Panhandle Rancher: Felling and Splitting


The following was developed in response to Christmas wish lists in a recent post from MSO. One wish was for a high quality axe. Living in a forested area and heating with wood has taught much about woodcutting, splitting, and felling. We heat our house and water with wood and go through stacks each winter. The house is equipped with a circulating heat fireplace, a Sopka wood-burning cook stove (see: modified to also heat water, and a HeatMor high efficiency wood-burning furnace (see: This is a marvelous device and works seamlessly with the existing compressor/propane fired HVAC to deliver copious amounts of cheap heat and hot water. The HeatMor actually converts wood to charcoal that is in turned burned for high efficiency heat.

Nothing cuts wood better than a high speed Husqvarna chain saw. There are a lot of very good powered saws on the marked but Husky and Stihl are among the best. My largest saw is the Husky 455 Rancher (see: and the smallest a Stihl MS271 Farm Boss (see: Less you think bigger is automatically better, consider the weight of the saw when bending over. Too suddenly off horses damaged my back and I tend to use smaller saws whenever possible. Smaller saws are quieter, easier to start and handle, and more economical with fuel and cutting oil. Size the saw to the work.

Be sure your new chain saw includes a proper combination tool (screwdriver/hex socket) necessary to tension the chain. Sure you can get by with a screwdriver and adjustable wrench but every quality chain saw is sold with one of these tools. The Husky and Stihl saws I purchased came with the factory multi-tool included in the price. There are two different size socket wrenches for saws popular in the US. Make sure yours fits before leaving the store. If you purchase the manufacture’s recommended case with that new chain saw it will protect the cutter bar and chain from damage during transport and provide space to store limited accessories such as a sharpening guide, file, and combination tool. I paint my combination tools red so as to stand out as they are easily misplaced in the leaves.

Every modern internal combustion chainsaw I am familiar with uses a high efficiency two cycle engine. Two cycle engines derive lubrication from the fuel and a two-cycle engine oil is mixed with gasoline in a manufacturer specified ratio. My chain saw fuels are kept in metal spark proof gasoline cans (see: I like the smaller two gallon cans for my chainsaw fuel /oil mix because these cannot be mistaken for my larger five gallon cans that hold stabilized unmixed non-ethanol gasoline. The best fuel stabilizers for gasoline, diesel, and kerosene are Pri G and Pri D. I use a black magic marker to label the small chainsaw fuel cans with the specific fuel/oil ratio needed for individual saws. Metal cans are more durable than plastic and likewise safer, albeit more expensive. You will only run that chain saw once with straight gasoline and then not for long. Be sure to only use fuel properly mixed with the correct two-cycle oil. Use proper fuel containers, never plastic milk jugs and the like.

Other consumables needed with chainsaws are cutting chains, cutting oil, and cutter bars. Chains dull with use, and quickly if striking dirt or rock. Buy a chain saw sharpening guide and files. Learn how to properly sharpen the cutting chains and you will be money ahead. Your chain saw dealer can help you with this purchase. Have a look at what the vendor uses in their repair shop. Chainsaw cutting oil and fuel tanks are sized to run out together. Cutting oil lubricates the chain on the cutting blade and does nothing for the engine. Like motor oil, it is available in seasonal weights. Never use a chain saw without blade lubrication.

Every time I replace a dull cutting chain for a newly sharpened chain, I turn over the cutter bar. This practice equalizes wear on both sides of the bar, but with time, this bar will need replacing. As a cutting chain is used, it lengthens. New chains seem to lengthen more quickly than used. Your chainsaw will have a tensioning device. Consult the chainsaw manual to determine how to properly tighten the chain. Loose chains can come off of the cutter bar. This is a potentially dangerous situation. Never use a chainsaw with a too loose cutting chain.

Eventually you will acquire a number of cutter chains. After sharpening, mine are placed in a partially filled can of motor oil (lubricates the chain and prevents rust). I take this can with me when felling/cutting. In the course of a day’s work, many cutter chains will be used and with a surplus of sharpened chains, I don’t have to stop the day’s cutting to sharpen chains.

There are a number of ways to start a chain saw. The most common way is to hold the chain saw by the upper handle and pull the rope starter cord with the strong hand. This is the FOOL’S way and highly dangerous. I think ‘FOOL’ whenever I see anyone start a chain saw in this manner. You should likewise. No chain saw manufacturer recommends this technique.

