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Cutting Down Trees Thoughtfully

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Cutting down trees is the worst!

After moving to a farm, several of the trees had wilted and died within a month or so. This was caused by pine wilt, which is common in Scott's pines in the Midwest. The main problem is if they are not cut down quickly and burned, the disease is spread by a beetle nematode, which lays it's eggs and the spread continues.

We learned that non native trees can continue to die quickly, due to this insect. The problem being that if we didn't have an efficient way of clearing these trees, then the spread would continue.

For the last several years, removing large trees has been a normal chore on the farm. There's a lot of non native trees on our land, so keeping it under control is essential.

I've been called by friends with similar problems and this article is a better way to share these ideas, in which you can decide from here.


Evaluate and eliminate

Throughout this article I'll cover and reiterate safety, but it's okay to admit that this is something left to the professionals. The tools at your local hardware store are not going to be as good as what the professionals use, that's a simple fact.

For us there were too many trees and it simply wasn't feasible, but if you're looking to remove only a few trees, hiring a professional is a better answer than doing it yourself.

The first thing to do is look at the size of the tree and determine if the tools on hand will work. We've spent a lot of time attempting to use a chainsaw, various other large tools and I can say hands down these processes involve a lot more maintenance of equipment.

The most important thing to do is determine what's safe. Determine if tree branches will fall on you, whether you have protective gear on. Removing trees can be very dangerous and depending on the elements you might be best waiting on a dry day, where you don't feel rushed and can plan the process effectively.

In this case, this tree couldn't hold on much longer. I took my reciprocal saw and cut down the branches I could reach. In addition, I have a safe place where I can unload the wood and prepare for a bonfire.


What you'll need

1. Protective Gear

2. Reciprocal Saw and disposable blades, extension cord (if applicable)

3. Cart or trailer to remove the wood (in this case a UTV)

4. Common Sense (an understanding of physics, angles and force)


Why not a chainsaw?

For me, this is a personal preference. I spent a lot of time filling oil, sharpening the blade, fixing the tool when the blade came off. It was more stressful than was necessary and was a lot of wasted time.

The reciprocal saw blades are inexpensive and I could get a pack of 12 inch blades that would usually last between 4 and 5 trees before breaking, in which you just throw them away.

The biggest drawback is you might have to work your way around a thick tree with a 12 inch blade. It works fine and goes pretty quick, whereas I just couldn't guarantee sharpness on my chainsaw.

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Chainsaw's are expensive and if you haven't gone out to get the equipment, have a reasonable distance between an outlet or generator, then save yourself the hassle and go the reciprocal saw route.


This tree is quite a bit bigger than 12 inches

First evaluate the size and get ready to work your way around the tree. You'll wedge one side and cut straight through from the back. What I do is cut until there's movement, then let gravity and/or my UTV do the work. In this case, given the size of this tree I'm going to let my UTV do the work from a safe distance using a winch.

If you don't have a winch, then use a rope or chain. It's really just about being thoughtful and safe. Respect the mass and size of trees when working to remove them.


The wedge

Cutting a wedge should be about 25%-30% into the tree base. Some trees might be rotting or moldy, so this keeps the mass of the tree from breaking further once the wedge is taken out.

You'll proceed to work your way around in a circular manner with the reciprocal saw until getting some movement.

The biggest mistake I've seen people do is wedge in such a way that it doesn't actually break in that direction, it comes back. This is where common sense comes in, look at the tree and make sure that wedge will bend once the tree is cut on the opposite side. You absolutely must know where that tree is going to land, which is why I recommend using a chain or rope to pull it in the direction of the fall at the end.


Broken saw blade!

As I worked my way around the tree, I had an older blade on there that had been under a tremendous amount of stress. It broke, which is fine. I used needle nose plyers to pull them off and I was back to work in a matter of minutes.

No maintenance, just a new blade.


A couple more safety tips

Where's your cord? Is it safely away from you or is it close to your legs/feet and can trip you up if you need to move?

Be conscious of where that cord is and if the tree were to break early, where your legs are relative to that cord. This is seriously dangerous work!

You're ready to fell the tree, so is anyone else aware? Shouting "Timber" is not the answer. Put your dog/cat inside, make sure kids and loved ones are safely away from the area before dropping the tree.


I see movement!

The tree is ready to drop, as indicated by a faint movement. Don't cut any further if you can sense the tree is ready to move. The center of the tree is still attached and it will only take the weight of the tree leaned over to drop the rest.

In this case, I'm going to use my UTV winch to pull it the rest of the way at a safe distance and the mass of the tree will break the remaining center off.


Pull the tree down

From a safe distance, proceed in pulling down the tree. Be mindful of pieces that may fly everywhere and where your things are relative to the fall. Sometimes the pinecones fly at me and my safety glasses have been hit a few times.


One fallen tree

Now that the stress is over, it's time to remove the remaining parts.


What the stump should look like

You should see the center is broken off, showing several slivers that were last to hold this thing in place. Sadly the tree is ready to go and there was nothing that could be done to save it.


Cut the remaining branches

Continue to break down the tree into smaller pieces, then move them to their bonfire destination. I start with the branches and work my way to the center.

The angles at which you cut the branches is pretty important and will be an obvious issue if you've never done this before. You'll constantly need to be thinking about gravity, force and the cut angles.


Use gravity

Each time I cut a piece I think about the way it will break away. Basically if you try to cut straight lines, you'll find that the force of gravity may tighten up the grab on your reciprocal saw blade, which could break it or make it difficult to pull the tool out.

Instead, come at the direction opposite of where the tree is weighed down on, so that when you cut through it will widen the cut.

There's two sides to a cut. Where the mass of the tree will break away if cut and the other side is where it will tighten together. It takes a little practice and experience, but eventually you get the hang of it and can properly break apart the tree.


There you have it!

Your tree is removed and all that is left is a stump. Consider cutting low to the ground around the base in the same way... or just leave it. The stump removal process is an adventure of its own and there are lots of creative ways to dispose of those, in which I've learned that the stump grinder is a valuable and useful machine.

In the meantime, stay safe and consider the work that's required to remove trees.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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