Wood Cutting Made Slightly Less Dangerous – Part 1, by The Novice

Editor’s Introductory Note: The following are some recounted experiences, observations, and advice, earned through experience. I hope that you benefit from this, and thereby avoid repeating the author’s mistakes. – JWR

Incident 1

It was an unremarkable autumn day: pleasantly cool, and a trifle overcast. I had thrown some logs on top of the last load of wood that I had hauled. Those logs now needed to be bucked for splitting.

All of the proper protective equipment was in place: eye protection, hard hat with attached hearing protection and face screen, gloves, Kevlar chainsaw chaps, and sturdy footwear. As I prepared to start the chainsaw, I noticed a hole in the thumb of my right glove. I commented to my wife, “The next time we go to the hardware store, I need to pick up a new pair of gloves.” Then I started the saw.

After the first log had been bucked, I turned the saw to set it down. Something tweaked my right thumb. I looked down and saw a surprising amount of blood.

Observation: Wood cutting can be dangerous: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, logging workers have the most dangerous occupation in the United States, with a fatal injury rate of 135.9 per 100,000 workers per year and a non-fatal injury rate of 2,449 per 100,000 workers per year. A task that is so dangerous for trained and experienced professionals poses significant risks to less experienced amateurs like me.

Observation: Damaged or worn out protective equipment may not protect: Murphy’s Law says that if something can go wrong, it will. I am still not sure how the chain managed to seek out the one hole in my gloves. In a dangerous environment, being truly prepared means being prepared even for unlikely occurrences.

I put pressure on the wound with my other glove, and asked my wife to get something with which to control the bleeding. She ran into the house and grabbed one of her best dish towels. After applying direct pressure with the dish towel for a couple of minutes, I removed it to assess the wound. I saw a large flap of white, dead-looking skin. It was rapidly inundated by a rising tide of blood. I said, “I think I need stitches. We should probably go to the emergency room.”

Observation: When you or a loved one is bleeding, it may be difficult to make good decisions: Based upon an objective assessment of the injury, urgent care would have been a more cost effective solution than the emergency room. But the words “chainsaw injury” and “emergency room” somehow seemed to go together at the time.

Observation: Telling emergency room personnel that you have been injured with a chainsaw is a good way to get prompt attention.

In the treatment room, the doctor put an o-ring around the base of my thumb to stop the bleeding. He then cut away the dead skin, cleaned the wound, and glued it together with super glue. Finally he removed the o-ring and applied a dressing. With the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, I realized that I could have provided similar treatment at home. I have since used this knowledge after reaching into a tool box and grabbing the wrong end of a cutting implement.

Observation: I am not a medical professional. This is not intended as medical advice. Patrick F. McManus would characterize my ministrations as “miner surgery”. See “Tying My Own” in They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They?)

The entire experience ended up costing me some minor discomfort, about $1,000 in medical bills, and one of my wife’s best dish towels. That was a relatively modest price to pay for a memorable lesson on the dangers of wood cutting, the importance of properly maintaining protective equipment, and the treatment of moderate finger lacerations. The cost of such lessons is often much higher.

Incident 2

It was New Year’s Day. The day dawned bright and clear with a light dusting of snow. Temperatures were in the twenties. I woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to trim a branch on “the bee tree”.

“The bee tree” is a hollow maple next to our driveway. The branch in question hung over the driveway and hindered the passage of taller vehicles. I had been waiting for temperatures to drop low enough to discourage the bees from attacking me while I worked.

Observation: Stinging insects present a hazard to wood cutters. The stings themselves are not the primary danger, although the CDC reports that for the years 2000 through 2017, an average of 62 people died each year due to hornet, wasp, and bee stings. The greater risk involves our attempts to avoid stings while participating in activities such as climbing a tree or operating a chainsaw. Carefully inspect your work area for stinging insects before beginning a project.

