90 Foot tall oak trees take a LOT of work to break down

The thoughts one thinks while sawing a tree…

“The Oriental philosophy of contemplation involves forsaking all work; the European does his meditating while relaxing from work, but the American seems to think things out best while working. So the stone walls of New England may be thought of as monuments to the thoughts that occurred while they were being built, for those were the days of great decisions and profound planning. The thoughts one thinks while sawing a tree or making a stone wall are surprising. It is almost as if the mind becomes ashamed of the work the body is doing and starts doing a little “showing off” by itself. Lincoln said he did some of his deepest thinking while splitting rails. The plain farmer of two hundred years ago was weaving the fabric of a new nation and although there are no marble statues to his patriotism now, there are still his stone walls.” — Eric Sloane American Barns and Covered Bridges, 1954

Oak trees in the way of my barn...
Oak trees in the way of my barn…

I live on a heavily wooded street in New Hampshire that is lined with stone walls. As I pass them each day I think about what it took to clear all this land and build those walls. While most of the neighborhood is covered with second and third growth trees that were not actively managed, and new housing developments,  there are still a few pockets of small family farms with cleared farmland that looks like an idealistic painting of yesteryear and reminds us how this was all farmland about 100 years ago.  As the leaves changed this season I found it amusing to see tourists snapping pictures in front of some of these farms with their stone walls and weathered barns. In the book referenced above Sloane encouraged his readers to keep an eye out for early barns also made several interesting observations about stone walls. They were designed to keep animals in and not to keep humans out. When a wall fell over you had all the stones needed to rebuild it as opposed to a wooden fence that could have rotted away. I like the sense of inviting simplicity, using what you had on hand and building for the long term.

I recently set out to clear some trees out of my backyard and make room for a 12’x24′ timber framed shed/small barn to store extra wood and yard equipment. I’ve cleared about 35 trees so far, knocked off a bucket list item — taking down a full size tree with a felling axe, and still have a few more to go.

Felling oak trees
Felling oak trees

Safety Tip:

When working with large trees and high powered saw, make sure to ALWAYS wear the appropriate safety gear. Above you can see me wearing my steel toe boots, Kevlar chaps, eye protection, helmet with hearing protection and face shield and Kevlar reinforced gloves.  The chaps are like wearing an insulating blanket and rough to wear in the summer, but in cooler months they help you stay warm.

Limbing the tree
Limbing the tree

How do I cut down a larger tree?

I start by walking around the tree from all sides, sighting up at it to see what way it leans and were the mass is held by the limbs. I then mentally think about what direction I have enough space to drop to the tree without hitting houses, other trees, people or fences. With a plan in place I set about felling the tree. The process is much the same whether I use an axe or a chainsaw. I cut in at an angle on the side of the tree facing the way I want it to fall. I then make a horizontal cut to remove that wedge of wood. It should only be about 1/3 of the way through the tree. You want the intersection of those two cuts to land right on each other so you have a smooth hinging surface and a controlled drop.

90 Foot tall oak trees take a LOT of work to break down
90 Foot tall oak trees take a LOT of work to break down

I then come from behind the tree and make a horizontal cut until I leave about a 1.5″” wide hinge of wood that will help control the fall. This cut should be about 2″ above the bottom of the wedge cut (As seen in the photo below).  If done properly the tree should slowly start to fall over exactly where you want it. The tree shown here was a 90 foot tall oak, so when it hit the ground it shook the ground with an incredible thud — anything in it’s path will get crushed. When cutting a tree like this make sure you have a clear retreat path, usually 45 degree from the way you expected the tree to fall, that way you are not in the path of a falling or splitting tree or anything it kicks up.

Notch cut and hinge used for a controlled drop
Notch cut and hinge used for a controlled drop

Once on the ground I start removing all the limbs from the tree. I start with all the limbs that are not holding the trunk up off the ground to make room to better access the trunk. Any limbs or branches that are holding up the trunk are likely going to bind on your chainsaw if you are not careful. Being mindful of where the tree may move as you release that tension you can use a sharp axe to remove these limbs or careful wedge cuts that will not bind the saw. When doing this sort of work you need to be thinking about where the trunk is likely to fall after removing this limb, so you’ll want to mind your legs and feet.

Breaking down the de-limbed tree into firewood
Breaking down the de-limbed tree into firewood

Once the limbs are removed I break the tree trunk down into either firewood or whatever I am looking to use the wood for. These trees will be processed down into several projects — a few bowl blanks, a new base for my anvil, a few chopping benches for the shop, a stump to split firewood on and of course firewood. The incredible amount of brush and branches will be ground up into chips and distributed elsewhere on the property.

More Tips on cutting trees:

  • Try to cut tree during the colder months or winter as there will be less sap and thus less weight and cleaner cuts
  • Use plastic wedges when cutting a larger stump so that it does not bind on your saw’s bar and the wedge will not damage the chain
  • Use plastic or even larger metal wedges to help a cut tree (notched and ready to hinge) that is not falling. You can use a large mallet or beetle to drive in a wedge and help give it that little push it needs to start going over.
The result of a weekend of hard work
The result of a weekend of hard work

Even with all of the above information running through my head, and the sometimes backbreaking labor to break down these trees, there was still a lot of time to think. As I was doing the above work I was building the timber framed barn over and over again in my head, so by the time I actually get around to cutting the frame it will be like second nature. Unfortunately the snowy weather is creeping up on me fast, so it will be a race to see if I can get the shed put up this fall/winter or if it will get delayed until spring.

I’ll keep you posted.

Take care,
-Bill Rainford

4 thoughts on “The thoughts one thinks while sawing a tree…”

  1. It is also good to cut trees while keeping in mind the spread of diseases. If I remember right, to help prevent Oak Wilt, you shouldn’t cut in months with “R’s” in them or maybe it is the other way around. I can’t remember but I’m guessing an internet search would help. 🙂

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