How To Cut Wood Safely

by John T Beck

Many of us have vowed never to be caught unprepared and dependent on the public utilities for our very lives. The independent’s likely fuel will be wood – hopefully self-cut. But beware! If you are inexperienced in this ancient art of fuel gathering, read this article carefully and carry some of my experience into the woods with you.

Your first attention will be to your tools. Make sure your saw is fully gassed and oiled, the breather and oiler unobstructed, and the chain sharp and properly tightened. Proper tension will vary with the type of saw, but mine is adjusted so that cold and at rest, the chain does not hang, but can be easily pulled around the bar. Always carry your T-wrench or “duty tool” in your back pocket when cutting, as a chain will loosen after use and need re-adjustment. Running out of gas halfway through a tree necessitates the folly of leaving the tree hanging while you make the long walk back to the gas can or tools. A dull saw, madly over-revving, spitting sawdust rather than chips is dangerous too. A chain not getting oil will tighten and stall the engine eventually, but may damage itself and the bar in the meantime.

Now you must choose a tree. The first tree in a stand is very important. Walk around a bit before beginning to cut and choose a tree inclined to fall into an opening. Hanging a tree up in a neighboring tree necessitates a perilous and time-consuming extrication – you’re way ahead of the game if you avoid the situation. By and large, the small-time wood-cutter must drop a tree according to its own inclination. Give careful attention to determine this inclination, it can be tricky. Though the trunk may lean one way, the greater weight is given to the upper limbs and leaves, especially in the spring and summer when incredible volumes of water are coursing through. The wind can play havoc with you too, tossing the treetop to and fro, always changing the tree’s inclination.

The wind’s direction and velocity are the most variable factors in woodcutting, hence the factors most to be aware of. It is the fickle wind that causes most of the accidents among experienced loggers. Do not cut, go home if the winds are high and gusty! A tree may lean obviously to the right but rock back to the left as a gust passes, inviting disaster. Also present on windy days, lurking unseen above, are the “widow makers” – dead limbs and tree tops waiting only to be dislodged and come crashing down to add to their already ominous legend.

Once you’ve determined which way the tree wants to fall, cut away vines, brush and lower branches to give yourself plenty of room to move while cutting. Pay special attention to the route you need to take should you need to escape quickly. Inspect and clean the tree of sand, stones and other foreign matter, which will dull your chain. If dealing with a large tree, it may be necessary to remove the large buttresses (the flared root tops at the base of the tree) to get evenly high cutting faces.

Direction of fall
The direction of the fall is controlled by the notch, or face-cut. The reason for the face is to remove a surface for the tree to jam on or pry against as it begins to fall. For the trees with obvious inclinations, make the cut to the side you wish the tree to fall. The notch should be about one-fifth or one-third of the tree’s diameter and should never be higher than its depth. The danger of undercutting the face, even on trees that may be growing near horizontal, is the prospect of splitting.

Some trees are notorious splitters, alder being the champion in our area of the Pacific Northwest. A tree may split because it is hollow inside, or from grains, internal twists and stresses that may not be apparent unless the wind shifts or the face is cut improperly. Stand to the side as you cut the face, usually on the side to which you expect the tree to come as it falls. This protects you from splits. Cut as low as possible on the trunk as this will give you more wood and is a standard good logging practice since the lower the stump, the less danger it presents as obstruction. Also, by bending to make the cut, you give yourself a split second to straighten up and avoid a murderous split – it takes longer to fall backwards than to straighten up.

On high-risk splitters (those with obvious weaknesses or acute inclination) you may make a small notch first, on the back side of the tree, slightly above the expected back-cut level (see Diagram 1) to give the trunk a chance to snap off rather than split.

On trees without too much inclination, you may influence the line of fall by “hinging.” This hinge, about one-tenth of the tree’s diameter, is the last piece of wood still holding the tree as it begins to fall, and will continue to pull the tree towards the hinge until the last bond break. In this situation, the face is cut at a right angle to the direction of the fall. Undercutting the depth of the face can cause splitting on the back-cut. The danger in over cutting is the tree falling – in any direction – before you can even make the back-cut. Make the horizontal cut first, then take out the notch, generally from the top down, endeavoring to make the cuts meet neatly. In some situations, up-cutting the notch may be in order, but it’s easier to go with gravity whenever you can (#1).