Several bees sallied forth to resist the assault on their tree, but succumbed to the cold before they could do any harm.

The branch ran near the power line that supplies our house. I believed that I could cut the branch in a way that would cause it to miss the power line as it fell. My wife believed the same thing.

Observation: While working near power lines, if you need to ask someone else for reassurance that you are doing the right thing, you are probably not doing the right thing.

Observation: Power lines present a serious hazard to wood cutters. According to the CDC, between 1980 and 1992, an average of 411 American workers died each year because of electrical exposure.

The falling branch landed on the power line, ripping the power mast from the side of our house. My wife went inside and reported a burning smell. I then shut off the main breaker.

Observation: Sometimes when the Schumer hits the fan, it is because I threw it there myself. I had unintentionally created a temporary, localized grid-down situation in our home. This had also partly simulated an EMP attack. A power surge had fried the circuits in most of our “wall wart” power cubes.

Observation: Unintentional preparedness drills are irritating. 

Observation: Linemen and electricians are not particularly happy about being called into work on New Year’s Day. The electrician was a friend who had a similar experience, so he at least was a little sympathetic. The total cost between the power company and the electrician came out to somewhere in the neighborhood of $800, if I remember correctly.

Observation: If you do something dangerous that has a 90% chance of success, and you do it ten times without incident, you are overdue for something bad to happen. Be extremely cautious when working near power lines. Know your limits. When in doubt, don’t do it.

Safety Tips

Here are a few tips to make woodcutting slightly less dangerous, which for emphasis I am including in BOTH Part 1 and Part 2:

  • Always wear appropriate, well maintained protective equipment.
  • Have a spotter nearby while you are working. They can summon help or perform first aid if necessary.
  • Your chainsaw’s manual almost certainly includes a well written and practical section on safe cutting techniques. Read it.
  • Inspect the work area for hazards before beginning a job. This would include things like overhanging dead branches, obstacles blocking escape routes, power lines in the vicinity, and stinging insects or other dangerous creatures.
  • Make sure that spectators are clear of the work area.
  • “Listen to your body” (I am indebted to Lee for this helpful turn of phrase from his August 31, 2019 comment at SurvivalBlog). If you become fatigued, find something less dangerous to do until you are properly rested. Fatigue can inhibit your thought processes, and interfere with your physical ability to respond to danger.
  • Don’t use anything that can interfere with your reaction time and judgment.
  • Make sure that your tools are properly maintained and appropriate to the task.
  • Minimize distractions.
  • Never operate a chainsaw while standing on a ladder.
  • Be aware of the influence weather conditions may have on your task. Terminate work on a task if the weather becomes unfavorable to its safe completion.
  • If there is an element of risk involved in a project, thebn do everything you can to minimize that element of risk.
  • Know your limits. Based upon your training, experience, equipment, the weather, and other factors, are you able to safely take on this project? When in doubt, don’t do it.

To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.


  1. I run a small tree business. I’m like the chainsaw chap nazi. I have often said if I was a chainsaw salesman I would not let the saw leave the store unles the customer could show me they already owned a set of serviceable chaps or bought a new pair. I would sell the chaps to a new saw buyer at cost. Once a pair of chaps has been compromised, cut by a saw, you need to retire them and buy a new pair. I have three friends that have not heeded my warning that now walk with a limp. Two cut their thighs muscles and one cut his kneecap in half.

    1. Gasp! Oh my word. Got it. No chaps. No chainsaw work.
      I would like to acquire several sets, possibly on Black Friday or cyber Monday sale. Since I am unfamiliar with these, do you have a recommendation or preference to share?

      1. Krissy,

        I fought wildfire 2 years, and live on a woodlot. I heat with wood, mulch the orchard and bed the chicken coop with woodchips and I shop at Bailey’s for stuff I don’t expect to keep maintained long term. I like Amazon convenience but I don’t use it for woodcutting equipment. For things I may want serviced above and beyond my capability I use the local saw shop, at full price; because they support what they sell. And local commerce arguments help me part with the Benjamins. Nothing special about them they print them like crazy.


