Offgrid DIY How To Fell a Tree: Summon Your Inner Lumberjack
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Modern humans often take for granted the sheer amount of resources we acquire from a forest. If you’re living in a constructed home, chances are it was built out of products acquired from trees. When you use the restroom, chances are you're drying your hands or cleaning your tuchus with materials made from trees. Everything from the books we read to the holiday cards we send are gleaned from forest products. Go back only as far as half a century, and the ability to procure and process wood was even more crucial to the survival of humanity. Timber was used almost exclusively to build nearly every structure, ignited to cook food, boil water, and to keep smithing forges hot.
We find ourselves in a unique time in the human epoch — we’ve become less reliant on raw gifts from nature, instead leaning heavily on electronic technologies. But if you think that we can turn our backs on forest products completely, you’d be wrong. To illustrate this point, in February of 2021, a massive shift in atmospheric temperatures caused catastrophic power failures throughout much of the southern continental United States, leaving tens of millions without modern amenities to keep them warm and comfortable. Sadly, there were many people who asphyxiated on the toxic gases emitted from backup generators and vehicle engines as they attempted to stave off the relentless cold.
Above: Axes with sharpened double-bit heads make quick work of notching a tree. The direction of the notch will strongly influence the direction a tree will fall.
Clearly, a large swath of humanity has forgotten how to find and use simple resources that can make the lives of everyone better. Wooded areas growing next to houses, on the edges of town, or in large forests in rural areas are a source of limitless products. Dry leaves and soft boughs are mattresses for sleeping, sticks and branches are kindling for fire, and green needles are ingredients for tea. Large branches and logs are structural elements for shelters, cabins, and a plethora of tools. Trees provide fruit, nuts, and fuel — the list goes on.
Larger trees provide greater utility, but chopping or cutting one down can seem daunting, if not impossible. This is especially true if it’s your first attempt at such a task, and rightfully so. Caution is encouraged when it comes to tree felling, because there’s a lot that can go wrong. Trees are deceptively heavy, and their weight isn’t perfectly balanced. When you go to the lumberyard to buy a 2×4 for a home improvement project, you’re handling wood that has been dried over time. Live trees, on the other hand, hold thousands of liters of water and are many times heavier than their commercially processed byproducts. However, if survival is the name of the game, the rewards outweigh the risks.
The following hypothetical situation will help envision the steps that should be taken if felling a tree becomes necessary for survival. Imagine that frozen weather has knocked the power grid out and the electric company has issued a statement warning citizens it may be a few days before they can get it back online. As the hours tick away, family members begin donning increasing amounts of layers, and the pipes in the walls make alarming creaking sounds as they begin to freeze. The home has a functional fireplace, but since you live in the suburbs, it has been mostly for aesthetics … until now. Several trees in the yard next to the house have been damaged by ice and wind, and instead of freezing for days, the family decides to open the chimney flue, cut down a damaged tree for wood, and get a hot fire crackling on the hearth.
Dissecting this scenario will help elucidate some important things that should be considered before swinging an ax at a tree. First is determining which tree to cut. Thinking of trees as a limited resource will help in the selection process. A good rule of thumb is to preserve the trees that are the healthiest, or at least leave them for last. It takes a long time for a tree to grow, so pick the ones that are damaged or appear unhealthy. Another thing to think about is the tree’s proximity to something that might be a source of unintended collateral damage. Having a 50-foot tree crashing through a roof or falling on infrastructure may cause more harm than good. Make sure there’s adequate room for the mass of the tree to land safely, even if it doesn’t fall exactly as intended.
The current season is another important aspect to consider. Early spring to mid-summer, especially in regions that experience regular freezing temperatures in the winter, is a time when trees are taking up massive amounts of water from the ground. Felling during this time, depending on the species, may seem like breaking into a water main when the sap gushes freely from a fresh cut. Late summer through the winter months is an ideal time for bringing down a tree because liquids aren’t being actively moved beneath the bark. Better yet, cut when there’s snow on the ground, because the impact of the fall causes less damage if there’s a blanket of powder protecting the surroundings.
Above: Once the notch is complete, use a bow saw for the back cut to weaken the wood fibers and cause the tree to fall in the direction of the cut.
Most leafy trees lose their leaves once a year, but in the case of evergreens such as Christmas trees, they stay on year-round. Something that every aspiring survivalist woodsman needs to know is that evergreen trees often contain a high amount of resin, the stuff that feels sticky when you try to hold on to its branches. So, even if there isn’t enough time to dry the wood for a fire, the resin of an evergreen tree may help the fire catch and burn more efficiently than the wood from a leafy alternative. Doing your due diligence and becoming familiar with the trees in your surrounding area will be a lifesaving step. Some species can be used for more than just fire, like the Vitamin C that can be acquired by making tea from the needles of an Eastern White Pine, or the cordage that can be made from the bark of a Basswood.
Getting serious about taking down a partially or fully grown tree means having the right equipment for the job. For speed and efficiency, nothing beats a gas-powered chainsaw with a bar large enough for the task at hand. They do require fuel, oil, regular maintenance, and some familiarity with their capabilities before taking chain to wood. Depending on the size and brand, a chainsaw may be expensive and heavy to varying degrees, but they’re fast and less labor-intensive. You might also consider an electric chainsaw, but if it is a grid-down scenario, electric saws will most likely be entirely useless.
