How To Fell a Tree (Correct Way): Steps To Cut Down a Tree With Chainsaw, Ax

Man with an ax wonders how to fell a tree and cut down a tree safety, correctly, using conventional notch, open face notch, humbolt notch, or other tree felling cuts for felling trees ax method.

Even if you’re a devout plant lover, you may find yourself in a situation where it’s necessary to know how to fell a tree.

While this may seem to be a simple enough task, there are substantial risks if you don’t take the proper precautions.

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Often, trees may be damaged when struck by lightning and must be removed for safety, but there are plenty of other reasons for necessitating tree removal.

There are a variety of methods that can be used when learning about how to fell a tree the correct way, regardless of tool you use. 

This complete guide explains the basics of tree felling using a chainsaw or an ax, and explains when it’s time to call in the professionals to ensure that the only thing that is removed is the tree.

How To Cut Down a Tree on Your Own

Maybe any tree trimming services in the area are out of your budget, or maybe you have the equipment and skills needed to want to give it a try yourself.

Whatever the reason, you may find that your best option is to handle this tree-cutting yourself, so you need step-by-step instructions on how to fell a tree.

There are several distinct methods that can be used in order to make sure you are able to fell your tree as safely and effectively as possible.

You may naturally be tempted to go out and start cutting without taking the time to come up with a full plan, but you should never do this when cutting down a tree.

Graphics of preliminary steps on how to fell a tree which include examining the area, gathering materials, and clearing the area within the tree's immediate vicinity.

Always take the time to make sure you’re as well prepared as possible; you can never be too safe when it comes to toppling an object as massive as a tree.

How To Fell a Tree: Preliminary Steps

Below are the three preliminary steps on how to fell a tree.

Preliminary Step 1: Examine the Area

Before you go start hacking away at any trees, it’s important to have a good understanding of the area where you’ll be working. Go to the area where the tree is and look around.

Are there structures or anything else near the tree that could be damaged when it falls?

Make certain that the tree is not in danger of falling onto buildings, fences, roads, power lines, or other trees which could set off a domino effect. If you do see any of these close to the tree, it may be worth hiring a professional.

Additionally, you should examine the tree to ensure it’s healthy and that it’s not leaning in any particular direction. An unhealthy or dead tree may behave unpredictably when being cut, and if it leans too far in one direction you won’t be able to control the direction in which it falls.

Preliminary Step 2: Gather Your Materials

Once you’ve examined the tree and area to ensure there aren’t any hazards around, it’s time to gather your materials. The first materials you should look into getting are proper permits.

The cost of these permits can vary depending upon where you live, as can the penalties for noncompliance, so knowing whether do you need a permit to cut down trees on your own property or not is a step you definitely want to take before you start cutting anything down. Different cities may have different requirements for these permits; for example, the city of Seattle has some very specific requirements.9

Once you find out what permits you need and make sure you’re able to obtain them, next you want to make sure you have the appropriate protective gear. While lumberjacks of old relied on nothing more than flannel and denim for protection, the modern tree-feller has access to substantially better gear.

Make sure you have safety goggles to protect your eyes from dust or errant wood chips, and safety shoes like steel-toed boots. Because one of the leading causes of injury related to tree felling is falling debris, make sure you have a helmet or a hard hat to protect against anything that falls on you.

You will want to get whatever tool you wish to use to cut the tree down; regardless of which method you choose, you’ll also need wedges, and if you opt for to chainsaw trees you need to have Kevlar chaps to protect your legs. Cornell University has more information on proper protective equipment for chainsaw use and the equipment’s significance.10

Preliminary Step 3: Clear the Area

Even in the best of situations things can go wrong. Make sure that any debris lying in the area around the tree is cleared out.

If things go wrong and you need to run to get clear, the last thing you want is to trip over something. Any large sticks, stones, or other debris should be moved out of the area to ensure you are able to move safely within the space.

You also want to make sure that you have an escape path planned. If the tree does fall in a direction you don’t want, it can help to already have a direction to run in mind.