          1. I wear my regular chainsaw chaps when I am using an electric chainsaw on the theory that something is better than nothing. I don’t know of any chaps that are rated for use with electric chainsaws.

      2. The chaps will last until they get scuffed up enough that threads are pulling out.

        They are layers of Kevlar like cotton gauze that are easily pulled free. When a chainsaw chain gets ahold of them they gum up the works to where the saw sprocket won’t turn. They do a great job of limiting the damage, emphasis on limit.

  2. Novice, it sounds as if Universe has bestowed upon you what is more commonly known as “Clark Griswold Syndrome”. Sometimes, despite best intentions and an abundance of safety precautions, bad things happen to good people trying to do the right thing. You have just described more mishaps than my father, my grandfather, or I have experienced in three generations of power saw use. Maybe a nice set of golf clubs instead? For gosh sakes, be careful brother!

    1. DD, it’s kind of like, hey I’ve done this wearing jeans for 40 years and never needed them. Then comes 40 years and one day, and oh crap, that one day just wiped out 40 years of no accidents. $100.00 or less for chaps is super cheap insurance. I do this every day and I will always wear PPE. Safety is always first on my mind. I want to be able to be healthy at the end of the day.
      Kris’s, I do like the Husqvarna full wrap. They are around $85.00 to $100.00. I’ve tried many different over the years and they work the best for me. I also wear chainsaw protective climbing pants. They are quite a bit more expensive, but depending on what your trying to accomplish they may be worth it. They can run around $300.00.
      Hey DD please wear chaps brother, stay safe.

      1. Perhaps you should re-read my comment because I’m pretty sure that in no way, shape, or form did I ever mention what safety equipment I use, nor did I infer or recommend that Novice not use chaps or any other type of safety equipment. As a Stihl dealer for 13+ years, you are preaching to the choir, but if I ever need a chap salesman I’ll be sure to look you up.

        1. D.D. I’m with you. All this reminds me of watching my kids play with other kids on the playground after school. All the moms kept yelling “be careful!’ every few minutes no matter what their kids were doing. Me, as one of only to dads there, would watch my kids and when, and only when, the looked like they might try something sketchy, I would say in a low voice “you need to think that all the way through before you do that”. Safety equipment is great, a clear, thoughtful, observant mind is better.

          1. I hear what you’re saying Freeheel, but my original comment was not about safety equipment. By all means people should use any and all safety equipment available.
            Since 1975 my family and I have owned and operated motorcycle, ATV, and boat dealerships. One of them also has Stihl and Echo power equipment. It has been my experience that just as sure as there are people that have absolutely no business on a motorcycle or operating a boat, there are people that have no business operating chainsaws.

            “Honey, get over here! The neighbor is up on a ladder with a chainsaw cutting a limb over a power line!”…’Merica!

  3. I think the observation:
    ‘If you act with a ninety-percent certainty of success, you are due for failure…’
    aligns with the gambler belief:
    ‘This slot-machine / these cards are due to turn in my favor’.

    Each event stands alone.
    The odds do not accumulate.
    ‘Because I lost buying lottery tickets for several decades, this Saturday will be my big win…’
    You can win the first time, you can never win. One drawing has nothing to do with another.

    In the case of skills such as your sawyer example, I think repetition reduces the potential for injury.
    The more I practice and rehearse, the better I can get.
    In theory…
    This discounts complacency. Fatigue. Distraction(s). Worn or missing equipment.
    Aging out of competence.
    Or the ‘double-dog dare’ factor… coupled with adult beverages.

    Or the government agents and their regulations codes acts laws permits-and-fees(not ‘taxes) keeping us safely cocooned in security cradle-to-grave.

