Even in this day and age of power chainsaws, knowing how to fell a tree with a good ol’ sturdy ax and a hefty amount of properly-applied elbow grease is still a skill worth having. 

There may be instances where you do not have a chainsaw handy, or you may not have fuel or chain lube. When this happens, chopping down a tree isn’t as simple as hacking away at it until it falls; in this article, we’ll show you how to do it efficiently and safely.

Before we start

You may have a number of reasons to fell a tree, from hurricane preparation or clean-up or gathering firewood, to procuring wood for building a shelter or raft. Whatever your purpose, wear the necessary protective gear, such as:

  • Safety glasses
  • Gloves
  • Boots
  • Hard hat or logger’s helmet

Make sure your ax is up to the task. It should be properly sized for the tree- cutting a 60-foot pine with a 15-inch hatchet is not a recipe for success. Ensure the ax handle is in good shape, the head is firmly attached and that the blade is sharp. Have a sharpening stone or file handy as the type of tree and any hidden nails, wires or other surprises can take a toll on a sharp blade.

Also, unless you’re in a SHTF situation, obtain the necessary permits and documents if you’re felling a tree that’s on public property. Although felling a tree on your own property usually doesn’t require any permit, confirm this as the tree in question may be covered by a tree preservation order. Ask the appropriate local authorities beforehand to make sure you’re in the clear. Be sure that the tree won’t fall on any adjacent property or damage any streets, utility lines cars, pets or bystanders.

1. Make a “Guesstimate” of the Fell

Before you grab your ax and start swinging, make an approximation of where the tree will hit the ground, and how much ground it will cover. To do this, use the “ax handle trick”, a way for lumberjacks to estimate where the tree falls.

Follow these steps:

  1. Stand a few feet from, and face the tree to be felled.
  2. Hold out your ax vertically, by the handle, at arm’s length and close one eye.
  3. Carefully back away from or move toward the tree, until the top of the ax is level with the treetop, and the bottom of the ax handle is even with the tree’s base.
  4. Your feet should be roughly at the spot where the treetop will lie when the tree is felled.

Remember that this is merely an estimate and is meant only to give you an idea of where the tree will end up after you’ve chopped it down. Take note of what could end up under the tree and get everything out of the way, if possible, or rethink where you plan to make the tree fall. After deciding which direction to fell the tree, proceed to the next prep phase.

With your ax held up at arm’s length and one eye closed, line up the ax to match the length of the tree to be felled. Where your feet are when they both line up will indicate roughly where the tree will end up (FamilyHandyman.com/landscaping/how-to-cut-down-a-tree/view-all/).

2. Plan Your Exit Strategy

Imagine where you’ll run as the tree falls. Have at least two alternative “escape routes”. Clear any obstacles or debris from all escape routes so nothing trips you up as you make your run to safety.

If you can’t remove any protruding roots on the route, mark them beforehand so you don’t get any nasty surprises on your retreat. Map out the two routes, and make sure you have a path that lets you walk or run well away from the tree. Since trees can bounce and roll when they hit the ground, a distance of about 15 feet from the tree should suffice.

3. Clear the Tree Base

After you’ve estimated where the tree will fall, work at clearing the base of the tree. Clear away any debris like leaves, sticks, stones and logs around the tree, move away any vehicles, lawn furniture or any other movable items. Cut out any brush under the tree’s trunk, and anything that may prevent you from having good footing during the cutting process, if possible.

4. Assess the Tree

Check that the tree you’re cutting is stable and isn’t leaning irregularly. If it’s leaning a certain direction, see if you can work with it and cut on the opposite side of its lean. If it appears that you can’t work with it, consult an expert or select another tree. Changing the fall direction of trees that are already leaning is difficult to manage without professional help. Don’t proceed with the fell without an expert’s assistance.

5. Assess the Weather

Make sure that the weather is clear on the day you decide to fell the tree. Be mindful of the weather and, particularly, the wind conditions, especially if it still has leaves on it. Never attempt to cut down a tree when there’s a strong wind as this will greatly affect the trajectory and make the landing impossible to predict or control.

6. Make the Cut

After you’ve made the necessary preparations, start cutting down the tree.  To do this properly, follow these steps:

  1. At about waist height, begin by making a horizontal cut at the side where you intend the tree to fall.
  2. The horizontal cut will be the “base” of your wedge-shaped dig into the trunk, so chip away at the same side, making a 60-degree vertical angle.
  3. Keep cutting into the trunk, removing a wedge-like shape that goes across the full width of the trunk and about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through it.
  4. Make sure that the bottom cut is parallel to the ground (see illustration below).

Fig. 1: Cut a wedge from the side of the tree that you want it to fall toward (front). The wedge should go two-thirds to three-quarters of the way into the tree and be the full width of the trunk. Ensure the bottom cut is horizontal and level. Fig. 2: Keep the bottom of this cut horizontal as you cut deeper into the tree.

  1. Depending on the thickness of the trunk and the existing angle of the tree, you can keep cutting into the wedge, going deeper until the tree falls.
  2. If the trunk is too thick, go to the opposite side of the tree and hack a similar wedge whose horizontal bottom cut is slightly above the horizontal cut on the front side.
  3. When you’ve chopped away enough of the trunk, listen for “groaning” and breaking wood; this means that the tree is snapping off and is starting to fall.
  4. Stop cutting and don’t wait for the tree to fall. Yell “TIMBER!” to warn others in the area then run away from the falling tree using the safest of your planned escape routes.
  5. Check the ground surrounding the felled tree for branches that may be stuck into the ground, creating possible hazards later, and clean up the area as needed.

 

Final Notes

Chopping down a tree the way our forefathers did isn’t as simple as you’d like, but it’s also not as difficult as you think. Using an ax to remove rotting or hurricane-prone trees, or as a way to obtain fuel or building materials is a skill you shouldn’t take for granted. Take good care of your ax by storing it properly, keeping it sharp, and never use the ax if the handle is damaged – procure a new ax or change the handle instead. Keep your ax handy, since you’ll never know when felling a tree could save your life.