucking are all about physics. Even if you don’t know a single formula, you can predict the path of a falling object with relative accuracy if you pay attention to a few key points. First, remember that what goes up must come down, so while being directly underneath a widowmaker might give you the best vantage point, it is likely the most deadly. Second, remember that in spite of the last sentence, what goes up may want to go back up. That is, when a branch hits the ground, it may spring off its limbs. Standing uphill of a limb’s landing spot isn’t necessarily a fool-proof idea. Limbs can be very springy and project a tree uphill if the fall is right. Add to that the varying thicknesses and tensions of the limbs underneath, and you’re likely to see the entire tree rotate as it shifts. Third, and lastly, all the energy from a limb falling isn’t used up once it stops moving. Limbs that are bent and taut under the weight of the tree are storing potential energy and can cause a new set of challenges, even if they look broken clean through.

For a practical example, I’ll use my own backyard. I have a beautiful 75-plus-foot tulip poplar that seems to lose more limbs each year than would be considered physically possible. At the moment, it has two widowmakers: One is a traditional hanging branch, the other sits about 15 feet below it. It has a limb at least 25 feet in length that is completely dead. In the event that the top limb was to fall, there are a few likely scenarios, and it is my job to plan and prepare for the worst case. Worst case scenario: Upon dislodging the top limb, it will likely land upon the bottom and break off a portion of both limbs, leaving me half a dead limb on bottom and scraps of the top widowmaker tied up in the bottom limb.

No, I don’t want to remove the bottom branch first, because there is not a clear path to the ground for the top branch to fall should the vibrations through the tree dislodge it. It’s the equivalent of cutting off a limb while standing on it. If I start climbing and cutting in the tree below another widowmaker, I’m pretty much guaranteeing the widowmaker will live up to its name. Sometimes, the best solution is a well thought-out but messy one. The plan to get both branches out is to let the top branch crash into the bottom branch, then clean up the debris from the lower branch. This might sound dangerous, but it is less risky if we use common sense and some cursory physics knowledge.

Without investing $500-plus in a tree-climbing setup, we can approach the widowmaker from the ground with a homemade setup (homemade does not mean cheap and dangerous). I want to pull the branch from below, but not stand directly underneath it, so I will need a length of rope that is three times the length of the distance from the ground to the widowmaker. For my tree, I have a height of 25 feet to the widowmaker and 75 feet of rope. When I get the rope around the limb, I will be standing about 71 feet lateral distance away from the trunk of the tree (you can use the Pythagorean theorem to figure this for your situation). Some might argue that a distance that great is overkill, but we’d always rather err on the side of caution when it comes to tree felling. Depending on myriad factors like limb size and branches involved, perhaps you’ll need that entire 71-foot distance.

We’re going to need a good plan to get out of this mess, so before you start swinging and hacking, you need to make a trek along the ground to determine where you anticipate the limb to fall, where you plan to stand, and a beeline to safety clear of roots, rocks, rope, people, and any other tripping hazards. It’s also crucial that any help you may have on hand does not cross your emergency escape route.

To get hold of the widowmaker, we’re going to use a tree-climbing cord setup. Tree climbers set ropes in trees using a thin poly cord with a weight on the end. You can make your own using 200 feet of 1⁄8-inch poly cord from a hardware store and a lead fishing weight (10-ounce is a good all-around weight). Officially, the method for propelling the weight into the tree is to loop the cord through the hoop in the weight and cradle it between your legs, launching it granny-style. You can also hold it at your hip and swing in a circle, letting go when the weight is traveling up. The latter method is less accurate, but easier for beginners. Once the cord is over the widowmaker, you can tie a heavier (1⁄2 inch to 5⁄8 inch) poly rope
to the end and haul it up and over the widowmaker, making sure to back up away from the path as you haul up the heavier rope. It is possible that widowmakers can dislodge during this process.

From there, the weight should be able to drop freely to the ground where you can remove the weight, tie on a heavier rope, and pull it back over the widowmaker. Once the rope is reset, you can tie an overhand knot in the rope, feed the loose end through the loop, then cinch it tight, pulling the loop up the tree until it grips the dead branch. At this point, your bailout route should be clear, and you should be standing the full length away from the branch.

Pulling down the widowmaker is simple, but you still must use precaution. Make sure no part of the rope is wrapped around your body — do not wrap it around your hand and make sure the free end of the rope makes a straight line behind you. Pull the rope and move backwards, making sure you brace yourself with a foot facing forward in case the tree tugs back. The limb will initially move in the direction you pull from, but will eventually fall straight down once its weight has shifted.

The next step makes a good case for keeping a backup rope. It is possible that the rope will get knotted in the tangle of limbs and be ineffective after the limb
 has fallen.

You may be thinking that if we had gone over a top limb to more carefully lower the limb we could have saved a mess, but a couple of things to keep in mind: to get an overhead attachment would require getting in the tree, which we don’t want to do because of the widowmaker; also, adding a fulcrum means adding a mechanical brake, whether with a friction hitch or a climber’s belay device to control the speed of descent. Remember, we have no idea how heavy the limb is, and we want to keep a safe distance. A top-controlled descent is the preferred method, but that is a book unto itself. In the event that elbow grease just won’t cut it for dislodging a stuck limb, a ratcheting winch (not a tie-down strap) or an electric winch would be the preferred solution.

Once we have pulled the branch lower into the tree and the loose debris has settled, we can set up a second rope pull similar to the first. We want to reach past the midpoint of the dead limb for adequate leverage, leaving just enough material on the tree that we can safely climb and cut the remaining section. With all the debris out of the tree, ground cleanup is crucial prior to removing the rest of the limb.

Of course, all properties will pose different problems and remedies — and here we’ve dealt with perhaps one of the simplest scenarios you’re likely to come across. Without climbing saddles, rope anchors, and blocking, a homesteader is best served using a slow, cautious, and ground-based approach. It is a bad idea to enter a tree without proper gear, a worse idea to attempt to trim or prune from a ladder, and a deadly idea to add a chainsaw to the mix if you are unfamiliar with the rigging and climbing process. However, you may be surprised just how much you can get done with a simple setup of ropes, cords, and weights. Just keep in mind that confidence is no substitute for training and experience — if you’re in doubt or unsure of the outcome, call an arborist. A good one won’t mind sharing aspects of their work that you can do on your own.


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Joseph Love is from Tennessee, but has lived and worked all over the southeast. He has felled trees in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee to clean up storm damage, build hiking trails, or clear lots for personal use.