The Homeowner’s Guide to Tree Removal

Man Cutting Down a Tree with a Chainsaw
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Trees are always welcome in a home landscape, but when a tree becomes diseased or severely damaged, sometimes removal is the only option. Due to the high risk of injury and property damage, tree removal is not a job to take lightly. While you can safely remove small trees yourself, for large ones, it’s best to call in a pro. Professional tree removal services have the skills and equipment necessary to remove even large, badly decayed trees with minimal risk.

When to Remove a Tree

House Damaged by Fallen Tree
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Dying and dead trees still offer shade and provide shelter to wildlife, so complete removal is best reserved for structurally unsound trees. These are more likely to fall and damage property or cause injury.

Not all tree defects are equal, though. In general, if half the tree is damaged, it’s a good candidate for removal. Cracks and other damage that cover more than a quarter of the trunk and damage to more than a quarter of the branches also suggest it’s time for the tree to go. The same goes for a tree leaning more than around 15 degrees and showing signs of root lifting. Hollow trees can survive for years, but because they’re more likely to fall, any tree missing more than a third of its heartwood should be removed.

Species matters, too. A tree species that’s prone to breakage, diseases or pests, that drops a lot of messy debris, or that produces roots that break up your lawn and sidewalks might be worth removing even if it’s not badly damaged. Also consider the tree’s location. If it’s growing under power lines or a roof overhang, close to your property line, near a body of water, on a steep slope or in a rocky area with little soil, it might be best removed.

Check the Legalities

Tree Work Ahead Sign
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Before you settle on removing a tree, check your local regulations. Some locations prohibit removing trees for purely cosmetic reasons, even on private property, but allow for the removal of structurally unsound trees and those too close to utility or property lines.

In some cases, you might need a permit or written permission, particularly if the tree is in an environmentally sensitive area such as a slope or floodplain. If you hire an arborist, they’ll do the research for you. Your city council or county commissioner’s office can also tell you.

The Removal Process for Small Trees

Man Cutting A Small Branch with Chainsaw
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If the tree is smaller than around 10 inches in diameter, you can remove it yourself as long as you have the right equipment. Make sure you have space for the tree to fall without hitting anything it could damage.

Wear safety gear, including heavy gloves, sturdy boots, a hard hat, ear protection, and safety goggles. Use a chainsaw with a bar at least as long as the tree’s diameter. Have a tree felling wedge on hand in case the tree proves difficult to bring down. Ask someone to keep an eye on the tree while you work and alert you to falling branches or swaying you might not notice.

Start by planning which way you want the tree to fall. If the tree is leaning, expect it to fall in that direction. Choose a few escape routes in case the tree starts to fall unpredictably. For a tree smaller than 7 inches in diameter, one cut straight through the trunk is all you’ll need to fell it.

For a larger tree, you’ll need three cuts. First, cut approximately one quarter of the way through the trunk on the side you want the tree to fall toward. Make the next cut around 2 inches above the first, angling downward 45 degrees to form a wedge. The third cut, or backcut, goes on the opposite side of the wedge and around 2 inches above the bottom of the wedge. Cut until around 10 percent of the tree’s diameter is left between the backcut and wedge.

The tree should start to fall as you finish the backcut, so pay close attention to how it’s moving. If it starts to fall out of control, clear the area immediately. If it doesn’t fall, use a tree felling wedge with an ax or sledgehammer to get it moving.  

The Removal Process for Large Trees

A Large Cut Down Oak Tree
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Logging is notoriously dangerous work, so it’s no surprise felling a large tree in a home landscape is a risky job for the inexperienced. Doing the job safely takes skill in choosing the right removal approach and an eye for spotting issues that could cause the tree to fall out of control. It also requires special equipment such as rigging and large chainsaws. To avoid the risk, hire a professional tree removal service.

Felling the Whole Tree

The arborist will start the removal process by assessing the tree’s height to determine if there’s enough room to fell the whole tree at once. This requires having enough space for the tree to lie horizontally. Typical urban home landscapes don’t have room for this, so the tree has to be cut down in sections. Next the arborist will clear the area of anything that could be damaged by the falling tree and plan escape routes in case the tree starts to fall unpredictably.

If the tree is small enough to fell in one piece, the arborist will decide which direction it should fall. Usually, this is the direction the tree leans naturally or the side with more or heavier branches. The arborist will also check for decay or other defects that could cause the tree to collapse unexpectedly.

To begin felling, one worker will tie a rope to the tree to allow another worker to guide the tree’s fall. They’ll then start felling the tree. This is usually done by cutting a wedge on the side the tree should fall toward, then making a backcut on the opposite side. Different felling cuts might be used depending on the tree’s condition.

Removing the Tree in Sections

For a large tree that can’t be felled in one piece, the arborist will start by creating a plan for removing it section by section. They’ll set rigging cable from the middle of the tree, then climb the tree to cut down the limbs. Next, they’ll cut down the trunk in sections and either let them fall or lower them with a rope. This requires knowing exactly where to cut notches so the sections fall in the right direction. A ground worker will help guide the rope so the branches and trunk sections fall safely.

Crane-assisted tree removal is another option. Using an arborist’s crane to remove sections of the tree makes the job faster, safer, and less damaging to the surrounding landscape. The time and labor saved mean this method is often cheaper than traditional methods that involve setting rigging and climbing. Few tree removal services own cranes, though, so if you’re interested in this method, you might need to call around.

To take advantage of crane-assisted tree removal, you’ll need a level space of around 200 to 430 square feet to accommodate the crane. For medium and large trees, this space should be within 90 feet of the tree, although it can be farther for small trees.

At the start of the job, the crane lifts the arborist to the top of the tree where they’ll tie a rope or cable. The arborist then moves down the tree and cuts the top section, which the crane operator will lift out of the way and down to the ground. The crew repeats this process until the whole tree is removed.

Dealing With Debris

Tree Branches Going Into Wood Chipper
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Once the whole tree is down, you or your tree removal service team can turn the debris into something you can use. Thicker sections of wood can be cut into logs for firewood or woodworking projects. Branches and thinner sections can be run through a wood chipper to create mulch. If you don’t want these materials, the tree removal service can remove them for you, or you can take them to an organic waste dump.

Stump removal is often a tricky job that requires special equipment. For this reason, many tree removal services leave the stump in the ground as close to the soil surface as possible, or at the height you request. You can then incorporate it into your landscape as a planter, pedestal or other feature. If you want the stump gone, you or your arborist can remove it with a stump grinder or stump remover chemicals. For a small stump, digging it out with a shovel is also an option.

Safe tree removal always takes some planning. While you can remove smaller trees yourself, you’ll still need to spend some time planning the fall direction and felling cuts, and clearing the area to prevent property damage. Larger trees bring more risk, especially when you add in variables such as decay, storm damage, and leaning. Tree removal jobs like these are best left to a professional.

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