How to Fell a Tree Using a Chainsaw

USA, Montana, Lakeside, lumberjack felling tree
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Although cutting down a tree isn't difficult to do, the process can be dangerous. Before you fire up the chainsaw, make sure that you've got the right tools for the job and the proper safety gear.

01
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Before You Begin

USA, Montana, Lakeside, portrait of lumberjack
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Dress accordingly, with work pants (made of denim or another tough fabric) and a long-sleeved shirt to protect your arms and legs from flying debris. Always use protective glasses and ear plugs. Steel-capped boots and nonslip gloves are also recommended. It's also a good idea to consider a work helmet to protect your head from falling branches, especially if you're working in a thickly wooded area.

Once you've got your safety gear on and you've inspected your chainsaw to make sure it's in good working order, you're ready to get started felling a tree.

02
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Determine Your Fall Path

Logger.
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Before you fire up the chainsaw, you'll need to determine the best direction for the tree to topple and land after you cut it. This is called the fall path. Visualize the fall path in all directions and identify points that are free of other trees. The clearer your fall path, the less likely the tree you're cutting will get logged against other trees or rocks as it comes down. A clear path also reduces the chance of the falling tree kicking up debris (called throwback) that could strike and injure you.

Always observe the lean of a tree. It is generally easier and safer to fell a tree in the direction that it is already leaning. Fell in a direction that minimizes the chance that the tree will roll or slide. To make removal easier, fell the tree so the butt faces the road (or path of removal). If you're clearing several trees, make sure the fall path is consistent with the felling pattern of the other trees. This also makes for efficient limbing and removal. 

03
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Choose a Felling Retreat

Man walking through forest with chainsaw looking up
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Once you've determined the best fall path, you should identify a safe place to stand as the tree comes down. This is called the felling retreat. The direction of safe retreat from a falling tree is at 45 degrees from the sides and back on either side of your cutting position. Never move away directly behind the tree. You can be seriously hurt if the tree butt kicks back during the fall.

04
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Choose Where to Cut

A contractor working for Crook Logging (a company based in Groveland, California) falls a tree damaged during the Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest along Evergreen Road near Yosemite National Park
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To fell a tree with a chainsaw, you will need to make three cuts, two on the face and one on the back. The face cut, sometimes called a notch cut, comes first. It must be made on the side of the tree that faces the fall path. There are three types of face cuts:

  • Open-faced: This has a wide notch of about 90 degrees and a back cut even with the notched corner. This is the safest, most accurate notch for felling a tree.
  • Conventional: This notch has an angled top cut and a flat bottom cut, creating a 45-degree angle. The back cut should be about 1 inch above the bottom cut.
  • Humbolt: This notch has a flat top cut and an angled bottom cut, creating a 45-degree angle. The back cut should be about 1 inch above the top cut.

You'll need to stand to the side of the trunk as you carve the notch cut. Do not stand in front of the face or you risk serious injury. If you're right-handed, make the face cut on the right side of the trunk; if you're left-handed, notch the face on the left.

05
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Make the Notch Cut

Logger Cutting Down Hardwood Tree
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Begin by making the top cut of the face notch. Choose a starting point at a height that allows enough room for the undercut. Cut downward at an angle consistent with the type of notch you are making. For example, if you're using a Humbolt notch, your top cut will be at 90 degrees to the trunk (this is called the angle of attack). Stop when the cut reaches 1/4 to 1/3 of the trunk's diameter or when the cut reaches 80 percent of the tree's diameter at chest level.

Once you've completed your top cut, the bottom cut is next. Begin at a level that will create the proper angle as you cut. For instance, if you're using the Humbolt notch, your angle of attack should be at 45 degrees to your top cut. Stop when the cut reaches the end point of the face cut.

06
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Making the Back Cut

Crook Logging, based in Groveland, California, removing trees damaged during the Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest along Evergreen Road near Yosemite National Park; Groveland, California, United States of America
Tracy Barbutes / Getty Images

The back cut is made on the opposite side of the notch. It disconnects almost all of the tree from the stump, creating a hinge that helps to control the tree's fall. Begin on the opposite side of the notch at the same level as the notched corner.

Always start on the side of the tree and work your way around to the back. This will help maintain a level angle of attack. Be careful not to cut too fast and don't be afraid to stop and check your work as you proceed. You'll want to stop the back cut about 2 inches from the face notch's inner angle.

The tree should begin to topple on its own in the direction of the fall path. Never turn your back on the falling tree. Back quickly away to a distance of 20 feet from it. Position yourself behind a standing tree if possible to protect yourself from projectiles and debris.

07
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Cut Your Tree Into Logs

MAN MEASURING LOGS, NATURAL RESOURCE WOOD
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Once you've felled the tree, you'll want to remove its limbs and cut them into logs. This is called limbing. You'll also need to saw the trunk into manageable sections that you can chop up or haul off. This is called bucking.

Before you make a cut, though, you must make sure the downed tree is stable. Otherwise, the tree could shift as you're cutting or even roll on top of you, creating the risk of serious injury. If the tree is not stable, use wedges or chocks to secure it first. Remember also that bigger limbs are heavy and can fall on you as you cut them. Start with the topmost branches and work your way back along the tree toward the base. Stand on the uphill side of each limb as you cut so that they will fall away from you. 

Once you've limbed the tree and cleared the debris, you're ready to begin bucking. Again, start at the top of the tree and work your way toward the base, always away from the fall path of each section of trunk. The length of each section will depend on where this wood will end up. If you're planning to sell the wood to a lumber mill, you'll want to cut the trunk into 4-foot lengths. If you're planning to use the wood to heat your home, cut 1- or 2-foot sections that you can later divide into smaller portions.