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How To Cut Down a Tree With a Chainsaw

Cutting a tree with a chainsaw wearing a helmet and visor
Image credit: Parilov, Shutterstock

When we think of cutting trees with chainsaws, we may think of loggers and lumberjacks in a dense forest, taking down massive old growth timber. It’s not something the average homeowner considers a task for the non-professional. The reality is quite the contrary. You can easily cut down a tree on your property as long as you are prepared for the experience. Here at HealthyHandyman, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to show you how to cut down a tree with a chainsaw – the right and safe way!

Cutting down a tree is referred to as “felling”. When you’re felling a tree, you can’t go out and just start cutting. There are several important things to consider before you start cutting.

Before You Start Cutting

  • How big is the tree?
  • What kind of chainsaw do you have?
  • Do you have the necessary safety equipment?

How big and where is the tree?

There is no hard and fast rule about tree size when it comes to do-it-yourself landscaping, but generally, most trees under 50 feet are doable for us. However, this depends on the location of the tree. Is it right next to your house or out in the backyard, away from utility lines and other structures?

Equally important, consider the diameter of the tree, which we’ll discuss next.

What type of chainsaw do you have?

There are many brands of chainsaw available, and they are becoming more powerful every day. Most are powerful enough to handle the task of cutting small trees around the home, and in many cases, even large trees. Before you cut any large trees, though, you should have a good idea about what you are doing.

Chainsaws have a suggested range of cutting capacity for felling trees. An 18-inch chainsaw bar can reasonably cut a 36-inch diameter tree, which is roughly twice the chainsaw bar length. Larger chainsaws can do a little bit more at 2.5 times the diameter. Most consumer chainsaws max out at 24 inches, while professional models can reach 42 inches and longer.

Safety Gear

It’s easy to underestimate the size and weight of a tree, especially as it gets larger, but they can weigh several hundred pounds, and a falling tree can destroy fences, swimming pools, garages, and even a home. Make no excuses: Wear the proper safety equipment while you are cutting.

Here is a short list of safety items you should always wear while cutting trees.

Chainsaw helmet

Oregon chainsaw helmet

Chainsaw gloves

Elvex Prolar Gloves

Chainsaw chaps

Oregon Protective Chainsaw Chaps

Want to know more about safety gear? Check out our comprehensive guide to the proper safety gear for using a chainsaw.

Planning the Cut

Here are some things logistical things you should do before you start your chainsaw.

Acquire Permits

Most cities and towns, and certainly all states will require you to have a permit or certain permissions before you cut down any trees over a certain size. Even when the tree is on your property, there may be laws governing how you can remove them. Contact your local borough or tree commission to learn the law.

Fall Zone

Once you have acquired the necessary protective gear, you will need to pick a direction for the tree to fall. Rope-off or place warning signs well beyond where you think the tree will land to protect anyone who may be walking or driving in the fall zone, particularly if there is a tree or sidewalk in the danger area.

  • It’s easy to predict the fall zone if you can measure the tree, but tree taller than that can get increasingly difficult to guess. It’s hard to guess distance by eye, especially when it involves height, so try to overestimate and take more space than you need.
  • If a tree is leaning in a certain direction, it’s often advisable to let it fall in that direction when possible, as changing the fall direction of a leaning tree can be quite challenging.
  • When choosing a direction to fell a tree, make sure there is room to work with the saw in the area you need. For example, there may be other trees, water, rock, or other object blocking access to where you need to cut. In this case, you this case you will need to revise your fall zone.
If a tree falls onto another tree, it can break it, which can lead to a domino effect. Make sure there are no other trees in the fall zone.
men checking forest tree
Image credit: Bill Couch, The Sextant

Getaway Zone

The getaway path is where you run while the tree falls, and you must have this path well planned out in advance. We recommend a getaway path that takes you on a path 120-degrees from the direction the tree will fall.

tree fall-2

This path needs to be clear of debris so you can move as quickly as possible to escape danger. You do not want to change direction to avoid buildings or other structures. It would be best if you didn’t run in the direction of a stream or any walls, and make sure there are no roots or holes that can trip you as you make your getaway.

Lodged trees

Even with the best planning, your tree may get caught on another tree on its way down. When your tree gets hung up on another tree, we recommend getting professional assistance, as this can be a very dangerous situation. It’s always best to work in a group so one person can get help while another stays with the tree to warn others of danger.


Still with us? Good, this is when things start to get fun!

Cutting the Tree

  • What is the first cut to make?
  • What are notches?
  • What are front and back cuts?

Early Cuts

With the fall zone and getaway path worked out, we can start to make some early preliminary cuts.

Remove Lower Branches

This step requires us to remove any branches lower than your shoulder. You should never use a chainsaw higher than your shoulders because it’s very hard to operate properly at that height, and it could lead to injury. The purpose of trimming these branches is two-fold.

