How to Fell a Tree: Climbing, Cutting, and Dropping

Whether it's landing a jetliner, driving a golf ball, or felling a tree, it's always interesting to watch how the pros get it done. Watch as a professional arborist and RuggedMade brand ambassador, Jake Pollak, demonstrates how to properly rig, climb, trim, and drop a 40-foot black birch.

Video Transcript

Welcome back to RuggedMade. I'm Jared and I'm Jake from Dude Ranch DIY. So, we're down here visiting Jake again. We had a great visit recently when Jake came up and visited us up in Boston and we thought it'd be great to come down here and visit you again before the snow flies. Yeah, welcome back to the Dude Ranch. Yeah. Well, I see that you've made a lot of progress on the woodlot. Jake's working hard. I hope you've been watching his videos. We've got some interesting stuff planned for this visit. What do we have? So, for today, we're going to start out with doing a little tree removal. I'm going to strap up the spikes and throw on the climbing harness and spike up the tree, get it down, and hopefully that'll allow some more sun to my parking area over there where I keep the dump trailer in a little solar panel trickle-charger. All right. Well, let's go watch Jake. He's a pro at doing this tree work so we're going to get some great footage of that. Let's go get started. All right. Hope you're ready to drag some brush. Yeah.

So tell us a little more about what we're going to be doing today. So, today, the goal is to get this. It's a black birch tree and as you can see here, it's right on the edge of the driveway. It kind of leads back into the woodyard road. Typically, in the fall both for leaves and in the winter for snow, this is where I put a lot of the leaves in the snow. Okay. Also, as you can see behind us, I have my dump trailer park back there and I have a solar panel that I use to keep a trickle-charger to keep the battery charged up so in the summer and springtime when there's leaves on the trees, it blocks a lot of the sun that gets back there. So, it's been an ongoing process. I've already taken down three trees in this area and I'd like to get these last three down, so I figured this black birch is the perfect size for the six-way wedge. I think it would make some really nice firewood and while I have the help here today with you on the ground, I figured we could climb up it and get her on the ground. All right.

Well, the woodlot's really coming along. I think last time we were here, wasn't there a massive boulder? Yes, there was a massive boulder. It was a narrow choke point here.Yeah, now it's right there. We got it out and that puppy stands about 8’ tall when it was fully out of the ground. The excavator could barely move it but we managed to get it out of the way. Yeah, well, it looks really good. It's nice, wide access and I see why this tree has been one of the last things still kind of sticking into the road, in the way of your trailer and the way of plowing, and I guess, blocking light. Exactly.

So, you're going to be climbing this thing today, right? I am. So, how did you learn how to do that? Well, climbing was always kind of a thing that I wanted to do ever since I was a little kid. My parents had people come and trim the trees and stuff and I just thought it was amazing watching the guys up there, so it was something always kind of on my bucket list. And then, I was told that I had no choice but to go to college, I figured I would choose something that I was actually interested in. So, I went to school for forestry. In high school, I worked for a tree care company just doing ground stuff and when I went to college and graduated, I started out working for a pretty large, well-known tree care company on the more residential side of things and really got my bearings as far as climbing goes and stuff like that. And then, continued on. Got my Arborist license. Got my International Arborist license and now I've been doing tree work professionally for about 10 years. I've been climbing for about eight of those 10 years and it's something that I really love. It keeps me young, keeps me fit, and it's not something that you see people do every day. That's for sure. Yeah, that's why it's such a great opportunity to come down and talk to you about this stuff because there are plenty of people who are doing this kind of work and some of them really know their stuff, but I think it's great that you have that, both a practical experience and that education background which you know truly makes you a pro.

