How to cut down a tree

When a tree just has to come down, make sure you and your equipment are up to the task

By Steve MaxwellSteve Maxwell


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Ever noticed how cottage ownership brings both sides of nature into sharper focus? Chipmunks are cute, until they nest in your attic. The smell of decomposing leaves on the forest floor is soul-enriching, until powder-post beetles kick-start the same composting process in your sleeping porch. And Old Man Pine is a friendly giant until he threatens to bash your cottage to smithereens. Realities like these are why all cottagers eventually learn the truth about trees. As beautiful as they are, sometimes they’ve got to go.

Though cutting down a perfectly healthy tree may seem like a sacrilege to some, when it comes to building protection and personal safety, sometimes cottagers have to make the sacrifice. But before you head to the shed for your chainsaw, be sure to ask yourself if a given tree really needs to be cut down. Then figure out how, or even if, you can do it yourself.

Making the cut

The first step in felling a tree is figuring out which way it will fall. Stand about 15 metres back from the tree and use a plumb line to determine the lean. Do this from two different spots to make sure you get it right. Once you know which way it will fall, make two cuts on the leaning side of the tree: A 45° downward cut that ends 0.3 metres above the ground and penetrates the tree by a third of its diameter; and a horizontal cut that meets the bottom end of the angled one, forming a triangular notch in the face, or leaning side, of the tree. Next, make the back cut . This horizontal cut is about 5 cm above the intersection of the triangle and runs from the back side of the tree toward the notch, but not all the way through. Leave 15 per cent of the thickness of the tree uncut. This slab of wood between the notch and the back cut creates a hinge, called hingewood, that minimizes the risk of the tree twisting as it falls.

“If a living tree is tilting towards a building — or if it’s dead or dying — then it’s prudent to deal with it while it’s still upright,” recommends Steven Mann, manager of Bartlett Tree Experts in Bracebridge, Ont., whose company regularly fells trees for cottagers. “Even dead branches on nearby trees can harpoon a hole through your roof if they fall big-end down. Why take the chance?”

While a hazard in themselves, large, dead branches high up in the canopy are often an early indication of decay inside the trunk, explains Todd Leuty, agroforestry specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. So depending where the tree is on your property, close to the cottage, say, or beside a well-travelled path, you may want to take it down. Ditto for a diseased tree in cases where it could infect the whole stand. Tim Lehman, area forester with the Ministry of Natural Resources, also warns against one particularly contagious tree disease called target canker (Nectria galligena) that infects maples. Trees showing the telltale exposed concentric callus ridges of this condition should be cut down and removed immediately.

But what if a tree is just gnarled, hollow, and ugly, yet not endangering anything? Leave ’em be, says Lehman. They may not look like much to you, but they’re a welcome sight for forest critters. Lehman recommends that at least six “cavity” trees be present on each hectare of land for wildlife habitat – the same condition required on managed Crown lands in the Great Lakes/St Lawrence forest region. In eastern Canada, more than 40 species of birds and mammals depend on cavity trees for shelter, hibernation, and rearing their young. What foresters call mast trees are also critical to wildlife food supplies. These include oak, ironwood, basswood, ash, beech, and any other species that produces nuts.

Even when it’s obvious a tree should come down, sentimental attachment often makes cottagers reluctant to do the deed and it can take years to arrive at the decision. Once you get there, here’s some cutting advice.

Know your limitations

Most troublesome cottage trees are near buildings, and while you may be tempted to emulate professional arborists and break out 2.5 cm-dia., 14,000 kg test-strength rope, nylon web slings, multiple-pulley blocks, and a gas-powered winch to help you direct the tree’s fall, every expert we consulted warned against trying to use ropes, pulleys, and winches to fell tricky trees yourself. That’s because there’s nothing between you, your cottage, and thousands of pounds of teetering wood except a bunch of things you probably don’t have: experience, training, and specialized equipment. Labour statistics show that pros who trim and remove trees work in one of the riskiest trades on the planet, right up there with police work and firefighting. That’s not to say you shouldn’t cut down trees yourself, just that the job demands extreme caution and a realistic assessment of your skills.

Brian Lawrence, consultant/trainer with the Ontario Forestry Safe Workplace Association (OFSWA), the North Bay-based safety association that delivers training to forestry professionals, knows the importance of this first-hand. “Back about 1986, I nearly dropped a tree onto my two-year-old son. I had no formal training and really didn’t know how to cut a tree safely,” he says. “Since I started with the OFSWA 12 years ago, I’ve been passionate about getting the safety message out to everyone who uses a chainsaw – pros and casual users alike. Never forget how much is at stake.”

Steven Mann offers a checklist for cottagers considering cutting their own trees:

1. If the tree is closer than 1 ½ times its height to a hydro line, don’t cut it yourself. In Ontario, Hydro One Networks — the electricity delivery company spun off from Ontario Hydro – removes dangerous trees growing on power line easements held by the utility, but doesn’t provide such a service on private property. It will, however, turn the power off on service lines running across your land while you or your arborists do the felling – one such free service per year. After that, you pick up the cost — about $400 each time.

2. Ask yourself whether the cut could cause property damage if the tree fell the wrong way. A “yes” should serve as a no-go signal unless you’re experienced, equipped to handle the work, and willing to shoulder the risk of dropping a tree on your cottage, an event possibly not covered by cottage insurance. Even the pros occasionally crunch buildings, but they have liability protection.

3. What shape is the tree in? Is it storm-damaged, with a split trunk and partially broken limbs hanging off? Are all the heavy branches on one side? Is it leaning steeply? Any of these conditions means there’s stress within the trunk that could cause it to split and spring outward unpredictably as it’s cut or to pinch and immobilize the chainsaw. If any of these safety considerations gives you pause, call in professional help.

4. Are there multiple, clear escape routes present? One is never enough, especially if the tree happens to fall toward your sole emergency exit. Can you make two or three distinct routes? Trees in congested areas pose increased felling risk, especially if they’re likely to hang up on other trees and stay there until the next strong wind.

5. Is the tree smaller in diameter than the length of your chainsaw bar? If not, don’t try to tackle it yourself. “Respecting this limitation is a good rule of thumb for cottagers,” explains Mann. “Trees larger than a saw’s bar can be cut safely, but not without training.”

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