Avoiding Widowmakers

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

| September/October 2017

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.

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