7 Types of Tree Felling Cuts With an Axe

Updated on December 20, 2022 by

Cutting down a tree with just your axe for help is no small feat, even if you are choosing a small, thin tree that looks like it will fall easily. Using an axe to fell an entire tree requires plenty of preparation. You need to build up the strength to swing the axe properly and bring down the tree, and know how to use an axe safely. You need to have the right axe for the job. Finally, you need to know which cut you will use to fall the tree.

There are many types of tree felling cuts that you can make with an axe, depending on the type of tree and a few other factors. Notch cuts are perfect for mature, larger trees where you want control over the direction of the fall. There are other types of cuts, including felling cuts, plunge cuts, and more.

Here is your guide to the different tree felling cuts you can make with your trusty felling axe.

Notch Cuts

The most popular types of tree felling cuts fall into the broader category of notch cuts. Notch cuts are two angled cuts that create an angled opening, or notch, into the side of the tree. The result is a narrow remaining piece of wood, or wedge, that holds the trunk upright. 

Creating the notch cut is the first step in felling the tree. Then, a final felling cut goes through the remaining wedge, sending the tree toppling over.

Landscapers use notch cuts when they are working with large, mature trees. Notch cuts provide a controlled way to bring down these trees because by placing the notch in the trunk, you can control the direction of the fall. This is an important component of safely felling trees.

Notch cuts are a broad category that includes a few different types of cuts. Here are the most important ones.

tree felling schematic

Conventional Notch Cut

The conventional notch cut is one of the oldest types of notch cuts. It is also one of the most popular because it is simple and doesn’t require a lot of calculation. It is fairly accurate, giving you control over the direction of the tree falling, although other, newer types of notch cut are far more precise. 

However, no other notch cut can match the conventional notch cut regarding speed and efficiency. That is why many people that fell trees for a living, such as loggers, use conventional notch cuts. When you have to cut down dozens of trees in a day, if not more, you want to get through them as fast as possible.

To make a conventional notch cut, start by making a flat, horizontal cut near the tree’s base. Make sure you make this cut in the direction in which you want your tree to fall. Then, make a cut above the bottom cut at an angle, so it meets the bottom slice. 

Open-Faced Notch Cut

An open-faced notch cut is a variation on the conventional notch cut that is becoming more and more popular among professional landscapers. It improves some aspects of the conventional notch cut, giving you more control over the direction in which the tree falls. It is an important component of directional felling, a landscaping school that emphasizes controlled cutting down of trees.

Open-faced notch cuts give you more control because you make three cuts, not just two. First, make a top cut that goes downwards into the tree at about 70 degrees. Then, make a bottom cut that goes upwards at a gentle angle. The result should look like a massive sideways V. Finally, connect the two cuts you make with a short base cut. Remove the wedge you created and let the tree fall.

Humboldt Notch Cut

The last type of notch cut is the Humboldt notch cut. This cut innovates in the direction of efficiency. With the open-faced notch cut, you lose the wedge you cut out, and a conventional notch cut leaves you with a high stump. Humboldt notch cuts maximize how much wood you can get out of your tree. However, be careful with your tree positioning—you can’t really use this type of cut on inclining trees. Plus, it doesn’t work as efficiently when cutting down trees on flat surfaces.

Unlike the conventional notch cut, in the Humboldt notch cut, the top cut is the one which is flat. The bottom cut rises at an angle to meet the notch cut. This switch puts the notch firmly on the stump instead of cutting into the usable log.

Other Types of Tree Felling Cuts

Notch cuts are the most common cuts used to fell trees with axes and other tools, but they are hardly the only ones. Here are some of the others you can expect to see. You should know how to perform all of these just in case you need to cut a tree using these methods.

The Back Cut and Undercut

One method of felling trees with an axe is to use the back cut in combination with an undercut. These cuts are usually used together, so it makes no sense to discuss them separately. 

The first cut that you make is the undercut. The undercut is similar to the different notch cuts we discussed above because it creates a wedge, or notch, in the tree that allows it to fall and gives you control over the direction. Most tree felling methods use angled cuts instead of cutting straight through because you don’t want to create a cartoonish situation where the tree falls straight down and refuses to move.

To create an undercut, make one slice about one-fourth into the tree. Then, create a cut in the other direction, forming a V-shaped angle. While most people aim for 45-degree angles for their undercut, 90-degree angles give you more control because the tree takes longer to topple.

Once you make your undercut, it’s time to make your back cut. The back cut is a cut you make on the opposite side of the tree, or the back, from your undercut. It is a smaller cut, only a thin slice into the tree trunk instead of the wedge. 

The back cut always has to go a few inches higher than the undercut. The back cut pushes the tree to fall, and it will fall in the direction of the lower cut. You want that to be in the direction of the controlled undercut, not the back cut.

Since the back cut starts the tree falling, make sure you get out of the way as soon as you make this cut and you notice the tree is toppling.

Plunge Cut

A plunge cut, sometimes called a bore cut, is usually used with chainsaws instead of saws. Plunge cuts are perfect for when your tree is leaning, especially if your tree is leaning forward. Other traditional cuts could cause the tree to split if it is already leaning.

To make a plunge cut, start by cutting into the tree until your axe or saw blade is completely immersed into the wood. Then, rotate the axe or saw. You want to bore or plunge into the tree, cutting out most of the center, leaving only a narrow wedge. The last step is to remove your axe and cut through the wedge from the outside. Then, the tree will topple.

Plunge cuts are useful for removing leaning trees, but they’re not the easiest technique to master. They can also be quite dangerous, causing your saw or axe to kick back. Before you start whipping out the plunge cut on falling trees, practice making this cut a few times on stumps or logs to ensure you have enough control over your equipment.

Felling Cut

A felling cut is a type of cut and the last stroke that topples the tree when using other types of cuts. You can use the felling cut in combination with a few different types of cuts, including:

  • Conventional notch cuts
  • Open-faced notch cuts
  • Plunge cuts

When using the felling cut in combination with these other cuts, make the notch or plunge first. Then, make a quick felling cut across the back of the tree to send the tree toppling.

You can also use the felling cut on its own when you’re working with smaller, thinner trees. Then, the felling cut is the simplest method. Just cut through the tree from behind, keeping the cut parallel to the ground. You can use a breaking bar or wedge to help you with slightly larger trees.

Final Thoughts

You can use a few techniques to fall a tree with an axe. The most popular are notch cuts because they give you control over the direction, speed, and stump size. You can also use plunge cuts, undercuts, and felling cuts. 


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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.