Posted by Kyle
I’m going to level with you, there is nothing that makes me feel more badass then felling trees. It’s sort of a man vs nature kind of thing… and I always win. So naturally, after suburban dwelling for so long when we moved to the country the first thing I did was buy a chainsaw. I did some research and found that Stihl had great reviews so decided to go for it. I purchased the Stihl MS170 chainsaw with a 16″ bar. It is a little on the small side but it is very light and easy to use. Authors Note: I didn’t get any kickbacks from Stihl for this post but if Stihl is reading this I do accept bribes and free stuff 🙂
Once I got in to the thick of it though I realized this saw might be a little under-powered for my needs so I went back and purchased the Stihl MS291 with an 18″ bar. It is quite a bit heavier but it has way more power and makes tree cutting a breeze. I still use the MS170 for limbing my trees once they have been felled though.
As this is an instructional post I am going to define a couple of important terms for you:
- Bucking – Chopping your downed tree in to smaller logs (either for transport and further processing or in to firewood length)
- Limbing – Removing the branches of the tree for separate disposal or use
- Chipping/Mulching – Shredding your branches into small bits that can be used to lay forest trails, put in flower beds or make garden paths.
- Topping – Cutting off the top of the tree before you cut down the main trunk. This is especially helpful with very large trees or trees in tight spaces.
- Cord – A unit of measurement for a volume of firewood. One cord of wood is equal to an area 4′ wide x 4′ tall x 8′ long (if you have a long box truck one heaping box load is pretty close to a cord).
Now before you go out, buy a chainsaw and start cutting down trees it is VERY important to remember that safety should be your number one priority. Often times your dead tree might be very close to your house, garage or power lines. How tall the tree is, wind strength and which way the tree is leaning all come in to play when dropping a tree. If you don’t account for these variables correctly it can turn dangerous very quickly.
Proper personal protective equipment (PPE) must be worn at all times. I recommend a face shield, helmet, ear defenders and gloves at a minimum but chaps are a good idea as well. Often times you can buy these in a kit at your local Home Depot – definitely worth the investment. You can buy unlimited helmets but you only have one noggin’ so protect it.
Alright, with the safety spiel out of the way we can get down to business. But before we do I am obligated to post a quick disclaimer. No two trees are alike. Things like soil conditions, height, wind speed, obstructions, branch density etc will all factor in to your plan on how to cut down your specific tree. The following steps are general principles but you might have to tweak it for your own situation. Capeesh? Good. Now let’s get started:
Assess the tree and conditions. Consider the lean of a tree, whenever possible you should try to drop the tree in the direction that it naturally wants to fall. This is always the safest way to do it. Obstructions may make this difficult so pick a spot that will inflict the least amount of damage. Remember, with dead trees in particular, they can fall at any time on their own so if you are proactive about it you have a much better shot at avoiding any incidents. If it is a very windy day I would recommend postponing the tree cut – you don’t want it blowing around on you.
Decide the safest direction for the tree to fall. You want to land the tree in open yard whenever possible. Trees are inherently unpredictable but you can take steps to guide it safely to the ground. You will need to avoid all obstacles so be sure that you have a clear line of site on where you want the tree to go. Make sure to move your kids bike, your neighbors dog and your van out of the way before you start cutting.
Top the tree if required. Topping is a good idea when you are working in tight spaces. On our property for example I have to take down approximately 15 trees that are 10′ from my garage on one side and 5′ from power lines on the other. Topping shortens the tree to allow for more clearance and also minimizes the sway you might experience if it is a slightly windy day. You will either need to use a safety harness to climb the tree or use a ladder to get high enough. In either instance I recommend that you attach a rope to your saw and leave it on the ground. When you get to your desired height you can pull the saw up and operate it. Please make sure to have someone else on hand as a spotter. While topping you can cut straight through the tree as the main trunk tends to be a lot thinner than at the bottom and then toss it down to a safe spot below. You can do this in multiple sections so each is easily managed while you are high up in the tree. If the tree isn’t very tall a pole chainsaw is a good option as well so you do not have to go up on a ladder.
Attach your safety rope above the midpoint of the tree (use block and tackle if you can). Tree felling is usually a 2 person job – 1 cutting and the other guiding. With a length of rope you can pull the tree in the direction that you want it to fall. Make sure the rope is considerably longer than your tree so there is no risk of it falling on your spotter. It’s even better if you can rig a couple pulleys so your spotter can stand out of the way but still pull in the direction that you want to place it.
You are ready to make your wedge cut. Once you have made your plan, attached your rope and topped as required you can start to make your cut. Your goal is to cut a wedge in to the tree facing the direction that you want the tree to fall. Think of your wedge as Pacman’s mouth – you want Pacman facing the way you want the tree to come down. You start the cut by making a diagonal downward cut close to the base of the tree. The size of the cut is going to depend on the diameter of the tree but as a general rule if you are cutting downward at a 45 degree angle you can stop once you have cut to the mid-point of the trunk. Next you will make an upward angle cut, forming a wedge. Continue cutting until your bottom cut meets your top cut and the wedge comes free. Again, the direction of this wedge is the direction that your tree will fall if all goes according to plan
Now you can make the back cut. Once your wedge is dislodged and facing the direction you want you can make your cut from the back. This will start directly behind your wedge cutting from the backside of the tree towards the center. This cut should be straight across and positioned in line with the point of your wedge. At this point your spotter should have tension on the rope, guiding it in the direction you want the tree to fall. If the tree is small you may not need a rope and the spotter can simply be behind the tree pushing it in the direction you want it to go.
Once you get close to the center of the trunk in your back cut the tree will start to lean in to the wedge. You will likely hear a crack and then the tree will start to fall. Yell “TIMBER!” and get out of the way.
Congrats! You have now felled your first tree. Champ.
Limb the tree. Now that your tree is on the ground you will have to take your saw and cut off all the branches. You can pile these up for use later as either kindling or mulch. This step is pretty simple – work your way from one end to the other cutting off branches. Please be mindful of where you are stepping so you don’t trip on the tree or any loose branches, it is best to clean up as you go.
Buck the tree. Once limbed, it is time to cut the tree in to more manageable lengths. If you are in a hurry you can cut the tree in to slightly larger sections (approx 3′ in length but depends on the diameter of the tree). If you aren’t in a rush then it’s easier to cut it in to firewood lengths now and stack it (approx 12″-18″ in length).
Chip your branches. Once your tree is bucked and stacked you can then deal with your pile of branches. You can rent a wood chipper from most Home Depot locations that makes this job a cinch. Fire it up, feed in you branches and mulch spits out the other end. Collect it, and distribute on your property.
Split your wood. Now that you have a large stack of logs you can begin to break that down in to usable firewood. You can do this with either a gas log splitter (much easier) or an axe (much more badass). Pro Tip: If you are storing your wood outdoors it is a good idea to store it bark side up so it dries quicker. Also, keep it elevated on a wood rack to discourage rodents from moving in. I will show you how to build one yourself in a future post.
After that you can use it, sell it, give it away… whatever you want because you have harvested your own wood from your own land. Pretty awesome. Use it for firewood, or (depending on the quality and species) have it milled and made into solid wood furniture or just craft with it. On our homestead I have harvested about 25 trees already and we gave away most of the firewood (and made friends with all the neighbors in the process). I still have about 100 more trees though so in the next batch I am going to keep some firewood and likely sell the rest.
Let us know how your first tree fell goes!