The Dos and Don’ts for Safely Felling a Tree
Before you take a saw to an unwanted tree in the yard, familiarize yourself with these crucial safety tips.
Whether it’s blocking your view, is diseased or damaged, or is taking up space you’d rather use for something else, felling a tree is never a task to be undertaken lightly. This is one project that can have major consequences if not done properly, including damage to your home and surrounding property or serious injury to you or bystanders. Also, be aware that,e in some areas, you’ll need a permit before cutting down a tree—even if it’s on your own property. Check local ordinances first, then consult these best (and worst) practices before getting started.
DO know your limits.
If you’ve never wielded a chainsaw, don’t have all the required safety gear, or face a very large tree, it’s best to leave the job to a professional. While felling a tree isn’t extremely complicated, it does require planning, focus, and caution, so don’t undertake the task on a day you aren’t feeling your best. And check the weather forecast: If it’s going to be raining or very windy, wait for milder conditions.
DON’T neglect safety gear.
Even if the tree you’re felling isn’t exceptionally large, don’t take the risk of foregoing safety gear. While chances are you won’t have any problems, safety should always be the top priority. You should wear:
- Closed, sturdy shoes or boots
- Pants and a long-sleeved shirt
- Logger or hard hat
- Goggles that fully cover your eyes
- Ear protection—plugs or earmuffs designed to reduce sound
- Work gloves
DO choose the right equipment.
While you can safely chop down a very small tree or sapling with an ax, for most trees beyond that size, a chainsaw is the best tool. In general, a 16-to-18-inch bar is best for small to medium trees, and a 20- to-24-inch bar for larger trees or for cutting up an already felled large tree for firewood. Before firing up your chainsaw, you should be completely familiar with its use, and do a quick check to be sure the tool is in proper working order. If you are felling a tree with a trunk that’s 18 inches or more in diameter, you’ll also want a couple of felling wedges. These wooden wedges are used to prevent the tree from pinching onto your chainsaw or leaning back towards you instead of falling away from you during the final cut.
DON’T cut blindly.
Before you felling a tree, you’ll need to take the time to analyze both the tree you’re cutting down and its surrounding area. Is the tree close to your home or another structure such as a fence, garage, or parking area? Are any utility lines nearby? Is the tree dead or diseased, or does it have broken or dead branches? Does the tree lean in a direction opposite where you want it to fall? Is the tree surrounded by other trees? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, call in a professional.
DO aim the tree.
Once it starts to fall, the tree is out of your control, so you must know which way you want it to tumble before you make the first cut. Keep in mind that the tree will tend to fall in the direction of any natural lean.
Measure your tree and your yard, and be sure there is enough space for the entire tree to safely hit the ground. Trees can be a lot taller and wider than they appear when looking up from underneath. Ideally, the landing spot should be fairly level to prevent the tree from rolling or bouncing. You also want a fall path that’s clear of other trees; one falling tree can pull down several others on its way down, with potentially catastrophic results.
DON’T forget your escape routes.
Once you’ve determined that the tree is safely within your capabilities to fell, established a fall path, and gathered your equipment, it’s time to clear the area. First, move any pets, people, or other objects out of the fall path. Now, plan and clear two escape routes on the non-fall side of the tree. You’ll use one of these to safely get away from the tree as it tumbles. Since a falling tree can be unpredictable, it’s good to have two escape routes in case the tree falls in a direction you weren’t expecting.
The escape routes should be at a roughly 45-degree angle to each other, at least 15 feet long, and aimed straight away from the falling tree. They should also be free of brush, rocks, or any other tripping hazards. Trim away any brush or low branches around the tree you’re about to cut down.
DO start with a notch.
Aiming your chainsaw straight through the middle of the trunk until it comes out the other side is likely to bring the tree down on you instead of away from you. Proper tree felling begins with a notch. Stand facing the tree so that where it will fall is on your right and your escape routes on your left. On the side of the tree facing the direction that the tree will fall, slice down into the trunk at a roughly 70-degree angle. Continue cutting on that angle until the chainsaw is around one-third of the way through the tree’s trunk. The bottom of this cut should be no more than two feet from the ground.
Now, cut horizontally into the tree at the bottom of your first cut. When the two cuts meet, you’ll have a notch cut into the trunk.
DON’T get careless.
The final cut is the felling cut, and this is where things often go wrong if you aren’t careful. Move to the opposite side of the tree from your notch. Saw into the tree at the same height as your notch, cutting just deep enough to insert your felling wedges. Do not remove your chainsaw from the cut: Leave it running, but lock the chain brake. Now use a mallet or hammer to pound in the felling wedges, positioning them behind your chainsaw blade.
Continue cutting into the tree on a horizontal line. The moment you feel the tree start to fall forward—right about when you’ve cut through all but 10 percent of the tree’s diameter—pull out your chainsaw, set the chain brake, and retreat down one of your escape routes until you’re at least 15 feet away from the falling tree. Do not turn your back on the tree as it falls; it should be within your sight the entire time.
Congratulations! If you’ve followed these guidelines, your tree should be safely on the ground, and you can begin reimagining your soon-to-be blank slate of a landscape.