Above: It's wise to cut incrementally, a little at a time, and observe how the tree is about to come down.
Watching cartoons may lead some to believe that an ax alone can bring down a tree, and although it's possible, an ax’s utility is greatly increased if accompanied by a bow saw or crosscut saw. These tools are far less expensive, but much more labor-intensive. This means that physical strength and endurance are important factors when using the hand-felling method. Researching which ax styles are best for actual felling versus splitting wood is also crucial to success.
Safety should be at the forefront of every tree-felling endeavor. When mechanical methods are involved, wearing steel-toe boots and chainsaw chaps may seem cumbersome. Try not to feel like wearing safety gear is a lame thing to do. Just look up some photos of chainsaw injuries, and I promise, safety will be the foremost thought when handling a motorized saw. One single tooth of a fully spinning chainsaw can pass the same point more than 300 times per second and can cut through flesh and bone like a hot knife through butter. Because of this, taking a chainsaw safety course from an experienced instructor is highly recommended.
At a minimum, gloves will help maintain a firm grip on swinging axes and revving chainsaws, hard hats will prevent head injuries from unexpected falling debris, and safety glasses will protect those peepers from flying chunks of wood and sawdust. Saw sharpening and cleaning are also mandatory skills to acquire. First-aid training and awareness of your own limitations could be invaluable as well.
Many factors can play a role in the failure or success of felling a tree. Trees close to powerlines may create an electrocution risk. Trees growing close to one another could create a situation where the branches become entangled, making the actual felling dangerous and unpredictable. Wind direction and speed can push the falling tree in an unexpected direction. Critters calling the tree their home may go on the offensive to protect it. The bottom line is to take your time to analyze the situation and think before you cut.
After considering as many of the previous concerns as possible, the felling process is relatively simple. The first step is to make sure the tree has a safe place to land, and that you have prepared an egress route away from the falling tree. What I mean by this is, if you were to look down on the tree with a bird’s-eye view, moving away from the tree behind the direction of the fall at a 45-degree angle is statistically the safest path to get away. It’s important to take some time to make sure your egress route is free of restrictions that may cause you to trip and fall, and even practice moving away from the tree in a deliberate and smooth manner.
Above: The importance of wearing proper gear when using a chainsaw cannot be overemphasized. A quick internet search for “chainsaw injuries” should be enough to convince anyone to take this endeavor seriously.
Next, you’ll want to make something called a face or notch cut. This involves cutting a wedge out of the side of the tree in the desired direction of fall. In a perfect world, this should be on the side where the branching is the thickest or the side the tree is naturally leaning toward. You can check this by standing at the base of the tree and looking up. You may notice that there are more branches growing on the side that’s exposed to the most sunlight. This is also the cut you'd use an ax to make. It doesn’t have to go all the way through the tree, but cutting to a depth of a third of the diameter of the tree is ideal.
To seal the deal and bring it down, line up the back cut or felling cut perpendicular to the interior angle of your notch cut. This cut would be made with a bow or cross-cut saw if you’re doing it by hand. Don’t try to cut all the way through — leaving about half an inch of wood between your back cut and your notch cut will create a “hinge” that the tree’s weight will rest on as it falls. Don’t be surprised if the tree doesn’t fall over immediately. If cut properly, it should lean over slowly at first. This provides ample time to walk casually away along the predetermined egress route, much like an action movie hero walking smoothly away from an explosion. Having a partner to stand back and call out when the tree starts to lean over may give you more time to safely get away from the falling tree. There are several cutting techniques that’ll accomplish the same result, and guides can be found online; however, nothing beats hands-on instruction from an experienced pro.
Above: Ryan Warmboe, northwoods timber savant and Forester for VanOss Forestry Services LLC, demonstrates how to fell a tree with efficient finesse.
Once the tree is on the ground, the real work begins. Limbs should be removed from the main stem and can be stacked into a pile for later use. The process of cutting fireplace-sized logs to be split into firewood is called “bucking,” and is accomplished quickly with a chainsaw. If necessity dictates, it can be done with a bow or crosscut saw and a lot of elbow grease (there’s a reason some fitness trainers use a smaller crosscut saw to cut through thick chunks of wood as a form of exercise).
The most important thing is to take your time and be mindful of every action you’re taking. There are a lot of moving parts involved when felling a tree, and most of them are potentially fatal. This isn’t something that should be done with small kids or pets running around, or if sensitive infrastructure is being jeopardized. It may be best to stick with smaller trees until you can build up the experience, and confidence, to take on something larger.
Tree felling is an invaluable skill for anyone serious about ramping up their survival skills. The ability to utilize forest resources can open a world of opportunities, including logs for cabins, slabs for shingles, bark for canoes, wood coal for heat and cooking, resin for glues, and a nearly endless list of other uses. Utility aside, there may be a need to remove a tree blocking a road to town in the aftermath of a storm. Having lived through the destruction of several monstrous hurricanes while stationed in Louisiana and cutting away the fallen trees trapping people in their homes, I’ll never undervalue the skill of being able to safely cut wood.
Many people have powerful emotions regarding their favorite trees, especially those that have been standing for decades or centuries. This means that cutting trees indiscriminately should be avoided, and consulting anyone who has a stake in the tree’s fate before the first stroke of an ax should be mandatory. No matter what the situation may dictate, getting in touch with a skill that was so vitally important for most of mankind’s existence will only result in benefits for you and the ones you care about.