While it’s possible the tree might fall in such a way that it cuts off that route (so you should still be sure to clear the whole area), it’s still worthwhile to make sure that you have a plan.

How To Cut a Tree Down With a Chainsaw

If you opt to use a chainsaw, first you want to decide which direction you want the tree to fall.

Whenever you make a cut with a chainsaw, you have to hold the chainsaw securely with both hands to maintain proper control.

Graphics of cutting down a tree with a chainsaw showing the different section cuts needed to safely fell a large tree and the direction of the tree falls.

It is dangerous to use chainsaw to cut trees, so you should make absolutely sure that the saw is under control at all times, otherwise, the potential for damage to the tree, the saw, or yourself is significantly higher.

Here are the steps to follow on how to cut a tree down with a chainsaw:

  • On the side of the tree you want it to fall toward, carefully cut into the tree at a 70-degree angle. The top of this notch should be shallower than the bottom.
    Make sure not to go more than ⅓ of the way into the trunk, and the bottom of your notch should be a foot above the ground.
  • Once you’ve cut the notch, cut horizontally across to the low end of the notch and remove that chunk of the tree.
  • Once you’ve finished with the notch, move to the other side of the tree and make what is called a bore cut. This means that, instead of using the long edge of the saw blade to cut into the tree, you are going to push the tip of the saw into the trunk of the tree.
    Make this cut 1-2 inches away from the bottom of the notch you’ve cut previously, pressing the tip of the saw into the tree and cutting all the way through.
  • Once you’ve cut all the way through, take the saw and move it away from the notch, leaving a horizontal cut through the trunk. This will leave the tree substantially weakened, but will probably not cause the tree to fall.
  • After you make the bore cut, hammer a wood-cutting wedge 1-2 inches into the cut you’ve just made.
  • Once you have hammered in the wedge, use the saw to cut through the tree from the side opposite the notch.
  • Cut through to the bore cut, at which point the tree should slowly start to fall over.
    The tree should fall in the direction of the notch, and at this point, you just need to get clear and let gravity do its work.

How To Fell a Tree: Cutting a Tree With an Axe

You may want to use an axe to cut your tree down. Maybe you want to be like Paul Bunyan, or maybe it’s the most convenient tool available.

However, in spite of the appeal of an axe, it may not be a great tool for what you’re hoping to do. Some experts would argue that an axe is best for cutting saplings or small trees, while a saw may be better suited for larger ones.2

Before you start making any cuts, make sure you inspect your axe. Check the handle for any cracks or defects.

Close up view of a tree trunk showing how to cut it down using an axe.

(Image: Sabine Kroschel13)

These could cause the tool to come apart unexpectedly upon impact, so you’ll want to replace a damaged handle before you start. While looking at the head of the axe, it will be in your best interest to make sure your axe’s cutting edge is freshly sharpened.

Make sure you’re comfortable with the size and weight of the axe, and determine how you will best be able to swing it. An ideal stance for this would have your legs square to the tree and just past shoulder width apart.

This way, if you miss a swing or the axe comes back off the tree unexpectedly, your legs are protected.

In order to minimize the strain on your body, do your best to be accurate in your swings. This will make it possible for you to chop the tree down with as little toil as possible.

Here are the steps on how to fell a tree using an axe:

  • You’ll want to start cutting similarly to how one would with a chainsaw, making a 45-degree notch in the trunk with a horizontal cut at the base.
  • You will follow this by making another 45-degree cut above the first, pushing the notch deeper into the trunk of the tree.
    This should extend about halfway through the trunk.
  • It may make the process easier to make a similar notch a few inches higher on the opposite side of the trunk, again extending halfway through the trunk. This may help ensure that the tree falls in a controllable manner.
  • Continue deepening the notch until the tree starts to fall, at which point you should take your planned exit route to safety.

Additional axe safety tips are available from the US Department of Agriculture,11 so you can be sure to be as safe as possible while cutting your tree down.

Felling a Tree With Wedges

Wedges can be very useful if you’re really concerned with having as much control of the direction the tree falls in as possible.

