Learn From George Washington How to Properly Fell a Tree

George Washington couldn't lie and neither can we about the proper way to fell a tree.

felling a tree

The legend of George Washington cutting down his father’s cherry tree with a hatchet he received as a gift goes that a 6-year-old George Washington once said, “I cannot tell a lie…I did cut it with my hatchet.”

The story has been debunked as a concoction cooked up by a biographer, Mason Locke Weems. The tale didn’t appear until the fifth edition of the book in 1806, six years after Weems published the first edition.

The myth went on to become a popular antidote to extoll Washington’s virtue to children in later years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, PT Barnum perpetuated the myth with a woman who claimed to be a former slave who raised George Washington. The woman, Joice Heth, retold the story from Weem’s fifth edition to audiences across the country as part of Barnum’s circus tour. It has become part of the mythology of Washington.

That’s all well and good, but we at the Family Handyman prefer to dispel myths when we can and tell the truth. When it comes to felling a tree, here are some things you need to consider.

Safety isn’t a throwaway word when it comes to felling trees and running chain saws. You must take it seriously. There are a few absolutely essential safety gear items you need to wear for any chain saw work, and especially when felling a tree:

  • A logger’s helmet to protect you from falling branches, a major cause of logging injuries.
  • Earmuffs and a face screen to protect your ears and eyes.
  • Safety glasses to keep the dust out.
  • Kevlar chaps, which will stop a chain instantly should you happen to drop the bar against your leg.

Buy Felling Wedges

Two plastic felling wedges will prevent your saw from getting pinched during a cut. You can find these at any outdoor power equipment store that carries chain saws.

Estimate the Felling Zone

Trees are taller than you think and reach farther on the ground than you’d expect. When you’re planning on felling a tree, you can estimate where a tree will fall by using the “ax handle trick.” Hold an ax handle at arm’s length, close one eye, and back away from or move toward the tree until the top of the ax is even with the treetop and the bottom is even with the base. Your feet should be about where the treetop will rest after falling. It’s just an estimate, though, so allow extra room if there’s something the tree might fall on!

Make sure you never do one of these nine things to your chain saw. 

Clear a Cutting Zone

Even when you’re sure which way the tree is going to fall, you’re still not ready to fell it. Cut away any brush around the trunk and clear two escape routes on the “non-falling” side of the tree. They should be about 45 degrees away from each other in opposite directions. The last thing you want is to trip while walking away from a falling tree.

Size Up the Tree

Start by studying the tree. Don’t cut it down if you see:

  • Dead branches that are broken but attached, or that are actually broken off and supported by other branches. You’re bound to knock a branch loose and have it fall on you.
  • It is obviously leaning in one direction or heavily loaded with branches on one side. It will fall in the direction of the lean or load despite your best efforts.
  • There are buildings, fences, power lines or other things you care about in the felling zone. If so, skip the felling and call a pro.

Find the right chain saw for you after checking out our reviews.

Plan the Notch

You’re going to be cutting a notch on the “fall” side of the trunk. Sight along the handle and adjust the saw until it’s pointing toward your fall direction. The spot where the bar touches the bark will be the center of the notch. Before cutting, lay out the notch by marking with chalk or by scoring the bark with the chain saw. Make the notch at a comfortable working height. (You can always shorten the stump later.)

Check out these 10 chain saw tips, too.

Cut the Notch

Make the top cut first and then the bottom. When you’re making the bottom cut, adjust your hand to control the throttle with your thumb. If you meet the top notch perfectly, the wedge will drop out of the notch. But most likely you’ll have to extend the cuts from either the top or the bottom so the wedge can drop free.

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Use Wedges on Big Trees

If you’re felling a tree that’s more than 18 in. in diameter, go ahead and make your notch cut and begin the felling cut. Stop cutting as soon as you’ve penetrated far enough to pound wedges behind the bar. Leave the bar in the cut with the saw running, but lock the chain brake and tap in the wedges. Then finish the cut. Wedges will keep the saw from getting pinched in the cut if the tree leans back.

Find out what to do if you have a neighbor whose tree has grown onto your property. 

Make the Felling Cut

Score a line connecting the apex of the notch on both sides for a cutting guide. The back cut should be parallel and even with the apex of the notch. Then make the felling cut. The instant the tree begins leaning, pull the saw free, set the chain brake and walk away along one of your escape routes, keeping an eye on the tree so you can react if it doesn’t fall the way you planned. Never take your eye off a falling tree.

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A Lookout Might Save Your Life

When felling a tree, you’ll be a lot safer if you have a trusted assistant standing a few feet behind you watching the top of the tree for falling branches and letting you know when the tree starts to fall. Have your assistant tap you on the shoulder with a stick to alert you when it’s time to vacate the area. If it’s early in the cut and you get the tap, leave the saw and walk away immediately. That means a branch is falling. Near the end of the cut, a tap means the tree is beginning its descent.

Try these tree pruning tips as well.

Start Cutting Branches at the Trunk

After felling the tree, cut off branches starting at the lower end of the trunk and working to the top. Whenever possible, stand on the uphill side of the tree. Work from the left side of the trunk (as you face toward the top of the tree). This allows the safest and most efficient use of the chain saw because you can rest the side or bottom of the saw on the trunk and slice off the branches with a pivoting motion.

Try these tips to get rid of a tree stump painlessly.

Plus: 16 Things You Should NOT Do When Cutting Down a Tree
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