Two Guys, a Tall Tree and a Chainsaw

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THE TREE was hit by lightening over two years earlier. A shame really, one of the largest trees in our backyard. Ninety feet tall oak. Well, after a full year without leaves, there was no denying this marvelous tree was dead. It was only a matter of time before insects would eat the base and it would come down crushing the shed, or the deck, or the sunroom, the house, the neighbor's house, the neighbor's pool, the neighbor's fence.  There was little doubt it would choose the most expensive targets.

So what does a chronic do-it-yourselfer do when we get professional tree removal service estimates for more than twice the price of a good chainsaw? What do YOU think?

THE CONVERSATION went like so many others have in the past.
"But honey, you've never cut down a tree before. And it's awfully big, isn't it?", my wife noted.
"Sweetheart, I work for the largest forestry machine manufacturer in the world. If I can't figure out how to fell this tree myself and save some money, then I haven't learned anything working at this company", I responded.
"But honey, you're the Information Systems Manager, how much do you think you've actually learned about cutting down trees? Big trees?" she countered.
Ok, so she had a point. A good point. So I spoke to a few people. A tree of this size, in this location, in the middle of suburbia would need to be cut down manually. No type of huge, sophisticated forestry machine would provide anymore success than a chainsaw.
"Well for heaven's sake, get someone to help you. Someone who's done this before. DON'T try to do it alone!" she insisted.
THE FRIEND of a friend lived a few houses away. He had a chainsaw and some experience, which were two things we needed.  He also had enough sense to want to remain anonymous, so we'll just refer to him as "Linton".  We tried for a few months to find a weekend when all three of us would be free, but time was getting short. My wife and children were still waiting patiently to plant the vegetable garden. And the kids were waiting for the tree house I was planning to build in the backyard. Once those were in the backyard there would be no place left to land the tree.  Our house is on a lot that's just under an acre. It's a nice lot in the suburbs with a more wooded backyard than most. After building a deck last year and a shed before that, there wasn't much room left for this tall tree to land.

THE HEIGHT OF THE TREE was a big unknown. How exactly do you measure a tall tree? Do you train a squirrel to read a tape measure?  Nope. You use a spare 16 foot piece of 2x6 lumber and a simple plastic 12 inch ruler.  I raised the 2x6 and leaned it up against the tree. Then I stepped back to the house, held up the plastic ruler at arms length, squinted at the ruler and then tree behind it and measured.  The 16 foot 2x6 appeared to be about 2 inches on the ruler and the tree looked to be about 12 inches.  So 16 feet doubled is 32 feet. Double that is 64 feet, and another 32 is.....ummm.... 96 feet, give or take a few inches.  So the tree was 96 feet tall. That wasn't so hard! 

THE STRATEGY took a while to develop. The tree sat almost right on the back property line of my acre lot. I took my 100' tape measure and measured from the tree to each target I needed to avoid.  The shed was 15 feet away. My neighbor's fence was 75' away and their pool was just beyond the fence. My other neighbor's fence and shed lay on the other side, just as close. There weren't many places to land this huge tree. We finally came up with spot to aim. But it would have to be close to perfect. The tree was within striking range of my house, wipeout range of the sunroom and demolishing range of the deck. But I supposed that was better than the risk of destroying my neighbor's property.  The tree should land just short of the other neighbor's fence which was just under 100 feet away.  How tall was the tree again?  Well, it was the least expensive target and I figured I could probably repair it before anyone knew what happened, and still for less money than hiring a profession tree removal service.
THE STEEL CABLES seemed to be one way to too pull tree. Linton came over at that point and we discussed the strategy for another hour or so.  We studied the tree and noted the prevailing wind which would might affect the fall.  The wind also probably caused the tree to grow stronger on one side as it fought the wind for all these years. The root base seemed to agree with that theory. Then there were the limbs... big limbs. It appears the tree might be heavier one side than the other.  We might not know which way it wanted to fall until it fell.  It would need coaxing.

I attached two 100 foot lengths of ¼" steel cable around the tree up as high as I could reach with my 30 foot ladder. As I was doing this, Linton asked me if I had called my insurance company about this. Don't ask me why, but my first thought was he meant had I paid my last life insurance premium.  We laughed when I realized he meant property insurance. Perhaps the insurance company would pay to have this tree removed professionally since it threatened the house and other property. Well, by then we were too far involved for that.  We continued ourselves.

With the the two steel cables and two 1-ton hand-winch-pullers attached to strategically chosen trees on the lot, we pulled the tree over in the direction we wanted it to fall. Linton made the lead-in in cut on the front side of the tree. I cranked on the two pullers, pulling the tree just a little bit in the direction of the desired fall line. Then the first cut to the backside of the tree and a little more cranking on the pullers resulted in a little more lean. A deeper cut, another crank and more lean.

Since I was running between the two ground points of the cables, I was pretty much directly in the line of fall. I prepared mentally my escape routes and cleared some of the vines that ran along the ground that might slow me down if I had to run in a hurry.  If you look closely in the center of the photo you'll see me cranking!

THE OTHER TREE With a final cut, the was a loud crack and the tree started it lean that would be the start of it's long fall to the ground. It was as if time stood still.  It ever so slowly started to fall in the desired direction. And ever so gradually it gained speed. But just as slowly as it sped up, it started to slow down as it came to rest against a 60 foot oak tree standing about 15 feet beside it. Panic ensued as I imagined it rolling off that smaller tree in an new unintended direction. I envisioned it changing direction towards my house... my... deck... my sunroom... my house..... oh, my goodness!
Then with the loudest crack of the morning, that smaller 12" diameter oak shattered at a point about 6' from the ground as it gave way under the enormous weight of the mighty oak tree that was leaning on it. Then suddenly both trees started to move. There was an enormous rustling as the oak limbs brushed and hit all the leaves and branches of all the other trees in our heavy wooded lot. Like a gust of wind over a field of tall grass it moved, attracting stares from neighbors across the street who heard the chains saw, but could only see movement in the tops of the trees.
With the smaller oak joining the ride, the mighty oak started it trip towards the ground again, ever so slowly, but gaining speed with steady powerful acceleration. With a hefty thud that shook the ground, it landed on the leaf covered ground with a thud that was much quieter than either the loud cracks or the roar of the chain saw just moments earlier.

We walked to the tip of the tree and I smiled in satisfaction seeing it lie within 2 feet of the neighbor's fence.

In just a dozen seconds, which felt like minutes, the tree went from vertical to horizontal. ANd just a quickly, the burden of having this tree was lifted and the garden planting project and tree playhouse build projects could finally start.
the end.

After cutting all the limbs and branches off I cut some good chunks to keep for woodworking. Unfortunately the tree had quite a bit of decay so there wasn't much worth saving for long wide planks. But I kept as much of the shorter pieces to be used for projects and for the lathe.

It wasn't long before my young son was able to start planting the vegetable garden that was just a few feet away from where the top of the tree landed.

And I was able to start building the tree house, right where the tall oak tree fell and just next to what's left of the the smaller oak tree that snapped under the weight of the falling one..

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©2003 Mark Goodall