If you are unsure of which direction the tree will fall, have concerns about wind, or if the tree seems like it may be off balance, wedges may be the method to use.

Cutting wedges can be used both to keep the tree’s weight off of your chainsaw and to help in tipping the tree to fall in the direction you want it to.3

The wedge will function as a lever; placing one low in the trunk will make a small visible change in the orientation of the trunk while having a more pronounced effect on the top of the tree. This shifts the tree’s center of gravity, which can help determine in which direction it falls.

An eye-level view of a man wearing a helmet placing a wedge into a tree using the back part of the axe.

(Image: Moinats17)

However, even if you’ve shifted the tree’s center of gravity it may still take more in order to actually cause the tree to fall. For bigger trees, you may need additional wedges to cause a greater shift in the center of gravity.

You start this process the same as the others previously discussed, by cutting a notch low in the trunk of the tree on the side you want it to fall toward.

Then, make a horizontal cut on the opposite side of the trunk. Once you have cut far enough into the trunk opposite the notch without it impeding the motion of the saw, put a wedge in so that it points in the direction you want the tree to fall.

After cutting slightly further into the tree, drive a second wedge 2 – 6 inches away from the first. At this point, make sure both wedges are pounded in such that they are tightly held in place.

Repeat this process until you have finished the horizontal felling cut. If the tree doesn’t start falling at that point, remove the saw and keep pounding the wedges in until the tree starts to fall, at which point you want to leave the area via your planned escape route until things settle down.

Types of Tree Felling Cuts

According to Wikipedia,7 most tree felling involves two cuts: a notch cut, to determine the direction of the tree’s fall and the point at which the tree will separate from the stump; and a back cut, to separate most of the trunk from the stump and allow the trunk to pivot over the “hinge” created by the notch.

However, the type of notch you’ll need to use can vary depending on the specific circumstances, and in some situations, additional cuts may be needed.1

The Conventional Notch

This is the most commonly used cut in tree felling, as can be inferred from the name. The Conventional Notch is a downward cut into the trunk of a tree at a 45-degree angle, with a cut at the bottom that is parallel to the ground and a horizontal cut on the opposite side of the tree slightly above the deepest point of the notch.

This notch gives your tree the best chance of separating cleanly from the stump as it falls.

A graphic that portrays the conventional notch.

An additional benefit of the Conventional Notch is that, because the bottom cut parallels the ground, you can leave a much shorter stump behind than you might be able to with other felling cuts.

The downside of the Conventional Notch is that tree has an extended amount of time separating from the stump. This means that the fall is more uncontrolled as the tree spends more time in free fall.

Another minor inconvenience is that the flat bottom of this notch means that removing the notch cut can be irksome because gravity won’t do you any favors. This can be a minor or considerable hindrance depending on the size of your tree.

The Humboldt Notch

Sometimes your tree is so large that removing the chunk of wood from the trunk is physically impossible. This was a problem faced by people attempting to fell Redwoods in the area near Humboldt, California, and this notch was developed in response.

Essentially, this is an upside-down conventional notch, with the parallel cut at the top, the 45-degree cut beneath it, and the back cut above the apex of the notch.

A graphic that shows the Humboldt notch on a tree.

For the most part, this notch shares its benefits with the conventional cut. The inverted nature of the notch means that gravity should make your job of removing the excess piece of wood easier.

On the downside, this notch also shares the Conventional Notch’s weaknesses. In addition to being rarely used, more experienced tree fellers may find it uncomfortable.

The Open Face Notch

The Open-Face Notch is a further departure from most notches used in tree felling. To use this notch you should first make a 50- to 70-degree cut down into the trunk, and instead of a bottom cut parallel to the ground, you need to meet the first cut with a 20-30-degree cut coming up from below.

When using this notch, you should always make the back cut even with the deepest part of the notch.

Done properly, this notch’s main advantage is that when your tree falls, the trunk shouldn’t break away from the stump until it hits the ground. This means that you don’t need to worry as much about your tree behaving unpredictably as it falls, although you should still exercise caution.