The proper way to start a pull cord chain saw is to place it on level ground with the blade/chain out of the path of debris or dirt and facing away from you. Put the toes of one foot in the lower hand guard and one hand on the upper handle. With the other hand, pull the rope start. This is the only safe way to start a chain saw. As you start the chain saw, you may be bent over the blade. Some chain saws have a fast start and the centrifugal clutch will engage and cause the chain to rotate over the cutter bar. Imagine falling on a running chain. Be careful even when walking with a running chain saw as tripping could be deadly. Likewise never cut overhead with a chainsaw. Overhead cuts are best made with something called a pole saw. If you need to trim overhead branches, invest in a pole saw. I have the Stihl HT250 with telescoping pole (see:

Like riding motorcycles with helmet and leathers, there is safety clothing and other protective gear one should use when operating chain saws. Chain saw resistant pants (that are also marvelously briar resistant), sturdy boots, leather gloves, EYE PROTECTION, and even hearing protection is prudent. Unmuffled airplane engines started my hearing loss. You likely have hearing protection for use when shooting; please don it when using your chain saw. Chain saws produce saw dust. Wind can blow that dust into your eyes. Chain saw type saw dust is likely to scratch the cornea. Unless you are a FOOL, you will wear both eye and hearing protection.

Modern chainsaws, like firearms, have user protective features. Like safeties on firearms, these devices will not protect against gross stupidity. I’ve remarked that airplanes and firearms often provide tests before the lesson. Chainsaws do likewise. There will be an anti-kickback locking device on the upper handle of the chainsaw. This device declutches and/or brakes (meaning to stop, not sever) the cutter chain rotation. If you have problems starting your chainsaw, be sure the kickback device isn’t engaged. On the bottom of the saw near the drive sprocket, there should be a metal tab extending over the chain. This tab is very important and serves to protect the user from a chain so loose that it jumps off of the cutter bar. Ensure this tab is intact and in the proper position before using a chain saw and of course periodically check the cutter chain for proper tension.

Remember that old horror movie, Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Your chain saw is so well designed to cut wood and will lop off an arm or leg with amazing ease. When felling, first clear any brush around the base of the tree. Study the mass distribution of the upright tree and imagine where it would fall with an uniform circular cut around the bole perimeter. Books have been written about the proper cutting of hinge notches to direct where the tree will fall and I shall not belabor here. Whenever possible, I try to cut a notch and hinge so the tree will fall according to its distribution of mass. I plan how to carefully move away from the tree as the hinge starts to break and clear a path of brush in the direction of that movement if necessary. You will be taking your running chainsaw with you as you leave the breaking hinge/falling tree and both are dangerous beasts. I plan the work so as to never run, and walk away calmly. Those of you who have worked with explosives know to leave enough fuse time to walk away and not run; for in running, you may trip, and in tripping fall, perchance breaking or injuring a part of you critical to escape.

Sooner or later, you will have a cut tree hung up in the branches of an adjacent tree. Now you have a problem indeed, and dangerous as well. I try never to have this happen but sometimes it just does. When a tree hangs, I attach a steel cable as high as possible to the upright tree, cut an appropriate notch and hinge but not to a depth to cause the upright tree to fall. I then winch the upright tree down from a safe distance, bringing the leaning tree with it. Never leave a tree hung up as this condition is rightfully called a ‘widow maker’ because the leaning tree is just waiting to fall unexpectedly and hurt someone. Every year, experienced woodcutters are hurt felling trees. A wise soul inexperienced in felling will find someone experienced to work with at first. Another word to the wise folks: never, never, fell trees without a partner. This is a danger I refuse to underwrite solo.

Eventually you will have a cut bind the chain/cutter bar. A wedge, second chain saw, or even a hand axe is the solution here. Do not try to twist the saw in hopes of removing it. Doing so will likely damage the cutter bar and/or chain. Stop the engine promptly. You may be able to use a rope and come along to take up the strain on the bind and remove the saw. Use of a second chain saw to relieve the bind is an easy solution. If there is a danger the falling tree/log/branch could damage the bound chain saw, remove the saw from the cutter bar and relocate the engine body to safety before proceeding.

If you plan to fell more than the occasional tree, you should have at least two chain saws.

After felling the tree, I trim the branches, eventually leaving the large trunk. Nothing kills a sharp cutting chain faster than running it into the ground and rocks. I raise the thin top end of the trunk off of the ground using a Peavey Timberjack (a modified cant hook than can also be used like the cant to rotate the trunk. See: As the trunk is shortened, I move the Timberjack successively toward the thick heavy end of the tree. No one cutting wood for fuel should be without one of these wonderful devices. Just remember to cut on the free end of the elevated piece of wood. Otherwise you will bind the cutter bar.

