Safety tips for chopping tricky trees

By Tom Seymour | May 01, 2014
Photo by: Tom Seymour Pruning saw has extension handle for reaching high limbs.

The snow has finally melted and homeowners take advantage of sunny weekends to get out and trim trees and branches laid low by last winter’s ice storm. But cutting bent trees poses something of a problem, in that lots of kinetic energy is stored in the base of the tree, just waiting for someone to go about cutting it the wrong way. In that case, the tree can literally strike back, perhaps causing grievous injury.

So it’s time to review a few basics regarding cutting trees and limbs that are under pressure. The a few things must get attention before starting the chainsaw. Is the gas fresh? Or if not, was it properly stored, meaning was it enriched with fuel stabilizer? If there are doubts, don’t even think about pulling that starter cord.

Saw checkoff

Trying to start a chainsaw that has degraded or waterlogged gas will only send the bad fuel through the system, making it even harder to start later. So the first thing is to check the gas. Even if it was stabilizer-added gas, it might still have some water in it, particularly if the saw was stored in a cold situation where below freezing and subsequent thawing temperatures cause condensation in the fuel tank.

So if there are doubts, check the gas by taking a whiff. If it smells like something other than straight gasoline, drain the tank. Bad gas is said to have a “shellac” odor and that’s a pretty accurate description. After draining the old gas and disposing of it properly, it’s time to remove the spark plug and check it for wetness (with age, plugs become fouled with oil) and also, setting the gap to the recommended width. This is accomplished with a gap gauge — a simple tool available at any hardware store. It’s a round disc, with numbered increments. To check the gap on a plug, just insert the gauge in the little opening between the tip of the plug and the bent piece of metal over it. If the gauge just fits but is somewhat tight at the recommended setting (check your saw’s owner’s manual), then the gap is fine.

Add fresh gasoline, mixed with the proper chainsaw oil. But before starting, check the chain and see if it needs sharpening or replacing. A dull chain is a dangerous chain. If the cutting teeth are uneven or have little chips taken from them, they need tending.

Now, with a sharp chain and good fuel, try starting the saw. It should sing after the first few pulls.

Tricky trees

No on to the job at hand. If you have a tree that was bent badly last winter and has not returned to an upright position, it probably never will. The tree is ruined and needs to be removed. But the weight of the drooping tree is concentrated in the foot or so above the ground. When the tree gets cut, it will do one of several things. If a big tree, it might roll on the stump, which means that it may land anywhere, not necessarily where you wish it to. In this case, the job needs to be handled by a professional. Such a tree may require a strain put on it by rope or cable in order to coax it into falling where it should. Don’t attempt to cut a very large tree that is severely bent.

But if the tree is only coffee-can size or a little bigger, it probably won’t roll on the stump. Even so, we must take care when cutting because it will most certainly jump back at the butt (thick end on bottom) when it is cut.

The idea here is to first make a small scarf cut. This means taking a small wedge-shaped bit of wood from the tree near the base and in the direction it is intended to fall. Don’t make a deep scarf cut, because that will cause the tree to begin falling and without a back cut, it will begin to splinter on itself, leaving a big, sharp “barber chair” sticking up from the stump. So make a small scarf cut, being sure to go only a short way into the tree.

Next, for the back cut, the one that will cause the tree to fall, stand well to the side of the tree and make a horizontal cut just slightly above the scarf cut. The tree will fall in the direction it is pointing to. And when it does, the bottom, or butt end, will kick back with tremendous force.

So stand well aside when making the back cut and be prepared to step back even further if need be. Cutting leaning or bent trees is tricky stuff, and dangerous. If you have any hesitations, don’t attempt it, but call a professional tree remover instead.

Hanging branches

Lots of trees, particularly maples, will have hanging limbs as a result of the weight of last winter’s ice. These are what made all those gunshot-sounding noises during the ice storm. Brittle trees such as white pine usually lose the limbs in one, fell swoop. But more flexible trees such as maples tend to hang on the broken limbs. These limbs often hang by the tiniest strip of wood. Sooner or later they will fall. The question is when, and on what or whom?

If the limbs are easily reached, stand to the side and cut them from top down. Cutting from the bottom up will result in a pinched saw, with the bar being stuck in the limb and held there by the weight of the limb. If the limb or limbs are higher up the tree, do not attempt to cut them by standing on a ladder. Doing so means that if something goes wrong, you will not be able to quickly sidestep danger. If a hanging limb is too high to reach by standing on the ground, don’t try and cut it with a chainsaw.

However, given that the limb is not too big around, it may be possible to remove it with a pruning saw. These have extension handles and can reach high up in the tree. Again, cut from top down, or your pruning saw will get stuck up in the tree. Stand as far to the side of the limb as the length of the saw’s handle will allow. And when the limb begins to fall, step back even more.

So remember, bent trees don’t pose a danger until you go to cut them, although they are unpleasant to look at while standing. But hanging limbs are an ever-present menace. Leaving these limbs is one option, as long as the area is well-marked so that other people won’t make the mistake of passing under them. In cases where hanging limbs are in a high-traffic area, it may be necessary to drop the tree.

Always remember that when a hanging limb hits the ground, it may bounce. In fact, it may act as if shot from a catapult, hitting on the tip end first and then compressing before springing back. So don’t try and deal with the heavier hanging limbs. Smaller, lighter ones deserve respect, but if handled with care, everything should go well.

If there is any upside to all this, just remember that almost any wood, when properly dried, will burn. Even poplar, a light, soft wood, makes for a short, but hot fire, excellent for spring and fall burning.

So be careful. Take no chances. And when in doubt, step back and reconsider. If something appears too tricky to safely deal with, call a professional tree remover. It’s just not worth it to take chances with bent or otherwise compromised trees.

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