Cutting down dead tree at waist level

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This quick lesson is about cutting down a small tree. Learn safety tips and the easiest technique to clear your yard in no time!

I’ve done a lot of yard cleanup over the years, from filling in a backyard sinkhole to clearing overgrown vines to tree trimming. But this time, I wanted to tackle something on the smaller side and learn how to do things myself.

Have you ever put a new tool in your hands and felt like Wonder Woman? Or, I suppose more generally, a superhero? I often feel that way. Power tools, especially ones I am using on a project for the first time, always give me a little bit of a rush.

STIHL chainsaw on woodpile - 1

Perhaps it’s because power tools are more often associated with dudeliness, so I feel a little rebellious against stereotype. Perhaps it’s because I get to learn more and pass that info along to you guys. Perhaps it’s because by the end of whatever it is I’m doing, something awesome is going to be there that wasn’t there before.

(It’s a little bit of all of that.)

Another angle STIHL chainsaw cutting through log

Whenever I get a new tool, either by purchasing myself or from a new sponsor (the best kind of enablers ?), I actively look for a way to start using it. So, when K mentioned that he wanted to take a weekend to visit his parents’ new tiny house in Tennessee, brought along my new STIHL battery-powered chainsaw. They sent me one a few months ago as part of this year’s partnership, along with a few other outdoor tools, and I was itching to use it.

His parents had purchased some of their family’s farmland to build on, and I was going to see it for the first time. They have a ton of old trees around the home and regularly cut them down (they did the same at their old home when I visited last fall — if you recall, that’s where Charlie saw her first cow EVER). I packed the chainsaw* because I knew the opportunity might come up where I could learn a thing or two from K’s dad and compare it to the gas-powered chainsaws I knew he had.

Large woodpile - Tennessee wooded area behind the Carter home

*I know, just casually bringing up the subject of chainsaws is a weird thing to do with your boyfriend’s parents, but it’s just kind of part of how I’ve gotten to know his family. His dad was thrilled to show me what he knows and it was a lot of fun, and not at all creepy the way it sounds as I’m retelling this story. ?

As luck would have it, there were a few trees ready for a good chop! Since several around their new property were dead and/or infested with termites, cutting them down was the best way to protect the newly built tiny house. K’s dad gave me a few pointers, which I’ve shared below. You can also see a few scars on the bark of some of these trees where old vines had been strangling them.

Artsy fartsy closeup of termites inhabiting tree Im cutting down
Closeup of termites above chainsaw cut line on dead tree

Safety Gear / PPE

I should also mention that, despite having enough forethought to bring my new chainsaw with me, I managed to forget my safety chaps – d’oh! I did find a pair of my STIHL earbuds in the car (I often leave them around my neck by accident when I do a store run, so finding a pair in my car or purse is pretty common!). I then borrowed some protective eyewear from K’s dad, but I’m recommending before we get started here that safety chaps protect your legs from the chainsaw if it takes a weird bounce. You should also wear gloves and remove any loose-fitting clothing as well as wear protective footwear and headgear. I will eventually use the chainsaw again at home, so you’ll see me correctly geared up like I was a the STIHL summit when that happens. I’ve included links below to several pieces that are good for small folks like me (I covered in this post how PPE that is too large/loose is also a safety concern).

me using chainsaw to cut slices from a log

(I should have looked more like this.)

STIHL MSA 120 battery-powered chainsaw review

STIHL chainsaw on woodpile - 3

Even though I was lucky enough to have my pick of chainsaws from the STIHL Lightning Battery System line, I opted for their smallest. On the surface, that sounds kinda nuts, since why wouldn’t I go for more power if I can? To put it simply, I wanted this to be a true test of what STIHL says this chainsaw can do:

Part of the AK Series, the MSA 120 C-BQ is a great battery-powered chainsaw for suburban homeowners, handling storm cleanup to limb removal. The MSA 120 C-BQ bundle comes standard with the AK 20 battery and AL 101 battery charger. It features low vibration, quick chain adjustment and STIHL Quickstop® Plus chain braking feature. Make 100 cuts through a 4″ log on a single charge, which gives you enough power to tackle a stack of firewood.

In terms of yard cleanup, taking out small trees, cutting firewood, and so forth, this seemed most in line with how I’d wind up using a chainsaw in general. It would be very rare for me to need to cut down a large tree (in fact, I hired out to the pros when I needed to take out the pine trees in my yard — not only because of their size but I needed the expertise and the satisfaction that someone had the right permits and approvals to do such a large job in a suburban area like mine). To get something bigger and then talk about how impressive it is to take care of these smaller tasks didn’t seem like as much of a good test.

Me trying out my first cut on a tree with STIHL chainsaw

Overall impression:

Pretty good performance for its size. I was able to cut down a couple of small trees and slice that into firewood in a single charge. It’s also really lightweight, which means that just about anyone can use it (I even got K’s mom to try it).

In other words: it will last about as long as your own energy to do the task. When it stops was pretty much when all of us were ready to be done for the afternoon.

