First Time Cutting Down Trees for Lumber With a Chainsaw

After we arrived on our property in September, we spent most of the first month gathering supplies such as a chainsaw, four wheeler, winch, and axe. After we had the basics, we were ready to get to work building. First order of business, lumber! To get lumber we needed to fall some trees so we put on our hard hats, mixed up some gas and went to work.

When we were ready to do some tree felling, it was pretty easy because we already spent time walking the property to decide which trees to cut down for both lumber and timber framing. The first thing we need lumber for is building our hot tub deck. The reasons for the hot tub deck are many. Not all are obvious, but in short the reasons to build a hot tub deck with our own milled lumber include:

  • To validate that our homemade chainsaw mill works
  • To validate that we could, in fact, cut lumber from trees and the lumber would be usable
  • To help us understand the amount and type of usable wood in a tree, thus helping calculate tree needs for the barn etc.

We decided that it would be best to cut down two douglas fir trees for the structure of our hot tub deck, which just so happened to be on the backside of our property. We will be harvesting some pine for decking, but will do that after the foundation and structure is completed.

Our Tree Felling Equipment

The success of our tree felling was due to proper equipment, tools and experience. It might at first glance that all you need is a chainsaw, but it would be wise to have additional tools not just for their practicality but also to keep yourself as safe as possible.

tree felling equipment
Jesse in his tree falling attire. Safety first, kids!

In falling these two trees we used every piece of equipment on this list, and we wouldn’t leave home without it in our ATV!

  • Stihl 660 chainsaw: This is a pretty big chainsaw for felling medium-sized trees. The reason for the larger saw is that it will double as an Alaskan chainsaw mill that really needs at least an 80cc engine (the 660 has a 91.6cc engine). This helps increase longevity and reduce fatigue. Someday, we’ll get a second chainsaw that’s a bit more practical for smaller duty tasks. If you can only have one, go big or go home!
  • Tree felling wedges: Once you cut a wedge cut into the tree, you will want to drive wedges into the opposite side to encourage the tree to fall towards the wedged cut. We use these Oregon Felling Wedges. They’re a bit shorter than most wedges and made of plastic. Short is important as you rarely have much depth to insert them before you run into your saw. They’re made form plastic which is helpful in case you need to cut through them without damaging your saw. If you use metal, you’ll have a mess on your hands. They also have small dogs, or little spikes, on one side that help them stay planted in the tree and not pop out.
  • Fiskars splitting axe: This axe is pretty versatile. For felling we used this to drive the wedges into the tree. We love it because it has a composite handle. So far it’s been working fine! Supposedly the handle is indestructible. Time will tell…
  • 1,000lb ratchet straps: We bought four of these to have on hand and it turns out, we use them constantly. In this case they helped us save a tree from falling on the neighbors property and vehicles! When the tree pinched our chainsaw and wanted to fall the wrong direction, we used all (4) 1,000lb ratchet straps in combination with wedges to coax the tree into falling where we wanted it to. Thankfully no one was injured and the tree is was in perfect condition with no breaks.
  • 5/16″ Tow Chain: You just never know when a chain will come in handy. In the felling process we had intended to use this chain for dragging tree sections around. It came in super handy when we needed to save our tree from falling the wrong direction. We are quickly learning that you can never have too many tools on hand for when things don’t go according to plan. We’ve also used the chain and ratchet straps in combination to hoist tree sections vertically so we can get stands under them for milling.
  • Hard hat: Anyone who is around when felling trees should be wearing a hard hat. It’s not just the tree you’re protecting again, but all the falling branches, pine cones, etc. You never know what might come crashing down.
  • Safety ear muffs: Chainsaws are loud. We wear safety ear muffs when using the chainsaw to protect not just hearing by your ears from flying debris. It’s a good idea to wear them even if you’re a bystander. We use ear plugs too, but ear muffs are less annoying, are easier to take on and off and more likely to be used.
  • Chainsaw protective chaps: If you’re going to do a lot of this work, or just want to feel extra-safe, you may want to invest in a set of chaps. As we will be working a lot with our chainsaw in the future, we will probably buy a set of these ourselves.

