Anyone can bring down a tree safely by preparing carefully
and cutting correctly.
By Malcolm Margolin
Cutting down trees can be dangerous work,
especially in yards with buildings and power lines nearby.
Even if you are cutting firewood out in the forest, you
should prepare carefully before you begin sawing. Trees
don’t always fall exactly where you intend, and if
they bounce off neighboring branches, you could be injured
if you are standing too close. Wherever you are cutting
down a tree, having someone along to help or just watch is
a smart thing to do.
To do the job well, you’ll need to establish a
comfortable work area. First, clear out a place around the
tree where you can get a firm footing and have enough space
to work with a chain saw. Lop off any lower branches in
your way. Before making any cuts, walk around the tree and
study it. Are you sure this is a tree you want to
eliminate-is it a nut or fruit tree; does it have nests in
it; is it a rare species.
Judging the Fall
Once you have decided which tree to cut, think about where
the tree will naturally fall. Which way is it leaning?
Stand back and hold an axe in front of you by the tip of
the handle. The handle will be plumb (straight up and down)
because of the bottom weight, and by sighting along the
handle, you can determine the lean of the tree. This is the
most important indication of which direction the tree will
Next, look at the balance: If there are too many heavy
branches on one side, it may pull the tree over to that
side. Pay close attention to the top of the tree; if it is
nodding in one direction when the wind blows, this will
influence the way the tree will fall.
Check the trunk at about waist height-where you will be
cutting-for rot. Look for holes in the trunk of the tree.
Several large, dead branches on the tree may signify
interior decay. Any rot can influence the direction the
tree will fall. If you have reason to believe there is
considerable rot in the trunk of the tree, get the advice
of an experienced tree cutter before proceeding.
These four factors-lean, balance, wind and rot-will give
you a good idea of where the tree will land. With that in
mind, look for a clear space, or bed, into which to drop
the tree, where it won’t damage anything valuable or
get hung up in the branches of another tree. Never try to
drop a tree up a steep slope-it could kick back at you when
it hits the ground.
You now know where you want to drop the tree and where the
tree wants to fall. But do you both agree? If you and the
tree are within 45 degrees of each other, you can proceed
without any special cuts. If you are unsure of where the
tree will fall, you can direct it by tying a rope or cable
as high on the tree as you can reach. Either make certain
the rope is long enough that whoever is pulling does not
end up under the tree, or put the rope around a tree out in
front of the spot you want your tree to fall, so that your
helper can pull from the side at a 90-degree angle. Also,
create two escape routes so you can move away quickly as
soon as the tree begins to fall. Fix the routes firmly in
Dropping a Tree
When you first try felling a tree, be prepared for the
possibility that you will drop a tree in the wrong
direction. Learn from your mistakes and eventually
you’ll master the craft.
For small trees up to about 6 inches in diameter, you do
not need any fancy cuts. When you have cut about
three-quarters of the way through the tree, you can usually
stand to one side and push the tree over into its bed.
Pushing with a forked stick is particularly effective.
The traditional way of felling bigger trees is with an
undercut and a back cut. It is possible to use an axe, but
also dangerous. Chopping tends to dislodge weak branches,
which can fall on your head, and the lack of precision with
an axe cut makes it harder to predict where the tree will
fall. Using a saw-such as a chain saw or tubular-frame bow
saw-will make it easier to predict where the tree will
fall, but you must exercise caution with these tools, too.
The undercut is the first cut you will make. It should be
made on the side where you want the tree to fall. Begin at
waist height with a horizontal cut, continuing to about
one-third the distance through the tree. Pull out the saw
and begin another cut, angling it downward, far enough
above the first to cut out a 45-degree wedge of wood.
Make sure the horizontal cut is perpendicular to the
direction of the fall. You can check this with a handmade
sighting stick or with a straight-handled double-bit axe.
Facing the cut, insert the axe head into the wedge, resting
it on the flat, first cut. The handle then should point in
the direction you want the tree to fall.
Once you are certain that the undercut is correct, you can
begin the final cut, also known as the back or felling cut.
Go around to the other side of the tree, opposite the
undercut side, and saw into the tree about 2 inches above
the base of the undercut. Keep the cut horizontal;
don’t angle it down. Keep sawing, while paying
careful attention to the hinge-the piece of uncut wood
between the back cut and the undercut. The tree will topple
before the saw cuts all the way through, and how it falls
will depend largely on the hinge. As you saw, try to keep
the hinge uniformly thick. If it is uneven, the tree may
tear from the thin end of the hinge while hanging back on
the thick end, causing the tree to twist and fall in a
different direction than you planned.
In addition to the hinge, keep a close watch on the
kerf-the space that the saw leaves behind as you cut
through the trunk. This space will give you your only
advance warning of how the tree is going to fall. When you
get about one-third of the way toward the undercut, you
should notice the kerf getting slightly bigger. Good! This
means the tree is beginning to lean toward the undercut,
which is where you want it to go. Keep sawing-but never cut
all the way through the hinge-until you hear the crack as
the tree leans enough to break the hinge. Remove the saw
and back off quickly.
If you notice that the kerf is closing up instead of
getting bigger, you have misjudged the lean or the balance
of the tree and the tree will fall nowhere near the
direction of the undercut. Don’t just keep sawing in
the hope that the tree will change its mind; trees
don’t change their minds. If you keep sawing, the
kerf will eventually close up, trapping your saw. Before
this happens, remove the saw and have your helper put
tension on the rope attached to the tree to pull it over in
the right direction. Or put some wedges into the final cut
to open the space; saw a bit more and then knock in the
wedges a bit further until, as the tree is weakened, its
top is shifted in the right direction. If you opt for this
method and you are using a chain saw, be sure to use wooden
or plastic wedges and not metal ones that could damage the
It is possible that the hinge will get thinner and thinner,
but the tree will give no indication of which way it is
heading because it is balanced on the hinge. It may fall
one way or the other; or with no hinge to guide it, the
tree may slide off the stump and kick out at you. When you
notice this happening, stop sawing and use ropes, a pushing
stick or wedges to get the tree down.
If the tree does not fall completely, but instead gets
caught in the branches of another tree, there is only one
safe way to dislodge it-wrap a cable around the butt end
and use a winch, come-along or truck to pull it free. Or
just leave it in place, and do not try to cut it down.
Eventually the weight of the tree or wind may dislodge it;
until then, avoid walking under the tree.
Always take your time and think through each step. You can
minimize injury by paying careful attention and stopping if
you are tired or confused. With practice and patience, you
can learn to fell a tree safely.
Adapted from The Earth Manual: How to Work on Wild Land
Without Taming It by Malcolm Margolin, 1975. Used by
permission of Heyday Books, Berkeley, Calif.