Felling for Firewood

A step-by-step guide to the safest and easiest way to harvest your winter fire wood with a chain saw.


| October/November 1999



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The wedge is removed before making the back cut.


Photo courtesy Dave Johnson

Logging is, in the words of a Michigan court, "an inherently dangerous occupation." And while this ruling has some legal implications, it also serves as an important warning to those people who would attempt to fell trees with a chain saw. I make my living from trees and have done so for the past 25 years. I plant them, I cut them down and I saw them up-and of all of these, the felling of a tree is the most hazardous.

Even so, cutting down a tree is a relatively straight forward procedure. Dangerous yes, but not all that complicated, provided you observe the proper techniques and precautions. What follows are safe and easy guidelines for harvesting your winter wood.

Finding the Right Tree

When harvesting fuel wood, I'll choose standing dead trees over live trees every time, as they contain good sound, dry firewood. Even better is if I find a healthy tree that is already on the ground.

Good firewood trees are generally hardwoods with large crowns, but a lot of these trees are notorious for rot and hollow spots that are almost impossible to detect until it is too late. You can sometimes tell if a tree is rotten by checking for shelf fungus, growths loggers refer to as "conks." The problem with cutting a rotten or conked tree is that it may very well break in half, sending the top dropping back on you. So even if there are no outward signs of rot, be alert. If you've already started felling the tree, watch for any change in the color or texture of the sawdust or any easier-than-expected sawing. With this kind of work, you can never keep too careful an eye out for anything that can go wrong.

Once you have selected a good tree, look to he sure it isn't holding up any dead trees or dead limbs that might vibrate loose before you finish your cut. Finally, check for vines, especially if you're in the South. Vines have been known to pull down other trees or hold the tree you're trying to fell or even swing the trunk to one side when it's cut.

The next precautionary step is determining the tree's "lie," or how it's most naturally inclined to fall. Walk all the way around the tree looking at the lean, the limb structure and anything else that might affect the lie. Keep in mind that trees seen from the ground are seen foreshortened; they are always taller than they appear.

Any tree that you decide to fell must have a clear space to fall into, and it must lean either into that space or at least not too strongly away from it. One of the most dangerous things you can do is hang one tree up in another. If this happens, never leave the tree hanging. There are methods for dealing with hung trees, though admittedly they are not easy and don't work in every case.

The Traditional Felling Method

Amazingly, most people use the same method to cut trees today that the lumberjacks of the last century used, despite the fact that the crosscut saw-the "misery whip" of our ancestors-was long ago replaced by the modem chain saw.

The old-timers started by cutting a notch in the base of the tree on the side they wanted the tree to fall toward. They did this by first making a horizontal cut about a third of the way into the trunk with their saws. Then they completed the notch by chopping out the area above the saw cut until there was a 45° opening above the first cut. The felling was completed by sawing into the back of the trunk until the tree toppled.

It's important to understand, however, that the old-timers worked as they did because their equipment forced them to. To cut into a standing tree with a two-man saw, the workers had to stand facing the trunk as they pulled the saw. If they were to "aim" their notches at all, they had to do so looking over their shoulders. And that's the way a lot of folks still do it now. They stand facing the trunk and, by looking back over their shoulders, try to estimate where the notch should be. This is called "aiming with your ass" and it is one of the major causes of felling problems today.

Open Face Felling

Today's experienced loggers use a safer, more efficient cutting method called "open face felling," which borrows from but improves upon the traditional method of the 1890s. Thanks to the modern chain saw, practicing open face felling the right way is actually easier than doing it the wrong way. For most people, it's simply a matter of being shown how it's done.

With a two-cycle engine and no crankcase oil to spill about, as well as an all-position carburetor, a chain saw operates equally well in all positions, including completely upside down. It is lightweight, simply moved about and it can cut wood (or flesh) quickly and easily. Plus, if used the right way, a chain saw can help you guide your tree in the direction you want it to go with the least amount of danger.





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