How to Cut Down Trees

tree felling
Source: http://www.familyhandyman.com

Cutting down trees is fairly straight forward. Read this thorough guide to cutting down trees… no need to rewrite the entire thing! But in a nutshell:

  1. Decide the direction you’d like the tree to fall. Be aware of surroundings and make sure that you won’t be falling the tree on someone’s property, buildings, cars, people, pets, etc.
  2. Make a top cut into about 20-25% of the tree at a 60 degree angle.
  3. Make a horizontal undercut that meets the top cut.
  4. On the opposite side of the trunk, create a horizontal felling cut.
  5. Use a felling wedge as a lever to get the tree to begin to fall.
  6. Stand back or run if necessary!

Our Tree Felling Experience

As said prior, we decided to cut down two douglas fir trees on our first day. Here is an overview as to how each tree felling went.

Tree #1

Our first tree was located on the back side of our property on a hill (take a tour of our property here). This tree was fairly large, straight, and it looked like we should be able to easily fall it sideways. We didn’t want to fall it downhill at the risk of it snapping in half. We didn’t want to fall it uphill for fear it may become a missile down the hill. We made the top cut, undercut, and then as soon as we made the felling cut the tree began to fall. This happened within maybe three minutes… no felling wedge required!

Perfection! Look at all that sawdust!
Perfection! Look at all that sawdust!

It fell perfectly, although it did take off some branches from a young tamarack tree. (Jesse later hugged the Tamarack tree in appreciation.) We were able to mill some really great lumber from this tree, and we have a large clear butt section leftover to cut beams for timber framing.

Tree #2

This tree we decided to do second because it looked a little more tricky. The tree was not leaning the direction we wanted it to fall. It wasn’t crooked, but had a slightly bow in the lower trunk. In the direction of the lean were a couple of cars on the neighbor’s property. The risk of falling on the rigs next door was there, but we were pretty confident we could fall it where we wanted, the opposite direction from the lean.

To the right we had a truck and to the left (out of photo) we had another vehicle. Not to worry, it looked like we could fall the tree the opposite direction. Or so we thought...
To the right we had a truck and to the left (out of photo) we had another vehicle. Not to worry, it looked like we could fall the tree the opposite direction. Or so we thought…

We began the felling the same way as the first tree, but when we made the felling cut, the tree pinched the chainsaw immediately! The tree was determined to go the WRONG direction! We used (4) 1,000lb ratchet straps and our tow chain to attempt to pull the tree in the right direction, although we thought it was a lost cause.

Using every tool we brought with us to encourage the tree to fall where we wanted it to.
Using every tool we brought with us to encourage the tree to fall where we wanted it to.

We met the neighbors in a hurry to see if their cars (broken down) were of value, or if they could help us move them. In the time it took to meet the neighbors, the tree started to cooperate and there was a bit of slack in the ratchet straps. Another friendly neighbor who heard all the sawing showed up suddenly and gave us a hand.  He was miraculously able to lift the chainsaw that was previously pinched. With some teamwork we were then able to tap in the felling wedges, crank on the ratchets and the tree fell beautifully. WHAT AN ADVENTURE!

Not only did the tree fall exactly where we wanted it to, but all of our ratchet strays stayed in-tact when we were sure they would be destroyed!
Not only did the tree fall exactly where we wanted it to, but all of our ratchet strays stayed in-tact when we were sure they would be destroyed!

Lessons Learned

While this isn’t my first time felling trees, it has been a long time since I’ve participated in this activity. After talking to some folks we realized that on tree #2 we made our top cut and undercut much too deep into the tree.  A more shallow cut would leave more trunk to hold the tree up allowing for a deeper felling cut before the saw pinched giving us room to wedge the tree over. Sadly we don’t have much footage of all this experience as safety was the highest priority.