Periodically, I remove the chain and cutter bar from the saw, and use high-pressure air to clean these parts and the engine assembly from the oily sawdust residue. This is a great time to examine the cutter bar for wear and replace with a new bar if necessary. At the end of the cutting season, I run the saw until empty of fuel and drain any remaining cutter bar oil. The saw is cleaned with high-pressure air and dismantled to provide access to the air filter. I clean or replace this filter seasonally. Every other year, I replace the spark plug and clean and re-gap the old plug. This old plug ends up on a box with other similar used plugs. Of course it can be re-used many times but as plugs are cheap, I replace with new plugs, keeping the old for emergencies. A newly sharpened chain is installed when the saw is reassembled. Pri G is added to any remaining oil/gasoline mix fuel in the bulk can. I re-paint any axes that were used and check the handles and head. After repainting, I sharpen the blade and replace the sheath/blade protective device.

When I was younger, I split large pieces of hardwood with a sledgehammer and wedges. You should have at least two 8-12” steel wedges (see: Two are the minimum, as occasionally the wedge will get hung up without completely splitting the sectioned log, hence the need for another wedge to free the bound wedge. Plastic and aluminum wedges are just too soft for long term use. Over the years, I ended up with a number of sledgehammers with head weights from 5 to 35 pounds. The 35 pounder is a beast but used properly, all one has to do is rise it, gravity alone will lower it onto the wedge with nice result.

When using a sledgehammer, start with a lighter head weight and as muscles and coordination develop, graduate toward heavier head weights. One horse wreck too many causes my back to hurt and I now have a gasoline engine powered 35 ton hydraulic splitter. Folks this splitter is a real labor saving device. I thought about making one powered from the tractor hydraulic pump but didn’t like tying up the tractor during cutting season. If you cut much wood, a 35 ton splitter is optimal. Lesser-powered splitters will just burn out their hydraulic pump and/or limit you to small diameter logs. The splitter ram is allegedly driven with force to lift 35 tons. It will split wood. It will also remove and or/crush fingers and hands. I keep my hands off of the wood and away from the ram when splitting wood.

Most of us are self-reliant. Absent fuel for chainsaws or needing to avoid the sound of the engine, a crosscut timber saw is most useful. These things are available in one and two man styles, the two man being the most efficient. See: The four-foot length crosscut blade is the smallest recommended. Here in timber country, I have seen eight-foot long monsters.

A tad noisier is the axe. Everyone should have a variety of axes. I have single bit (one bladed) axes in sizes from a hand camp axe (useful for making slivers to start fires) all the way up to 28” handled heavy headed single bits. The wife is shorter and she likes a 20” handle. Men, in case you haven’t noticed, women are built different. They throw different and even walk different. Likewise they use an axe different than men. With practice, they can learn to swing and not just hit with an axe. It is important for everyone’s safety that they have properly sized and weighted axes. Not many women can swing a heavy double bit axe safely. When you’re laying in that axe for you, find one that will fit the wife as well (what a wonderful Christmas present for the missus!). She may not be able to fell the big trees (unless she works for Duluth Trading, whose ads I laugh at, especially the young women carrying the roll of barbed wire over the shoulder – a sure sign she has never worked with wire), but the wife can sure make kindling with that smaller axe.

There are many manufacturers of quality hand axes. I like the ox head double bit felling axe (made in Germany, see: Husky also makes some fine economical axes (see: Along with that axe, one should purchase a sharpening file and stone and learn how to properly sharpen your axe. A dull axe is dangerous to all as is an axe with a loose head. Learn how to properly tighten an axe head and either make or purchase properly sized head wedges.

My father taught me how to make hammer and axe handles. We use ash almost exclusively and shape with draw knives (see: This tool along with a spoke shave is most useful and likely more so grid down. Living in a forest, there is no shortage of ash for handles. If you are unwilling to learn how to make axe and hammer/sledge handles, at least purchase several spare handles for each of your cutting tools.

Power down situations will likely see many amputation, crushing, and puncture type injuries. If you intend to heat with wood and to defend yourself with firearms, the medical trauma kit should be stocked accordingly. This is a separate topic but worth the comment and something to think hard about when you purchase that first new chain saw or axe.

Best wishes and may each of you stay warm this winter.


Panhandle Rancher


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