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.”

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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