Let there be light
April 14, 2006 3:36 PM   Subscribe

what is the best way to take down trees of moderate size on my own?

I want to shed more light on my property. These are tall trees (from 20 to 50 feet in height) but they are relatively young growth, narrow in diameter (3-8 inches). There is no issue with dropping them whole since the area I want to clear is well beyond the used space. I don't like chainsaws (don't trust myself with them) and would like a recommendation on using an axe or a saw tool. My experience with saws is that they get caught up halfway through the cut. Is it better to slice a wedge and then pull the tree down with a rope? Thanks.
posted by terrier319 to Home & Garden (11 answers total)
A decent bow saw will make quick work of trees that small. You cut a notch 1/3rd of the way through the tree on the side where you want it to fall, then cut across from the other side to meet the first cut. When the cuts are close enough together the tree drops, guided exactly where you want it to go by the hinge you just made. See this.

Except of course, when the trees don't fall where you thought they would, get hung up in other trees, or bind up your saw. It really takes some practice, but these trees are the perfect size to get that practice.
posted by LarryC at 3:51 PM on April 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Detonating Cord.

Actually that's probably a really bad idea. i'm thinking LarryC's suggestion is your best bet.
posted by quin at 4:20 PM on April 14, 2006

An addendum to LarryC's explanation:

The notch and cut method works, and if the tree grows perfectly straight, you can make the notch on any side to control the fall. If the trunk bends to one side, or the tree has heavy limbs aloft not evenly distributed,

I helped a neighbor clear two skinny (4" diameter) trees that had been growing out over our his fence into our yard. The simple notch and cut didn't work, because all the weight of the tree was over the fence, and the center of gravity for the tree was in the axis we didn't want the tree to fall. The blade started to bind in the trunk very quickly even with a notch on the other side.

I ended up using some moving ratchet straps around the trunk to another tree in the neighbor's yard to pull the trunk into a more vertical alignment, finish the cut, and facilitate it falling in his yard and not on our fence. It worked OK (only one bounce off his roof).
posted by sol at 5:06 PM on April 14, 2006

I took down a ~30ish foot eucalyptus (about 25-30" in diameter) by myself, on a slope, next to a house. I do not recommend it.

That said, your situation has several redeeming qualities (lots of space, skinny trunk) that would make it much easier. A hand saw (bow saw) is fine, even a handheld sharp, curved, folding pruning saw would make short work of it. Definitely notch as mentioned above--but as also mentioned above, mass distribution and not notch location is what determines where it falls.

So, do yourself a favor if you've got plenty of room and just make the notch on the side of the apparent center of mass, and assume it will fall *anywhere*, including the worst direction.

I like hand saws anyway because they're easier to let go of if things go badly and you have to jump out of the way. Also easier to cut slower and more controlled so the fall comes when you're ready for it.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 5:19 PM on April 14, 2006

Axe/saw for smallish (but tall) trees (these wierd gangly green maples) - I try to lasso/hook a larger upper branch (or [get a monkey/small child/scrawny adult to] climb up and tie a rope) so I can pull the tree int he direction I want it to fall in addition to doing the notch thing.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 5:47 PM on April 14, 2006

All of those approaches leave a stump behind. An entirely different approach is to use a winch from a long way away, to pull the tree up roots and all. Of course, it takes a lot of pulling to pull up the roots of a moderate sized tree, which is why you use a lot of cable and stand a long way away.

Anyway, if this works, then all you're left with is a moderate sized hole in the ground which needs to be filled in.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:11 PM on April 14, 2006

And on the subject of stumps, cut the tree trunk HIGH up on the trunk (i.e. NOT close to the ground), like 2 or 3 feet up or more. Then after the tree is down, cut the roots as best you can (and hope there's no tap root) and use the remaining trunk to leverage the stump out. Otherwise you're stuck with a stump that you can't get out. After I gave up on pulling it out, it took five years for mine to rot away, despite all kinds of crazy effort on my part. Man, THAT is a story ...
posted by intermod at 6:53 PM on April 14, 2006

Here are two sites that will explain how to safely fell a tree. University of Missouri (pdf file) and Husqvarna (html). Both are intended for chainsaw users, but the same principles apply for a crosscut felling saw (sometimes referred to as a "Swede Saw").

I have felled, bucked and spit over 50 bush cords of trees in the last five years (beats going to the gym and it heats the house, too). It is a dangerous undertaking and while simple in principle, there are plenty of surprises to even experienced loggers. If you know anyone who has felled trees before, I strongly urge you to watch it done a few times before trying it yourself. (You will be amazed how fast things can happen at the base of a tree that has cuts in it.)

Take your time, think each step through carefully and visualize the results of each step.
posted by RMALCOLM at 7:57 PM on April 14, 2006

I've taken down many trees of up to 30 foot height and a foot in diameter, and I will tell you that doing this is dangerous business, and that I'm only alive today due to blind dumb luck. I don't cut trees taller than I can reach the top branch of any more; the risk of serious injury or death is too great, and this is one of those situations where the right equipment, training, and manpower makes all the difference. Trying to do this all by yourself is especially foolhardy, and plans of tying ropes to trees to "control" their fall seem generally to work far better in theory than they actually do in practice.

A 3 inch tree trunk that is 20 foot in height is quite capable of killing you, if it comes down really wrong. An 8 inch base diameter trunk on a scrub pine tree 50 foot tall is several tons of hurt, waiting to spin, crack, and dance right through you in a split second. And it is much harder to get a tree notched correctly and undercut to fall predictably with an axe or manual bucksaw, than with a chainsaw. The main advantage of blasting trees to bring them down is simply that you can be a long ways away from them, and you can blow them so there is no stump problem, but working with explosives requires expertise, and maybe permits in your jurisdiction.

If you haven't any personal experience with felling trees taller than your head, you would be well advised to hire a professional tree service, arborist, or logger to at least fell the trees. It's still dangerous to cut up logs on the ground, as the weights and forces involved can still be significant, but if you work carefully from the crown to the base of the trunk, the risks can be minimized.
posted by paulsc at 6:47 AM on April 15, 2006

By the way, the trunk can be gotten out with enough perserverance, sweat, and cursing. I've heard stump grinders are nice; I just dig by hand and use one of these.

Did I mention it takes a while?
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:58 PM on April 19, 2006

Argh. That should be stump, not trunk.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:58 PM on April 19, 2006

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