    Speaking of fire-wood, let’s look at this another way:
    Let’s say you live or work in a wooden structure.
    Ninety-percent of the time of you using the building, the wood doesn’t catch fire.
    Ninety-percent of the time, you survive using the building without death, injury, disfigurement.
    Each use is a stand-alone event.
    The last time (or the first time…) you use the building, lightning could set it ablaze. Or your ‘neighbor’ could have a bee encounter, resulting in a The Grid© collapse.

    [ This may be a good time for us to fervently contact the government agents to encourage them to consider enacting laws codes acts regulations requiring a cautionary plaque at the entry to every wood structure:

    “!!! WARNING !!! Use of this building may result in death, injury, disfigurement. Use only by adults with adult supervision. !!!”

    Accompanied by the appropriate licensing.
    After tests to verify competency.
    After back ‘ground’ check(s).
    After finger ‘printing’.
    After fees(not ‘taxes’).

    Or maybe we could simply not wear our jammies in public while sipping a soy latte… ]

  4. I count my blessings after reading your article. My FIRST experience using a chainsaw is now a bit comical, yet amplifies your intention in writing.
    A local had shoulder surgery and was looking for a helper for yard work. I needed extra cash, so got hired. Now, this man was a vet from WWII as a officer on the carrier USS Yorktown. Surviving Midway and such, the words, “can’t be done”,,,,,”not possible”,,,,or even a simple ” I don’t think so”,,,,,,,were NEVER ALLOWED.
    With six acres of property he needed cleaned, cut up dead fallen trees etc, you all know the gist of it, I was fairly busy.
    One day, he tells me a tree needs branches removed. I look up and asked “Are you kidding me?”
    I was an inexperienced lad, and the world was full of challenges. Considering all he had been through, who was I to say IT can’t be done.
    He leads me to his extension ladder, shows me the extra long electrical cords(the saw was electric) and up I go.
    The first few branches went just fine. Cut, fall. No problem. But, he wanted that one particularly long, dead branch, that at that moment was beyond my reach.
    He wasn’t accepting this. Fully extend the ladder, stand on the top rung and hug the tree and with a 14 inch blade you should reach it easily.
    Something about the eyes of a hardened vet convinced me we were both more then a little crazy. He wanted it done. And I was stupid enough to give it go.
    Top rung, on tiptoe, hugging the tree and reaching with every fiber i could make stretch.
    Now, since then, I have heard of under cutting first? Yeah, a bit later.
    Involved in my endeavor, he figured to go have a cup of something, because when I looked down( wished I hadn’t) he was gone.
    Three quarters through, the branch did a twist. The bark held tough and swung that damn thing right at me, hitting me in the chest, then breaking and falling with the thickest part hitting the lower rung on the ladder, the vibration even shaking me. finally resting on the ground, and the chainsaw suddenly weighed 5x more flailing around. HOWEVER, as this unfolds, the chainsaw clutch broke, why I never did find out, and the saw just kept spinning. All while I am trying not to fall. So now I have to try to unplug it and not fall. I succeed. And drop it to the ground.
    My heart is bursting through my ribcage. My breathing is way deep and rapid. My calves are killing me, And a voice from below cries out, “what are you trying to do? Break my tools? You damaged my ladder!”
    My response was un flattering to be mentioned here, yet I yelled that I could have been killed for that damn branch.
    With his head shaking and hung down he walked off. Leaving me stranded.
    Begging the question: If a man is stuck, crying in a tree in the woods, would anyone hear him?
    I sought the advice of a man who did tree work. Told him my story, for which he poured me two shots of bourbon. Onefor not getting killed. The other, because “You’re an a’hole”
    I worked for that old man for 12 yrs till he died. Cared for him through a stroke.
    And during that time, I had learned quite a bit about how to cut trees, PROPERLY, and SAFELY, (and a few close calls anyway), and he learned that when I said no I meant it.
    Chainsaws are like guns. Should not be allowed in anyone’s hands until they have properly trained in the safety.

