Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Small-scale logging

There's a bark-beetle infestation raging through these parts, and the majestic red firs are being badly impacted. We've lost about ten trees so far.

As one of our major autumn chores, we had the sad necessity of removing six of the dead trees before moving the cattle into the wooded side of our property for the winter.

So Don suited up and fired up the chain saw.

Besides the chainsaw, his tools included a five-pound sledge and some wedges.

There are a number of factors to consider when felling a tree, especially huge ones like these firs. The lay of the land, the proposed path of the treefall, fences or other items that might get crushed, and the size and slant of the trunk.

Don starts by making a wedge-shaped cut facing the direction he wants the tree to fall. Bottom cut is parallel to the ground, top cut is slanted into the wedge. (These photos are amalgamated over two days of cutting, hence Don's change of clothes.)

The wedge should be less than half-way through the diameter of the trunk.

The resulting wedge is called a cookie.

Then comes the dicey part -- cutting the other side to release the tree to fall. He starts by slicing...

...then he hammers in the wedges to control the weakened tree and keep it from "sitting back" on the chain saw blade.

It's impossible to underestimate the importance of these wedges, as will be illustrated with the last tree Don cut (more on this later).

Tree down, exactly where he wanted it.

He repeated this procedure six times over two days.

The sight and sound of a giant coming down is awe-inspiring. And a bit sad.

Don cut four trees the first day, two more trees the second day.

The second-to-last tree he cut was the most worrisome because it was growing at an angle, and the angle wasn't convenient to where he wanted it to come down. He examined this tree from every direction for quite a long time, trying to assess how to bring it down with the least damage. However there was nothing for it -- the only path it could come down would take out a fence between us and our neighbors. Rapid repairs would be in order.

Once this was determined, he got to work.

It's no joke taking down one of these giants, and Don was very very careful.

Once the cuts were made, he stood well back and watched it crash.

Rather miraculously it did NOT take out the fence, but it did shear off some branches from this younger tree. Hopefully it will recover.

The last tree Don felled seemed straightforward enough. Straight trunk, open path for it to fall. What could possibly go wrong?

He made his cuts, and hammered in the wedges...

...then completed the cut that would bring the tree down.

Then suddenly he jumped well clear as the tree came down ninety degrees from the direction it was supposed to fall.

What alerted him to this fact -- with enough time to get away -- was that the nearer wedge suddenly became loose as the weight of the tree shifted. Don knew this meant the tree was falling in the wrong direction. "Watch the wedges," he advised, referred to their importance when taking down a tree.

From talks with logging friends, it's estimated that about one in ten trees doesn't fall where it's supposed to. That's why logging is such dangerous work, and why loggers have to be so vigilant and careful. I was glad when all the trees were down.

But the work wasn't done, not by a long shot. Don limbed the trees, and then started cutting the trunks into sections.

How old was this tree?

We stopped to rough-count the rings.

It's easy to tell the wet years from the dry years.

We guesstimated this tree was about ninety years old.

It also had some bird holes in it.

The girls piled branches...

...into what will become a burn pile.

Then we borrowed a neighbor's tractor and started dragging logs. I was the choker (putting on chains).

One by one Don hauled out the log sections. Some were almost too heavy for the little tractor to drag.

We yarded the logs by the barn. The trees have been dead for so long that the wood is perfectly dry and suitable for firewood.

Because the larger sections were almost too much for the tractor to pull, we cut the trunks into segments small enough to fit in the tractor bucket, and I used a peevee to lever them into place (no photos, sorry, I was busy).

But it gave us a nice start on our winter's firewood!

Despite the loss of the trees, our wooded area actually looks healthier without them, sorta like trimming split ends from long hair. We have a few more smaller dead trees to take down, but we're hoping we won't lose any more of our large red firs.


  1. "Widowmaker's", as you say falling trees is dangerous. The photo series is excellent and its good to see the right tools for the job. My ex husband was a commercial "Faller" and made excellent money but it was earned! The erratic trees are so unpredictable. My mother was stubborn and had a dead spruce near the place she parked her truck. I told her I would get Eric to fall it for her. It was in a really bad place, near the vehicles and by the end of the house with the fireplace chimney. Nope she said she could fall it....She moved the truck next to the house...supposedly out of the way. The tree turned and fell on the box of the truck, tearing the fireplace chimney off the house on the way down! We never discussed it...ever!

    Enjoy the wonderful wood heat from all those trees.


    Fiona in Virginia

  2. One more bit...have you considered using a chipper shredder for the tree debris...the chopped up branches and stuff make a great drainage layer for livestock bedding. I used to get the local Tree guys [who needed to find somewhere to dump their huge shredder] to dump it behind my haystacks. After I clean my lean to's and shelters, when they were dry I would put about a foot of the bark/tree branch mulch down before I bedded with straw.


  3. That Don is one handy dude. I'll bet he could butter peanuts. I want to be just like him when I grow up.


  4. didn't see the kevlar chaps. neighbors could go in on the expense and pass them around as needed. with all the beetles there will be more dead trees.
    chaps will save your life. no way for medical help to get there soon enough. a sliced artery and you're gone.
    word to the wise.
    deb harvey

    1. Amen. Won't touch a chain saw without chaps anymore. I have a nasty scar on my left leg from when the saw just NICKED me...

    2. I also have to agree with using chaps. For years I never used them, but now I would never touch a saw without them. They are a bit expensive but well worth the investment and very comfortable after you get used to them.