Closeup of STIHL chainsaw cutting through log

Despite the years of cutting down trees, Mrs. Carter had actually never tried to use a chainsaw before. The fact that the chainsaw is on the smaller side and lightweight made it more appealing to her, though. (P.S. I feel the need to mention again to scroll back up and check out that picture of the chaps/gloves/helmet attire or down for that list of PPE … K’s dad, on the other hand, is your classic will-wear-gloves-but-can’t-be-talked-into-wearing-more-gear kind of dad).

Mr Carter training Mrs Carter on using chainsaw to cut logs

She would like me to tell you, from her own endorsement, that it’s light enough for seniors to handle. Since K and I both consider her stamp of approval to be a Pretty Big Deal, I wouldn’t be surprised if STIHL sent out a press release on that quote. It’s like the Good Housekeeping seal, only much more exclusive. ?

How to fell a small tree with a chainsaw

The phrase “fell a tree” always hits my ear weird, but that’s the other way of saying “cut down a tree” — which do you use?

Giant woodpile in TN

At any rate, below is a recap of what I learned from Mr. Carter as he gave me pointers. Just in case it’s asked, I’ll clarify that he’s not a professional arborist, but he is a guy who has cut down scores (possibly hundreds?) of trees in his lifetime. Get your elders to teach you things, friends — they will, and it’s awesome!

Mr Carter pointing where to try a cut on dead limbs of tree - visible vine damage on bark

1. Plan ahead

… like not forgetting your gear 🤣

Sarah Fogle with chainsaw gear

I had K’s dad pick the spots to cut as well as the path that the tree would fall (both in terms of him being the more experienced one and so he could be responsible for it not hitting his house!). But ultimately, you need to clearly identify where the tree will land. It appeared that his goal each time was for the tree to come down and not only clear the house, but to hit the ground without falling down on other trees (doing so could possible entangle the fallen tree with the healthy one, kill a healthy one in the process, or cause the other to fall in a weird direction and hit something unexpectedly).

He also took some time to clear away debris around the base. Fallen branches and other obstacles are dangerous objects you won’t want to trip on if you have to suddenly move out of the way.

It should also go without saying that people, dogs, and other precious things should not be in the area either.

2. Make your cuts at a comfortable height

Don’t feel the need to squat down and cut close to the ground right away. You can make your initial cuts, let the tree fall, and then cut down the remaining bit to a stump. Use a stance that is comfortable for you to hold throughout the entire cut. It’s safer to have a good handle on the chainsaw and prioritize on cutting in the right spot so that the tree falls where you want.

Cutting down dead tree at waist level

3. Cut a wedge on the same side as the tree will fall

Our first cut was horizontal, about halfway through the tree (sometimes 2/3 if it’s small). Allow the chainsaw to work the cut; do not work it in a sawing motion. The next cut is at a downward angle above the first cut, about 60 degrees or so, at a depth so the two cuts meet. This should result in a wedge-like shape cut out of the tree.

4. Make a third cut on the opposite side

Position yourself so you are neither directly under the felling area nor on the exact opposite side (it seems logical at first to be exactly opposite, but if the tree falls backwards, you don’t want to be under it).

Looking at both sides of the cut tree before it falls

A few inches above the first horizontal cut and on the opposite side of the tree, make another slice with the chainsaw but don’t cut all the way to the other cut lines. This is when the cut will separate the base of the tree, sort of like a hinge, and the tree will start to fall from its own weight. I was a little nervous when this part happened because K and his dad have ZERO FEAR getting up in the action and pushed on the tree (which I’m not sure you’re supposed to do, but I let it go).

The Carters pushing on the tree to get it to fall over

5. Cut the stump

As the tree falls, move away from the tree. Once it’s down, cut the rest of the remaining trunk down to a stump.

After making a full cut then cut stump down to the ground

6. Cut firewood logs

Cut off the smaller branches first until you have a clean section for making into logs. Elevate it off the ground slightly. Get most of the way through and slow as you get to the end of the cut (otherwise, the cut will give way and send the tip of your chainsaw into the dirt).

Line assembly of me cutting multiple lengths with chainsaw

Family Time

Of course, that’s not the only thing we did on our visit. There was a good bit of relaxing, spending more time with one of K’s brothers and his wife (he has a total of 3 brothers), and getting some ideas on our future vintage travel trailer renovation (more on that later). Charlie and Stella had an absolute blast and were  ready for bed LONG before it was time.

Charlie at Carter house in TN
Stella playing inside stump on Carter property
Stella playing inside a hollowed stump – she thinks there’s an animal in there!

We also took an afternoon to walk down to another family property and visit Mrs. Carter’s uncle, who lives in the coolest old farmhouse (he’s in his 80s and still works out in the garden and built the second story!). I didn’t want to be too imposing and take photos inside, but if I ever can, I’ll happily share them here. I took few pictures of the other parts of the property from our walk, though.

Carter farmland with a much larger garden than mine
Huge tower of bamboo used for lots of projects

Bonus Video

I didn’t take much video while I was up there, but I did get a couple of quick clips on my phone and put them together below. It’s mostly of the pups enjoying their trip (ha). Small bit at the end of my first time using the chainsaw (I promise, I improved from there!).