A graphic that shows the open-face notch.

The main disadvantage of this notch is comparatively minor. Sometimes, if you don’t cut the notch precisely right, you may still have to do some cutting when it hits the ground to separate the trunk from the stump.

Because of the greater degree of control and other factors, the University of Kentucky considers this style of notch cutting to be faster and safer,8 so you may want to use an Open-Face notch.

How To Fell a Leaning Tree in Opposite Direction

Beyond simply knowing how to fell a tree, you may need to know how to specifically counteract a tree’s significant leaning before letting it fall. A particular use of wedges is needed to motivate a tree to fall in the opposite direction from its lean.

If for whatever reason (structure, unfavorable geography, etc.) you want a leaning tree to fall against the direction of its leaning, this tree is referred to as having a “back lean”.4

When dealing with back lean, you first (naturally) need to determine where you want the tree to fall. Next, you need to do some calculations to figure out exactly how much back lean there is to compensate for.

Stand a short distance away from the tree, at a 90-degree angle from the desired direction of fall.

With either an axe or a weighted string, observe the top of the tree and make a marking on the ground. Your back lean is the distance from a similar point along the intended direction of descent to the deepest point of the undercut you’ll make on the trunk.

The deepest point of the undercut you make will serve as a sort of hinge, a point over which the trunk will pivot as it falls. Once you’ve determined the back lean, you need to measure the diameter of the trunk from the deepest point of this cut.

Using that diameter measurement, you can divide the tree into sections, each section is a vertical region of the tree as tall as that diameter. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has guidelines for how much back lean is safe to use wedges with for different size trees.12

Close up view of a man cutting a tree with an axe.

(Image: Josch1314)

Calculate the number of sections your tree has. For example, a 40-foot tree with a 12-inch diameter would have 40 sections.

If you use a wedge to raise the back of the lowest segment of this hypothetical tree by 1 inch, the canopy would move a corresponding 40 inches.

Divide the total amount of back lean (in inches) by the number of sections on your tree in order to get the amount of wedge-induced raising you’ll need in order to overcome that lean. That number will tell you how many inches of lift you need your wedges to provide in order to shift the center of gravity and allow you to have the tree fall in the direction you want.

From here, you fell the tree more or less like you would any other, as long as the wedges you use provide the level of lift you need. Once you have at least the amount of lift needed to control the direction of the tree’s fall, you can add additional wedges until the tree begins to fall, at which point you should use your planned escape route to secure your own safety.

Why Would I Want To Know How To Fell a Tree?

While it’s true that trees are a much-needed part of our environment whose numbers are ever-dwindling, there are still several reasons a person might want to cut down a tree.

So, why do people cut down trees?

A dead tree was felled using a chainsaw near a house.

(Image: Franz W.15)

Often, safety is a major concern. If a tree is dead, dying, or diseased, or if recent weather or construction has left a tree in an untenable position, an uncontrolled fall could hurt somebody or do a lot of damage to property in the area.

A controlled felling of a tree is a way to remove that threat with minimal risk of collateral damage.

Relatedly, a bad location could be a cause for removing a tree. If there’s a risk that the tree’s continuing growth either above or below ground could damage nearby buildings’ foundations or drainage, it may make the most financial sense to remove the tree before the damage can get worse.

It may just be that a tree doesn’t fit in with the surrounding foliage. In order to improve the aesthetics of a landscape, you might need to remove a tree here or there to improve the aesthetics of your yard or garden.

Another reason you may need to remove a tree is in order to reduce the risk of wildfire. In many regions, we see massive wildfires ignite on a regular basis during the dry season, and even if you’re not in one of the most at-risk areas, you may still want to keep your property as secure from the risk of fire as possible.

Sometimes, that means thinning out the trees in order to limit the ability of fire to spread.

Some wilderness areas become overly packed with vegetation, which in addition to being a fire risk may lead to a number of plants being choked out in the densely packed region.

Clearing out a few trees could enable the remaining plants to grow more healthily than they otherwise would have been able to.

