Wood Cutting Made Slightly Less Dangerous – Part 2, by The Novice

(Continued from Part 1. This concludes the article.)

Incident 3

It was a warm, slightly breezy August day. My son-in-law had asked if I would remove a dead pine tree from the corner of his back yard. The tree was 45 feet tall. The neighbor’s garage was 27 feet away.

Observation: You can determine the height of a tree quite accurately by using a stick-like object about three feet long. In this case, I used an old pool cue that I found in my son-in-law’s trash can. First, I placed the pool cue in my right hand so that the cue lay along my outstretched arm until its tip almost touched my glasses. Then I held my arm level with the ground, and raised the pool cue so that it stood vertically in my outstretched fist. Finally, I moved to the place where the part of the cue that met the top of my fist appeared to be even with the base of the tree while at the same time the tip of the cue appeared to be even with the top of the tree. At that point, my distance from the base of the tree was approximately equal to the height of the tree. I counted off 15 paces of approximately three feet each to the base of the tree. This indicated that the tree was approximately 45 feet tall. I then counted off nine paces from the base of the tree to the neighbor’s garage. This indicated that the tree was approximately 27 feet from that garage.

The tree seemed to lean very slightly toward the neighbor’s garage. I decided that I could notch the tree so that it would fall into my son-in-law’s back yard on a trajectory that was perpendicular to the trajectory that would take it toward the neighbor’s garage. As a bit of insurance, I decided to run a rope from the tree to my vehicle.

My daughter and son-in-law reside in a different state. My equipment was at home. The rope I would have preferred to use is rated at 5,900 pounds and is 150 feet long. The rope I was able to find at a local hardware store was rated in hundreds rather than thousands of pounds, and was 100 feet long. I tied one end of the rope to the back of my belt and free climbed about 30 feet into the tree to attach it.

Observation: Falls present a serious hazard to wood cutters. In 2017, there were 36,388 Americans who died in falls. Although I have enjoyed free climbing trees ever since I was a child, there are safer ways of ascending trees. These methods are well described in Jeff Jepson’s excellent book, The Tree Climber’s Companion.

Observation: The most important rule of tree work is “Never operate a chainsaw while standing on a ladder.” You will be sorely tempted to break this rule. You must withstand that temptation. When you cut something with a chainsaw while standing on a ladder, the object you cut may strike the ladder. If the ladder is disturbed, you may fall. If you fall, you will be accompanied on your downward journey by a running chainsaw. If the fall doesn’t kill you, the chainsaw just might.

After I attached one end of the rope to the tree, I climbed back down to the ground. Then I attached the other end of the rope to the front tow hook on my vehicle, which was parked about 75 feet away in the direction in which I wanted the tree to fall. Next I backed the vehicle up in order to take up the slack. I put just enough tension on the rope to gently nudge the tree in the right direction.

I then notched the tree about 1/3 of the way through the trunk on the side toward which I wanted it to fall. Next, I began cutting on the opposite side from the notch in order to create a hinge.

Up to this point, the wind had blown gently but steadily from the direction of the neighbor’s garage. I hoped that the force the wind might help direct the tree away from the garage.

Just as I got to the point where the tree could begin to move on the hinge, the wind shifted, and began gusting from the direction in which I wanted the tree to fall. The tree suddenly rocked back upon the kerf, binding the saw. Then just as suddenly, the wind died. I yanked the saw out of the kerf and hastened away from the tree.

Now I was in a bad situation. If the tree rocked back hard enough on the kerf, it might crack the hinge. If the hinge broke, the tree might follow its natural inclination, and fall toward the neighbor’s garage.

I walked over to my vehicle, mumbling to myself, “This is bad. This is bad. This is bad.” I walked rather than ran in an attempt to keep my growing panic at bay. I desperately sought for a solution that did not involve putting additional pressure on the rope. I was afraid that if I pulled the rope too hard, it would snap, slinging the tree back on the kerf with disastrous consequences. I wondered if the neighbor was a nice guy. I hoped that his temper wasn’t too bad, and that his insurance was very good.

I could not come up with any reasonable alternative to pulling on the rope. I certainly did not want to do anything that involved coming within 45 feet of the precariously balanced tree. With a sense of impending doom, I got into the vehicle and gently eased it back a foot or so. I got out, checked the tension on the rope, then climbed in again and eased back a few more inches. And then, just as I prepared to check the tension one more time, there was a crack. The tree fell exactly where I had wished it to fall.

Observation: I am thankful for the ministry of guardian angels. I have never known a boy who would have survived into adulthood without the ministry of guardian angels. Sometimes we do downright foolish things, and God in His grace protects us from ourselves. But we should take warning from the words of Jesus during His temptation in the wilderness. He said that we shall not tempt the Lord our God (Matthew 4:7). God is not our good luck charm. If we sow foolishness, He may in His wisdom allow us to reap what we sow.

