How to Cut Down a Tree With a Chainsaw

How to Cut Down a Tree With a Chainsaw

Tree Felling Step-By-Step Guide

Dale, the Chain Saw Expert
Chain Saw Expert

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. 

Important: Wear Proper Safety Gear

Safety Gear

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.

Reasons to Cut Down a Tree

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:

  • The tree has fallen or has been severely damaged and is not safe
  • The tree is unhealthy or has died (bacterial, fungal, or viral diseases; invasive species like the Emerald Ash Borer)
  • The tree is too close to your home's foundation or other structure (roots or branch concerns)
  • The tree is not suitable for the climate, is invasive, or is overpopulating the area
  • You need a good source of wood for fires or projects and replant the trees you fell
  • You have a tree removal business

How to Cut Down a Tree

1. Plan Before You Cut

Balance of a Tree

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 fall—but 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.

2. Estimate the Reach

Measuring the Fall

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.

3. Clear the Cutting Area

Clearing an Escape Route

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.

4. Cut a Notch to Control the Fall

Cutting a Felling Notch

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.

Important things to remember:

  • Always make the first cut on the side of the tree in the direction where you want it to fall.
  • Notch depth matters: never cut too deeply into the tree.
  • Make the notch lower than 4 feet high if possible.
  • Go very slow and pay attention to your cut.
  • The thickness of the hinge should be substantial, but not thicker than several inches to ensure it will break under the weight of your felling cut.

How to make an open-face notch cut

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.

How to make a conventional notch cut

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.

How to make a Humboldt notch cut (inverse notch)

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.

5. Make Your Back Cut

Making a Felling Cut

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.

6. Use a Felling Wedge

Felling Wedges

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. 

Polymer Felling Wedge

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.

How to Remove the Tree Stump

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. 

NEXT: How to Pick the Perfect Chain Saw

Dale, the Chain Saw Expert
Chain Saw Expert
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