How to Safely Drop Large Trees with a Chainsaw

tree_diagram_574_387_sA chainsaw is a valuable tool when it comes to improving deer habitat and manipulating a landscape to enhance hunting strategies. It is also a tool that can severely injure or kill you, especially when used improperly.

One of the most common ways I see people mis-using a chainsaw is when they are cutting down large trees. Hinge-cutting is a popular technique for enhancing deer habitat, but this technique is best for small trees that you can easily handle. It’s not safe to attempt to hinge-cut large trees, for reasons I will explain. The trouble is, it’s tough to define “large” in terms of trunk diameter, because tree species vary in density and other characteristics that make them handle differently when cut, and even “small” trees can hurt you if you aren’t careful. Err on the side of caution: If in doubt when studying a particular tree, consider it “large.”

Here’s what people tend to do WRONG: They walk right up to these large trees and make a single felling cut, right into the trunk of the tree, and saw until the tree falls. Often this works, and no one gets hurt, and nothing valuable is destroyed. But these people should consider themselves lucky. They avoided several potentially bad outcomes of a cut like this.

First, when you cut a large tree like this, you have little control over the direction in which the tree will fall. Enough said.

Second, unless the tree has an obvious lean, you can sometimes end up with the weight of the tree squatting on the saw bar and pinching it. Now you’re in a mess. You’ll need wedges and an axe, or rope and a come-along, to open the cut and free your saw. Obviously, rescuing your saw when it’s pinched in a large tree is a risky operation on its own that is better avoided in the first place.

Third, and most significant, large trees cut down this way can perform a number of unexpected stunts as they fall, many of which can result in your being injured or even killed. One example is what’s known as a “barberchair.” Instead of leaning and falling as you saw through the trunk, the tree splits vertically until it snaps at some point above the ground, and the half-trunk and top of the tree fall straight to the ground. This often happens extremely fast, so fast that the chainsaw operator might still be standing at the base of the tree when it collapses.

To see a classic barberchair, watch the video below. The saw operator was lucky that he heard the tree splitting and had removed his saw and backed away before the tree collapsed. He had time to get out of the way, but that is not always the case.

Even if the tree begins to lean and fall like you want, the butt can still split as the tree is falling, and usually the top half of the butt kicks back violently in the general direction of – you guessed it – the person holding the chainsaw.

There’s a much better method for felling large trees, and it’s shown in the diagram above, which is based on guidanceQDMA received from the Game of Logging training program. Following the instructions in the diagram, you make a “notch cut” first, and you make this cut on the side of the tree that faces the direction you want the tree to fall. Then, you make the felling cut, leaving a hinge. The hinge holds the tree to the stump during most of the tree’s fall, and it guides the tree in the intended direction.

The length of the hinge should be 80 percent of the diameter of the tree. For example, on a 20-inch diameter tree, the hinge should be 20 inches x 80% = 16 inches. The thickness of the hinge should be 10 percent of the diameter of the tree. For example, on a 20-inch diameter tree, the hinge should be 20 inches x 10% = 2 inches.

Not only does this method help ensure the tree falls where you want it to, it greatly reduces the possibility of any surprises, like splits, butt-kicks and barberchairs. In the photo in the Gallery below, you can see images of a large white oak that died at QDMA Headquarters. I used the notch-cut method to bring it down safely.

Obviously, even a notch cut can’t make a tree fall in a certain direction if the tree is leaning heavily the other way (at least not without the use of wedges and a lot of expertise). And, anytime you use this method, once the tree begins to lean into the notch cut, remove the saw, stop the engine, and walk quickly away from the falling tree along a planned, cleared path of escape at a 45 degree angle from the falling tree.  Even notch-cut trees can snap, roll or jump as they hit the ground, and it’s best to be at least 20 feet from the stump and behind a standing tree if possible.

It should go without saying that you don’t ever crank your chainsaw, no matter what you’re going to cut, without putting on your helmet, eye protection, gloves, and safety chaps. But I’m saying it anyway.

So, the next time you, or someone you know, needs to drop a large tree, don’t give it the old Jedi lightsaber chop. Take your time, plan your cuts, and use the notch-cut method to bring the tree down safely.

  • Tim Garrison

    I’m not sure why the tree in vid split up from bottom to top of tree . The undercut was abut a 1/3 of the way in ( good ).
    Was the tree dead , w hard brittle wood ?
    Was there not a about 10 % hinge ?
    Was there any hinge ?
    Was it already leaning to much ?

    Tim Garrison , Vancouver. Canada

    • Paul Bennett

      Yes. The tree had a forward lean. Not sure of the species, but you can see the tree has a forward lean. Most of the weight of the tree was beyond its base. The top of the tree wanted to fall, in essence it is a giant see-saw. The only thing holding it is the molecular adhesion of the wood between rings or grain of the tree. Usually strong enough, but the greater the lean the greater the torque. The drier the tree, the less the adhesion. As he made the back cut he removed more and more of the holding wood between the backcut and the hinge, till gravity finally pulled the top down.

      Several things: The technique (See next paragraph) in this blog works on straight trees and slight back leaners (with wedges), but as you can see not so much on forward leaners. Even then, there were things that would have reduced tha chance of a barberchair (again see the last paragraph).

      WRT to the technique in the blog, ….. mathematically, you can’t do it. The diagram shows a 1/4 diameter face cut, and a hinge 80% of the diameter in length and 10% in width. The blogger uses a 20″ diameter tree as an example. A 16″hinge on the backcut side and , 2″ thick would give a central angle of 106* (center to each end of the hinge) and a face cut depth of about 2″.

      If instead we use the 1/4 the diameter plus 2″ hinge we get
      5″+2″=7″. So the hinge would be 3″ from the center, which makes the length of the hinge 19″ on the backcut side and 17.3″ on the face cut side. Go to http://planetcalc.com/1421/ and play with it to verify

      Remove the idea of 1/4 depth of the face cut. It is not needed. If you do the 80% and the 10% guidelines you will usually be in good shape. The face cut does not need to be deep, you just need to remove some wood so the tree does not jam into itself as it starts to fall. The 90* face cut will allow it to fall almost to the ground before it snaps the hinge and starts to bounce.(you don’t want it to snap the hinge too soon as it may kick back, as the blogger mentioned)

      WRT the tree in the video. Leaners are complex, lots of forces. Most people bore cut to remove the interior stressed wood before releasing the supporting back holding wood.

      So, 1.shallow face cut, 2.bore cut a couple of inches above the vertex of the face cut to set the hinge, 3.continue towards the back, 4.stop, 5.release the holding wood quickly with a back cut just a little lower than the bore cut (will release vertically, almost like a barber chair, but now only the couple of inches between your release cut and your bore cut- gives you an extra second to get out) OR…

      4. Continue the backwards bore cut, then 5.pivot your saw and take out one corner (safe corner technique), 6. release the last corner OR….

      Some arborists are strapping leaners just above the back cut. Use chain or heavy duty ratchet straps (not those 1″ things) with several loops around the tree. Make it tight. In any case, leaners are something to consider when deciding whether to call a pro.

      If you came here for a how-to, this has ok info for the easy trees, but if your tree is not a perfect specimen, try to find info about your specific situation.


About Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of QDMA, and he is QDMA's Director of Communications. He has been a member of the QDMA staff since 2003. Prior to joining the staff of QDMA, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.