Hope you have a good one! I was hoping to share a few more things this week, including a post with lots of Charlie and Stella pics. Something on my A/C unit has busted and soaked through the ceiling in the living room, so it’s been a distraction-heavy week. With any luck, I can get back on schedule as soon as tomorrow!

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  1. Though the worst trees at my house are far too tall, thick, and too close to my home to do myself, there are a bunch of 6″ and less diameter ones I’d be able to do. Love it when you use a new tool! So glad you get away once in awhile!

    1. I’ll have a few more reviews coming from STIHL since they sent me a few other outdoor tools. They’ve come in VERY handy with the new deck. When it comes to battery-powered stuff, it’s kind of inevitable that you’ll wind up with several in a single series/line so that you can make the most of the batteries (otherwise, you’ll have lots of different batteries that can’t be switched out with each other… too much to organize!). But I’ve also bought myself a few new goodies from Dewalt, so I’ll have to showcase those as well!

  2. I’m all for women doing any jobs generally considered a man’s role, but surely you can’t think it’s ok to post photos of using a chainsaw whilst wearing nothing in the way of protection? You take the time to say and show what you should have been wearing, then go ahead and have photos that are basically saying it’s ok to ignore safety advice. The chainsaw may be a very small battery run unit, but it could still (or Stihl!) take a good chunk out of you in seconds. Being careless of your own safety is one thing, but then you encourage someone else, who’s never used a chainsaw, to have a go. That lady is wearing shoes that wouldn’t even protect her feet from a rolling log, let alone a misplaced chainsaw. Chainbrakes only work in certain circumstances. If someone loses their footing and keeps hold of the saw the results can be horrendous and even experienced users have accidents. A total novice, wearing flimsy cotton slip-on footwear and absolutely no protective clothing whilst using even the smallest chainsaw in the environment and manner shown in your photos is an accident waiting to happen. I’ve worked outdoors all my life and have seen and heard about some awful injuries when sufficient care isn’t taken. I don’t always wear every piece of kit available when using potentially dangerous tools, but I do use common sense. Everything about the photo of the older lady is a no-no. Cutting fallen wood on the ground is one of the best ways to get a kick-back that could cause serious injury, even with the small saw. Please think if a job really needs doing do badly that it’s worth foregoing the safety kit you’ve forgotten. This isn’t meant as a personal attack. It seems your post was made with only good intentions, but the photos are irresponsible and dangerous to show others who, by the he nature of the article, will be chainsaw newbies looking for guidance. Just because you’ve never had an accident doing this type of thing doesn’t mean others will be as lucky. Respectfully… Brontë

    1. I understand you’re coming from a good place with the best intentions with your comment, as was I when I made this post. I didn’t at all say it’s ok to ignore safety gear, nor am I encouraging others to not wear theirs, and I addressed the specific lack of safety gear before showing anything so as to address it head on. The post not only mentioned that I should have worn it, I fisrt showed a picture of myself dressed in proper safety gear precisely to show what that looks like as an example (you mentioned common sense, and that would also mean they would read from top to bottom, so they would get to that photo first). I understand your concern and I agree that PPE should be worn, and have worn it in all of my other STIHL equipment related posts for that same reason. When I write my posts, I try to both provide info as well as tell folks what NOT to do if I feel like something can be addressed, so I addressed it. I also mentioned elevating limbs off of the ground. But, I do see that I can make some improvements on the post with links to more safety gear and update it with a newer video of me putting my gear on (I didn’t have it at the time but this is a good opportunity to revisit that when I make post updates).

      1. Hi Sarah
        I really appreciate your taking time to address my comments and for taking them in the spirit they were intended.
        Possibly my concern is triggered by having experienced just how stupid human beings can be and that you sometimes have to metaphorically beat certain types over the head to get them to realise how dangerous certain things are. You or I or dozens of your readers could use tools in various ways, some “safer” than others at times, every day of the year and never have an issue. Someone else could come along, not read your article carefully, look at the photos and crack on without much thought for safety. I think sometimes you have to cater for that one careless person that may see a post, think “hey that looks like fun! A little battery chainsaw! Just what I’ve always wanted!” and before they know it they’re in hospital. I’m not saying any of your readers are stupid. But just as I stumbled across your post, lured in by the cute “ugly duckling house” tag, someone else might do the same and make poor decisions leading to an injury. This wasn’t supposed to be so long winded or sound so “preachy”. I apologise for that. I think what you’re doing is great and your position attitude is brilliant. Keep up the good work and bear in mind the numptys of the world. All the best with your venture. Brontë

        1. Oops …. Should read “positive” attitude obviously…. Pesky carelessness! Eek!

  3. Very helpful info. I am closer to senior citizen age and appreciate the insights you provided. May even buy a Stihl!

    1. Nice! I used some of my Stihl products just today outside, so I can easily say they come in very handy and I like them a lot!

  4. Thanks for the article Sarah! Awesome insight into cutting your own trees. Love the Stihl protective equipment you use as it’s so important for everyone to prioritize safety when working with trees :)