Disclaimer: Tree cutting is inherently dangerous with many injuries and fatalities every year, please do you own research and obtain training before trying this on your own.
In New England there is extensive woodland and always a need to cut down trees to keep your garden growing and your house from being overrun. This keeps your house warm with the resulting firewood. Cutting down a tree is always risky but there are many ways to reduce this risk using various tools and skills.
Never start cutting unless you are well rested, fully alert and all your tools are sharpened and fully fueled.
First clear the area around the tree to be cut. Make sure you have several escape paths it case the tree decides to come down when and where you least expect it. Check for wind, do not cut if it is a windy day as the tree may suddenly get pushed over by a sudden gust. Look for dead branches on the trees which may fall onto you during cutting, take these down if at all possible. If you can not remove the dead branches wear a hard hard and do not work under the dead branch Next look at the tree and branches, if it is on the edge of a forest odds are it will weigh more on the side away from the forest. Branches grow toward the sun more so then into a shaded forest. This helps with your estimate of where the tree will LIKELY fall. Another trick is to hug a tree and look up, which way is it leaning? That is a likely falling direction.
Once you know where you want the tree to fall or where it is likely to fall make sure there is nothing in the way. If there is might be a good time to throw a line over a high branch and begin directing the tree either with a helper and/or tying the heavy rope taught to a tree in the direction you are aiming for. Make sure the rope will not catch you when the tree falls! Placing the rope: the higher the better as this gives you more leverage. Also make sure the falling tree will not get hung up on another tree. This will result in a dangerous situation where the tree you are cutting may swing back at you or create a widow maker.
Use two tow straps and come-a-long if a shed or other structure is in possible danger. Or if the tree is too large for a heavy rope. Get the ropes and straps in place before cutting, after cutting has started the tree is more likely to come down at any time with a sudden gust of wind or if the tree has damage from ants, internal rotting or disease.
Get all of your tools ready for use, not just the tool you think you need. If the tree shifts and pinches your chainsaw you need a backup right away not after the batteries charge and saw is sharpened and you have found the wedges. Keep the tools nearby but safe. I keep the tools behind a tree I am not cutting so if the tree comes down towards the tools they should still be safe.
NEVER TURN YOUR BACK ON A TREE ONCE YOU HAVE STARTED TO CUT IT.
Next notch the tree on the side towards to desired felling. Chainsaw or axe works great for this, chainsaw requires two cuts about one third through each at about 30 degrees from horizontal.This takes some practice as the first few cuts may not line up on both sides requiring a 3rd or 4th cut. An axe can also create this by shifting the swing angle to match. Next make a single cut on the side away from the fell direction with a chainsaw or timber saw, this gives the tree one way to fall without resistance (desired direction and the other side can only shift slightly before coming to rest on the saw and tree. Do not cut completely through the tree. You want to create a pivot point NOT have a moving tree coming at you. Hopefully the tree comes down right where you want it to.
If I am using an axe I make a point of switching my swing direction. Swinging to the right is the most comfortable and accurate for me but it limits how much I can do. Plus if i am ever injured on that side no more tree cutting. Switching the swing allows me to cut faster longer after getting used to it. If there is not room to swing an axe then stop and clear the brush and branches. How are you going to get out of the way when the tree starts coming down at you if you don’t have room to swing an axe?
After the tree is down the next step is limbing the tree which is fastest for me with an axe. Always stand on the side of the tree opposite of the branch you are swinging at. If you miss or the axe goes through the branch the tree will take the blow not you. Also swing at the branch to hit the branch towards the bottom of the tree. This results in a cleaner break the swinging from the top down.
After limbing pull all the branches out of the way and create a brush pile well out of sight. This gives you a safe work area for cutting up the trunk. This brush pile can be used as a barrier for someone approaching your house and could also be used as concealment for both you and someone approaching you.
I typically cut the trunk and large branches into 4-6 foot lengths and leave to season for firewood. 4-6 feet is what I can comfortably handle for heavy green wood depending on the tree size. Next year I will cut it into size and know it is ready for burning.
After an ice storm two years ago my tree cutting took greater importance. We had many heavy branches on our power lines and lost power for a week due to trees in the area taking out power lines. At the time I had all my hand tools, no power tools. Hand tools are fine if you have time and energy, during the ice storm I had neither! Power tools I consider a force multiplier, Same amount of time and effort I get twice the work done.
