How to Safely Cut Down a Tree

How to carefully fell trees, including chain saw safety and direction control.

| October/November 1995

 If you live in the country, sooner or later you will be faced with the problem of clearing trees from your land. Unfortunately, the common sense with which many people live their lives seems to evaporate when this somewhat infrequent chore presents itself. I know many competent, thoughtful country people who take greater safety precautions when they are mowing the lawn than when wielding a chain saw in a nearby stand. After spending a lifetime watching how dangerously unpredictable both trees and tree-felling equipment can be, I can only guess that Murphy invented his law while taking down a tree. The resultant injuries are almost always disastrously severe, and completely avoidable. You've probably read what you consider to be an appropriate share of chain saw warnings, but take it from half a century of logging, there's much the manufacturer didn't tell you in the operations manual.

I became involved with cutting trees back in the mid 1940s, and I learned from one of the best—my father. We burned wood as fuel and also cut logs for lumber. In those early years the old cross-cut saw was standard equipment. A man on each end of these long, single-blade, human-powered saws finished the job well enough then, but they couldn't even compete in the same arena with today's chain saws. However, crosscut saw injuries were almost unheard of.

Assuming that you don't want to leave modern advantages behind, your list of equipment starts with a good, sharp chain saw, a couple of sawing wedges of aluminum or plastic, a maul to drive wedges, and good head, eye, and ear protection. Equipment varies somewhat with the type of trees as well as their size and location. Sometimes you also need a long cable to help pull the tree down, as well as a sturdy chain to prevent tree splitting.

Best Time to Cut Down a Tree

If trees are to be used as fuel, lumber, or logs, they should be cut at a time when the sap saturation is at its lowest level. This occurs during late fall through winter, well before annual sap flow and tree budding. Wood sap retards drying of logs and firewood. I strongly recommend felling a tree before foliage appears. Branch cleanup is also much easier if leaves are off the tree.

Felling the Tree Safely

Your every thought and action must be motivated by a need for safety as you cut down a tree; there is no room for carelessness. Never be in a hurry as you proceed to cut. If possible, cut down smaller trees before getting into the larger varieties. Cutting a slightly leaning, medium-size tree on level ground is best to begin with. You'll then acquire some confidence and become acquainted with the use of your tools in a lower-risk situation.

As you approach the tree you plan to fell, always determine which way the tree is leaning. Gravity pull is a great aid in felling a tree the way you want it to go, and only under extreme conditions should a tree with substantial lean be felled opposite that lean. Such cutting is courting trouble unless you use cables to pull the tree. Most well-proportioned, straight-growing trees can be felled in any direction as controlled by the cutting method, however. Where a heavy accumulation of bulky limbs and branches tend to make a tree heavy on one side, always consider felling it in that direction. Wind can also provide a great assist in steering a tree's direction, and it is nearly always dangerous to try to fell a tree into the wind.

9/8/2015 2:35:10 PM

Norman, that's a good idea to know about cutting down a tree during the fall time. The tip that you mentioned in the last paragraph about which way the tree is leaning is something that I would take in consideration. With fall coming up soon, it seems like I would need to cut a few trees in my backyard but with the help of a tree removal company due to my fragile condition.

Billy Burke
9/5/2012 11:29:03 PM

Nice article. Chaps are a must to prevent injury. Lots of great info in this article for sure and i appreciate the time taken. I have been a chainsaw open road logging instructor for a few years now and always find myself learning every day.....Fireman Bill-in Front Royal, Va

Abbey Bend
9/5/2012 9:58:13 PM

Major overlook in this article, ALWAYS WEAR SAFETY CHAPS!! The most common place to be injured with a chain saw is the legs, chaps will prevent or lessen this type of injury. And yes they had chaps when this article was written! Makes me question just how much of a professional this person really is?? Also the retreat directions, always have two, should be at a 45 degree angle towards the rear from the intended fall direction. Never attempt to run from a tree directly behind the cut, you are not close to fast enough. At times they throw out pieces of wood like a rifle shot and with as much destruction of your soft tissues!!!

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