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CUTTING DOWN A TREE (The Right Way)

There is a right way and many wrong ways to cut down a tree. If a tree is leaning on your house after a storm, running out and buying your first chainsaw is a very bad idea. Cutting trees can cause many thousands of dollars in property damage, serious injury, or death. Every chainsaw comes with a manual that is mostly page after page of "CAUTION" and "WARNING". The absolute worst-case scenario may be an amateur with a new chainsaw cutting storm damaged trees.

Before pulling the starter cord on any chainsaw the minimum safety equipment should include heavy gloves, eye protection, heavy work clothes, and a good pair of leather work boots. Shorts, teeshirt and tennis shoes are not proper work clothes. Your chainsaw manual will also recommend a helmet with full face shield, ear protection and chainsaw chaps. Any helpers or spectators should also have safety equipment or stay a safe distance away. What's a safe distance? More than the height of the tree. It can be difficult to just look at a tree and determine where the top will be when it hit's the ground. One way to estimate where the top will reach is to hold an axe at arms length and step away from the tree until the axe appears to be the same length as the tree is tall. You will be standing about where the top of the tree will fall. This axe handle estimate is based on standard axe handle and average arm length. The safe zone is a few steps back from the estimate. Most axe handles for limbing and splitting are 28" to 36" long with 32" probably being the most common length. Anything shorter than 28" is either a hatchet or house axe.

We live in a rural area where a chainsaw is basically just another tool. Most of our neighbors have at least one good chainsaw. A bad thunderstorm is often followed by the sound of one or more chainsaws clearing felled branches or trees. This narrative is intended for people who may have used a chainsaw for years but never cut down a large tree. Again, if the tree is leaning on your house, you should call your insurance company and let them handle it. Most of the saws people have are fine for cutting up limbs and deadfall for firewood. These saws may be completely inadequate for felling a large tree. It is possible to drop a 24" diameter tree using a 12" chainsaw, but it is impossible to do with any degree of safety. More importantly, the better chainsaws will have much better vibration isolation between the engine and handles. This becomes very important when using the saw for longer cuts necessary to bring down and cut up large trees. A longer bar also means more cutting teeth which will stay sharp and cut better much longer than any short saw.

TOOLS REQUIRED

This is another excuse to buy tools. In addition to personal safety equipment and proper work clothing, some specialized tools make the job of felling trees easier and safer:

ROPES - These come in many sizes and types. A good rope has many uses. When using a rope for logging, always remember that any length of rope, no matter how thick, will store energy like a rubber band when tension is placed on it. All ropes have some stretch. When the rope breaks, that tension is instantly released and can launch the ends of the rope with lethal force. A 1/2" rope may be strong enough for most things, but is way under-sized for any logging work. Any rope 1/2" and smaller should only be used to pull a larger rope or chain into a tree. Standard hardware store rope is generally useless for logging. Even if you can find any as large as 5/8" triple braid polyester, it only has a working load of around 1200 pounds. Hook that to an 8000 poind winch and it will break long before it has any useful effect on a large tree. Proper rope for logging will be a high-strength synthetic or stranded metal wire rope.

Not that long ago, the only rope for logging was steel cable. The high strength synthetic products have become more and more common and have definitely carved a niche. Many winch cables are now synthetic. You can pack a lot more length on a winch spool than you can with steel cable. Synthetic is much lighter, but not as durable as steel cable. Make sure the working load limit of your rope is more than the double-line pull for your winch. Working load limit is usually 1/3 the ultimate breaking strength. No matter what it is made of, all rope will stretch and store energy under load. Do not put any part of your body in line with any rope under load. Even with a light load on a rope, when a tree moves the wrong way, it can very quickly load and overload any rope.

CHAINS - Good transport/logging chains are at least 3/8" to 1/2" grade 70 or higher. Again, make sure the working load limit is more than the chain will be subjected to. Get several different lengths with an assortment of hooks.

HOOKS - Both grab hooks and slip hooks have their uses. It is good to have an assortment of both types. Clevis type hooks can be quickly changed by removing a cotter pin. Grab hooks have a narrow opening that will stay on the link they are attached to. Slip hooks have a rounded opening and should have a spring-loaded safety latch that keeps them from falling off. As the name indicates, slip hooks allow the chain links to slip thru the hole. Do not attach any hook directly to a length of any type of rope. Hooks go on the ends of a rope and only hook to other hooks or chain.

WINCH - A winch can help ensure any tree goes right where you want. A Come-A-Long can work, but a good winch is so much better. In many cases a Come-A-Long doesn't have enough cable to take up the the slack. You will need a second one to continue tightening.

PULLEY BLOCK - Most people have two or three pulley blocks that match the size wire or synthetic rope on their winch. I've never needed more than one pulley block. Maybe the second one is a spare.

L O O K BEFORE YOU CUT

Careful planning is essential. Is this a good, straight, healthy, live tree? Good trees are much easier and safer to cut down. Trees that are rotten, twisted, or dead are much more likely to do unexpected things. Look for dead branches, especially a branch that is just hung up in the tree. A dead branch will often fall long before the tree starts to move. Don't get clobbered by a branch while sawing a tree. Where exactly do you hope the tree will fall? What happens if the tree decides to go Left, Right, or completely opposite the way you think you can make it fall? Blowdowns that are hung up in other trees may be the most dangerous of jobs to clear. There are places on our property where blowdowns are so tangled it isn't safe to attempt to cut anything. I've been working around the edges of one area for close to 10 years. There is often no way to predict how much tension might be on a particular length of trunk or which way it may spring as it is cut. Add one or two other leaners and things quickly become completely unpredictable. Experience can provide some assurance that you know what you are doing, but an unexpected gust of wind at the wrong moment can easily start any tree falling completely the wrong way. Stuff Happens.