Hand tools were fine for clearing our 400 foot driveway after the storm but not the garden, yard and woodlot that year. Gas powered chainsaws were great when I was cutting many trees but for occasional use electric has much less maintenance and is faster to setup. Initially I went with a battery powered chain saw and pole saw both using the same battery packs. This worked very well as by the time the batteries were drained I had as much cut up as I could handle before needing a rest. I also shifted to vegetable oil for chain lube since my fruit and nut trees need pruning often. I obtained a corded electric chain saw soon after for firewood cutting. I can run this off the photoelectric battery bank and keep my work quiet good for OPSEC.
Safety equipment- always steel toed boots, leather gloves and safety glasses. If I am using a pole saw or a branch might fall from above then a hard hat or lumberjack helmet as well. Kevlar chainsaw safety chaps are recommended for frequent use of gas chain saws but can be pricey and not rated for electric chain saws. Leather gloves with a gel insert to protect your hands from the vibration are a definite plus. If your hands hurt from splitting wood then try a pair, I bought one pair only because they were on sale and never went back. Personally I prefer working in the winter and fall wearing at least a long sleeve shirt and heavy duty pants. This keeps the bugs, thorns and branches from scratching up my skin. Last summer there was one small job where I was not wearing my work pants and boots found a hornets nest that day. If I had my usual work clothes I would not have been stung several times on my legs. Summer work is the most challenging because of the heat and PPE only adds to the heat. Spring brings Bugs, rain and mud.
Here are the tools I have used:
- Axe: Best all around woodcutting tool. Can fell trees, cut and split firewood. Not perfect for every use but can fill most in a pinch. Great for notching a tree to help it come down where you would like it to and limbing a tree when it is down. Plastic/fiberglass type handles last much longer than the wooden handles. I have a double edged axe for use when I know I will not need to drive the wedges in.
- Maul: Ideal for splitting wood and driving wedges. Definitely use a plastic/fiberglass handle, and vibration resistant gloves plus a rubber collar for the occasional missed swing.
- Large timber saw: Good for cutting firewood and felling trees, very fast if you are in practice.
- Loppers: good for removing small branches, Axe or Hatchet is faster but loppers have reach.
- Bow saw: useful for small branch removal and cutting small firewood
- Chainsaws: The fastest way to take down trees but require skill and maintenance to use regularly. Every time someone uses a gas powered chainsaw in my neighborhood everyone knows it. Electric chainsaws are very quiet with much less maintenance but you need electricity and are limited by extension cord distance to the outlet or battery life. Gas powered saws need frequent fuel changes and carb cleaning if left to sit between seasons.
- Cordless electric pole saw: for removing overhanging branches, clearing low hanging branches which are in the way and cutting down small trees.
- Cordless electric chainsaw: good for small jobs away from an outlet or to do a small job without running an electric cord or priming the gas chainsaw.
- Throw bag, cord and heavy duty rope: to rope and pull or convince a tree to fall where you want it.
- Tow straps and come-along: to further convince a tree which way to fall. I run the throw bag and cord first, then rope then tow strap.
- Flat files for removing dents on the maul and sharpening the axe and timber saw. Round files for the chain saw, with light oil to preserve the steel and lube the cutting tools. Sharpening stones could be used as well in place of the flat file for the axe.
- Spare chains for the chainsaw, spare vegetable oil for cutting lubrication and other use. Spare axe and handles are another plus.
Not to overstress safety but many people I have been trained by have later been injured cutting trees. Eventually chains break, trees kick back or bounce back, logs shift, branches fall, things happen. PPE is required not optional. Make sure you can finish cutting down a tree before making the first cut. Don’t limb a tree or start another tree when you need a rest. And never put your back to a falling tree. I only know of one local tree felling fatality, someone who had 40 years experience. He walked away from a tree cut to move his truck out of the way and the tree fell on him.
In a short article I am trying to describe what can be a month long process of clearing brush and cutting down trees. There is a lot to be learned, for experience there are always Arborists and loggers needing help pulling brush and cutting up branches and summer camps needing volunteers. You do not want to learn the hard way, learn from experienced people.