Felling a tree
It would be hard to name a more dangerous DIY project than felling a big tree. There's the obvious risk of getting crushed by a falling tree, but you could also have your melon crushed if a big limb shook loose from above. Trees can twist as they fall and make all kinds of other unexpected moves. Add a chain saw to the mix, and—well, you get the idea. It's not a job for the careless, the reckless or the faint-of-heart.
There are some commonsense precautions you should take and techniques you should employ to make tree felling as safe as possible. We'll share those with you. We'll also tell you how to analyze the situation so you'll know when it’s best to call in a pro.
Aside from a chain saw, a stiff dose of common sense and a bit of courage, you'll need a few things to properly fell a tree. They include safety gear (see “The Right Stuff,” below) and two plastic felling wedges to keep your saw from getting pinched in cuts on larger trees. You can find everything you'll need at any outdoor power equipment store that carries chain saws. Don't bother looking for these items at home centers.
Safety isn't a throwaway word when it comes to felling trees and running chain saws. You must take it seriously. There are a few absolutely essential safety gear items you need to wear for any chain saw work.
Loggers helmet ($60): The helmet protects you from falling branches, a major cause of logging injuries. Earmuffs and a face screen protect your ears and eyes. Safety glasses keep the dust out—you don't want something in your eye in the middle of dropping a 4-ft.-diameter cottonwood.
Kevlar chaps ($75): Kevlar fibers will stop a chain instantly should you happen to drop the bar against your leg. It's the best logging safety device developed in the past 30 years, and it's a rare (and foolish) pro who doesn't wear them.
Felling wedges ($15): These wedges will prevent your saw from getting pinched during a cut.
Plan the cut
Estimate the felling zone
Trees are taller than you think and reach farther on the ground than you'd expect (maybe all the way to your shed). You can estimate where a tree will fall by using the “ax handle trick.” Hold an ax handle at arm's length, close one eye, and back away from or move toward the tree until the top of the ax is even with the treetop and the bottom even with the base. Your feet should be about where the treetop will rest after falling. It's just an estimate, though, so allow extra room if there's something it might fall on!
Clear a cutting zone
Even when you're sure which way the tree is going to fall, you’re still not ready to fell it. Cut away any brush around the trunk and clear two escape routes on the “non-falling” side of the tree. They should be about 45 degrees away from each other in opposite directions. The last thing you want is to trip while walking away from a falling tree.
Size up the tree
Start by studying the crown of the tree. Look for dead branches that are broken but attached, or actually broken off and supported by other branches. Don't even think about cutting down the tree yourself if you see any danger upstairs. You're bound to knock a branch loose and have it fall on you.
Next look at the lean and the branch loading. If it's obviously leaning in one direction or heavily loaded with branches on one side, that's the way it's going to fall. Forget the myth that a pro can drop a tree on top of an empty beer can. If it's perfectly straight and evenly loaded—maybe he'll get close. But if it's loaded or leaning, he won't have a chance.
Are there any buildings, fences, power lines or other things you care about in the felling zone? If so, skip the felling and call a pro.
How to Make a Proper Notch
The rule of thumb is to make the depth of the notch one-fifth of the tree trunk's diameter. The goal is to make the angles as shown in the diagram (or as close as you can). The felling cut should meet the point of the notch. When the tree starts to fall, the hinge will help guide the tree to fall in the desired direction.
Felling the tree
Plan the notch
You're going to be cutting a notch on the “fall” side of the trunk. Sight along the handle and adjust the saw until it's pointing toward your fall direction. The spot where the bar touches the bark will be the center of the notch. Before cutting, lay out the notch by marking with chalk or by scoring the bark with the chain saw. Make the notch at a comfortable working height. (You can always shorten the stump later.)
Cut the notch
Make the top cut first and then the bottom. When you're making the bottom cut, adjust your hand to control the throttle with your thumb. If you meet the top notch perfectly, the wedge will drop out of the notch. But most likely you'll have to extend the cuts from either the top or the bottom so the wedge can drop free.
Use wedges on big trees
If you have a tree that's more than 18 in. in diameter, go ahead and make your notch cut and begin the felling cut. Stop cutting as soon as you've penetrated far enough to pound wedges behind the bar. Leave the bar in the cut with the saw running, but lock the chain brake and tap in the wedges. Then finish the cut. Wedges will keep the saw from getting pinched in the cut if the tree leans back.
Make the felling cut
Score a line connecting the apex of the notch on both sides for a cutting guide. The back cut should be parallel and even with the apex of the notch. Then make the felling cut. The instant the tree begins leaning, pull the saw free, set the chain brake and walk away along one of your escape routes, keeping an eye on the tree so you can react if it doesn't fall the way you planned. Never take your eye off a falling tree.
A lookout might save your life
You'll be a lot safer if you have a trusted assistant standing a few feet behind you watching the top of the tree for falling branches and letting you know when the tree starts to fall. Have your assistant tap you on the shoulder with a stick to alert you when it's time to vacate the area. If it's early in the cut and you get the tap, leave the saw and walk away immediately. That means a branch is falling. Near the end of the cut, a tap means the tree is beginning its descent.
- Never cut on a breezy day.
- You'll have an easier time cutting up a fallen tree if you do it when the leaves are missing.
- Grab the chain saw handle with an encircling thumb on your right hand and never release it during a cut.
- Stay away from hollowed-out trees, especially if they're big. They are extremely unpredictable and dangerous to fell.
- Gas up the saw before beginning a cut. Never run out of gas halfway through a cut.
- Once you start working, don't stop until the tree is down. You don't want the tree to fall while you're taking a break.
Video: How to Cut Down a Tree
Bob Tacke, an expert at The Family Handyman, will show you the proper way to cut down a tree using a chainsaw. After watching this video, you will be able to make any tree fall where you want it to.
Video: How to Sharpen a Chainsaw
Bob Tacke, an expert at The Family Handyman, will show you how to sharpen a chainsaw with a filing kit. You can buy the filing kit for about $25 and sharpen your saw anytime it needs it instead of taking it to a shop.