Timber! How to Fell a Tree with an Axe and Saw

Felling a tree (whether with an axe, hand saw, or chainsaw) is something exciting and empowering, for those of you who haven’t done it. It’s a close-up encounter between man and nature, and there’s nothing quite like watching a tree lean and fall right at the angle you wanted it to. You earn the right to call out “timber!” with a grin on your face.

In short: it’s fun and satisfying. 

But felling a tree is a skill that you need to practice with care and attention to detail. It’s dangerous work, and nature sometimes comes out on top. Being a lumberjack or forester is a dangerous profession. That’s why you need to know the right way how to fell a tree, whether with an axe, (hand or crosscut) saw, or chainsaw. This is an in-depth guide to felling a tree by hand, with everything from the tools to the techniques and safety precautions you need to cut down a full-grown tree. Read on!

What Tools You Need to Fell a Tree

There are three main tools you use to fell a tree:

  • An axe and:
  • A good crosscut or bow saw.
  • Or a chainsaw.

Those are really the only tools you need. You won’t cut a tree down with eye protection and proper work wear, but you should have these things. Forester’s helmets with a visor and ear protection can be had for pretty cheap online. The same goes for a sharpening stone or file in case you need to sharpen your tools. Finally, felling wedges (such as the USA-made Gator Wedge) are also very useful to hold and lean the tree in the direction you want it to fall. I’ve published an in-depth list of what I think are the best felling axes currently out there, if you’re interested in purchasing an axe then you can read that article!

Tree Felling Safety

When felling trees, you need to follow three principles to be as safe as possible. You don’t joke around with big trees – death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you (or someone with you). So always live these principles:

  • Swing only in your frontal area.

Instead of standing directly in front of the tree you’re going to be felling, you should “offset” yourself, so that the tree is only in front of your lead foot. Another way to think of it is that if you were looking straight ahead, you’d be looking past the tree, not directly at it. This stance does two things: it allows you more follow-through on your swing, and it reduces the chance of injury if your axehead ricochets off the tree. 

  • Be aware of your surroundings.

Always be aware of the area you’re felling in. Nearby trees that could get entangled with the falling tree or change its course. Roots or stones that can cause you to trip. The angle of the tree itself, and the weather – especially when there’s a wind up. Last but not least, if you have someone with you (as is good to have when felling large trees), make sure they don’t walk around in the area where the tree’s going to be falling. 

  • Wear appropriate work wear.

When felling trees, three pieces of work and safety wear are especially useful: good boots (such as steel-toed ones), eye protection, and a hardhat (such as the Oregon forester’s helmet, which is a 3-in-1 deal for a great price). Boots protect you from burying your large felling axe in your foot. Eye protection keeps your eyes safe from flying woodchips, and a hardhat will protect your head and brain in case things go badly wrong and a branch hits you or you fall. Finally, if you’re using a chainsaw, ear protection is a must for the short and long term protection it gives to your hearing.

How to Fell a Tree with Hand Tools – Step-by-Step Guide

When you’ve got your tools and wear of choice ready, you can get down to the task on the ground. First, you have to choose a tree and make the area ready. The second is making two cuts – the front cut and the back cut – and watching as the tree starts leaning, falling, and breaking right where you want it to. Read on to find out how to do both those things.

Tree Felling Prep Work – Choosing and Clearing

Maybe you already know which tree you want or need to cut down, and maybe you want to know how to choose the right tree to fell.The principles are simple enough – you want something the right size for your needs, with a straight trunk and preferably not leaning too much (that makes it more dangerous to fell). For firewood – avoid pines, and for woodworking material a.k.a lumber choose trees with less branches and knots, because those are going to be a pain to process.

When you know what tree you’re going to cut down, clear the area where you’re going to be working. If you’ve got the time and the tools (such as a cutting mattock or pulaski axe), clear away any roots or rocks in the ground that might possibly get in your way. Clear the area above and around your head and shoulders to a length of maximum extension of your arms and axe. Basically, as far as your axe swing will reach is how much you should clear. In practice, that means cutting back any branches that your axe swing might catch in. The last thing you want is your swing being broken by or your axe stuck in a branch you didn’t consider!

Finally, choose what direction the tree you’re felling is going to fall in. This is actually quite important – look up and see whether it has a clear path or if there are large tree branches that could block its fall. If possible, choose a clear path. If that’s not practical, you might have to either change the felling angle, clear the blocking limbs (often impractical), disentangle the tree when you do fell it (an extremely dangerous and unpredictable process), or choose another tree to fell altogether. 

Choosing the right tree to fell, then, is one of the most important things you’ll do. Clearing your working area will help prevent trips, slips, and other potentially nasty mishaps.

Felling a Tree with an Axe

The correct felling of a tree has two main parts – creating the front cut and then making the back cut, which will set in motion the fall of the tree (if done right) by creating a hinge of sorts that will not support the weight of the tree, but will make it fall in the right direction. It’s easiest to make the front cut with an axe, as a saw will get pinched a lot (although it’s certainly possible). 

Making the Front Cut

The front cut is a 45-degree cut that you make on the side of the tree that will be facing the direction of the fall. The bottom cut is horizontal and the top – at an angle, diagonal. I make this cut by alternating each swing, but you can also do it by focusing on making a few cuts at one angle and the next few – at the other one. Cut no further back than the center of the tree.

