As homesteaders, we are always preparing for the next season. Being sure you have enough wood to get you through the winter is a never-ending chore.
There are a couple different ways to fell a tree, being a chainsaw or an axe. Whichever method you use to cut down a tree, it can still be dangerous. You need to be sure you have everything ready when cutting down a tree.
There are times that you would choose to cut down a tree with an axe over doing it with a chainsaw. Sometimes you just aren’t able to run a saw or you don’t even have one.
Other times you are going for the natural look of felling a tree like our ancestors did. It might also be a small tree that you can cut down easily with an ax.
Axe vs. Maul
There is a difference between an axe and a wood maul. An axe is designed to cut and chop wood, while a maul is made to split wood. An axe has a thin and sharp head, while a maul has a blunt and fat head.
The axe is designed to chop across wood fibers while the maul splits with the grain of the wood.
An ax weighs about 3 to 4 pounds and the handle is the length of your arm or shorter. A maul is heavier weighing 6 to 8 pounds with a handle that is longer than your arm length.
Preparing the Axe
Inspect your axe before you use it. You need to inspect your handle for any cracks. If you see any cracks or defects in the wood, then you will need to replace the handle. Check the head for rust, dirt, and any burrs in the metal.
If your axe needs sharpening, be sure to do that first. A dull ax will not only take longer to fell the tree, it can also be dangerous! Be sure to clean the head of the axe before sharpening it.
Before cleaning the head of the axe, be sure to wear a mask so you don’t breathe an any rust or metal particles. You will also need to wear safety glasses to protect your eyes from the same.
To clean the head of the axe you need to remove any dirt or rust, do this with steel wool or sandpaper. Start with a coarse sandpaper and rub with an even pressure. Do both sides of the head, then repeat with a finer grit sandpaper. If using steel wool, buff it clean with that on both sides.
Safety Gear and Safety Precautions to Take
Felling a tree can be a dangerous job, so it is important to take the appropriate safety precautions. The most basic precaution is to wear proper protective gear such as a hard hat and boots with steel toe protection. It is also important to listen for potential hazards, such as nearby electrical power lines or traffic.
It is best to plan out the felling process before cutting and consider the trajectory of the tree; identify any threatening obstacles that may be in the fall path.
Once ready, ensure that everyone is clear from falling debris from the tree before cutting and always use safe cutting practices. If you were using a chainsaw, a good rule of thumb is to never place your hand near or on the saw when the motor is running.
You still need to wear safety equipment when using an ax. You don’t need chaps, but you still need a hard hat, safety glasses and gloves. I also recommend some thick pants to provide additional protection.
The hard hat or helmet will protect your head from falling branches that may hit you as they fall. Safety glasses are important to protect your eyes.
The style of safety glasses does not matter as long as your eyes are covered. There will be little bits of wood that can hit you in the eyes and face as you are chopping with the axe.
Gloves are not a required piece of equipment, but they are helpful in not getting splinters in your hand, and they will help protect your hands from painful blisters. Using leather gloves can also help to protect your fingers from any cuts from a sharpened axe.
Once you have decided on the tree that you are going to cut down then you need to observe your surroundings. Be sure that there are no buildings, houses, power lines, or vehicles in the range of where the tree can fall and hit it.
Look at the tree and see which direction it is leaning. Does it look like it may fall one direction over another as it is growing that way?
Looking at the natural lean of the tree trunk and its limbs is a good idea to help you figure out where the top of the tree might head when it falls.
Look at the landscape, are there other trees around that it may get hung up on as it is falling or is there a hill that it may go over?
Are there vines that the tree might get hung up on within the felling zone?
You also need to consider the wind because it is dangerous to cut down a tree on an extremely windy day. Consider how hard it is blowing and in which direction it is blowing as that can influence the way your tree will fall.
You will need a clear path planned out so that when the tree starts to fall you can get away from it. It is never safe to be next to the butt of a falling tree.
