How to Cut Down a Tree: Step-by-Step Guide

By Amanda Lutz Updated January 31, 2024

Trees can be both a blessing and a burden to homeowners. Trees can offer refuge for wildlife, help regulate your home’s temperature, and give you a shady place to sit on a sunny day. However, sometimes you’ll need to remove a tree from your property.

Removing a tree is a big job. It can also be expensive, so some people opt to take a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach. It can be dangerous, so if you have any doubts about your ability to remove a tree safely, you should employ a professional arborist’s help.

If you decide to do it yourself, ensure that you have the right equipment, use the proper techniques, and put precautions in place to protect yourself and your property. Read our step-by-step guide on how to cut down a tree safely and effectively.


Make Sure It’s Safe

Tree removal can be dangerous. Before you start, you’ll need to take some precautions to help keep you and your property safe.

Evaluate the Tree

Start by carefully examining the tree. If you have a diseased or dead tree, consider enlisting the help of a professional, as these conditions can make tree removal much more dangerous.

You should also consider whether the tree is leaning in a particular direction or carrying more weight on one side. This will affect how the tree falls. 

Clear the Surrounding Area

Next, you’ll need to clear some area surrounding the tree. Not only will this make it easier and safer to later section the felled tree, but it also allows you to create escape routes. You could clear two escape routes, each heading away from the base of the tree at a 45-degree angle. Your escape paths will give you a safe space to move through once the tree starts falling, which reduces your risk of tripping over branches or brush.

Also, look for any power lines, structures, or other trees in the tree’s felling zone. If you see any obstacles, consider hiring a professional to remove the tree.

Wear Appropriate Attire

Wearing suitable clothing can help you stay safe while felling a tree. Start with sturdy clothing that covers your arms and legs, as this can help prevent cuts and scrapes from branches. You should also consider wearing Kevlar chaps, which can stop a chainsaw from cutting into your leg if it unexpectedly bucks or moves back on you. Lastly, you should have a logger’s helmet or hard hat, earmuffs, work gloves, and safety glasses.

Enlist a Lookout

Enlist the help of a lookout to cut down a tree safely. This person should monitor the tree while you work, tapping you on the shoulder with a stick if they see a falling branch and notifying you when the tree starts to fall. They can be your eyes and ears while you focus on making the necessary cuts.


Gather Needed Tools

Along with the appropriate clothing and safety gear, you’ll need to get the right tools. To safely cut down a tree, you’ll need the following tools:


Estimate the Felling Zone

Knowing where the tree will fall is one of the most critical parts of tree removal. The tree’s lean, the number of branches on each side, and even the terrain under the tree all influence the felling direction. While you can influence the direction the tree falls to some degree, you can’t fight gravity. Once you’ve determined the likely direction the tree will fall, you must estimate the felling zone.

The felling zone is the area where the tree is going to land once you cut it down. To measure your felling zone, you’ll need to estimate the height of the tree. You can do this by holding a stick or axe handle straight out at a 90-degree angle from the ground, at eye level, and parallel to your body. Then, walk toward or away from the tree until the top and bottom of the stick align with the top and bottom of the tree. Where you are standing is about where the top of the tree will land, within a couple of feet. This distance delineates your felling zone.

You should clear as much debris as possible from the felling zone. Once the tree falls, a clear felling zone makes removing the branches and trunk easier. Creating your escape routes is also easier. Your escape routes should move away from the felling zone at a 45-degree angle so you can quickly get out of the falling tree’s path.


Learn Cutting Techniques

Notch Cut

Start with a notch cut. The notch cut is a crucial part of the tree felling process because it determines which direction the tree will fall. It’s also the first cut that you’ll make. To make a notch cut, make a horizontal cut about 1/5 to 1/3 of the way into the tree at roughly chest height, parallel to the ground. Then, make a second cut, going from the front of the tree to the end of your first cut at a 45- to 60-degree angle. The result should be a wedge-shaped cut out of the face of the tree on the side that you want the tree to fall.

