How to Chop Down a Tree

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"Dropping a tree is one of the most dangerous jobs there is," says Todd Wilson, Region 1 Technical Chainsaw Coordinator for the United States Forest Service. "Every single year it tops the list as one of the most dangerous professions on the planet." In other words, cutting down a tree is not as easy as it looks.

Before you undertake chopping down a tree, do your homework. Take the time to observe your surroundings, to apprise yourself of any hidden obstacles, get the lay of the land. Make sure to be wearing correct gear (chaps, helmet, eye & ear protection, gloves, boots, and long pants) to protect your body. Then, you can follow Wilson's five basic steps to felling trees, which he outlines for us here. "They might seem common sense, but you would be surprised how many people ignore them."  

1. Assess the Hazards
The first thing any potential logger does is examine the tree from top to bottom looking for any defects. It has been there for decades and can be loaded with hazards. "The single most deadly part of the tree is the canopy, when branches fall from above they can crush unsuspecting individuals below," says Wilson. Indeed, 95 percent of tree-related deaths come from above. Once you have examined the top, look at the bole (trunk) for cracks, holes, or any other defects. Slowly work your way down. Are there large roots in the way, rocks to trip you? 

2. Determine the Lean
All trees have a natural lean to them. Look at it from all sides to determine where it is in the one you are planning on felling. "Once you determine which way it wants to fall, you need to make sure it has a clear path, no power lines, homes, other trees," says Wilson. If it seems there isn't an obvious lean, use a plumb bob or level to determine.

3. Plan your Escape Route
"Too many people forget to plot their escape route and find themselves stymied just as the tree starts to tip," says Wilson. The rule of thumb is you need twenty feet of escape room at minimum. Most important is to plan your path heading at a 45-degree angle away from the direction the tree will be falling. If the tree kicks back (the bottom of the cut part shoots straight backwards instead of staying attached to the base) the last place you want to be is directly behind it.

4. Make the Face Cut
The first cut you make is on the side of the tree where you expect it to fall. Start at waist level and cut at roughly a 70-degree angle into the tree, top to bottom. Once your cut has reached a width of 80 percent of the face of the tree, stop cutting. If looking at the tree from straight on, you would see small parts of the bark visible on each side of the cut. You then put your second cut on the bottom, straight into the tree to meet up with the bottom of your initial cut. It should form a perfect wedge that falls right out. "Don't cut too deep into the face of the tree; you are just putting a cut to help direct the tree," says Wilson. "The back cut is the one that will drop it."

5. The Back Cut: Now that the wedge is out of the front, you begin cutting directly behind it two to three inches above the bottom apex. The idea is to leave part of the trunk attached the whole way down to act as a hinge directing the tree as it falls. "You never actually cut all the way through the tree to the face cut — that is highly dangerous," says Wilson. "The hinge is crucial." If you start cutting and the tree looks like it might not fall towards the face, insert a wedge or two to help direct it.