If a Tree Falls: Tree-cutting Techniques

Reader Contribution by Steve Daut
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Now that we’re supplementing our heat with wood, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time cutting and hauling wood. Not only have I been cleaning up the dead trees on our property, but last weekend a friend of mine and I made a deal with the place I work to clean up a couple of standing oaks that died two or three summers ago.

Until recently, I didn’t cut wood much and had only felled a handful of trees in my life. They always fell exactly where I wanted them to, so I felt pretty cocky about my skills until I was taking down a 30-foot pine tree about five years back. This was when I still lived in the City, and I had just gotten the tree to the point of no return, cutting-wise, when a sudden gust of wind came out of the wrong direction, the big crack happened that lets you know the tree is down, and it was fixing to fall on my neighbor’s fence, yard, and maybe even his house. Fortunately, the tree was right beside my garage and I had propped a ladder up to the roof, because, well, heck- I can’t even remember why. But at any rate, I was able to get up beside the tree with a rope, get Sue out to help, and brought it back upwind to fall where it was supposed to go in the first place. The experience taught me not to take anything for granted.

Since then, I’ve worked with a few tree cutters and it seems to me there are a couple of approaches on how to get gravity to work in the right direction. The first, I’ll call the natural approach. I was with a professional tree harvester in the woods out at the farm. Sue’s mom Bee had hired him to thin out some of the canopy trees to let the newer growth get enough light. Once he found a tree he was going to take out, he’d study it to figure out which way it wanted to go. Then he’d make a tiny little notch on that side- maybe a quarter of the way in, at most. He’d finish with a horizontal cut from the other side, and would have it cut all the way through and out of the way before the tree started falling. At the time, I figured if you’re doing it for a living, you want to expend as little effort as possible getting the things down.

I had to modify that position recently. Our current neighbor to the south also clears out trees for a living, and he takes what I’ll call the shock and awe approach. I’ve had this dead tree hanging out over my pond. It had fallen so far over that the top branches were actually touching the pond. I mentioned it to the neighbor, assuming that the only option would be to wait until the pond froze and drop it on the ice. He said he had a cable and winch hookup that could put 40,000 pounds of torque on a tree and drop it wherever he wanted it to go, and I could imagine him ripping the thing out by the roots, sideways. I’ve had a close call or two with high tension cables, so I waited until the pond froze and dropped the tree on the ice.

Last weekend, my friend used an approach somewhere in between the two when we were taking down the first oak at the place where I work. It also was along a pond bank, but this was a big, mature oak. It wasn’t really clear if the ice would hold the thing, but there was only about a fifteen foot wide swath where we could drop the thing and avoid the ice, shed, and the fence that enclosed the pond, and to top it off, the tree seemed to be leaning in exactly the wrong direction. My friend took a big notch about waist high. It was more than a third of the trunk, with a horizontal cut at the bottom and a high angle on the top cut. The back cut was probably 30 degrees, coming down into the notch, and when he had two of inches of cut left, he put a couple of wedges into the back cut and drove them in with a maul. He cut it down until the tree was starting to wobble, pulled the saw out and finished the job by driving in the wedges. I swear he could have laid a dime on the ground where it was going to fall.

The interesting thing is that each of these guys knew just what they were doing and talked like their way was the best one they had found. I never would have guessed there were as many different approaches to taking down a tree, and I’m sure there are a quite a few more that I haven’t seen yet. I’d like to hear from anyone out there who has a different “best” way.

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