Safe Tree Felling

Using the right equipment and techniques are critical elements to safe tree felling.

Cutting a tree limb with a chainsaw

Focus on right hand and some motion blur on this image of a log being chainsawn.

Photo by iStockphoto.com/Maurice van der Velden

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Chainsaws are remarkable tools. In the right hands, they are capable of cutting trees for clearing land, producing lumber or firewood, and even rough (very rough) construction framing. Almost every country-dwelling homesteader has at least one, and most of us are proud of our mastery over the tool. But even in the hands of trained professionals, they are respected for their dangerous side which, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, puts logging as the most hazardous occupation.

Consider these sobering statistics compiled by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission:

• There were about 36,000 chainsaw-related hospital emergency room visits in 2013.
• The average chainsaw injury requires 110 stitches, with an average cost of $12,000 in medical bills.
• Medical costs for chainsaw accidents average around $350 million per year.
• According to OSHA, in 2012, 243 workers died while engaging in tree trimming and clearing activities.  

If that is not enough to get your attention, search YouTube for “chainsaw accident” – but only if you have the stomach for it.

There are other ways chainsaws can hurt you. The blade can throw wood chips into your eye at over 60 miles per hour. Branches can spring back and snap bones, and falling or rolling logs weighing over 1,000 pounds have incredible crushing force. Hearing loss and tinnitus (constant ringing in the ears) from the 110-decibel scream of the engine is almost universal among the old-time loggers.

The tree is another hazard. Dead branches – called “widow-makers” – can come crashing down at any time with the slightest gust of wind, or even the vibration of the chainsaw. Falling trees can kick back, roll, or fall in an unintended direction. It may hit a dead snag on the way down, or hang up in another tree, leaving you with the dangerous task of getting it the rest of the way down. So let’s take a look at what it takes to safely cut down, “fell,” a tree.

Personal protection equipment (PPE)

It is easy to rationalize that you don’t use a chainsaw enough to invest in safety gear. Even if you’re just trimming a tree or cutting a little firewood, proper safety gear is the single most important factor in preventing injuries. There are three critical pieces of gear; a logger’s helmet for head, face, eye and hearing protection, chaps to prevent cuts to the legs, and steel toe boots for good footing, ankle support, and toe protection. Ken Palmer, a professional arborist and safety expert, estimates that 75 percent of all chainsaw injuries could be avoided by wearing these three pieces of PPE. As Anita Gambill, spokesperson for Stihl power equipment, explains it, “Chainsaw chaps cost about as much money as one stitch in the emergency room. Unfortunately, if you have an accident with a chainsaw, you’re never going to need just one stitch.” Most professional loggers also wear bright safety vests as an added safety measure. Even a bright T-shirt is helpful.

Chainsaw

The good news is that chainsaws are safer nowadays than they were previously, without compromising utility. The inertia chain brake usually stops the chain in the event of a kickback. You can also engage the brake manually by pushing forward on the chain brake. The proper way to do this is to keep both hands on the saw and roll your left wrist forward against the brake lever. Do NOT take your right hand off the handle to push the lever. You lose control of the saw and, if your hand misses the lever, it is moving right toward the chain. Practice engaging the chain brake (the saw does not need to be running) until it is second nature to roll your left wrist into the brake bar.

Use a chainsaw that is well-suited to the job. You should be comfortable with the weight and balance of the saw. Don’t try to be macho by putting a longer bar on your saw. It is just that many more teeth to sharpen when you hit a rock, and it is more likely that the nose of the bar will dig into a piece of wood and kick back at you. A 16-inch bar is good for most firewood-size trees, even if your saw is big enough to handle a longer one.

Other equipment

Do yourself a favor and bring along sharpening tools and a “scrench” (screwdriver/ wrench). If the chain is dull or loose, fix it right away. A sharp chain is much safer than a dull one, and it is less fatiguing. A loose chain is not only dangerous, but also puts more wear on the bar, and may come off the bar, costing you the time and aggravation of putting it back on. Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, bring along extra fuel and bar oil so you don’t have to leave a half-cut tree when the saw runs out of fuel. And pack some fuel for yourself, as well. Hydration can be critical in hot weather and a granola bar or peanut butter sandwich can provide welcome refreshment.

I always carry a few plastic felling wedges. They can be handy in persuading a tree to fall in the desired direction, or holding a cut open so it doesn’t pinch the saw. Sometimes a hatchet or small axe comes in handy, either for taking off the occasional limb, or for driving in a wedge.