  5. Getting within 10 feet of a power line with a ladder or pruning saw is a great way to get electrocuted. If the conditions are right (by which I mean horribly wrong) you won’t even have to touch the wire for it to arc over into you.

  6. Dont know where y’all are from but here in central new york if the power lines run to your house meter base it the power companies responsibility they will take care of the branches just make an appointment.
    And spot on about fatigue. If we head to the woods in the morning we bring a load out by lunch time and thats it for the day. We have been known to get a 2nd load to haul out in the afternoon but normally no more cutting.

  7. To answer JW’s question about the difference between electric and gas powered chain saws, I would say the primary difference is power/cutting strength.

    I own to gas saws with different length bars. I also own a Black and Decker 40-volt cordless electric. I bought that brand simply because I already had two other products using the same batteries. I have never used a saw that uses an extension cord, so my comments will be about the one using a rechargeable lithium battery.

    In my experience, gas are more powerful and are required for big, thick trees and logs. As a result of being more powerful, they cut faster. I would not want to cut a log or trunk over 5 or 6 inches with my electric ubkess it was my only option.

    Battery powered saws are easy to use. No starter to pull. You pull the trigger, the saw runs. You let go, it stops. There is no engine idle and they are far quieter than a gas powered saw. But I have found them to cut slower and the chips don’t fly like they do with gas. (I am guessing that the chain is slower than on a gas saw.) That said, they are great for trimming things, cutting down small trees that popped up somewhere you don’t want one, and for the occasional odd job.

    Electrics also don’t smell and so far, mine doesn’t leak or drip, although it does require bar chain oil.

    If your battery goes dead, you either need another handy or you have to wait hours to recharge. With the gas, you just refuel and you are good to go.

  8. Crisp day in March. Armed with a Stihl sporting a 24 inch bar I am knocking out some privet. Been at it a while. Previously I had used a shorter lighter saw and developed some habits that were not compatible with the longer, heavier Stihl. Fell back on those habits. Nipped my thigh. Blood everywhere. Huge adrenaline surge. Applied pressure. After I realized I was not going to die on the spot I locked my tools up and drove the the hospital. The clerk gave me a form to fill out and told me it would be three hours. I tell her I am dripping and could she get me some gauze. Sure, she waves me off. So I sit there pressure with one hand and Plutarch’s Lives in my other reading when a real nurse spots me. “Let me see that!” she demands. I show. “Why didn’t you tell us?!” My reply is “I said I was dripping. What does it take?” “Get in this chair!” she commands. Triage room. They probe. “Tell me about pain.” I tell them 3, maybe 4. They puzzle, “sir, there are people who have sore throats out there that say 9. I say, “It feels like a skinned knee.” They decide it is not life threatening (duh) and that I need to go back and wait. I beg not to be put in the waiting room again as I will have the flu in an hour if I stay in that room. So they sit me in that chair in the back hallway from triage dressed like a lumber jack, oil, saw dust and blood all over everywhere(a little goes a long way) reading Plutarch. The doc was fun. Intrigued by my reading choice. Fifteen stitches later I am out the door with the real task of the day. Facing my wife and explaining the day. Yikes!
    Yes my chaps were someplace else. Now they are always behind the back seat of my truck. Definitely limit the duration of chainsaw use. Several years passed before I picked that saw up again.

  9. My husband’s step-grandfather was a plumber in the north woods of Wisconsin. He did a lot of septic system work for folks with cottages. As he got older, he hired an assistant. One afternoon the assistant didn’t return after he’d gone home for lunch. Grandpa Hollis went to check on him. Turns out the fellow had used his lunch break to trim a tree at his place. Somehow he had fallen off the ladder and dropped the chainsaw. The chainsaw was an older one that didn’t have the “let loose the trigger and the blade stops spinning” feature. When he fell, he landed on the chainsaw and was decapitated. Be careful out there, folks!

Comments are closed.