So this is a topic that I have been hinting at for awhile now, and now that I have a little bit of experience in this matter, I will gladly share what I have learned thus far about taking down trees, safely without using a chainsaw. It has always been the case that I knew I would need to clear trees on my property but there was a few hang ups that prevented me from getting on this. First and foremost, I needed to clear the brush underneath my trees, but now that this is done (for the most part) I can start taking down trees.
I wanted to right this quick tutorial because this large task is something that I think could be very daunting to a person who is just getting into homesteading, and after learning first hand about how approachable this really is, and now getting my feet wet, its quite clear that anybody can do it, and do it safe.
Why Hand Tools?
Taking down trees without the use of powered tools has just always appealed to me and I had feelings that it couldn’t be that much more work or that much more difficult than using a chainsaw. If you don’t already know, chainsaws are insanely dangerous. In my opinion, there is no question about it, running a chainsaw (to include an electric one) is much more dangerous than felling trees (depends on the tree obviously). So the combination of the two is quite a scary situation to say the least. The slightest kick back on a saw that is unexpected could mean serious damage to a limb or even your face.
Another reason why I have wanted to go the hand tool route is that running a chainsaw is extremely loud and really takes away from the intimate connection of being outside and working when you have to hear machinery. Anytime you would need to wear ear phones when working outside, indicates you’re definitely not making any real connection with nature. Am I really the only one who doesn’t like to hear trucks drive by, and buzz saws in the background while I’m enjoying myself outside?
So when I decided to start looking into felling trees I came across this web page which explains the basics of felling trees. Wood Harvesting With Hand Tools. I found it to be very informational and quick. The section on Felling Trees in Tropical Forests I can appreciate MUCH MUCH more, considering the amount of vines between some of the trees I’ve cut down is intense. (Indeed just today a thin tall tree was a major pain in the butt because it was being held by 3 strong vines.) I highly recommend reading this before continuing further.
When I went to Ben Falk’s PDC at Whole Systems Design in Vermont, I learned about felling trees and also about chainsaw usage in general. The “skill share” was intended to encourage people to take on this task and show that you can definitely do it once you know what you are doing. To prove how approachable it is, the instructor used a Corona pruning saw (yes a very small saw) to cut down a very thin 65 year old maple tree. Yes you read that right, a 65 year old maple tree. It was about 30 feet tall, and needless to say I was stunned with how easy, and clearly safe it was by comparison to the chainsaw demonstration. I left there completely confident that I (and anybody else) could fell trees, right then and there, and even do it without spending a half a thousand dollars on a “quality” chainsaw, protective chaps, and all sorts of other chainsaw specific gear. (I’m not beating up on a chainsaw or using one, but handling a chainsaw is one task, cutting a tree down is another, and using a chainsaw to cut down a tree is yet another task).
There is a few things that you’ll need to get if you’re going to start felling trees with hand tools. Some are needed regardless of whether you’re using a chainsaw or not and others aren’t quite so obvious but I have found to be very useful.
– A large bow saw
– A Crosscut saw (This can be helpful but NOT required, even for largeish trees 12+ inches a bow saw works VERY well).
– Helmet (A face guard is very useful)
– Gloves (Use always useful to wear some good gloves)
– Felling Wedges (An assortment from small to large, I bought 6)
– A sledge hammer, or the back end of a maul (for knocking in the wedges)
– An axe (for removing bark, and making the face cut)
– A bubble based level (EXTREMELY helpful for getting the cuts flat and level for very precise felling)
– A long rope with a weight on an end (If you are taking down trees that have vines that you can’t get out ahead of time, you may have to pull the tree down).
– (Optional) Hand Pruners or loppers. You may need these to help you clear connecting vines to the tree.
That is all I use, other than a machete to help me clear anything that may be around the tree. This all may sound like a lot, but every one of these things together, is cheaper than a decent chainsaw. I should note there is no other protective gear needed because nearly all protective gear normally used is to protect you from the CHAINSAW. I DO NOT recommend using ear plugs (why would you?). Being able to hear really increases your awareness and connection with the tree being felled.
For reference this is the stuff that I bought that you can get on Amazon. (The Crosscut saw was purchased on Ebay, here is a posting I did that talks about it more indepth.)
How To Fell A Tree Using Hand Tools
Ok down to brass tacks. I cannot recommend enough starting small and moving up. It definitely allows you to get the fundamentals down and work your way up. I practiced the steps on trees that were 10 foot tall and maybe 5 inches in diameter. If they fell on my head, it wouldn’t have even been a big deal. Felling a tree is accomplished in the following steps.
1. Ensure that you probably have enough skill to take down the tree safely. This shouldn’t be taken as a “don’t cut down trees unless you’re an expect” but more of a reminder that you need to make sure to match the trees difficulty with your own capabilities. Jumping from a small tree to a larger tree, feels like a large step (it kind of is), but its not THAT much different than a smaller one, generally except the dangerous issue of stray limbs that can fall.
2. Clear around the tree and make sure its easy to step around and walk and work, without the tools catching on loose things, and making sure that you have the ability to move out of the way, if something just doesn’t go right. This is a good way to work in any situation, and when you’re toppling a multi-hundred pound tree, you want to be able to move and work without irritations like small vines catching your saw.
