How to Notch a Tree with an Axe

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Written By Michael Culligan

With over 12 years of experience in Oregon's forestry industry, I have established myself as a skilled and knowledgeable lumber professional. As a passionate competitor in local timbersports events, I have consistently ranked among the top lumberjacks in my area. I take great pride in meticulously maintaining an extensive collection of restored vintage axes. I personally test every axe I review by using it to fell and chop up oak firewood on my land.

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To notch a tree with an axe, create a horizontal cut at waist height, followed by a 45-degree upward cut to meet the first cut, forming a wedge. Remove the wedge to create the notch. This directs the tree’s fall in the notch direction, providing control over the felling process.

Nothing makes you feel more powerful than chopping down a tree with just your bare hands and an axe. Sure, you have a lot of power tools at your disposal in this modern age, and you can always call a professional, but there’s something empowering about doing it yourself. 

After basic preparation, the first step to felling a tree is creating a notch. Notches are cuts that you make at an angle in the tree, creating little triangles of empty space. These notches are useful because they determine the direction in which your tree will fall.

Here is a step-by-step guide to felling a tree with your axe, including a detailed look at creating notches.

How to Fell a Tree with an Axe

If you want to use your felling axe to fell a tree, there are a few steps in the process. 

1. Plan Your Felling Process

The key to successfully felling a tree is planning properly.

Make sure that you know which tree you are felling and that it is small enough to manage with your axe but not so small that you’re just taking your frustrations with life out on a poor helpless sapling.

You should also plan the direction in which you will fell the tree. You want to make sure the tree will fall in a clear path without getting tangled in other branches or crushing something valuable.

Finally, you want to make sure that you have all of your equipment on hand and you know how to use your axe properly.

2. Make Your Notch Cut

Once you know the direction in which the tree will fall, make your notch cut in that direction.

A notch is a cut at a 45-degree angle that dictates the direction in which the tree will fall. When you loosen the tree trunk, it falls across the notch, allowing you to control the direction.

There are a few different types of notch cuts (more on those later). Whichever one you choose, make alternating cuts at an angle until you carve your notch about 1/3 or 1/2 into the tree trunk.

tree felling schematic

3. Make Your Felling Cut

Once you carve your notch, you need to make your felling cut. This cut is on the other side of the tree trunk, opposite from the notch cut and a few inches above it. It is narrower and cut at a smaller angle. Don’t cut the felling cut all the way until it meets the notch cut. Leave a few inches which will act as the tree’s hinge and make the fall controlled.

4. Get Out of the Way

As soon as your felling cut is deep enough for the tree to start falling, get out of the way. You can admire your work later.

5. Break the Tree Down and Clean Up

Once you felled a tree, make sure you don’t leave a mess for other people to come across. Break it down into logs and ensure that wood won’t go to waste. You can also admire your handiwork as you just brought a big tree down all by yourself!

Types of Notches

There are three main types of notches.

Open-Faced Notch

This notch gives you the most control over the direction of the tree falling. An open-faced notch looks like a big open mouth in a face, hence the name. You make the top cut at a downward angle of about 70 degrees while the bottom cut is angled upward at about 20 degrees. Then, you make a little straight cut to meet the angles.

Conventional Notch

This notch is the most common, easiest, and most efficient cut. The bottom cut in this notch is completely straight, while the top cut creates a 45-degree angle.

Humboldt Notch

A Humboldt notch is basically the opposite of a conventional notch. Here, the top cut is completely flat, while the bottom cut goes in at an angle. Humboldt notches are great for trees that are at an incline or when you want to get the most possible wood out of a trunk.

How to Notch a Tree

Once you know which notch cut you are using, the method for cutting it into the trunk is the same.

Make the first cut of your notch, then the second cut. Chop until the notch reaches the middle or about 1/3 into the trunk, alternating which side you are working on with each stroke. Make sure you are using even strokes so you don’t make one side of the notch bigger than the other.

How to Make a Tree Fall In Any Direction

Trees falling seems like such an uncontrolled situation. You have a massive object of several tons just crashing down. However, you can actually control the direction of the tree falling. The trick to making a tree fall in any direction is to cut the notch in the direction you want the tree to fall. Notch cuts direct the fall of the tree, which is why they are so important.

Safety Considerations When Felling a Tree with an Axe

Felling a tree with an axe will make you feel really powerful—as long as you don’t get clocked in the head with a falling branch. Safety precautions are very important for this project.

You need plenty of safety equipment, including:

  • Goggles
  • Gloves
  • Steel-toed boots

You should have someone with you to help and spot you. Felling a tree is too big a job to do by yourself.

Finally, ensure an exit route is planned before making your first cut. You need to get out of the way as soon as the tree starts toppling. 

Final Thoughts

Making a notch cut is crucial to felling a tree with an axe as it gives you directional control. To make a notch cut, choose your direction and the type of cut you’re making, then cut a 45-degree wedge into your tree.