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How to Take Down a Dangerous Tree

Follow along with the pros while a tree in peril is carefully felled before storms can send it tumbling

a cut above november 2001 tree removal upkeep story

When the chain saw's insistent roar abruptly stops, the crown of a beleaguered black locust tree pivots, then plunges earthward, its green leaves whispering a final, frenetic whoosh. As it hits ground, the branches let loose a cacophony of cracks, snaps, and pops. All that remains of the 70-foot tree in front of a Somers, New York, home is its 45-foot trunk, leaning like the Tower of Pisa down the steep hill and toward the driveway.

In the momentary silence, Dan Swim, an arborist for SavATree, explains the tree's awkward tilt: The shade of a nearby oak had forced it to reach for light in the opposite direction. This, in combination with several unusually dry years followed by a couple of very wet ones, had caused the roots to gradually lift out of the soil; the next big storm could have splayed it across the driveway (or the road below). "There's no question that this tree - dying and on an incline - had to be felled," says Swim.

The chain saw roars back to life, silencing conversation, and Swim's men quickly carve the tree into manageable chunks. After feeding its smaller branches through a chipper and setting aside the 18-inch-diameter logs for milling, they exchange chain saws for leaf blowers and clean the chipper remnants from the driveway. In less time than it would have taken to rake its leaves on an autumn afternoon, the locust is reduced to a wide, harmless stump. "We always try to work with and preserve nature," says Swim. "But in the end, human safety takes precedence."


Steps // How to Take Down a Dangerous Tree
1 ×

Professional roping and removal of limbs

 
Step One // How to Take Down a Dangerous Tree

Professional roping and removal of limbs

professional tree removal by arborists, step 1, roping and removal of limbs
Photo by John Gruen

Since the tree to be removed is next to a driveway where a cherry picker can be parked, for the first
step of the process—lopping off the limbs—Angel Galvez has the luxury of standing in a bucket instead of hanging from a rope harness. He works from the
bottom up, so that nothing obstructs each branch's de­scent. To give the crew control of the limb, they will lower it on a line looped over a branch like a pulley. "A 100-pound limb can hit with a 200-pound force after free-falling just a foot," explains Swim. Angel ties a rope to the limb using a running bowline knot. Cinching it tight, he tosses the line over the crotch of a higher limb and down to his brother, Gonzalo, who loops it twice around the trunk and holds the end. After Angel slices through the limb using a chain saw with a short 18-inch bar, Gonzalo eases the branch to the ground with the rope, then slips the knot free

 
2 ×

Chip fell limbs

 
Step Two // How to Take Down a Dangerous Tree

Chip fell limbs

professional tree removal process, step 2, chipping fell limbs
Photo by John Gruen

Gonzalo and crew member Walter Brooks take turns feeding limbs and branches into the gnarling 80-horsepower chipper. Its whirling carbide blades swallow limbs up to 14 inches in diameter, instantly shredding them into mulch. (Anything bigger would be chopped into firewood.) To prevent jams, Brooks always chops the leafy fodder into five-foot sections first.

 
3 ×

Removing the crown

 
Step Three // How to Take Down a Dangerous Tree

Removing the crown

professional tree removal, step 3, removing the crown
Photo by John Gruen

When Angel is ready to remove the tree's leaf-laden crown, there are no limbs left to hang a rope on. So about a foot below where he plans to cut, he makes a "false crotch": a loop of rope around the trunk, held fast with a weaver's knot. About two feet higher, he ties a second rope for lowering with a running bowline knot, feeds it through the false-crotch loop, and tosses the remaining section of line to Gonzalo, who wraps it around the trunk. Once Angel slices off the crown, Gonzalo manipulates the rope so that the multi-limbed section floats to the ground, saving pavement and onlookers from harm. Then, to avoid damaging the drive­way by felling the trunk whole, Angel cuts it into three 15-foot sections, tying false crotches for each so it can be swung safely to the ground. He first notches the trunk on the side to which he wants it to fall, then moves to the opposite side to make a backcut that meets the notch. For safety while he's sawing, he always places himself to the side—never directly behind or in front—of the cut.

 
4 ×

Fell the remainder of the trunk

 
Step Four // How to Take Down a Dangerous Tree

Fell the remainder of the trunk

professional tree removal, step 4, fell the remainder of the trunk
Photo by John Gruen

Once Angel has just the bottommost 15 feet of trunk left, the cherry picker work is done. Brooks stands on the ground to fell the remainder and uses the notch and backcut method to keep himself from harm. "This is the most dangerous part," says Swim. "If you just cut straight through, such an extreme lean can snap the tree, popping it up in a flash and causing serious injury." After a quick slice with the whirring saw, Brooks steps back to watch the shortened trunk crash safely on the grass.

 
5 ×

Level the stump (or grind it away)

 
Step Five // How to Take Down a Dangerous Tree

Level the stump (or grind it away)

professional tree removal, step 5, Level the stump (or grind it away)
Photo by John Gruen

Brooks levels off the stump with his chain saw, cutting as close to the ground as possible. Swim's crew would normally use a stump grinder, a 50-horsepower machine with dozens of 2- to 3-inch angled carbide teeth, to chew away the remaining trunk and roots as far as 12 inches below ground. But the homeowners decided that a stump is a fitting accent to their 4.5 wooded acres and in so doing saved themselves $125, paying just $375 for the takedown. "This wood de­cays so slowly, the stump will be a part of the landscape for generations," says Swim.

 
6 ×

Mill fell logs into lumber

 
Step Six // How to Take Down a Dangerous Tree

Mill fell logs into lumber

professional tree removal, step 6, mill fell logs into lumber
Photo by John Gruen

Suburban trees felled by arborists generally meet one of three fates: the chipper, the landfill, or the fireplace. But a resourceful homeowner with logs containing enough solid, useful wood can hire a sawyer to mill them into lumber on-site, defraying hauling fees, labor costs of chopping it into firewood, or the expense of buying lumber retail. After drying, the wood can become flooring, furniture, trim, fencing, or other features around the home.

The owners of the black locust in this story, reluctant to see so much wood go to waste, contacted a local woodworker and boatbuilder, Aimé Fraser, to see if she had any use for the hard and exceptionally rot-resistant wood. Fraser jumped at the offer and called sawyer Larry Oliver, arranging to pay him for the milled wood. On felling day, Oliver showed up with the 1,800-pound portable band saw that he tows behind his truck, and methodically ripped the logs into about 300 board-feet of 2-inch-thick planks. "I'll mill anything between 6 and 30 inches thick," says Oliver.

The deal saved the homeowners from paying to cut the trunk into 18-inch-long logs for firewood (about $260) and cost Fraser, who hauled the boards away, only $150. "To buy it commercially, I would have paid nearly ten times that," she says. After about two years of seasoning, the wood will be dry enough for her to use. "I have enough now to make cleats and breasthooks for a dozen sailboats."

 
 
 

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