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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Safety tips

Okay, you’ve run through the checklist and decided you can handle the cut. Now you need to arm yourself with the proper equipment and the know-how to use it. If your only cutting challenge was to take down the odd short, small tree (say 15 cm in diameter or less), then an old-fashioned bowsaw would do the job nicely. But since trees are often larger and felling is just the first step, most folks invest in the speed and ease of a chainsaw to cut logs and branches into shorter lengths, either for fuel or just to carry away.

Professional arborists are mandated by law to wear CSA-approved boots, chainsaw pants, hard hats, ear protection, eye protection, and heavy gloves on the job. What makes sense for you as a casual cutter? According to Ted Whitworth, field services manager with the Farm Safety Association, “you’ll certainly need ear and eye protection, and heavy gloves to prevent cuts and scrapes.” And since a third of all chainsaw injuries are leg-related, some form of lower-limb protection is strongly recommended. “Chainsaw chaps are generally cooler and lighter than the pants used by the pros, yet they still offer protection from saw chain injuries to the front of your legs,” explains Whitworth. Chaps cost about $100, so it makes sense for two or three cottages to get together and buy a pair between them. Chaps with calf protection for the back of your legs are best.

Any saw you use should be equipped with a chain brake – a feature that halts the travel of the saw chain if the machine bucks upward unpredictably. This bucking, called kickback, happens in an instant and accounts for nearly a half of all chainsaw injuries. Although manufacturers now regularly include chain brakes on new machines, older saws don’t always have them. For that reason, inspect carefully for a brake before you rent a chainsaw, or if you’re considering purchasing a used one.

The top half of the tip of any chainsaw bar is the primary kickback danger zone because the chain is travelling nearly straight down at this point. Since restriction of the chain’s travel in this area is the major cause of kickback, the best way to avoid it is by preventing any contact between the chainsaw’s tip and the wood. A dull chain is also more likely to kick back than a sharp one because it’s less able to slice through wood, and more likely to ride on top of it. Feeling tired? Stop sawing. Fatigue increases the chance you’ll make mistakes leading to kickback.

Bringing it down

Proper felling technique involves three saw cuts that work together to create a hinging action that influences the direction of a tree’s fall. At the same time, they prevent the butt from jumping up or twisting wildly as the trunk hits the earth. The first two cuts, made about 0.3 metres from the ground on the side the tree will naturally fall, create a notch into the trunk about one-third the tree’s diameter. The third cut — the back cut — is horizontal, entering the side opposite the notch, 5 cm above its bottom face, and penetrating inward to within about 15 cm of the notch’s point. It’s important that the back cut doesn’t intersect with the first two: The uncut wood fibres across the centre of the trunk — about 15 per cent of the thickness of the tree — create a hinge that keeps it under some control as you move back and away from the stump yelling Timber! Cutting through the hingewood is a dangerous mistake made by amateur fellers, and can allow the tree to fall in an unpredictable direction or to buck into the air as it hits the ground.

If you call in a pro

If you have to call in an arborist, know that you’re buying more than expertise. You’re buying insurance, too. At least you should be. “Up to 30% of what we charge customers goes straight for liability protection,” explains Steven Mann of Bartlett Tree Experts. Every tree business is required by law to carry two kinds of coverage: a minimum of $1 million general liability insurance to protect property, plus Worker’s Compensation insurance for every employee on site. “If you hire a so-called pro to cut a tree on your property and an accident happens, you may be named in a lawsuit if the arborist wasn’t properly insured, even if the accident wasn’t your fault,” says Mann. “Ask to see valid insurance certificates that specifically mention cutting trees before agreeing to any kind of work.” The only time Worker’s Compensation coverage isn’t required is when the owners of the tree-cutting business (not employees) are doing the actual work. Rates for removing trees run about $1,200 to $1,600 per day of labour for a two-person crew. And when it comes time to sign the cheque, don’t get conned into paying PST. Tree removal is a service only, so GST is all you need to fork over to the government.

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