Felling a Tree the Old-Fashioned Way

I had a lot of fun working on a Portable Sawmills article for the forthcoming July/August issue of Woodworker’s Journal. To do the research (I didn’t really know anything about small sawmills), I visited a pair of local sawyers who demonstrated how their marvelous machines work: Just set a log on the mill’s bed, start the motor, and let the horizontally-mounted band saw transform that rough log into a stack of dimensional lumber. But after watching these sawing veterans run through the piles of logs they had at hand, it occurred to me that although I’d been building things out of wood for most of my life, I’d never actually used wood from a tree I’d felled myself. I have cut quite a few small trees on the property in the Santa Cruz mountains where I live with a chainsaw.

Although I can’t imagine milling a log into boards by hand, cutting down a tree with just an axe, a saw and muscle power is definitely on my bucket list. I already have the advantage of having received expert instruction on tree felling: Some years ago, I had a job as the official photographer for the Pacific Northwest Tool Collectors’ 2008 “Best in the West” conference, a gathering of the country’s top tool collectors that happens every two years. Members display their amazing tool collections and present lectures and demonstrations that often feature rare and beautiful antique tools. One of these demonstrations, done at a member’s backyard in Sheldon, Washington, was felling a large Douglas fir tree using traditional tools and methods. The two sawyers who performed the demo (I don’t recall their names) started by chopping out a large notch, known as the undercut, on the side of the tree facing the direction in which they wanted the tree to fall. They both wielded double-bit axes (sharp enough for a close shave) while they balanced on wood springboards stuck into slots chopped into the sides of the stump. As they alternated their strikes like a well-oiled two-cylinder engine (bang-bang…bang-bang), it was amazing how quickly they created a sizable notch in the tree trunk. Just shy of finishing the notch, one sawyer showed us how to use an axe as a “gun stick” or felling gauge: He placed the head of the axe flat against the back of the cut notch, then looked down the handle, which indicated the direction in which the tree would fall.

With the notch cut a little more than 1/3 of the way through the trunk, the sawyers swapped their axes for a two-man crosscut saw, which they used to make the back cut that actually brought the tree down. As they expertly pulled the tool back and forth in rhythm, the saw’s frighteningly sharp teeth cut through the wood like it was soft butter. One sawyer occasionally poured a little kerosene on the saw to keep it lubricated and prevent sap from building up. They quickly reached a point at which it required only a last, light saw stroke to sever enough fibers to bring the big Doug fir down. Impressively, the tree fell exactly where they said it would. The entire cutting process took only about 15 minutes and seemed to take less brute strength than I had imagined. The lesson I came away with is that the secret to safely felling a tree is careful planning, using razor-sharp tools, and performing each chop and slice with thoughtfulness and precision. Come to think of it, this same “secret” applies to just about every other woodworking operation I can think of, whether it’s done the old-fashioned way or by using some newfangled machine.

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