There comes a time in the lives of many landowners when a tree must be removed. Cutting down — or “felling” — a tree can appear to be a daunting project. But knowing the steps for successful tree felling can allow a landowner to safely tap into his or her inner Paul Bunyon.
Trees need to come down for a variety of reasons, according to Andrew Marquis, a certified logging professional and licensed arborist in northern Maine.
Sometimes it’s a healthy tree in the way of a building project, or one that has grown to the point it’s touching power lines. Other times it’s a tree that has been partially damaged in a storm and needs to come down before it falls and causes damage to property or injures a person.
Whatever the reason, Marquis said, safety is the number one consideration when felling the tree.
“I don’t even think about starting until I have safety gear on,” Marquis said. “That means chaps [thick leggings that protect thighs and shins from sharp axes or chainsaws,] safety glasses and hardhat.”
Tree felling considerations
Once you’re dressed for safety, Marquis said it’s time to assess the tree and decide which direction you want it to fall.
For a leaning tree, there may be little choice as to the direction it is going to fall, especially if it’s caught or “hung up” by its branches in other trees nearby. These kinds of trees are often called “widow makers” as they can be unpredictable when cut and can crush or cause serious harm to someone standing nearby.
If there is any question on controlling the direction of the falling tree, Marquis strongly recommends calling in professional help.
“Professionals will have the large equipment to hold and move trees to control where they fall,” he said. “We also recommend any time you are dealing with power lines to call in professional help.”
Assuming the tree is not leaning at an unsafe angle or caught in wires or other trees, Marquis said once you’ve chosen the felling direction, walk around the tree and plan your escape route.
“You want a clear exit to get away once the tree starts falling,” he said. “You want to be far enough away so when it falls, you are not in danger of it falling on you.”
Marquis recommends having two or more of these planned and cleared escape routes.
Creating the perfect notch
The key to felling a tree in the desired direction is in notching the trunk, Marquis said.
The notch — a wedge cut out of the trunk — should face the direction you want the tree to fall. Use your chainsaw and cut about a quarter of the way into the tree’s trunk at a 60-degree angle. Next, make a horizontal undercut that meets the top cut and creates a wedge.
Look around and make sure there is no one or anything in the fall zone — that area the felled tree will land in — and step around the tree until you are standing on the side of the tree opposite of your notch.
On that opposite side, saw a horizontal line beginning a few inches above the bottom level of the notch. Stop cutting about three inches before you hit the notch.
You have now created a “hinge” in the tree that will force it to fall in a controlled manner.
Insert a felling wedge — a tree felling tool made of metal or hard plastic — into the hinge cut. This will not only allow you to remove your chainsaw if it’s pinched between the upper and lower portions of your cut, it will begin to make the tree fall.
When working on the tree itself with your chainsaw, Marquis said it is important to stand right up and not bend over while you work.
“A lot of people bend right over when they start to cut and that just makes a greater surface area for things to fall on and you are exposing your spine for the branches or even the tree to fall on,” he said. “If I am already standing that is a smaller target plus I am in a position to get away quickly if I have to.”
Once the wedge is in place, carefully walk away, leaving the wedge in place, and watch the tree. Ideally, it will begin to fall at the hinge in the direction of the notch.
“You want a nice, clean hinge,” Marquis said. “The hinge keeps the tree partially attached to the trunk, even after [the tree] hits the ground so it does not roll down a sidehill or ‘kick back’ from the trunk and bounce.”
Marquis said it is also a very good idea to have at least one other person around in the event something goes wrong.
Once the tree is down, it’s time to use your chainsaw to trim off the branches and then cut the tree into manageable size pieces to move. This wood can be disposed of in landfills where it is allowed, burned in bonfires with the proper permits and where it’s legal to do so, used as firewood, placed in a woodchipper that will turn the branches and logs into small wood chips that can be used for mulch or even as the raw materials for craft projects.
“Take your time, be safe,” Marquis said. “And don’t be afraid to call in professionals for help.”