  5. I used to be a logger and I have seen trees go the wrong way, with people in them. We used to set out stakes or markers out when felling to see who was the most accurate. I noticed that Don's back cut is done at an angle. We always made that a straight cut, a couple of inches (sometimes upwards of 6-12, depending on the size of the tree) above where the two front cuts some together. This allowed for an even "holding wood" through the center of the tree; which would help the tree fall smoother, straighter, and shilft less. It is a wonderful skill to have and Don did a great job. It's a plus that he didn't take out the fence too!

  6. We are starting to build on our newly purchased 12 raw acres in east Texas. Lots of trees have to go to make room for the home/barns/gardens..... This is Very helpful information, many thanks.

  7. Are the branches not useful as kindling?
    I understand why for a large operation it's not worthwhile but for a homestead it always pains me to see people "waste" this wood.

    1. I use the branches for kindling and small fires and stove-wood. But, it can be labor intensive without special tools. First - a small chain saw to cut the branches to a convenient length - about 6 - 8 feet. Second - gasoline engine powered cord wood saw to cut the 6-8 foot pieces into stove wood length. My home-built cord wood saw has a 14" diameter carbide tipped blade and is powered with a 7 HP engine. It handles wood up to 4" in diameter nicely.
      Hangtown Frank

  8. In Ralph Moody's book "The Fields of Home" he describes in detail the way his grandfather took out some dead Chestnut trees from the wood lot. Fascinating operation! So glad all went well with yours. Thanks for the great pictures.

    1. Ah, Ralph Moody, what a great author! One of my favorite books when I was a teenager was his " Little Britches ' Man of the family ". I will now try and find " The Fields of Home " that you mention. Thank you,

      Dee in the American West

  9. You might consider spraying and tarping the cut logs to kill the bark beetles inside them.
    Also maintaining the live trees and making them healthier will help prevent infestation. Cut and spray any tree at the first sign of stress. Thin out the forest to keep the remaining trees healthy. A healthy, non-stressed tree will often "push out" bark beetles and live. You might want to find out if cattle trampling shallow rooted firs has much of an effect on them.

  10. "Are the branches not useful as kindling?"

    Actually, not so much. I find it's easier, faster and cleaner to split some kindling from cut wood. We do collect and utilize a lot of the pieces and larger chips, but split-wood kindling works best. The branches can bring a lot of bugs and spiders into the house, and aren't as easy to manage and store as is split kindling.

    Not to worry about 'waste' in the woodpile, though. Even the woodpiles have their multiple uses, for both critters and humans alike.

    Very little ever goes to waste out here.

    A. McSp

  11. Patrice,

    Thank you and Don and the girls for this post. There are so many people who don't know how to cut down a tree properly.
    This is also a great reminder for those who do tree cutting.
    We have one very large tree where branches are weaved in between electrical lines leading into our home. We will be targeting this tree in the near future before winter rolls in.

  12. I usually drive the tractor while hubby hooks the chains around the logs.
    I have found that the wedges or cookies can make a nice door stop.

  13. I always loved it when Dad would go logging, when he would come home he always smelled so wonderful the smell of hard work and trees. I can remember many a time running down the basement stairs to get a hug from Dad and just enjoying that wonderful woody smell.

  14. The comment by the former logger about Don's backcut is spot on.The backcut should not have a steep angle as this loses your control of the trees fall.

    1. I will also add this.... The face cut should NOT be a cookie. It should also look almost like a 90 degree cut (Don's cut looks almost 45 degrees) IF you cut it at a 90 degree angle, 45 up and 45 down, the tree when it falls with the hinge will almost NEVER break. You lose the hinge, you lose control. As said before, a straight level back cut is best. Never at the angle he uses (down) into the tree. The bigger the tree, the better to get the wedges behind the saw blade too. I use metal headed plastic wedges as hammering in a totally plastic wedge is pretty hard on the wedge. Just some tips from an "old" sawyer. Stihl & Husqvarna has some pretty good safety programs & tips. Look em up on their websites or with chainsaw dealers.


    I could not resist!

  16. Felling trees. I don't know of anything that makes me more nervous than that. Thank goodness you guys came away without any injuries. Nice picture essay.

    Just Me

  17. I almost forgot to mention --- that's a terrific article you wrote on water over at Backwoods Home! It's so comprehensive, I'm only about a third of the way through it so far.

    Just Me

  18. Enjoyed the story - great tips on felling trees. I heat my Kansas home with wood and large trees like this, make me very nervous. I don't have a good record of bringing down such trees and will try some of your techniques next time.

  19. Hubby has taken down a lot of our trees. Take a look-see at my posts of 9/6 (My Paul Bunyon) and 9/22 (Firewood). We have enough wood for the next couple of years! Like Don, he is very careful and takes his time deciding where to fell each tree. After they are down, he digs up and removes the stumps with the backhoe.

  20. For most trees I cut, and especially for trees that lean or have all the limbs on one side, I use a 150 ft rope that is 3/4 inch or 1 inch in diameter. You can put the rope in a tree with a long extension ladder, but a cheap pair of climbers is even better. Climb up, put the rope in the tree, climb down. The higher the rope is, the better. You'd be surprised how much difference two people pulling that rope can make in guaranteeing that the tree goes where you want it. Not effective for large operations, but for cutting a couple of trees on the farm or in the yard, it only takes a few extra minutes and can prevent nasty surprises.

    1. Can I assume you put the rope on before you ever start cutting? Do you pull it taught?

  21. (Homer Simpson voice) "Mmmm, firewood."
    Thank you for the great, picture-filled post.

    - Charlie