Felling Cut

Next, make your felling cut, sometimes called a back cut. This cut will make the tree fall over. Make the felling cut on the opposite side of the tree from the notch cut, at the same height as your first horizontal cut on the notch cut. Continue cutting into the tree with your chainsaw. When you cut past the width of your chainsaw, use the head of your axe to tap your felling wedges into the cut. The wedges will prevent the tree from pinning your chainsaw. Resume cutting with your chainsaw until you are almost to the notch cut. Leave a space between your felling cut and the notch cut roughly one-tenth of the tree’s diameter. This space between the two cuts is called the hinge, which will help control the tree’s fall.

Move along your escape route as soon as the tree starts to fall. Never take your eyes off a falling tree. Watch out for falling branches and other hazards as you move away.

Limbing

Once the tree is down, you’ll start limbing. Limbing is the process of removing the tree’s branches and limbs. Start at the tree’s root end and work toward the top, always standing on the uphill side to avoid getting pinned by a shifting tree. Always cut branches on the side opposite from where you are standing.

Bucking

Finally, you can start bucking. Bucking is cutting up the tree trunk into sections, which you may decide to cut for firewood. Stand on the uphill side of the trunk, then cut about three-fourths of the way through the trunk, moving down the tree. Once you’ve made the initial cuts, roll the trunk over, then complete the remaining one-fourth of the cut in the opposite direction. If you decide to use the trunk cuts for firewood, let the wood cure for about 12 months first.

This tree-felling technique will leave a tree stump behind, but you can safely remove the tree stump later if necessary.


Know When to Call a Professional

Removing a tree yourself may help you save money, but it’s also a dangerous task unsuitable for casual DIY’ers. You should contact a professional tree removal service if:


Along with safety, there are legal considerations you’ll want to consider before removing a tree from your property.

First, make sure you are legally allowed to remove trees from your property. Many local governments have codes and ordinances that protect trees, and they may consider the trees to be community property even if they are on your private land. They may also protect some trees due to their age, species, or historical value.

Next, even if you can legally remove the tree, you’ll likely need to apply for a tree felling permit and may need to plant a new tree as well.

If the tree you want to remove straddles a property boundary, you’ll need to work with your neighbor to determine who owns the tree or if you can share the removal cost.

You could face hefty fines if you remove a tree without the correct permits and permissions. In some cases, you may even face criminal charges. It’s always best to go through the correct legal channels before you remove a tree from your property.


Our Recommendation

If you plan on cutting down a tree yourself, get the right safety equipment and tools to do the job. Make safety your top priority, working with a lookout and clearing the felling zone to ensure you have a clear escape path. It’s always best to leave the removal work to a professional arborist if the tree is near power lines, structures, or other trees. Saving a bit of money isn’t worth endangering yourself or your property.


How to Cut Down a Tree FAQ

Should I cut down a tree myself?

You should only cut down a tree if you can do it safely, have the right equipment, and understand the tree-felling techniques. If you have any doubts about the tree’s health or your ability to remove it safely, it’s best to contact a tree removal professional.

How big of a tree can I cut down myself?

As a good rule of thumb, you can cut down trees yourself if you can do it without a ladder. If the tree is tall enough to necessitate a ladder, consider hiring a professional.

What is the best notch for tree felling?

The best notch for tree felling starts with a horizontal cut about one-fifth to one-third of the way into the tree, then finishes with a second cut at roughly a 45-degree angle. The notch should be facing the direction you want the tree to fall.

How long does it take to cut down a tree?

How long it takes to cut down a tree largely depends on the size of the tree. Smaller trees may take a few hours, while large trees could take an entire day.

How much does it cost to hire a professional tree removal service?

The cost of hiring a professional tree removal service ranges from $200 to $2,000, with the average cost being $1,100. The cost will depend on the size, health, location, and type of tree.