I see we’ve got some cool gear here. Yeah. Tell us a little more about what kind of gear a pro like you uses when you're going to go up on a tree like this. Yeah, absolutely. So, I mean, one of the first questions I always get from a homeowner or somebody walking by on the street is, “How did you get your rope up there?” So, it's actually pretty simple but this is a throw ball bag or a throw cube and as you can see it's nice and compact. But, it's pretty easy and it unfolds just like that. And, what it basically is is like a weight bag. You’ve got some lead shot in there or something? Yep, lead shot, and it comes in all different weights. People have different preferences on how heavy or light they want to throw it and then this narrow string. Now, this string, don't let it fool you. It's small but it is very strong. LIke, you could pull over a whole tree with this thing and I have about 250’ of it and then on the other side there is another throw ball so you can work from both ends. And, basically, you'll see me in a little bit, but you throw it up into the tree, have this come down, and then you tie on your main climbing line which is in this blue bag here and that's how you pull up your climbing rope. You don't just take the climbing rope and throw it up. It's much too heavy. So, that is kind of where the process starts.

So, the technique for that, we're going to see it but, it sounds like it’s not like a baseball. You’re not throwing it like a baseball, no. You're actually doing it underhand more like a granny shot in basketball. And, again, there's different ways to do it. You can do it one-handed, you could do it two-handed, there's slingshots that guys use for really tall trees, there's air cannons, and now even people are starting to use drones to set these things in really big tall trees, so there's all different ways. I'm pretty conventional doing it underhand with two hands. That's how I personally like to do it.

And then, that brings me to the climbing rope, which is here in this blue bag. The rope is very important. Obviously, it's your main safety, so I like to keep it in its own bag. There's all different styles of rope. This one's actually pretty old. It's definitely used, but it's still in really good shape. I have a carabiner on one end with a spliced eye. You don't have to have a spliced eye. This is self-locking? Yep, double-locking carabiner, climbing carabiner. All aluminum. Okay.

Now, is gear like this pretty common between this kind of professional tree climbing and say, rock climbing? Yes and no. I mean, [they’re] similar carabiners. These are specifically for tree climbing. They're rated generally a little bit heavier because you're carrying more gear. All right. And, there's a load associated with it. Just because of the nature of the work, rock climbing is more recreational whereas this is industrial, kind of like commercial settings, so generally they make all different styles, sizes, weight capacities, and stuff. But, this is my life, so I trust this stuff and buy the heavier duty ones and then it's basically, this is a 150’ rope. I keep it all in the bag here and then that brings me to my actual climbing saddle which, again, there's many different styles, types, stuff like that, but this is what would, I guess, be referred to as an open leg. It's more like a rock climbing saddle. They do make some where instead of having loopholes for the legs, it's just a bar with a seat, so those could be a little bit more comfortable. Generally, you start out with that as more of a beginner climber and then you advance to this. This is called your bridge. This is where you actually attach yourself to your climbing rope. This is a floating bridge, so as you can see, this floats back and forth [and] swivels 360. Three different points of attachment there. Yeah. That swivel is pretty cool. So, is this to reduce the tangling and twisting of the rope? Right. Minimize that. Friction is the name of the game here, both to keep you in the air but you also want to minimize your friction because it just makes it easier for you to ascend. Now, that bridge, that sliding, is that to give you the ability to maybe, you're wielding a chainsaw wire up there a lot of time? More maneuverability, yep. So, when you first start out, you can have a D-ring, which it's kind of like this, but there would be two D-rings, almost attached here and then you're fixed in so you don't have that maneuverability to slide back and forth which is kind of a little bit more advanced. But, again, all different styles of saddles and stuff. It's just down to personal preference. I really like this one because it allows you more maneuverability. Then, your other thing is your buck strap or positioning lanyard. You always want two points of attachment to the tree, especially whenever you're using the saw actively. So, this is, I think it's like 22’ long, and this is what you see guys when they're climbing poles and stuff they throw it around and kind of flip it up and this just helps you position yourself properly, ergonomically, so that you can make the cuts and be as safe as possible up in the tree.

