How to Cut Down a Tree Safely

person wearing a helmet while using a chainsaw to cut down a tree

Before you thwack your tree with an ax, you need to learn how to cut down a tree safely. Otherwise, cutting down a tree can prove dangerous, not to mention deadly. And here’s your first tip: Use a chainsaw –– not an ax. 

Creating a safe tree removal plan is a priority, but don’t forget to consider your DIY skill level, too. If a roaring chainsaw makes your knees shake, then you’re better off hiring a professional for the job. Other instances also require a pro, such as a diseased or dead tree. 

1. Evaluate safety

Removing a tree is a dangerous task. Why? Because although a tree is likely to fall in the direction of its natural lean, a falling tree can still prove unpredictable. Handling a chainsaw also increases the risk of injury on the job. 

Do not attempt DIY tree removal if: 

  • You feel uncomfortable removing the tree on your own. Safely removing a tree requires precision and a steady hand, neither of which you can confidently execute if you’re worried for your safety. 
  • The tree is on a steep slope. You’ll jeopardize the slope’s stability if you attempt tree removal. 
  • The tree is close to your house, power lines, or other structures. Even if the tree leans away from the obstacle, it’s best not to risk it. 
  • The tree is diseased or dead. Where and how a weak tree will land is too unpredictable. 
  • The tree has several broken or dead branches. Weak branches may fall as you work, leading to severe injury or death. 
  • You are unfamiliar with chainsaw safety. You must feel confident operating your chainsaw to avoid injury or death. 
  • Your chainsaw is old. For the safest cut, use a chainsaw in good working condition. 
  • Other trees surround the tree. A falling tree may cause other trees to fall, which can be catastrophic. 
  • You’re beyond your limits –– physically and mentally. Don’t cut down a tree if you’re tired, injured, or ill. 
  • You need the tree to fall in a direction opposite its natural lean. A professional tree service will have the necessary tools to perform this task. 
  • The tree is enormous. Leave the large trees to the pros. 
  • Your homeowners’ association or city forbids you from removing the tree. In some instances, you may need to obtain a permit. 

If any of the above circumstances are true, you cannot safely remove the tree. Hire a qualified arborist to remove the tree for you. 

If none of the above pertain to you or your tree, you can safely move on to the next step. 

2. Gather equipment

You’ll need more than Popeye’s spinach to cut down a tree. Your tree felling arsenal should contain the following: 

  • Chainsaw with a bar that’s at least 2 inches longer than the tree’s thickness
  • Hard hat
  • Long pants
  • Long-sleeved shirt
  • Safety glasses
  • Face screen
  • Hearing protection
  • Work gloves
  • Work boots
  • Felling wedges
  • Protective chainsaw chaps
  • Measuring tape
  • A stick the length of your arm or longer
  • A stick or pole that a buddy can signal you with

Ask a friend or family member to be your second pair of eyes. They can warn you when a tree branch has snapped or when the tree is about to fall. 

3. Estimate the fall

To estimate how far the tree will fall, you’ll need to know the height of the tree. But who has a ruler that big? We’ll show you how to measure the tree’s height without one. 

Keep in mind that the following measuring method only works on level ground. If your tree is on a slope, you’ll need a different tree measuring method.

  1. Grab a straight stick that’s the same length as your arm or longer. 
  2. Point the stick straight up at 90 degrees to your outstretched, straight arm. If the stick is longer than your arm, grasp it where the length of the stick above your hand equals your arm’s length. 
  3. Walk backward until the top of the tree is in line with the top of the stick. 
  4. The distance between your feet and the tree is the tree’s approximate height. This distance is likely how far the tree will land. For increased safety, keep people and pets at a distance at least twice the tree’s height. 

A tree falls toward its heaviest side. If you need the tree to fall on its lighter side or against its lean, do not attempt to redirect the fall. Redirecting the fall is a job for professionals. 

If houses, power lines, or other structures are within the radius of the tree’s height, do not cut down the tree. Hire a professional instead. Even if the tree leans away from these structures, you should still call in a pro. 

4. Plan your escape route

Once a tree begins to fall, it falls fast. You won’t have time to scan the area and pick a safe place to run. And you don’t want to run right into the tree’s path. 