3. Trim the bark around the base of the tree giving yourself roughly a foot of clean tree to work with. It helps with being able to see your cuts, and preventing dulling of your saw blades (its not instantaneous dulling or anything, but its just good practice). This should be done with an axe, or hachet.
4. Line up your saw to make the horizontal face cut making sure that the cutting edge is roughly perpendicular to where you want it to fall. I hold up the saw in position and put a level on it to make sure its as flat in all directions as possible.
5. Make the horizontal face cut, cutting in about a third of the length of the tree. As I start to cut in and get to a point where the kerf (the opening made by the saw) can hold the blade in place and get behind the tree and make sure its aimed exactly where I want. It should be exactly perpendicular (90 degrees) from where you want it to fall.
6. Use the axe to finish the face cut by making a 60% angle cut that should connect to the back of the horizontal cut. It is EXTREMELY important that the cuts meet together, particularly that the horizontal cut is NOT deeper than the top cut. If you think about this logically you’ll understand that if the tree starts to fall it won’t be rotating like a hinge, but rather will have to drop down to make contact with the horizontal cut.
7. Clear out the face cut making sure everything is nice and even, and at this point make sure that the face cut is indeed open to the exact direction you want. You can put the level, or something else flat and long inside the cut and get behind the tree and look at it perpendicular. (If you’re using a chainsaw they have aiming sights and all that jazz).
8. You’ll now start on the back cut. Just like the face cut, the saw needs to be dead level. I again use the level for this.
9. The back cut which should be at least an inch higher (preferably a bit more) than the horizontal cut. The back cut should be perfectly parallel with your face cut, unless you’re trying to cut down more difficult trees that require some sort of compensation due to leaning. The goal is to get within about an inch of the BOTTOM of the face cut. It is VERY important that the back cut doesn’t extend out OVER the bottom triangle part of the face cut. (I don’t think you’ll get there because the tree will fall, anywhere it wants, probably on your saw blade, by that point). It seems to me about an inch to 3 inches behind is the sweet spot when the tree begins to respond to wedges.
10. While you’re doing the back cut, continually look on both sides of the cut to make sure you’re indeed making a parallel cut. Put the saw in the cut, making sure it is firmly against the edge, walking around to the back and make sure it is perpendicular to the desired direction. Every tree I cut I have to make some small adjustments to make sure that this is the case.
11. Once you get within a few inches within being above the bottom of the face cut, start attempting to put in wedges. I find that if the tree isn’t close to the end, you just cannot put wedges in what so ever. (I haven’t used very heavy duty wedges and the back of a large maul, but I bet that might help.) My 3 pound sledge hammer and plastic wedges absolutely will not make a tree move unless I’m getting within a few inches of the end. Once you can start to get wedges in, then continue knocking them in till the tree start to creak. Continue to look up and watch the trees movements, and if you start to hear some creaking you’ll know its about that time to just start walking away from where the tree is falling. (Do not walk directly behind obviously, but at an angle away). If the tree is falling towards, run like hell! (smartly of course, panicking is the fastest way to get killed).
I should say that wedges do two things. They keep the tree from falling back on the back cut and therefore pinching the saw and they assist in tilting the tree in the desired direction. They are clearly the safest way to fell the tree.
12. Determine how well you did at aiming the tree, and analyze your cut surfaces for how well you did.
A Few Additional Tips
Here is a few things that I do in specific detail that I did not list above because of how my saw setup works. Depending on how I feel, I generally use the bow saw to start cuts and make sure they’re going in the right direction and then finish up with the crosscut saw. What I’ve noticed is that the bow saw cuts EXTREMELY fast. It is impressive how fast I can make these cuts with that saw. I have also noticed that I can get the starting cuts really accurate with the saw, however, as the cutting goes on it gets worse and worse. (For some reason it seems to continually cut more upwards turning parabolic). For this reason I use the crosscut saw to open up the cuts, and finish them.
Because the trees I’m cutting are not massive, I cannot keep my crosscut saw in the tree, while driving in wedges, which is really what you want (to prevent pinching, and assists in keeping the tree in the right direction). With that in mind the bow saw does not create a kerf large enough to put the wedges in. I’m kind of screwed on both ends so I bounce back and forth between saws on the back cut. I first start it with the bow saw making sure the cut is parallel, I then open up the kerf with the large back saw cutting the majority of the tree open. The last few inches, I’ll switch to the bow saw, while putting in at LEAST two wedges (one on each side) pointing angled inwards. As I go along I continually check to see if I can get the wedges in deeper, and if so, I stop all sawing, and tap the wedges in alternating back and forth. As I tap them I am listening and watching the tree very carefully. If they can go in, that means the tree is definitely tiling and responding to the wedge effect.
That is all there is to it!! While it seems like a lot, I tried to go in depth and share as much around my personal situation as possible to encourage people to take on this task with the kind of zeal that I have. I should note that I have not dealt with any dead trees, very large trees, very wide trees, extremely leaning trees, or non softwood trees (like pines, or very large sumacs, chinese tallow trees). I REALLY enjoy this process, and while it gives you an arm work out, it really doesn’t take THAT much longer than a chainsaw. I feel at this point that the slowness makes you spend more time doing the job right, being safe, and enjoying the whole process more. I really don’t think cutting down 40-100 foot trees should occur in a matter of minutes, especially considering the tree may have taken 15-30 years to grow that all. Also I should say that getting a little upper body workout is probably in all of our best interests.