Observation: When danger is great, do everything you can to increase your chances of success. I am really happy that I took the time to rig that rope. I would be even happier if I had used a better rope. I should have waited to do the job until I had the right equipment on hand to do the job right.


Cutting wood will always be dangerous. We use powerful tools to cause massive objects to fall from lofty heights right into our general vicinity. What could possibly go wrong?

Safety Tips (Reiterated)

Here are a few tips to make wood cutting slightly less dangerous (also included in Part 1):

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, then 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.


  1. The other thing that might have helped, is a felling wedge or two.These help a lot, especially in getting the saw out of a pinch, or preventing the pinch in the first place. They also rock the tree in the desired direction.

  2. Good morning it’s me again. I have two points today that may help. First, when cutting your hinge by back cutting do not over cut. Your hinge on average should be 10% of the diameter of the tree. This slightly varies by species, but is a good rule of thumb. Hence a 15” Tree should have roughly a 1 1/2” hinge. If you cut until the tree starts moving, most times your hinge is too small and you can’t control the tree through its fall. The tree at that point is out of control.
    Second, with your proper face cut, back cut, and 10% hinge, the right thing to do is use wedges to drop the tree. There are many different brands, I use hard head wedges. The larger the tree the more wedges you may need. Once your back cut is well started, drive a wedge in to keep the tree from setting back like it did in the story above. Cut your hinge as described, pull your saw out, then drive the wedges, place more wedges if you can, continue driving wedges until the tree starts to drop. Move away quickly at a 45 degree angle from the tree in your precleared escape route.
    Very rarely will I not have to use wedges while felling. If a tree has a slight lean in the direction I want it to fall; maybe. (If the tree is a hard leaner, say almost 35 to 45 degrees, a standard face cut, back cut is totally inappropriate. That should be addressed in another article.) I always stick a wedge in the back cut in case a wind wants to make the tree sit back.
    Trees are like puzzles, they are all different and take slightly different means to get them safely on the ground.
    Enjoy your work, and stay safe out there.

  3. Novice,
    I am a 64yo with a degree from the school of hard knocks. I will always be a novice and 100% of the time I will always approach every tree removal job as if I have never cut THAT tree before. I actually feel that way about many of the tasks I take on around the homestead.

    A few more notes for your much appreciated article.

    I like the loggers trigonometry to determine the height of a tree. I usually use a nearby axe handle. My college educated chemist son was impressed with that skill.

    I often use a licensed and bonded pro. While I do enjoy working my own wood lot I do use a tree service when I am uncertain. I get a cash discount and I clean up the slash. Dead trees are dangerous to climb and often just don’t act right.

    You will definitely get that feeling of commitment as soon as you notch a tree. Looking up an 80′ fir that has grown for >50 years should be humbling. There is simply no going back once you make that first cut. Have all of your tools staged and ready to use. Have your escape route planned and cleared.

    I use tools called falling wedges in the back cut. These wedges are plastic, chain saw safe wedges that help to keep the tree moving in the right direction.

    Alder trees should be wrapped with rope or chain about 18″ above where you plan to cut. This is to prevent the tree from splitting vertically as it is falling. This sudden release of energy, often called a “barber chair” is unexpected and can be deadly.

    Praise the Lord! Guardian Angels should never be relied upon but always recognized and appreciated. be thankful in all circumstances.

    1. Lee, I knew a logger who had a tree “barber chair” in him. It hit him in the face, broke his jaw, and folded back a large flap of skin. They did a good job putting him back together, so that the scars were barely visible. But last I heard, that side of his face was still numb.

      1. The Novice and Lee’s comment, it’s good when you point out the >hazards of cutting down trees. … There’s more to cutting trees than just buying a chainsaw. … The two part article is a worthwhile addition to SurvivalBlog. YouTube has some videos on ‘Barber Chair hazard when cutting trees.’

        + A man old enough to have adult children, that can still climb a tree like Tarzan, can survive. = “I tied one end of the rope to the back of my belt and free climbed about 30 feet into the tree to attach it.” [From article]

  4. I am an experienced chainsaw operator. I was 20-30 feet up a tree, delmbing for eventual removal. I was wearing two safety harnesses, delimbing with a 12” chainsaw.
    I felt my purchase slip so I reached around to “hug” the tree to keep from falling. The saw was in my left hand and still running.
    Oops. Just about chopped my right thumb off.
    After reconstructive surgery, I was off work for almost three months. Luckily, I had built my sick time bank up, so the impact was negligible.

    Just be careful is all I can say.

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