As you make the back-cut, or felling cut, generally position yourself on the side of the hinge to protect you from splits. Make the cut exactly horizontal and higher than the base of the notch. On a small tree put the bumper of the saw to the log directly behind the hinge and move the bar in an arc around this fulcrum to get a fan-like cut (see Diagram 2). Never cut through to the notch or you lose your control altogether. As the tree begins to fall, the hinge twists the tree on the stump and pulls it toward you, step around to the rear of the tree so that it falls away from you, but don’t commit yourself until you know for sure the direction it is going.

Don’t try to outrun a tree
Should a tree ever begin to fall towards you, never succumb to the irrational urge to outrun it. Panic seems to make this a natural human reaction, but with foreknowledge you need only step around the tree, behind the line of fall.

To fell trees with a diameter exceeding the bar length of your saw, you must make a series of fan-like cuts. Stand behind the notch and start the first cut with the tip of the bar cutting into the tree just behind the hinge (see Diagram 3). Use the bumper as a fulcrum and change the fulcrum as little as possible. Leave the bar in the cut to move the saw to the next fulcrum, or the cutting direction could be changed too easily.

The final cut is made with the bar engaging (180 degrees opposite) the hinge. Move the bar in an arc leaving an equal amount of wood as a hinge. It is very important to always hold the bar in a horizontal position when cutting.

When felling very big trees it may be that the center of the tree is not cut through when you have finished the series of fan-like cuts. This can be avoided by boring into the center of the notch before making the back-cuts. This boring-cut can sometimes be used when cutting soft-leaf wood to relieve tension in the trunk and avoid splinters being torn out of the log in the middle of the hinge.

When cutting coniferous trees in the summer, it may be desirable to make splint cuts at either side of the tree. These cuts should be right angles to the notch and in the same plane as the back-cut will be. Without these cuts, the splint wood may split when the tree falls. Make the depth of the cut about equal to the width of the bar.

Sometimes, just as it seems the tree must topple, the wind or a miscalculation may rock the tree back on the stump, pinning your saw and/or jamming it tight against the narrow back-cut. If you cannot snatch the saw out of the bind, don’t linger; shut the saw off, step back and with one eye out for stumbling blocks and brush, carefully choose the safest line and back off. Once safely away, you may analyze the situation and choose one of several courses.

Wind is unpredictable
The safest course is to let the wind blow the tree over. The problem here, of course, is the wind’s unpredictability. You cannot go off and leave a potential murderous situation poised indefinitely; it can come down seconds later or months later. You are responsible for the tree – it must fall before your responsibility ends.

The best tool in this situation is the wedge. For all its simplicity, the wedge is pound-for-pound the most powerful tool you may own. Big-time loggers, dealing with die-straight firs or redwoods 150 feet tall, can bring them down on a dime by wedging in the back-cut. You, too, can apply wedging principles to influence the fall of most trees, but many trees you may be cutting for firewood will not grow as straight and balanced as the big-money trees and may not be as susceptible to wedge manipulation.

In any case, if your saw is not pinched in the back-cut, the wedge is inserted and driven in with a small sledge or mall. Many trees, especially alder, are likely to pinch back and spit the wedge out by rocking back in reaction to the first one or two blows. So, once the wedge has been tapped in place, hit it a good lick, then as the tree rocks forward, quickly set the wedge by hitting it again before the tree rocks back. Whenever driving wedges, be aware that sharp metal splinters may fly into your, or an observer’s eyes and cause severe injury – out in the woods, perhaps far from medical attention. Wedges should be kept trimmed of burrs and chipped edges. Also there are plastic wedges available that eliminate this problem. Or, you can make wedges out of hardwood with the grain going into the tree. Safety goggles are the best insurance against eye injury when using any tool. It is best to carry two wedges, as most jobs will require more than one.

If the fully driven wedges do not influence the tree enough to tip it back along its intended line, or if your saw is still stuck in the way; and if the tree can be dropped back in the direction it wants to go, and if you have another saw (cutting with an ax at this point is quite hazardous, bit it is a way), make a new cut below the first attempt, reversing the face and back-cut (see Diagram 4). Be sure you have room to move because this tree could go anywhere at this point.

Now if the wedges haven’t worked, or if the tree is looking down on your barn or the neighbor’s fence and you can’t drop it where it wants to go, a long, stout rope or cable and block are in order. Try to anticipate problems such as nearby buildings, etc., beforehand and attach your block and line before beginning to cut. Hooking onto a delicately balanced, wind-sensitive toppler is an adventure of rushing peril. The block should be chained to a solid base, the line run through it and set around the trunk or a stout limb as high as possible to gain maximum leverage. How to set the line is up to you, but please note: it is foolhardy to climb the tree. If there is absolutely no other way, add your weight to the situation on the side of greatest balance. But before you even consider climbing, tie a light rope to a heavier rope or cable, weight it with a rock, toss the rock over a limb and haul the cable up and around the tree. Be alert! Listen for cracking and groaning and watch the tree top. Have partners well clear and watching for you. Once the line is set, if truck, tractor, partners or neighbors can apply sufficient pull-power, the tree will fall towards the block.

