Cutting Down Firewood — How to Fell Trees Safely and Accurately

Cut the notch that aims the tree with ax or saw. The same fundamental system works for trees of all sizes. Photo by State Records NSW at Flickr.com

Considering how many people cut their own firewood without any training other than reading the chainsaw starting instructions, there are surprisingly few injuries among modern woodsmen. Many people work in the woods alone, ignoring the very practical official advice to always work with a partner. Amateur woodcutters probably don’t realize that cutting trees is one of the most dangerous occupations available. Knowing a few basic steps in the process helps avoid many disasters.

When I was growing up, I spent a large part of my summer helping my father cut the winter’s wood and haul it to the yard to dry. Then I spent a lot of my winter carrying the wood into the house to fuel the fireplace. We went through a lot of wood, and when we weren’t cutting wood for heating we were cutting wood to sell to the local charcoal plant. Through all of that, my father never bothered to learn how to cut down a tree in a controlled manner. He always just cut them straight through and hoped for the best, letting them fall where nature aimed them. On many occasions that was right back onto the saw blade, trapping the saw until a neighbor showed up to cut us loose. That only happened after hours of us pushing on the tree trunk trying to tip it over the right way again. Dad was stubborn.


If you want to work by hand,
get the Bailey Work Axe,
designed by a lumberjack.

When I started doing my own logging, I cut trees for lumber, not stove wood, and to do that I needed a system that brought the trees down where I intended to put them. If I misjudged the operation and landed a tree in another tree it took many hours of rigging and levering and winching to get the tree out. Selective logging isn’t easy. I always managed to extract my mistakes, but realized very quickly that I should learn what other people did to avoid those problems.

In most cases, cutting a tree down requires nothing more than good judgement, the right tools, and a knowledge of the stepped-notch method. On the side of the tree that faces the direction you want the tree to fall, you cut a deep notch exactly one-third the diameter of the trunk. The notch should be exactly horizontal and the back of the notch should be straight and perpendicular to the line of fall.

felling trees

Felling wedges can compensate for a slight lean in the wrong direction or for unbalanced weight in the tree's crown. You can buy hard plastic felling wedges or make your own from a hardwood that doesn't compress. Seasoned dogwood works the best.

On the side facing away from the line of fall, you crosscut almost two-thirds of the way through the tree, making a horizontal cut two or three inches higher than the back of the notch. This leaves a strip of wood to act as a hinge, controlling the tree’s fall until stresses overcome the hinge and break it free. In most cases you’ll be able to select the natural lean of the tree as the chosen line of fall, and as you weaken the trunk it tips slowly without any extra push.


Felling wedges control the fall
of difficult trees. Plastic works
nearly as well as dogwood.

Sometimes you can cut against the lean of the tree, if the trunk isn’t tilted more than a few degrees out of vertical. You can only do this if you have enough space behind the crosscut or chainsaw blade to insert two or more hardwood or plastic wedges to prevent the tree from tipping back. After cutting up to the hinge of the cut, pull the saw out and carefully tap the wedges deeper to straighten the tree and tip it over. Usually that works. I leave a thicker hinge than usual when I do this, because I don’t want the hinge to fail at the wrong moment. If I can tip the tree on a hinge two inches thick, that’s good. If it won’t tip, I’ll weaken the hinge a little more and try again.

Many things can go wrong, and they usually go wrong quickly, either as the tree falls or shortly afterward. If you cut the guiding notch too deep, the trunk can split up the middle and bend one half of the split without breaking the hinge. Pressure builds, and when the hinge does break, the trunk springs upward and the halves snap shut. The trunk will probably kick back a few feet when this happens, and if you’re standing in the way you can quickly become organic mush spread on the base of the log. On rare occasions trees can kick back even if you cut them correctly. After the force of the fall compresses limbs,  the tree springs back in the opposite direction before settling.


Longer felling wedges boost
the corrective power of a
wedge for felling or bucking.
You might still need to make
your own for odd situations.

Whenever you’re cutting a tree, it’s a brilliant idea to clear an exit route behind you and to either side. If unexpected things happen you want to be well out of the way, not on the ground because you tripped over some underbrush. Don’t run straight back, making yourself a target for a kicking log. Move to a safe place far to the side of the falling tree. I usually keep moving until the tree stops moving, just to be sure. People who get careless and think they know what a tree will do often get killed by trees.

Some of the trickiest work comes after the tree goes down, because now all that dangerous weight is balanced on part of the tree’s crown. The branches holding up that weight are bent and broken and can gradually give way, causing a sudden shift. If you happen to be working on the side that collapses, the log can roll and settle on top of you. Again, one of the smartest things you can do is to clear the area so you don’t get trapped in a mesh of limbs at that awkward moment. Trim the smaller branches out carefully, watching for any that are under pressure. Most will lash away from you towards the ground when cut loose, but a trapped limb that bends outward or upward can snap back at you when cut free. I’ve seen this happen to others, and it’s a fact that an oak branch with an end the size of your thumb can smack a full-grown person on the cheek bone hard enough to knock them flat on their back. It’s best to be careful and not trust to luck. Always think about where that branch will go when it suddenly straightens out again.


U.S. military tent stove
heater, 35K BTU’s, a great
stove for a hunting cabin
or fishing camp tent. Burns
the wood you cut.

With running room prepared, you can now trim off the larger limbs, tackling the ones that aren’t supporting much of the load, first. With each lesser support that you remove, the tree sits more securely on the main limbs that hold it up, and movements become easier to predict. Tackle one of the last two supports carefully. Often an axe makes better sense than a chainsaw for limbing the tree, since all you need to do is cut into the stressed side of the branch. Axes work quietly, and you can hear the warning pops and snaps the tree makes just before dramatic things happen. Work from the uphill side, even if it’s a little difficult. If you’re standing on the uphill side of the log you at least aren’t in the path the log takes if it rolls downhill. When finally the trunk does settle to the ground, leave one strong limb as a peavey handle. With a strong upper limb of six or eight feet in length and three or four inches in diameter left on the trunk, you can crosscut firewood bolts nearly through the log, for the entire length of the trunk, and have a handy way to turn the log afterward. The peavey limb stops the log from rolling and provides enough leverage to intentionally roll the log when you’re ready to finish the cuts. A peavey limb offers more leverage than a cant hook and costs nothing.


Small enough to be portable;
fits in ice fishing huts and
temporary shelters, with pot
grid for cooking what
you catch.

One of the most helpful safety measures you can take is to stop and think. When you’re cutting firewood, don’t get in a big hurry about it. Either you have time or you don’t, and hurrying won’t compensate for a late start on the season. If you have any doubts about what the tree will do when it falls,  or which limb to cut first when it’s down, take a few minutes for some sitting and speculating. Back in the days when tobacco was a healthy habit, it was a great excuse to light up a pipe or a cigarette, or bite down on the end of a plug. Sadly, there’s no modern substitute for that old tradition. I miss it lots.

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