  • It allows for easier access to all sides of the tree, which makes cutting it easier.
  • These lower branches tend to snap and fly in unexpected directions when the tree falls. Removing them first makes the area safer.

The Notches

The best and safest way to fell a tree is by using a notch cut. There are three types of notch cuts with some slight differences between them that you can use for felling a tree. Using your saw to cut a notch lets you create a hinge that holds the tree to the base as it falls and helps to guide it in the direction you want it to go. Let’s look at the three different types of notches and how you create them.

Open-Faced Notches are the Safest

The open-faced notch is a bit more challenging to create than the others, but it is also the safest of the three because the hinge you create doesn’t break until just before the tree hits the ground.

We recommend the open-faced notch because it’s safer and does less damage to the tree if you should want the lumber.

open-faced notch

Creating the Open-Faced Notch

To create the open-face notch, make your top cut first. Cut at a downward angle of 70 degrees until you reach a depth of ¼ to 1/3 of the tree. For the second cut, you will need to saw upward at a 20-degree angle until it meets with the first cut. These two cuts result in a 90-degree notch, where the other two notches result in a 45-degree notch.


conventional notch

Creating the Conventional Notch

To create a conventional notch, Cut at a downward angle of 45-degrees to a depth of ¼ to 1/3 of the tree. Then, make a second, level cut until it meets the first cut.


humbolt notch

Creating the Humbolt Notch

The Humbolt notch is essentially an upside-down conventional notch. To create this notch, cut straight into the tree as if you were making a back cut. Stop the straight cut about ¼ or 1/3 the way through the tree. Make a second upward cut to meet the first at a 45-degree angle.


Making the Cuts

Face and back cuts

Face Cut

We perform the face cut on the part of the tree facing the fall zone. We cut at the height of two feet above the ground for maximum comfort and saw control. Face cuts require at least two cuts to remove the material.

Man cutting tree with chainsaw
Image credit: Pikrepo
Back Cut

We make the back cut on the opposite side as the face cut. It is a single cut into the tree that can cause the tree to begin falling, so extreme focus and attention are required. If the tree begins to fall, stay calm, and trust your planning. Use your getaway path.

Tree felling with a chainsaw

This notch is not as safe as the face cut because the notch closes before the tree has made it half the way down. For the remainder of the travel, the tree will be in an uncontrolled free-fall state.

How to Make Back Cuts

Open-Faced Back Cut

  • The back cut is made directly behind where the two-notch cuts come together and should extend into the tree until the wood hinge it creates makes up about 10% of the trunk.
  • For instance, if the tree is twenty inches wide, you would cut the open-faced notch five or six inches deep, and the back cut 12 or 13-inches deep, leaving a 2-inch hinge in place.

 

Conventional Back Cut

  • The back cut will once again leave a 10% hinge, but this time you will make the back cut about one inch higher than the second cut of the notch, instead of where the two cuts come together as we did in the open-faced cut.

 

Humbolt Back Cut

  • You place the back cut of the Humbolt notch about one inch above the top cut of the notch.
  • The Humbolt notch is more dangerous than the open face notch because it only guides the tree for the first half of the fall, after which the tree is in a free-fall state.
Man fells tree with a chainsaw
Image credit: Gilbertfilion, Wikipedia Commons

Choosing the Best Chainsaw

If you haven’t purchased your saw yet, here are a few things you should look for in your next model.

Gas Power
  • You are probably looking to purchase a gas-powered chainsaw for cutting down trees. Electric and battery-powered chainsaws are great for small trees and limbs, but they are usually underpowered when it comes to trees, especially hardwood trees.
Anti-Kickback
  • It’s a good idea to look for brands that have an anti-kickback safety mechanism as kickback provides a significant danger when working and can be life-threatening. A saw with a tapered tip can also help reduce the chance of kickback.
Other Features
  • Many chainsaws feature guards to protect your hands and an automatic chain lock to improve safety further. It may also have measures in place to reduce vibration and be easier to start
Our Favorite Gas-Powered Chainsaw for Cutting Down Trees
Husqvarna 20 Inch 455 Rancher Gas Chainsaw
  • 455 Rancher chainsaw is an ideal saw for landowners or homeowners who require a high powered and...
  • 55. 5cc 20 inch gas chainsaw with guide bar and chain
  • 2 cycle engine with Intertie activated chain brake for safety while operating

Summary

When cutting down a tree, it’s vital to get the required permissions before you do anything else. Once you have them, we recommend creating a detailed plan, complete with multiple escape routes. The larger the tree is, the more we recommend using the open-faced notch for increased safety and control. The other notches are fine for smaller trees, or if there is no danger from an out of control fall.

We hope you have enjoyed reading and have a good idea of what is required to fell a tree. If you have learned something new, please share this guide to cutting down a tree with a chainsaw on Facebook and Twitter.

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