Up Next: Milling Lumber

Now that we have a couple of trees cut down, it’s time to start milling lumber with our DIY Alaskan chainsaw mill! At the time of this writing, we’ve actually milled up these two trees, but we will write some posts on how it went as well as share a lot of fun video footage! We’re happy to report that all went smooth and we are LOVING our homemade lumber! It’s way more satisfying than running down to Home Depot.

Okay, okay, we’ll give you a teaser… here is a sneak peak of our Alaskan chainsaw mill, and what some of our milled lumber looks like!

diy alaskan chainsaw mill
Using our DIY Alaskan chainsaw mill… so awesome! It feels so empowering to be able to go outside, cut down a tree, and turn it into usable lumber.
diy-lumber-alaskan-chainsaw-mill
Sneak peak at our lumber! This is before we milled it to any specific dimensions.
diy-hot-tub-deck
Here is a sneak peak at our lumber in action! So stoked to finish up the hot tub deck, not to mention get the hot tub up and running!

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I am an aspiring homesteader on a journey to become self-sustainable and free. In my past, I've worked corporate jobs to make ends meet and get ahead a little; it didn't make me happy or confident in my future. Since taking the leap to self-employment and living a more simple life, my happiness levels have increased greatly and I've never felt more alive. I finally understand what I want in life and how to get there, and that is what this blog is all about.

Comments

  1. Butch Mazza says

    Just found your story in Mother Earth News. I live in Sand Hollow Idaho and was wondering where you guys live? Seems you’ve just started on your homestead so what do you need most? Food or materials? Welcome to Idaho. I’m a 63 yr old man, my wife still works and my son lives with us on a 2 acre country homestead. We’re not off-grid but we are growing our veggies. You can see my funtimes on butch mazza on Youtube. I’d like to know more about your progress.
    Thanks! Butch

    • says

      Hey Butch! Subscribed to your channel on YouTube! We are a bit north of you in the panhandle. Hard to say what we need most at this point in our journey. Honestly it seems that we are running out of daylight at the end of every day so we need more time! It will be a while before we are self-sustainable in terms of food as we’re focusing on gathering materials for our barn. Our immediate need is a planer (to finish some lumber) so we’re scavenging Craigslist daily in hopes one turns up. We have a flyer up locally and have had multiple people step up to offer us second-hand materials at a great cost. Finding great deals and not running down to Home Depot to buy things new simply takes time. It’s been a fun journey so far. To stay up to date on our progress, check out our Facebook page if you haven’t already. We are so busy that it’s hard to find time to upload to the blog (although we do the best we can), but we upload to Facebook with our progress daily! Glad to see that you’re a fellow Idahoan, and according to your channel it looks like you have a lovely, thriving homestead!

    • says

      We haven’t planted any yet but we will be sure to take care of our forest (we have some thinning out to do at a minimum) and to think of it as a crop to provide for future lumber needs for not only ourselves but for generations to come :-)

  2. Mike Springer says

    Hi Guys,

    Looks like you are making great progress on your land. In 1999 I did a similar kind of project. Wife and I bought 5 acres and then built our own home. She designed it and drew up the plans and we took them to an architect and had him professionally draw plans up. We built a 5,000 square foot home with lots of glass in the rear wall for a beautiful view. It took us 1 and a 1/2 years of 7 days a week work to get the exterior completed and the upper level completed, inspected, and move in ready. We both worked a full time job and met at the house in the evening and then worked Saturday and Sunday each weekend. It’s an overwhelming process. At times I began to wonder if we would ever get it done! My Brother was a tremendous help too, but could only help 1/2 way through.

    Now that our place is completed, we are both very proud of it. Kind of similar to your endeavor but we do have a mortgage and that is the part I don’t like. We continue to make double payments and do everything we can to get it paid off fast. We are close to that goal.

