How to fell a tree?
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, 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.
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Unless the tree to be removed is small—less than 15 feet high—the safest option is likely to have a tree-removing company tackle the project. No matter who ends up cutting down the tree, the following do’s and don’ts will apply.
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. If you opt to go the DIY route, it’s essential to recruit an assistant who can serve as a lookout during the cutting process.
Even if the tree you’re felling isn’t exceptionally large, say, you’re cutting down a Christmas tree, 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:
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. Keep in mind that larger chainsaws weigh more, which can lead to arm and shoulder fatigue. Average weight ranges from about 10 to 15 pounds, but some of the beefiest chainsaws weigh in excess of 20 pounds.
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 and is filled with fuel and oil. 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.
Before cutting down 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. It’s not worth the risk to try to fell a tree if dangerous conditions exist.
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Low-hanging branches can complicate the felling process if they’re not removed. They act as obstacles around the tree’s perimeter and can keep the person cutting down the tree from standing in the best spot to make the cut. Additionally, a large, low limb can cause the tree to roll or shift to one side when the tree hits the ground.
The safest solution is to take the time to cut away the low-hanging branches with the chainsaw before cutting down the tree. The caveat here is to remove only the branches that grow at or below the height of your shoulder. Operating a chainsaw in an overhead position is particularly dangerous and should be avoided.
Felling a large tree is a task too big for a single person who is often too close to the tree to tell if it’s falling as planned. The best way to ensure a safe fall is to have a reliable assistant known as a lookout. The lookout should stand a few feet behind the person who’s felling the tree. To keep the lookout a safe distance away, he should have a long stick or pole.
Devise a plan about how your lookout will signal the person using the chainsaw if there’s trouble. One way you might communicate is this: If the lookout spots trouble—if, say, they see that a large branch overhead is starting to fall—the lookout might use the stick to tap the person cutting the tree on his or her shoulder. That tap signals that the task has suddenly become unsafe and tells the person who’s cutting to leave the chainsaw and move quickly away from the immediate area, using preplanned escape paths (see below).
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. This can be avoided, but it typically requires heavy equipment and is best left to the pros.
Sight-in the tree’s height and measure the yard to 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 reasonably 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. Below, find out how to use a directional notch to aim the fall path of the tree.
Once you’ve determined that the tree is safely within your capabilities to fell, and you’ve 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 around the tree you’re about to cut down. While it may seem like a lot of work to establish escape paths, it’s the best way to mitigate the possibility of serious injury.
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 are 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. This is explained in more detail below.
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. In some cases, you may not need the felling wedges if the tree begins to fall on its own.
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.
A directional notch is made on the side of the tree facing the direction you want the tree to fall, and it consists of two separate cuts that remove a triangular portion of the tree trunk. One cut is horizontal to the ground, while the other is cut at a downward angle above the flat cut and meets the first cut. When cut properly, the two cuts meet about one-third the way into the tree trunk.
A directional notch forms a weak point in the bottom of the trunk that determines which way the tree will fall when the final cut (the felling cut) is made. When done correctly, the tree will fall in line with the notch.
Without a directional notch to direct which way the tree will fall, guessing where it will land is a crapshoot. Using a directional notch is a time-honored way of cutting down a tree and getting it to land in a safe spot.
Before beginning the cut, take all safety precautions we’ve outlined above and then follow these steps to cut a directional notch. For tree-felling newbies, it can help to wrap a chalk line horizontally around the lower part of the tree where you plan to cut in order to keep the cuts on track.
Clear the area all around the tree and work out a plan of taps between you and your lookout, who should be standing a few feet behind you in order to assess the situation as it progresses.
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. You may even have some wood that’s worth splitting for the fireplace.
Dead, diseased, or overgrown trees have to be removed, and while the tree-cutting process isn’t complex, it is dangerous if you’re not sure what you’re doing. Even an experienced DIY will likely have some questions concerning the project.
That all depends on the local ordinances in your community or county. In some cases, landowners are permitted to cut down trees. In others, a professional tree-cutting service must perform the work. Call your local building authority to ask about your community’s regulations.
The landowner of the property where the tree sits is responsible for any damage caused by the tree to the neighboring property. However, if the tree branches extend over a neighbor’s property, the neighbor can often legally cut off those branches. Again, double-check local ordinances for exact wording.
It’s typically easiest to fell the tree in the direction of the lean—unless it’s leaning toward a home or other structure. In that case, the tree should be felled in the direction opposite of the lean. That may require the use of a crane, and it involves making cuts and inserting wedges to reverse the lean, and that’s usually best left to the pros.
Having a tree professionally cut down ranges from about $400 to $1,200, with $750 being the average. The final cost depends on the size of the tree and whether anything is in the way of the fall, such as a roof or power lines.
If there's one thing chainsaws are known for, it's cutting down trees.
The act of cutting down a tree is often referred to as 'felling'. But before you go out and begin tree-felling on your own, it's important to learn how to do it safely.
Felling trees is not as simple as cutting straight through, and improper technique can be very dangerous; no one wants a tree to fall on a house, car, or worse. In fact, felling full-sized trees should be left to the professionals who are trained, have the proper equipment, and carry commercial liability insurance.
Make sure you and your crew are wearing all necessary safety gear to help prevent injury and to comply with OSHA standards.