Once the tree starts to fall, start to walk away in your planned direction but don’t fully turn your back on it so that you can be sure it is falling where you planned and not toward you.
Using The Axe
When you start to chop with your axe you need to be sure you are comfortable with handling it. Be sure that it is the right weight and length for you. There are different swing methods, but use the one that you are more comfortable with. The comfort in your swing will make it more effective.
The stance is very important. You need to stand with your legs slightly more than shoulder width apart and square to the tree you are cutting. This stance will allow you to bend at your knees as needed.
With your legs in this position you will be provided with stability and protection. If the axe is to bounce back off of the tree or miss altogether, then your legs will be safe. If you have a leading leg toward the tree you can get hit with the axe and be seriously injured.
Accuracy is important. You will fell a tree a lot more quickly if you are accurate with your strikes.
Also, let the tree work with you, look for cracks in the wood and aim for them. This will make for less work on your part. Avoid knots as you will not be able to chop through them. If you become fatigued from the chopping, take a break because that is when accidents can happen.
Felling The Tree
Select the direction you want the tree to fall and start to notch it there. Make your first cut, a 45 degree angle to start the notch.
Chop 45 degrees downward for the top of the notch and then move up the tree just a bit, and chop 45 degrees downward again. Making your notch like this will allow you to cut deeper into the tree.
Cut about ½ of the way through the tree. Go around to opposite other side of the tree and do the same just a few inches higher than the first notch you made. You can see both notches in the photo below:
The wood between the two notches will make your hinge. The hinge helps to hold the tree in place as it starts to fall, and helps to prevent kick back off of the stump. Continue to chop downward from the back notch working toward the felling notch at the front of the tree. This will start the tree to fall.
Once the tree starts to fall use your designated escape route for safety. Cutting through the back notch into the felling notch is the safer method as when the tree goes to fall you will not be in the way. It is also important to never swing upward.
If you miss with an upward swing you can hit your face with the axe or lose control of it and it goes flying, depending on the power behind your swing.
Be sure to work up all of your wood, and clean up the area for use and safety. Once the tree is down and cut into chunks you will split the wood with a wood maul. The maul will make splitting the wood easier.
Here’s the full video of how this cherry tree was fell:
When you’re finished with the axe, wipe off any dirt or debris. Store the axe head in a sheath for better storage and protection. Keep the wooden handle covered with linseed oil to prevent it from cracking and drying out. This will prolong the life and the work you put into sharpening your axe.
Other Tips for Felling a Tree
Here are a few more tips to help you fell a large tree with ease.
Felling wedges are a combination of plastic and metal devices designed to help you safely cut down a tree with an ax. Wedges maximize the efficiency of the cutting action and minimize the risk of kickback or unexpected movement when felling a tree, orienting the ax head in the optimal direction for slicing through wood fibers.
You always want to make sure that you have two escape paths in case something goes wrong. This means being aware of your surroundings and making sure that there aren’t any obstacles near the tree that could get in your way or cause injury if the tree comes down unexpectedly.
Make sure that you are far enough away from the tree so that you won’t be hit by any falling branches or debris when it comes down.
When chopping down a tree with an ax, always be on the lookout for larger branches that may have been weakened over time by wind or other weather conditions.
These branches can be dangerous when cutting down a tree because they might break off unexpectedly and come crashing down around you which could cause injury.
Always keep your eyes open for any large branches that look like they might be ready to break off at any moment—if you see one then stay away from it until after the tree has been safely felled.
Felling a tree with an ax isn’t as hard as it sounds, but there are some things to keep in mind if you want to do it safely and correctly.
With these tips in mind, anyone should confidently be able to fell their first tree without facing any major problems or danger. Good luck!
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Sarah Rodriguez is a homesteading wife and mother of five living in Appalachia. She grew up in a homesteading and logging family.
She and her husband Arnie work their 10-acre homestead together alongside their growing family. Sarah honed her self-reliance skills through 4-H and FFA at an early age and is now teaching her children to live off the land, raise livestock, and the importance of both sustainability and frugality.