Next you’ll have to make a back cut to weaken the tree trunk so much that it starts falling by itself. You can make a back cut with an axe, but it’s easier and more precise to do so with a saw, especially since the saw will now not get pinched any more.

Felling a Tree with a Saw

The back cut can be made with either an axe or a saw, but it’s faster and easier with a good cross or bow saw. That’s because the tree’s fibers are already compromised on the side of the front cut, and the tree is starting to lean away. That is, the blade won’t get pinched and it’ll be easier to saw than chop through the wood.

Making the Back Cut and Hinge

Whether you make the cut with a saw or an axe, you should make it about 1 to 2 inches above the bottom of the front cut. This creates a step and is where the pivot or hinge that will allow the tree fibers to break and the tree itself to fall in the right direction. The step also provides a backstop as the trees falls – so that it doesn’t fall in your (or any other) direction. 

Always determine your escape route before the tree falls!

Do not walk behind or linger in front of the front or back cuts after they’re made. Try to work on the sides of the tree, both chopping and sawing. Grab your tools when the tree starts falling and get away from there, as even a moderately-sized tree can fall with a surprising amount of force, and if it falls on or even hits you with a fraction of its full force, the results can be lethal.

Using a Chainsaw to Fell a Tree

Of course, felling a tree with a chainsaw is how most people – professionals and amateurs alike – do it these days. And if you don’t have the time to fell a tree with an axe and hand saw, or it’s an urgent situation (such as a dangerous tree leaning near your home), it’s often a better idea to use a chainsaw. It’s definitely faster and less effort, but with similar risks and others as with an axe and hand saw.

The principles of felling are the same, though. Make a 45-degree face cut on the side of the tree in which direction you want it to fall, then make a back cut starting above one to two inches above the bottom of the face cut. Use ear and eye protection!

What to do with an Entangled or Hung Tree

A tree that gets entangled with the branches of other trees, stopping its fall, is often called a hung tree. A free-hanging tree is one of the most dangerous things in forestry. That’s why making a proper step and hinge when cutting is so important, since it is a tether to the ground (even if it’s a weak one). If a tree is hung, there are two ways to approach the challenge. You can open up the back notch cut a bit more and use a felling lever or other suitable tool to turn the tree and move it around, potentially freeing it from the branches. You can also make a top cut (on the compression side) and then a bottom cut, in effect creating another hinge and releasing the tension. This second method works best on trees that are already at quite a low angle. You should be very careful working with trees that have a 60-degree or higher angle of hanging, as they can turn and change the direction of their fall – for those, it’s better to use the first method. Hung tree felling is something you should take very seriously, as it’s when unpredictable things happen and things can go wrong. If in doubt, call a professional. The following two videos are good examples of the two methods.

Proper technique and safety first – you get few second chances with the big old monster-sized trees of the forest!

Play Video
Play Video

Using Wedges During Tree Felling

Wedges are another tool that often comes in handy when felling a tree. When you’re making the back cut, you can use them to pry the fibers apart slightly, making it easier to saw through. They also serve the function of holding a tree in place, so that it doesn’t start falling prematurely. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they can make felling much safe. When you’ve made the back cut, you can hammer in the wedges so that you don’t have to be as close to the tree (with a saw in the tree that can get stuck) when it starts falling. The wedges ensure that the tree leans and topples in the direction you want it to.

Remember that if you’re going to buy a tree wedge for cutting down trees, you buy a felling wedge! These are thinner and longer than splitting wedges, which have a fatter profile and are made for splitting logs and rounds of wood. Gator Wedges are what I use – bought ’em and haven’t had to buy any more since. They’re high quality as far as I can tell and made in the USA, and they’re only a few bucks more than made in China stuff. As with any tool, you get what you pay for, and wedges are a useful tool to have!

Processing the Tree After Felling

After the tree is on the ground (or nearly so), you will have to get rid of any limbs holding it up and preventing you from removing it from the forest. Start at the bottom of the tree and chop “upwards” – that is, in the direction that the tree limbs and branches grow (which is up). Another way to think of it is to chop it along the grain. You can use a felling axe or a smaller forester’s axe for this, or even a hatchet if the branches are small enough. Try to chop them off as close to their base as possible. Be extra careful around limbs that are under pressure – ones that are holding the tree trunk up off the ground.

Best Felling Axes and Saws

The best axes and saws for felling trees are dependant on personal preference. A novice with an expensive, premium axe or saw will not be able to work as fast or as well as a seasoned professional with a cheap tool. That said, though, you certainly want your tools to sturdy and do their job well – nobody wants an axehead coming off while chopping down a big fir tree or a saw breaking when you’re making the back cut. Tools made in the US (check carefully, since a lot of US-owned companies now make their axes in Mexico or elsewhere, for example) and in Europe (Sweden, Finland, and Germany especially) are usually very solid and will last you a lifetime if taken care of. You do get what you pay for, so you shouldn’t scrimp unless you want to make felling harder. That said, I’ve published an in-depth list review of what I think are the best felling axes – click here to read it.

That said, this is where the guide ends. It took a while to write and it’s pretty wordy, but I tried my best to describe how to fell a tree from start to finish, safely and effectively. Hope the resources I linked will come in handy to you. Thanks for reading! 

Michael