    I admire the work you have done and I would say you are lucky to have Jessie since he is quite knowledgeable with what has been accomplished so far. I was raised in the country where we heated our home with wood. Lots of wood cutting. We also cut six foot logs and then split out our fence posts with a mall and a steel wedge. Many local farmers would buy fence posts from us too, but, it is a lot of hard work and time consuming. I love those Alaskan Timber Mills. They really are the answer to making your own lumber.

    Well it will be great to see the next progress report on your blog. Always be safe because that kind of work can hurt you. Good luck and keep up the steady work . I’m thoroughly enjoying reading about all the new changes as you make them. Take care….

    Mike

    • says

      Hey Mike,

      Thanks for stopping by our blog! Sounds like you and your wife have had quite the journey. Building a home that is move-in ready in 1.5 years is definitely an accomplishment, especially with full-time jobs! We definitely understand the feeling of being overwhelmed- we have felt that way for the past 2 years but it’s all to get to the point where we can relax and live our lives the way we want. We are, however, sensitive to our energy and give ourselves breaks as they are needed as it’s no fun to deal with burnout and going full steam ahead for too long can actually take longer than giving yourselves breaks.

      Best of luck on paying off your mortgage fast! It’s romantic to build a home cash but not feasible for everyone and credit can also be a great tool to get things done in a timely manner. No doubt that lofty goals can be accomplished in a short amount of time when you’re driven.

      I am thankful for having Jesse in my life each and every day. He has been extremely patient in teaching me everything he knows to make this journey possible. I try to soak up all the information he is throwing at me like a sponge. We are proving to ourselves that great things can happen when two people work hard together and support one another.

      Thanks for sharing parts of your own journey with us! Always great to see what others have gone through to get where they are. Many who have nice homes, built themselves, did A LOT of hard work to get there which isn’t always known from looking at the house. It’s a great reminder that great things aren’t built overnight but are definitely possible with some patience and elbow grease!

      Take care and keep in touch Mike :-)

  3. says

    Hey Jesse and Alyssa!

    While you’re cutting down trees, you’ll have some extra wood that isn’t of timber quality. While obviously it’s usable for firewood, consider also the possibility of saving it up for a cordwood masonry project. My blog (above) shows how I built our goat barn for wood from our property…from trees of very little timber value. Cordwood can be structural on its own, or (as I used it) a great infill to a timber-framed structure.

    Of course, if you decide to build this way, there are much better teachers than me on the subject, like Rob Roy (cordwoodmasonry.com) and Richard Flatau (www.daycreek.com).

    Check it out!

    Have a great adventure and stay positive,
    David Bareford

  4. Lloyd Nauss says

    You forgot the most important piece of protection when using a chainsaw – pants or chaps. You need to purchase one or both. Also a pair of good chainsaw boots. The gloves and hat are optional, glasses yes and hearing protection a must. Also, you need another saw for feeling trees – use the 30+” bar/saw for your mill. It is over kill for what you are felling – a waste of fuel, your energy and unsafe for your being. Other than that carry on… good luck.

    • Jesse says

      That’s great if it’s an option but we will likely be timber framing green. There are lots of techniques to building with green lumber which we are excited to try.. also met a man that built timber frame homes for a living and he confirmed that it’s possible to build with green lumber with the proper techniques which confirmed our beliefs. Will keep you posted!

      • says

        I built my barn with green timbers. The trick is using dry pegs to pin the tenons in the mortises. That way, the pins stay stable while the green timbers shrink, furthering tightening around the pins and locking everything in place. An old trick.

      • J W says

        Ah, I’ll have to look into how to build with green lumber. We just thinned one section of our 3 acres of forest. It’s mostly alder that we are putting into hugelkultur mounds but we did have to take down some huge douglas firs that were not looking too healthy. I’d love to get one of those chainsaw mills.

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