The Beginner’s Guide to Falling a Tree
If you’ve never cut down a tree but think the process seems simple enough, then you’re sorely mistaken. Tree falling is a technical process that requires solid focus, the ability to visually calculate lengths and distances, and considerable upper-body strength. Here’s a how-to guide for rookie lumberjacks.
Step 1: Procuring the saw and necessary equipment
According to Popular Mechanics, the two best chainsaws on the market are still not without their flaws. The Stihl MS 210 C-BE “cuts like a pro product” and is equipped with several user-friendly features (including an integrated choke and a throttle lock), but the engine floods easily and this model can be expensive. The Husqavarna 240e, on the other hand, starts easily and operates smoothly, but users require a screwdriver to remove the cover that houses the air filter and spark plug (a time-consuming annoyance). PM also gives an honorable mention for the Echo CS-370, a sturdy model that would be almost perfect were it not for a “small starter handle”.
Chainsaw size does matter, and the size of the trees you plan to cut down (and encounter in the future) should influence your purchase; smaller models are ideal for backyard brushing and clearing, while larger saws should be used on firs, oaks, cedars, and other larger species. Like any other product, long-term quality and high performance of a chainsaw is reflected by the price-tag. A new chainsaw can be purchased for less than $300, while used models will obviously run less — but since the safety features and performance levels diminish with age, it might be in your best interest to spring for the former. While you’re at the store, pick up safety goggles, leather gloves, earplugs, a helmet, and a pair of chaps that cover the entire length of your legs; chainsaw injuries are ugly and often fatal, so cutting without protection is simply stupid. Other accessories you’ll need include a set of plastic wedges, a faller’s axe, cannisters for bar oil and gasoline, and chainsaw gas mix.
Upon returning home, store your newly purchased saw indoors where sunlight and rainfall won’t affect it (such as the garage or well-fortified backyard shed).
Before using the saw to wreak havoc on that cluster of birches along your fence line, a little Chainsaw Mechanics 101 is in order. With the help of an owner’s manual, practice assembling and disassembling the saw. Learn how to replace the air filter and spark plug, and master the art of filing the chain and affixing it to the bar. While the saw is at rest, practice hitting the emergency brake. Get used to holding the chainsaw on its side, and use a large section of firewood to practice using the dogs (sharp spikes at the base of the bar used to guide the angle of the cut).
Once you’re comfortable, bring the chainsaw outside and take it for a spin by starting it and revving the engine; if the chain is properly installed, it will rotate with the bar and produce a dull hum; if the sound is high-pitched, the chain may be too tight. When you’re ready to cut wood, don’t start with falling; instead, practice bucking — cutting stationary logs into circular sections — to get a feel for the saw’s cutting capabilities. If the chain is sharp and the log is lying flat on the ground, then the saw should easily cut to the bottom in a matter of seconds.
One final note on fuel: most chainsaws will not run on straight gasoline, so you’ll want to make a batch of pre-mixed gas prior to filling up your saw. Simply empty the bottle of mix into a gallon container, fill the remaining space with premium gasoline, and give the can a good shake. The concoction should be light blue when you pour it into the saw.
Step 3: Determine the falling route
OK, you’ve bought the saw, learned to maintain it, successfully started the engine and cut up some logs. Now it’s time to fall a tree — but before you even turn on your chainsaw, there’s some work to be done. Take a walk around the tree you wish to fall; note how high it is, the direction of its lean (if any) and the diameter of its base. You always want to fall trees in the general direction of their lean, so eyeball the desired falling area to ensure that there are no houses, cars, fences, or other structures in the tree’s path.
Also keep an eye out for roots, vines, plants, and any other obstacles that prevent you from having full access to the tree and standing on solid ground. Remove all hazards before you begin cutting. Speaking of hazards, it’s important to determine an escape route in case the cut goes awry. This path should be straight and also free of obstructions — so be sure to clear an entire route prior to each tree you fall.
Finally, measure the diameter of the base to determine the size of your bar and chain; you’ll need the saw to cut through at least half of the trunk.
Follow these steps once you have determined your tree’s falling route and installed the appropriate bar and chain.
- With the brake engaged, start the saw and carefully transport it to the tree you wish to cut.
- As the engine idles, hold the bar on its side and affix the dogs to the tree’s left or right side.
- Disengage the brake, press the trigger and lightly guide the chain to create a cut that runs parallel to the ground and forms a half-circle. The falling route should match the half-circle’s exact (or close to exact) center; your chainsaw should be equipped with sights on both of its sides to help determine if your first cut lines up with the falling route. Place small twigs at both ends of the first cut to help guide the next cut.
- Return to the origin site of your first cut. Fix the dogs into the trunk and pivot the bar roughly 70 degrees upward.
- Guide the saw to make a cut that travels to the end point of the first cut; if done correctly, you will be able to remove a chunk of wood that leaves behind a wedge shaped impression with two flat surfaces. It is very important that the corners of your wedge cut match the corners of your half-circle cut; if not, carve out the corners and flatten the surfaces with the tip of the bar until a clean shape is created. This is known as the ‘face cut’, and its length should cover roughly 80 percent of the tree’s diameter. Note: some fallers prefer to cut the wedge and half-circle in reverse order; either method is effective.
- With the face cut completed, its time to begin the ‘back cut’. The back-cut should begin roughly one or two inches above either corner of the wedge cut. There should also be a space between the corners of the face cut and the points of the back cut that comprises roughly 10 percent of the diameter; this is called ‘holding wood’, and its preservation is necessary for performing a controlled fall — so whatever you do, don’t cut through it. As with the first cut, the back cut should create a half-circular shape.
- If the back cut is in place and the holding wood is still intact but the tree hasn’t fallen, then it’s time to utilize the wedges. Begin by placing a wedge on the exact opposite of the falling route and hammer it into the trunk using the top of your faller’s axe. It’s common to hear a popping sound during this step; that’s the sound of you successfully falling the tree.
- If you hammer the first wedge all the way in and the tree still hasn’t fallen, try placing two more wedges on either side of the first one and alternate between hitting them both.
Step 5: Cleaning up
Falling etiquette dictates that you remove all traces of your cut by bucking the fallen tree into movable sections and rolling them to less conspicuous locations. Finally, cut the standing stump at the base and dispose of it (or keep it as a souvenir, if you like). When your cutting is finished for the day, head on down to the local saloon for a pitcher of Coors Light. You’ve earned it.
Be methodical. Be technical. Above all else, please be safe. And don’t forget to have fun — there’s nothing quite like the thrill of your first fallen tree, provided the cut goes smoothly and the mighty beast falls where it should. For more information about chainsaw safety and falling classes, please contact your local US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or Department of Natural Resources office.