If you do not have a block, the line can be run around a nearby tree or stump and pulled too; but, of course, this affords greater friction than a block, a less efficient return for your labors and causes greater wear on the line. In the absence of a suitable tree or stump, you may pull directly towards the power source, but be sure your line is long enough to take you beyond the falling tree.

Look before you leap
A tree may begin to fall only to get caught in adjacent trees. This may happen often until you learn to fell the trees in a stand with a mind always to open a path for the next tree to fall. Don’t jump into the biggest tree, or the one nearest the truck. Walk around a bit and a whole logical order may be suggested and hangers may be avoided.

However, you may plan and figure, sometimes that tree’s gonna catch and stay cradled in his brother’s boughs. When that happens, you have a dangerous situation with great tension exerted throughout. First, watch out for the tree’s butt. It may still be in contact with the stump and may slip off and jump back at any time, battering-ram style. Don’t be behind the stump. As the tree begins to fall and the problem is developing, back off and keep your eyes up for dislodged “widow makers.” If possible, pull the tree with cable and truck. Be alert. It may take many minutes for stress to wear down a supporting limb, but with a loud snap, the tree may suddenly shift, roll free and fall to either side. Usually you can perceive the direction of the stress and with cautious circling, approach the hanger from behind to set the choker.

Hand-to-tree exposure
If you cannot pull the tree free, you may be able to free the bind by up-cutting with your saw. This hand-to-tree exposure confronts you with unimaginable energy – great massed weight, pulled by gravity, levered and twisted, coiled to explode with a speed and suddenness you could never react to. Your up-cut will be made from the stressed side (diagram 5). Do not stand on the side your saw will cut from!

It may take several cuts to finally loosen the entangled top and each cut is very perilous. Again, always make yourself plenty of room to move. Movement is your principle advantage in this encounter. Be prepared to simply release the saw if it should be wrenched by a great shift. In fact, anytime a tree wants to take your saw, let the saw go! Do not resist the force and it is likely the tough bar and chain will be undamaged. But even if the saw is totaled it can be replaced – step back and keep yourself intact.

Don’t cut alone
A friend of mine was making an up-cut on a leaning tree and the bind exploded, throwing him 20 feet, still gripping his wildly screaming saw. Fortunately he was unhurt. Fortunate too, was the fellow he was cutting with – he was standing behind my friend, but far enough back to escape the horror of face-full of chainsaw. If your temperament allows it, it is safer to have company in the woods, but whenever cutting near others, only one saw should be running in the same area, and everyone should focus his attention on the same tree. The cutter should never begin until he knows everyone is well out of the way.

Other things to consider
But say you’ve got the tree on the way down, here are a few more things to consider. A tree falling uphill may kick back of the stump just as if it had been caught in nearby trees. The limbs break the fall and gravity pulls the butt back downhill. A tree falling downhill will jump out and down the hill, sometimes for many feet. The larger the tree and the greater the slope, the broader the jump. Consider this effect in determining cutting order, positioning yourself and equipment and avoiding obstructions.

And speaking of obstructions, a tree may fall across something – a fallen tree, stump or land configuration – and the resultant lever action will flip the butt about with a big whoosh. An old-timer told me how he was “horsing around….careless…” and such a butt caught him no-so-gently under the chin and set him dazed 12 feet up and back atop an old first-growth cedar stump.

Even when the tree is down you may not be through. It may be the tree has fallen over tough, pliant brush or smaller trees. Sometimes these will be unbroken and pinned and when severed as you clear the brush, will spring up, slapping and ripping like some jungle trap. As you limb, be aware the trunk may shift as supporting limbs are cut out. Also, cut limbs from the stress side, as when up-cutting, to avoid binds and the jungle-trap effect.

By entering the woods fore-armed and fore-warned, you should be able to face winter well-stocked with your own fuel and a measure of independence from the all-too-fallible (not to mention expensive) public utilities – and with all your own limbs, too, to warm by the fire.

Copyright “Countryside & Small Stock Journal”. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. Countryside Magazine W11564 Hwy 64 Withee, WI 54498.

Lehman’s does not guarantee the accuracy of this information. Always obey the instructions in your owner’s manual and follow the advice of local safety officials.

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