How to safely remove branches from a fallen tree

A lumberjack cutting a tree Photo by Benoit Daoust/Shutterstock

Limbing and bucking a fallen tree—removing branches and cutting the trunk into pieces—is hard work. And because the work is often done low to the ground, close to your legs and feet amidst a jumble of branches, the odds of getting hurt are great, so always wear safety gear: safety boots, chainsaw pants (or chaps), face protection, a hard hat, gloves, and ear protection.

Proper limbing technique uses an orderly approach that combines cutting with the bottom of the bar (called the “pulling chain” because it tends to pull the saw away from the operator) and the top of the bar (called the “pushing chain” because it tends to push the saw towards the operator). A good all-round technique that works well for conifers in particular is called the three-step “sweep method,” which keeps the body of the saw between you and the chain as much as possible. To begin, work from the base of the trunk toward the top. Standing with the saw on the left side of the trunk, get into a balanced stance, knees comfortably bent, and support the body of the saw with your right thigh.

Step 1

Limbing a tree
Illustration by Jacques Perrault

Rev the saw right up, then make a forward sweep, about two feet long, lopping branches off with the pushing chain (the top of the bar) and taking care not to reach farther than is comfortable.

Step 2

Limbing a tree illustration
Illustration by Jacques Perrault

Flip the saw on top of the trunk, and make a sweep back towards the butt using the pulling chain (the bottom), taking care that heavy branches don’t pinch the chain. (It’s best to take the weight off a hefty limb first by removing a section or two, working back to the trunk.)

Step 3

Limbing a tree illustration
Illustration by Jacques Perrault

Place the guide bar on the right side of the tree, resting the saw body on the trunk, and make another forward sweep using the pushing chain.

You’ve just cleared three sides of a short section of the trunk.

Now, keep the guide bar on the right side of the tree as you walk forward to excise the next set of branches. If cut branches are a trip hazard, engage the chain brake, and clear away the debris before continuing. When you get near the end, and a small tree is all that is left, just cut off the top of the tree.

Lower limbing, removing branches trapped under the trunk, is generally easiest to do once all the other branches have been removed. If the trunk is really close to the ground, or supported higher than waist height, roll it over to expose the bottom branches. Lightly support the guide bar on the trunk, and work backwards using the pulling chain. Otherwise, starting at the butt end, cut away some of the underlying branches, and you will be left with a cleared section of trunk, held up at a convenient height for bucking into big chunks—called “blocks”—by the branches that still remain under the trunk. As you move up the tree, removing underlying limbs and cutting away blocks, you’ll also reduce the weight of the trunk that rests on the remaining bottom branches, making them easier to remove. You can also do lower limbing after each sweep sequence by facing the trunk and making a short pass backwards using the pushing chain.

When cutting bottom branches, keep in mind that many limbs will be under compression as they lie squashed under the trunk. To safely cut these without binding the saw or getting walloped by a spring-loaded branch, first relieve some of the pressure by making a few small cuts (no more than one-third the branch’s diameter) on the side of the limb that is in compression, then cut through the side held in tension.

As for bucking, it’s often easier to do with a heavy trunk propped off the ground, if you’re mindful of where the trunk will drop.

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