Before you turn on your chainsaw, identify your escape route. The escape route should be in the opposite direction of the tree’s fall and at a 45-degree angle. Remember, the lean direction is the direction the tree will fall. 

Pro Tip: For good measure, plan an alternative escape route. It also should be in the opposite direction of the tree’s fall and at a 45-degree angle. 

5. Prepare a signal

Create a signal with your partner that warns about incoming danger. For example, if a tree branch falls as you work, your partner can signal you to take the escape route. Or, when the tree begins to fall without your knowledge, the partner can warn you about that, too. 

Since your ears will be covered and the chainsaw will drown out noise, you’ll want to create a physical signal. With your partner standing guard, they can poke you with a long stick or pole when there’s danger. Ensure the poking device doesn’t block you or your partner from the escape route.  

6. Clear the work area

Ensure the work area and escape routes are clear of debris and obstacles. You don’t want to accidentally trip on a branch as you handle the chainsaw or when you escape. Remember to clear the alternative path, too. 

7. Remove low-hanging branches

You don’t want to bonk your head as you saw. Remove all low-hanging branches before you get to work. 

8. Cut the notch

It’s finally your chainsaw’s shining moment. In this step, you’ll be cutting the notch. It’s a good idea to sketch the notch on paper to have a good idea of how to execute the cut. 

Here’s how to create the notch: 

  • With the tree to your left, create a 70-degree cut on the side facing the direction of the tree’s lean. Remember, the tree will fall toward it’s natural lean, which is why the notch must be made here. The 70-degree cut should have a depth that’s one-quarter of the tree’s diameter.  
  • It’s time to complete the notch. For the second cut, turn the chainsaw sideways and make a horizontal cut that meets the bottom of the first cut. Similar to the first cut, the horizontal cut is on the side facing the direction of the tree’s fall. 
  • Once the cuts meet, the wood should pop out and create the notch.  

9. Make the felling cut

Once you’ve completed the notch, you’re ready for the following: 

  • Move to the tree’s opposite side to begin the felling cut, which is a horizontal cut made slightly above the notch’s horizontal cut. 
  • Make the felling cut until there’s enough room to insert a wedge. The wedge will help prevent your chainsaw from pinching. 
  • Do not cut all the way through with your horizontal cut. Leave about 10% of the tree’s width between the felling cut and notch to create a hinge. 
  • As you cut toward the hinge, the tree will begin to fall. Quickly move away and down your escape path. 

10. Remove tree limbs

Congratulations, you’ve cut down the tree! Now it’s time to remove the tree limbs (this step is called limbing). 

  • Start by removing the branches at the base of the tree. 
  • If possible, remove the limbs on the tree’s underside. Limbs too close to the ground can be cut later when you turn the log. 
  • Large branches may be under tension. Start by cutting the branches outside and slowly working toward the tree trunk. 

11. Chop into firewood

Once you’ve removed all the branches, it’s time to cut the trunk, a process called bucking. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you cut the log into smaller pieces. 

  • First, find where the wood might compress as you cut (this will be a spot where the wood is not touching the ground). From the top of the trunk, cut one-third of the way down. To avoid binding, offset your chainsaw by 1 inch and cut from the bottom up, all the way through. 
  • Next, cut areas of the log that are touching the ground. Starting from the top, cut most of the way through. Then flip the log over and finish the cut. 
  • When one side of the log is supported off the ground, start the cut from the bottom and finish the cut from the top. 

Keep it simple –– hire a pro

The safest way to cut down a tree is to have a trained professional do the job for you. 

Beware of self-proclaimed tree professionals who come knocking on your door offering their services. You’ll want to hire an insured, qualified arborist who has the latest training and knowledge on tree care. Hiring an uninsured, poorly trained individual creates a higher risk for damages, injury, and death. 

Once you see how easy it is to have a pro do the job for you, why not hire a pro to do other outdoor services? Hire a local lawn care professional to cut your grass and an arborist to cut your trees. 

Main Photo Credit: hagenstaadt | Pixabay

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is a freelance writer and actor in New York City. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and enjoys a warm cup of French press coffee.