Bring a friend

If possible, use the buddy system so you have assistance if you need it. Always let someone know exactly where you will be and when you expect to return. Reliable communication is also important – so much so that my wife and I both got our amateur (ham) radio licenses, since cell phone coverage can be poor out in the woods. A CB radio would be another option, as long as there is someone in range monitoring. If you are working with others, stay at least one and a half tree lengths apart when felling, and never work on limbing the same log. Check on each other from time to time, especially if you don’t hear the other chainsaw for a long period of time.

Now, let’s go to the woods.

First rule: Always park your vehicle facing a direction that will get you out of the woods. Position it so that no trees will fall and block your exit in case you need to leave in a hurry, even if it means a little extra walking.

With your chainsaw fueled, sharp, and properly tensioned, and your helmet, chaps, and boots on, you are ready to go. The first order of business is to “read” the tree. If it has dead branches (widow-makers), you may decide not to cut it. Significant lean or weight distribution on one side is another issue. If it is leaning hard in the direction you want it to fall, it could split (called a “barber chair”) on the way down, and hit you. Leave it. Then look for other hazards, including nearby dead trees and vines. I have seen dead snags come crashing down from the impact of a falling tree, even though it never touched it. There is nothing wrong with walking away from any tree that gives you an uneasy feeling.

Next, determine the direction the tree should fall. If possible, work with the natural lean of the tree. Look for other trees that could hang up your tree when it falls. Aim for an open area, if possible. Even if there is a slight lean away from that direction, you can use wedges to drop it in the desired direction. Plan your escape route. It should be at a 45-degree angle from behind the tree’s direction of fall, and away from dead snags or trees with dead branches in them. Take a minute or two to clear the path, if you need to.

Dropping the tree

The notch cut is probably the most critical part of felling a tree. It sets everything up for the direction the tree falls, and whether it will split, kick back, or roll. The biggest mistake many people make is to cut the notch too narrow. As soon as the notch closes up, the hinge breaks off and the tree is in free-fall. A wide notch keeps the tree falling straight all the way to the ground. I generally cut the open-face notch at a 70-degree angle, about 1⁄4 of the way back into the tree trunk. Most chainsaws have a line on the top and side of the casing that is perpendicular to the bar. Use it as a sight when you start your wedge, and you will amaze people with the accuracy of your work.

Keep the back cut flat and just above or level to the bottom of the notch. That extra wide notch you cut will prevent kickback and keep the tree falling in the desired direction. Keep the bar parallel to the notch. The trick is in knowing when to stop cutting. Watch the end of the bar. If the tree is still standing when the thickness of the hinge is about 10 percent of the diameter (a 1-inch-thick hinge for a 10-inch-diameter tree), stop cutting. You do not want to risk cutting through the hinge, which leaves no directional control over the direction of felling – an extremely dangerous situation. When the tree begins to fall, pull out the saw, set the brake and walk away on your escape route. Do NOT keep cutting as the tree falls, even if you feel the hinge is too wide. Gravity will take care of the rest. You should be at least 20 feet from the tree when it hits the ground.

Check out and make sure you understand standard, Humboldt, and open-face notches. The open-face notch is a good choice in most instances.

Give the tree a “wedgie”

If the tree has back-lean and sets down on your saw, put a wedge into the back cut and drive it in with a single bit axe. When the cut is open enough to remove the saw, pull it out, then continue to drive in the wedge until the tree falls. With a bit of practice, you will learn to persuade the tree to fall against a slight lean. I carry three wedges with me so that I can double up a pair at right angles if one doesn’t do the trick.

When a tree hangs up in another tree on the way down, resist the temptation to cut down the second tree. It puts you in an extremely dangerous situation. Instead, cut through the hinge to see if it will roll off. If that does not work, winch the butt end of the tree back to pull it off, if possible.

Finally, take care of yourself. Dress for the anticipated weather, take a break when you need one, stay hydrated, and stop for the day before fatigue clouds your judgment. Even if you just have a few trees left to cut, it is just good sense to come back and finish the job later when you’re feeling fresh. If you leave trees hung up, mark them with red flagging tape. And while it should not be necessary to mention, no alcohol or drugs that impair judgment if you are running a chainsaw or operating heavy equipment.

Hopefully, these suggestions will help you get your tree safely on the ground. There are additional techniques, such as bore cutting, that are extremely useful, but they are best learned either in a class or from an experienced logger. I strongly urge anyone cutting trees to take the Game of Logging class. The techniques taught in that class have completely changed my approach to cutting trees. For more information, visit the website at www.GameOfLogging.com.


Dave Boyt manages a family tree farm and operates a portable sawmill in southwest Missouri. He is a certified Master Logger and has cut all the firewood to heat his home for more than 30 years.