Felling a tree with an axe is a big job that’s extremely high risk. In almost every situation, it’s best to use a chainsaw, crosscut saw, or leave the job to experienced professionals. If you need a lot of wood, then windfall or deadfall is a much safer option to limb and buck.
Although it’s dangerous working chopping down a tree with an axe, watching timber fall is exhilarating. You’ll also feel an attachment to our ancestors, who loped down trees for centuries to build cabins.
In this guide, we’ll provide an in-depth step-by-step lesson on how to fell a tree with an axe. We encourage you to combine this knowledge with some practical training; there’s no replacement for getting into the forest with a trained expert.
Tools required to fell a tree
To fell a tree by hand, you’ll need a felling axe, felling wedges, and a good-quality bow saw or crosscut saw. For safety, you’ll also need a forester’s helmet, gloves, steel-toed boots, and eye protection.
Pay special attention to the axe’s condition. It must have a sharp blade that’s fit for purpose. Dull blades will make a big job a lot more difficult and increase the threat of injury or worse. Also, check the handle to make sure it has no defects or cracks. For more information, check out our guides to sharpening an axe bit and maintaining an axe handle.
Safety tips for felling a tree with an axe
Survey the area: Analyze the surroundings, making note of obstacles and trees that could change the falling tree’s course. Ensure no cars, buildings, or powerlines are within range. Make note of the ground slope, tree angle, as well as wind direction and strength.
Always use a lookout: Having a second pair of eyes watching could save your life. They can keep an eye out for falling branches and warn you immediately as the tree starts to fall. If the worst happens and you end up pinned under the trunk, a second person can get help.
Safety wear is essential: Never skimp on safety clothing. A helmet could prevent severe lacerations or brain damage if a branch hits you. Glasses will stop wood chips damaging your eye and boots will stop a misguided axe blade wedging in your foot. Gloves will stop splinters and stop blisters if you’re chopping for a long time.
Only swing in the frontal area: It may feel natural to position your body with the trunk directly in front of you. Instead, it’s best to offset yourself, with the trunk in front of your leading foot. This positioning reduces the chance of getting hit by an axe bouncing off the tree. It also allows for a better follow-through, providing more power to the axe swing.
Steps to fell a tree with an axe
1. Assess the tree
Not all trees are suitable for felling with an axe. Pay attention to the angle the tree is growing on as that’s the best direction for felling. If you can’t chop it down in that direction, then choose another tree or call in the experts. Felling a tree in the opposite direction that it’s leaning is a complex job, not suitable for beginners.
Are there dead or broken branches above you that are supported by other branches? Never undertake felling a tree in these circumstances as they are likely to fall on you as you work.
2. Plan an exit strategy
Have a clear plan for how you’ll get to safety once the tree begins to fall. Once you establish which way the tree will fall, work out two alternative escape paths. You need two escape routes in case you get a surprise, and it starts falling towards you. If necessary, clear a path so that it is free from roots, debris, or branches.
Tip: Trees roll and bounce unpredictably once they hit the ground. It’s never safe to wait at the base of the tree.
3. Clear around the tree and assess the felling zone
Having plenty of space around the base of the tree will make your job easier and safer. Any brush, deadwood, or rocks should be cleared so that you have a firm footing.
You should now estimate how far the tree will fall. From the ground, trees are usually taller than you imagine. To get a rough idea of where the treetop will land, use this trick.
Hold an axe at arms-length in front of you and walk away from the tree. Close one eye and continue to walk away until the bottom of the axe handle is in line with the base of the tree. When the top of the handle lines up with the top of the tree, that’s a rough estimate of where the treetop will land.
4. Chop down the tree
To fell a tree, make notches in opposite sides of the trunk to create a pivot point. You can position these strategically so that it falls in your preferred direction.
Notch one: Using a felling axe, make the first notch in the trunk on the side where you want it to fall. Chop roughly one-third of the way through the trunk and position the notch between knee and waist height.
Aim to create a triangular cut that has a flat bottom and 45° upper angle. This can be achieved by swinging straight at the tree for the bottom of the notch while swinging diagonally down for the top.
Notch two: Notch two should be chopped directly opposite to the first one and a few inches higher. Cut a similar-style notch, alternating between blows perpendicular to the ground and diagonally downwards. Stop chopping once you’re one-third of the way through.
The final cut: The final stage is the most dangerous and it’s where your helper should be watching like a hawk. Begin deepening the first notch, keeping the same pattern.
Signs that a tree is about to fall are cracking noises or leaning and swaying. When you see this, step away from the fall line and begin making your way along the exit route. Don’t turn your back on the tree in case it swings back unpredictably.
Once the tree hits the ground, it’s time to get to work limbing and bucking the timber.
Are wedges useful for felling a tree?
Felling wedges are useful if you make a back cut with a saw. You can then hammer in a wedge to encourage the tree to fall in the direction you’d like it to. This is also safer than having a saw stuck in the tree as it starts to fall.
Wedges are also useful for keeping wood fibers apart so that it’s easier to keep sawing.
Keep in mind that splitting wedges are shorter and thicker so they’re not suitable for tree felling. You need purpose-built wedges that are readily available at hardware stores and from online retailers.
Can I use a chainsaw to fell a tree?
Compared to an axe, a chainsaw is a faster, less exhausting way to fell a tree. Although spinning blades add a new element of risk, it’s still safer than using an axe as you can cut with greater precision.
To fell a tree with a chainsaw, cut the same 45° notches that you would using an axe. The first on the side of the trunk where you want it to fall; the second, a little higher on the other side.
What is a hung tree?
If a tree begins to fall and gets entangled in other trees, it is known as a hung tree. This is an extremely dangerous situation, especially when the trunk is stuck at an angle of over 60°.
It is usually best to chop a bit more out of the back but, then use a felling lever to move the tree around. In some cases, you can make an additional notch on each side of the trunk, but this is best for low-hanging trees.
What are the best trees to fell with an axe?
Smaller softwood trees like pine, fir, poplar, and cherry are good options for axe felling. Large trees and hardwoods are best left to experienced tree fellers.
Even the most experienced lumberjack can end up in hospital as the result of felling trees. Axes add to the risk factor, so think carefully before going ahead with using one to chop down a tree.
If you must fell a tree, your life will be easier if you work with the tree. Look for knots and avoid them at all costs. Seek out cracks and use them as great starting points to create notches.
You may like to check out our advice on swinging an axe for maximum power. If you’re lopping down a tree to make timber for your next woodwork project, take a look at our log hewing guide.
Keep chopping and stay safe!