How to Fell a Large Tree with an Axe

Updated on December 20, 2022 by

Large trees are some of the most majestic yet intimidating living beings on this planet. It’s amazing to look at something over a dozen feet tall and maybe decades old, stretching up toward the sky. It’s even more amazing to think that you, as a human, have the power to fall into such a large specimen using just your axe.

Felling a large tree with an axe requires good planning and safety precautions, but it is possible. Then, prepare the tree for felling by choosing the direction and limbing the tree. Finally, it’s time to make your cuts.

Here are more details about felling a tree, including how to do so safely. 

Prepare Your Equipment

The first step in felling a tree is to make sure you have all the equipment you will need on hand. It’s easier to gather everything in the first step than to realize that you’re missing something important when you’re halfway through cutting into the trunk.

You will need:

  • A felling axe: Make sure you get a felling axe, not a splitting axe. Your axe should be in good condition and sharpened before you start cutting into the tree.
  • A stepladder: You will need to be able to reach the lower branches to remove them.
  • Felling wedges: These can help bring large trees down.
  • Gloves: Gloves protect your hands from splinters, cuts, callouses, and other damage.
  • Goggles: When you’re cutting into wood, a lot of wood splinters fly around, and they can lodge in your eye. Make sure you protect your vision before you start chopping.
  • A buddy: If you’re experienced, you can fell smaller trees on your own, but for larger trees, it’s better to have someone on hand to lend a hand if it looks as if the situation could get dangerous. 

Clear the Area

You need to clear the area when you’re chopping down any tree. It’s even more important when you’re felling a large tree, as those cause even more damage. Move anything that’s near the tree that could get damaged, such as a car or lawnmower. Tell any people to get out of the way and secure pets in a different location to make sure nobody will run out into the path of the tree as it falls.

Make sure the tree has a clear path to fall, unimpeded by other trees. If there are other trees in the way, your tree could get stuck in the branches. Not only will your quest for firewood be blocked, but you will also expose yourself to danger since a stuck tree could fall at any time. Pick a different direction where the path is clear. If there isn’t one, you may have to cut down smaller trees and bushes to create a path for the larger tree to fall first.

Limb Lower Branches

Limbing is the process of cutting off lower branches of the tree. This lowers the center of gravity of a large tree, making it easier for it to fall. It also removes potential obstacles that could snag as the tree topples.

To limb the branches, you have to cut off the branches you can reach from the ground or on a stepladder. Use safety precautions when limbing the tree. Make sure you always have the trunk in between you and the branch you are working on as you don’t want splinters to fly at you or your axe to have backlash and hit you. 

Once you cut off the branches, clear them out of the way. Don’t throw them away, as you can still use them for firewood or other useful purposes.

Choose Your Felling Direction

When you’re cutting down a large tree, you can’t just do it without a plan. Instead, you need to have a direction in mind. That allows you to clear the path and make sure everything is out of the way.

A clear felling path is the most important factor when choosing your felling direction, but it’s not the only factor affecting your decision. The tree’s appearance will also help with your decision. If it is already leaning in a particular direction, it’s easier to push it the rest of the way and let gravity help you out. Also, look at the branch distribution. If the branches are mostly on one side of the tree, they will help pull the tree in that direction.

Create Your Notch

Finally, you’re ready to start cutting. 

Felling a large tree requires a few different types of cuts. The first (and most important) one you will make is your notch cut. The notch cut is a wedge that sets the direction in which your tree will fall. There are three types of notch cuts: conventional, open-faced, and Humboldt. 

Once you decide which type of notch you are making, cut it into the trunk. Make sure the notch is facing the direction the tree will fall in. Cut the notch by making angled cuts, alternating the top and bottom cuts until you reach about 1/3 of the way into the trunk.

tree felling schematic

Cut Your Felling Cut

The notch cut sets the direction, but it doesn’t actually bring the tree down. That is the job of the felling cut. 

The felling cut is on the opposite side of the trunk from the notch cut and a few inches above it. This is the cut that cuts through the remaining trunk and sends the tree toppling. 

Cut your felling cut by cutting straight horizontally into the trunk (it doesn’t go in at an angle, unlike the notch cut). Stop a few inches short of the notch cut as you want to create a hinge that allows the tree to fall better.

When to Use Felling Wedges

Very large trees won’t topple even after you make a felling cut. Felling wedges can help you bring those trees down. Felling wedges work by lifting the tree a bit more, giving you more leverage as it topples.

Use your felling wedges for large trees, inserting them after you start making your felling cut. Drive in the wedges using the back of your axe or a hammer. You’ll see that the cut will widen, and the tree will lift a little bit. Then, finish the felling cut. The wedges give that extra push that helps the tree topple.

Retreat at the Correct Time

The most important part of cutting down a large tree is running away. Seriously. You don’t want to be in the area when a large tree is about to fall. As soon as you notice the tree swaying or hearing cracking, it’s time to get out of there. 

Move away and to the side of the falling tree. You don’t want to move straight back in case the roots pull out of the ground, or the tree starts leaning in the wrong direction. You should run 15–20 feet away from the tree before stopping.

You don’t want to realize when the tree is falling that you don’t know where to go. Before you even make your first cut, make sure you have two possible escape routes planned in case one gets blocked.

When to Hire the Professionals

While bringing a tree down all by yourself is very satisfying, it is potentially dangerous, especially when working with a large tree. Sometimes, the best choice is to bring in a professional.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself so you can determine if you need to call someone to deal with a tree on your behalf.

  1. How much experience do I have chopping down trees? If you’ve never chopped down a tree before, starting with the 30-foot behemoth on your property is probably not a good idea.
  2. Are there any obstacles in place? If the tree is too close to your house, your neighbor’s property, or a utility pole, the risk is too high to attempt it yourself. A notch cut only gives you so much control over the direction of the fall.
  3. Are there other factors that might affect how hard this job is? If the tree is diseased, already leaning, or tangled in another tree, it’s hard to fell it with just your equipment.

When to Use a Chainsaw

Sometimes, an axe is not the best tool for the job. Chainsaws are faster and require less physical labor on your part because they are power tools. However, the learning curve is steeper for using a chainsaw. 

Use a chainsaw if you want to cut the tree down faster and are confident in handling the tool. If you aren’t sure about using a chainsaw, it’s better to practice smaller tasks such as breaking a felled trunk into logs.

Final Thoughts

Felling an entire large tree with just your trusty axe requires some effort, but it is possible. Plan the job thoroughly so you have all safety equipment on hand, a clear felling area, and an escape route. Then, limb the tree, make careful notch cuts, and retreat when it starts falling.

Photo of author

Michael Culligan

I am a lumber worker who performed logging services for Oregan's forestry industry for over a decade. I have spent years honing my skills and experience to become a well-rounded axeman. I enjoy timbersports and have ranked in my local lumberjack competitions. I'm exited to share my knowledge of axes and lumber tools with everyone to help. I also have a large collection of restored vintage axes that I carefully maintain.