One huge mistake is to assume any tree will fall in the direction it appears to be leaning. I've often discovered that most crooked trees are actually fairly well balanced in some odd way that seems to defy logic and gravity. A crooked tree is far more likely to do something unexpected. Wind can ruin the best of plans. A light breeze can swirl and change direction. One minute all seems well, then a shift of wind and the tree sways. Study the area around the tree. Decide where best to bring the tree down, so it can reach the ground without becoming tangled with other trees or hitting buildings. Move your car completely our of the way. Look for overhead power lines. Power lines are a show-stopper for sure. Call the power company and let them deal with any tree near their power lines.

Plan safe routes away from the tree. Plan at least two routes angled to either side going in the opposite direction of the intended fall. The tree may do something that makes your first exit route unsafe. Clear brush, vines and branches and other trip hazards from the escape paths. Make sure any helper knows the plan and has routes to get away.

Many experts recommend doing a hinge cut to control the direction a tree falls. A proper hinge cut leaves a substantial rectangular wooden "hinge". This hinge keeps the tree firmly attached to the stump until it has fallen most of the way to the ground. The correct hinge dimensions are based on the diameter of the tree. The hinge should be 80% of the diameter in width. The front side of the hinge should be 20% into the tree on the side facing the direction you want the tree to fall. The thickness of the hinge should be 20% of the diameter.

HOW TO MAKE A PROPER HINGE CUT

1 - The first cut should be angled mostly down into the tree on the side facing the direction you want the tree to fall.

2 - Set up for this cut by holding the saw against the tree and sighting the direction across the chain break or top handle.

3 - Cut mostly down into the tree on about a 30 degree angle until the cut slab is 80% of the diameter of the tree with 10% on either side.

4 - The visible ends of the cut should be the same depth. Stop cutting and check that you are making a straight and level cut facing in the right direction.

5 - The next cut is a horizontal cut directly into the tree that will connect with the bottom of the first cut and make a flat-bottom notch. The waste piece should flip out as the new horizontal cut intersects the first cut. There should now be a small flat-bottom notch going about 20% into the tree.

7 - The felling cut is where many self-taught loggers and amateurs make a very serious error. The felling cut should always be a horizontal cut into the tree from the side away from the notch we just made. Never cut down on an angle to make a felling cut. If the tree should lean back the angle cut can split down the grain. Start the horizontal felling cut at the same height as the bottom of the front notch.

8 - It may be necessary to stop cutting and hammer wedges into the cut behind the saw blade to keep the tree from pinching the saw. A horizontal felling cut allows these wedges to bear on end grain. Trying to use wedges with an angled felling cut is much more likely to split the back of the cut and allow the tree to keep going the wrong way.

9 - Stop cutting when the remaining hinge wood is 20% of the diameter.

10 - As the tree falls, the wedge that was taken out of the front side provides clearance for the hinge to bend until the tree is nearly on the ground. The hinge wood should snap just before the tree hits the ground.

ADDITIONAL INSURANCE

For many reasons I do not completely trust a hinge cut. Most of the trees I cut are storm damaged, leaning or otherwise far less than the perfect trees in the videos. Many of the trees I cut are almost guaranteed to do something unexpected. In addition, there is usually a fence, house, shed, or something else I'd rather not drop a tree on. After making the notch, throw a small line over a branch 15 to 20 feet up. Use the small line to pull a rope up there, then pull a logging chain over the branch and wrap it around the tree. A slip hook will allow the chain links to pass thru and make a tight loop around the tree. Connect the logging chain to a winch cable. Tighten the winch while watching the top of the tree. When the top branches start to move, stop. This insurance makes it completely unnecessary to pound wedges into the felling cut behind my saw.

When setting up your winch vehicle, use the axe handle estimator or some other reliable method to make darn sure your vehicle is far enough away that it won't be swatted by the tree. Do not try to control a tree weighing several thousand pounds with only the weight of your tractor or 4x4 (unless you want to see how far a tree can throw it). Anchor the vehicle winch mount to the base of a big tree behind the vehicle. A tow strap wrapped around a tree makes a good anchor point that will not do any damage to the tree. Do not hook the anchor chain to the rear trailer hitch unless you want to see if the tree can make your ride into a stretch limo version. Run the anchor chain under the vehicle and attach directy to the front winch mount or vehicle frame near the winch mount. Use a double-line pull for large trees to reduce strain on winch and vehicle. Run the winch cable thru the pulley block, connect the pulley block to the chain attached to the tree, then connect the winch cable hook to an anchor point near the vehicle or off to one side. Finally draping a length of loose chain over each length of cable may help dampen the snap back if the cable should break.

Yes, this is going to a lot of trouble, when we could just make the felling cut and trust our hinge to control where the tree falls. Most of the time that will work just fine. I choose to do the extra work.

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Content and Web Design by K. LaRue — This Site Was Last Updated 29 OCT 2019.
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