So by removing some plant life, you may be able to ensure a far healthier growing environment for your other plants.

Close-up view of a man wearing protective gear, felling a tree with a chainsaw.

(Image: hagenstaadt16)

Instead of going directly to chopping down your tree, you may just need the tree killed first. This can be accomplished through a process known as girdling trees.

By removing the bark, cambium, and sapwood of a tree in a continuous ring all the way around, you can kill an unwanted tree. The USDA Forestry Service has more information on tools you could use for this process.5

Before you make the choice to cut down a tree, it’s important to do some background research. If your tree is under a preservation order, you may have to consult with the local government in order to get that order lifted and allow you to fell the tree.

Furthermore, if your tree is in an area that’s been designated or set aside for conservation, there may be legal consequences if you prune, trim, or fell it.

You probably already know how to tell how old a tree is by cutting it down and counting the rings. The high number of rings in a full-grown tree shows how long it takes these plants to reach truly impressive sizes, and this may sometimes mean hundreds of years!

So before you decide to girdle or fell your tree, you should be sure to consider the amount of time it might take to grow a similarly-sized replacement.

How To Fell Tree With Professional Help

Once you find yourself in a position where you’re committed to cutting down a tree, it’s important to come up with a plan of action.

Tree removal is a task that can be daunting, and it can only be to your benefit to take the time to familiarize yourself with the best methods available before you take action.

Felling Trees Via a Service

First and foremost, the safest option is for you to hire professionals to handle any tree removal operations you want done. You may have a number of different services available to handle this process, depending on where you live.

As with any service, however there may be a substantial difference when you go from one company to the next. Because of this, it can be useful to know how to negotiate tree removal.

A primary factor to consider that would impact whether you go with a pro, as well as the final price tag of a professional tree removal, is the type of removal you’re looking for. If you just want the above-ground portion of the tree removed, that may have a lower relative cost (with the trade-off being that this will leave the stump behind).

You may also want to transplant the tree, which would also raise the cost but would allow you to keep the tree alive and find a better place for it.

However if you decide to both fell the tree and avail a stump removal service, that would also cost more than leaving the stump behind. It may also be a fairly substantial disruption to the surrounding area, as many trees grow dense, sprawling networks of roots.

According to Wikipedia,6 stump removal can be achieved through a variety of means but is an intense process that requires a lot of work.

How Much Does Tree Felling Cost?

Sometimes it makes more sense to go with pros than it does to figure out how to fell a tree on your own.

If you choose to hire professionals to handle your tree removal, make sure you do your own research rather than just hire the first company to leave a flier on your windshield.

A tree removal cost calculator can help you come up with a ballpark figure for how much this would cost, but you’ll still want to reach out and get estimates from several companies after they examine the tree in question.

It is understandable to want to choose the least expensive possible offer, but this may not end up being the economic boon it seems at first. If one company’s offer is markedly lower than others, it may be because they’ve cut corners somewhere in their insurance, equipment, or staffing, which could lead to a much greater expense down the line.

The price can be daunting when hiring professionals, but in very specific circumstances you may be able to arrange for free tree removal services.

For example, if your tree is growing too close to power lines or other infrastructure, you may be able to reach out to your city or to the local power utility and have them remove the tree for you.

There are also resources available through various agencies or organizations that provide free tree removal for seniors, so if you’re older and possibly on a fixed income, help is available.

In the modern world, as we fight against climate change, trees are more important than possibly ever before. Nevertheless, even passionate environmentalists know that sometimes to benefit other plant life in an area it is necessary to remove a tree here and there.

If nothing else, the most important thing to know about how to fell a tree is to plan ahead.


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13Photo by Sabine Kroschel. Pixabay. Retrieved from <>

14Photo by Josch13. Pixabay. Retrieved from <>

15Photo by Franz W.. Pixabay. Retrieved from <>

16Photo by hagenstaadt. Pixabay. Retrieved from <>

17Lumberjack forces a wedge in the felling cut Photo by Moinats / Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Resized and Changed format. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from <>