Protective boots, chainsaw chaps, hearing protection, eye protection, a helmet, and gloves are all important items to wear when felling a tree.
Chainsaw chaps are especially important because approximately 35% of chainsaw injuries happen to the lower legs and knees. Read more about chainsaw safety gear.
You should consult with an arborist if you aren't sure if the tree you selected is a good candidate for removal. Most healthy trees provide great protection from the sun, erosion, and wind shear. Yet, there are many good reasons why felling trees on your property make sense for practical or safety reasons:
Before you begin cutting, you will need a tree-felling plan. Research local environmental regulations and find out if you need a permit to cut down a tree in your area. If it is on your property, you're likely fine, but it doesn't hurt to check. There can be hefty fines if you don't follow local codes.
Then, consider where the tree is going to fall by assessing the tree's load and lean. Determine if it's leaning to one side or if one side is fuller than the other. If it's leaning or there are more branches on one side, that's likely the direction it will fallbut there are no guarantees.
Do not fell a tree by yourself. Loose or dying branches could easily break off and fall on you, so have someone on the lookout.
Are there any other trees, structures, vehicles, power lines, driveways, sidewalks, or other important things that could be in the tree's fall path?
Trees are larger than they look, but you can roughly estimate how far they will fall using the "ax handle trick."
To do this, hold an ax handle vertically with your arm out straight. Close one eye and back away from the tree until the top of the ax handle is aligned with the treetop and the bottom of the handle is aligned with the base.
Now you'll be standing approximately where the treetop should land. Leave extra room for error if there's anything it could fall on.
Once you know approximately where the tree may fall, remove any people, pets, objects, brush, and other obstacles that could be in the falling path.
Then clear two escape routes opposite where the tree is expected to fall, so you can safely move away when the tree is falling.
Lastly, clear all brush from around the base of the tree trunk so nothing gets in your way while you're cutting or prevents the tree from falling as you expect. Generally, you should remove any branches that are less than 6 feet high from the trunk to prevent an unexpected change in direction or splintering branches as the tree falls.
There are 3 tree notch cuts commonly used in tree-felling. They are the open-face notch, the conventional notch, and the Humboldt notch. There are certain circumstances for using each, but these notches are all similar in that they create a wide-angle notch that allows the tree to fall in the direction of the notch and the direction you intended.
The open-faced notch has a high degree of safety and uses an angle of between 70-90 degrees. This notch begins with a single angled cut made one-fifth of the way through the trunk, to control the fall and mark your intended direction. This option is great for trees that are on flat or subtle-sloped terrain. The other benefits include the notch remaining intact until the tree hits the ground, leaving less chance of danger due to kickback.
To make an open-face notch cut, tilt the chainsaw and make a downward 60° angle cut, stopping one-fifth of the way through the tree. Then rotate the saw horizontally, or at a slightly upward angle, and carefully cut inward, meeting the end of the first cut. You should be able to remove a wedge from the tree, leaving a notch one-fifth of the way through the trunk.
A traditional notch cut works almost the same as the open-face cut, but with a smaller cutting angle. This is the most familiar type of cut for arborists, and the hinge breaks around the 45° mark. This type of cut is good for trees that are prone to splitting because of the smaller angle and earlier break in the notch that occurs.
To make a traditional notch cut, tilt the chainsaw and make a downward 45° angle cut, stopping one-fifth of the way through the tree. Then rotate the saw horizontally and carefully cut inward, meeting the end of the first cut. You should be able to remove a wedge from the tree, leaving a notch one-fifth of the way through the trunk.
The Humboldt notch reverses the angle of the cut. It has become a safe, efficient way to fell trees on steep slopes or uneven terrain because the angle is projected downward at a much higher degree. It also works particularly well for thick trees.
To make a Humboldt notch cut, use the chainsaw to make a horizontal cut one-fifth of the depth in the tree. Then, make an upward 45° angle cut from below to meet the end of the first cut. You should be able to remove a wedge from the tree, leaving a notch one-fifth of the way through the trunk at a downward angle.
Once you have chosen and made one of these cuts, the next step is to make the felling cut in the back of the tree.
Now that your notch is made, move around to the opposite side of the tree to make your back cut. This back cut is referred to as the "felling cut," so please remember that making this cut should result in the falling of the tree.
Start your cut a bit higher than the apex of your notch and cut at a slight downward angle toward the apex. This will prevent the tree from slipping or falling in the wrong direction.
Keep going until the tree starts falling, or until you've reached about a half-inch before the apex, then move out of the way to let the tree fall. Your lookout person should alert you to falling branches and let you know when the tree begins to fall.
If the tree isn't falling on its own, tap in a felling wedge to get it moving, then get out of the way. In cases such as this, metal felling wedges are fine, as they will hold up to being repeatedly hammered into stubborn trees on a regular basis.
Besides nudging a stubborn tree to get it moving, you can use polymer felling wedges to tap in behind your chainsaw bar to help prevent your saw from getting pinched in the trunk.
Using polymer wedges behind your saw bar during a cut is typically only necessary on very large trees, but be sure you use wedges made with a polymer to minimize damage to your chain and engage your chain brake before tapping them in.
Now that you've felled the tree, don't forget about the stump. Fortunately, we also have a guide for removing tree stumps easily using a stump grinder. A stump grinder will make easy work out of any stump removal job.