Now, this tree isn't particularly large in diameter. Would you still be using that around a much bigger diameter tree? Oh, yeah. Yep, you use it basically on any tree you'd be ascending. You'll see once I throw on the spikes and head up. I'll have my climbing line set as a backup but basically, to get up the tree, you use this and you can just walk right up. All right. So, then you have your chainsaw lanyard. This is where my chainsaw physically attaches to. Again, two points of contact. So, you have it tied off here with this small little ring and then here to kind of shorten your lanyard when you're not actively using it. Let's see, what else? We got a foot ascender which you can actually put this on your boot. Typically you’d use more when you're pruning trees or if your point of attachment is out far and you're not right by the trunk to use the trunk to go up. You can put this on your boot and you can use your feet in addition to your arms to ascend up into the tree. And, again, they make all different styles of these. And then, the last thing would be just your handsaw. Always got to have a hand saw. These are crazy sharp. People are always amazed with how big of a diameter-stuff you can cut in the time you can cut it. These always are good to have. [They can] get you out of a jam, be able to grab a rope, if somebody's flipping your rope, and just make things more comfortable if there's a branch poking you in the neck. So, not worth breaking out the saw for. Right, exactly. Or, just little pruning and stuff like that, more delicate stuff where the chainsaw isn't really warranted. All right. So, that's basically it.

And, then we got my climbing spikes here. I think this is part of the work that I think people really love to see pros like you do. Just shimmy up that tree with spikes. Right. So, everybody kind of knows about the spikes, or gaffs sometimes people call them. But, again, all different types, all different styles. These work for me. I haven't felt the need to upgrade them or anything but basically they're both the same, just mirror images, so I got little covers on the spike itself and that's your spike. So, you actually don't want the spikes super, super sharp because then they go into the tree too far and it ends up being hard to pull it back out to take your next step. Use two of those and it's kind of like a rooster having spikes. All right. Those are cool.

Now, has tech changed much? They've been doing this for a hundred years, right? I mean, I think they started out they were, like, heavy steel, and now they have aluminum and titanium and carbon fiber and stuff like that. A lot of the newer ones have velcro to make it more comfortable instead of these old leather straps. I like to keep it simple. So, these work for me and you'll see, I'll get up that tree no problem. All right. So, thanks for the intro to the gear. I mean, this looks like really cool stuff. I think a lot of us get a kick out of all the accoutrement, the tools, and gear that goes with the work, but now I think it's time to put it into use. So, how do we start? Well, I'll just saddle up and I can get the… Well, first, I'll show how I do the throw ball and get that set up into the tree and then I'll saddle up, spike up, and then start climbing up the tree.

All right, so you're going to use the throw ball now. About how high would you say that is? I don't know, like, 45 feet? All right. So, I'm going to use the throw ball. This is the heavier one. I just prefer a heavier one. I think this is like 16-oz. And, the way that I like to throw it is you take the string, and, you see this ring here? I loop it through so then you kind of hold it like that so it's doubled over on one hand and single line in the other. And, I go throw it like this. And then, what that allows you to do is that, one, you let go with this right side it kind of slingshots it and gives it like a little extra “oomph,” so to speak.

So, we went a little high on that one but might be able to make it work. We've got Mike behind the camera. He's a big baseball fan. I think we were hoping for more of a pitch-kind-of technique but seems like this works better. So then, you just gotta… so this is called isolating it. Basically, you don't want your rope around any branches because then those branches are going to be in the way of you ascending up, so you kind of want it all on one side and now I have this side of the throw ball on this side of my crotch and I'm hoping that I can pull all the slack out and use this throw ball on this side to get up and over onto the other side of the crotch. So, there's an alternative to just throw after throw, trying to get it perfect? Right, because it’s pretty hard to do it perfectly every time and with a tree like this, with so many branches, sometimes you just have to finagle it a little bit. So, here we'll pull the slack out. Is this the main reason that there's a ball on each end? Pretty much, because you have to flip it a lot of the time and isolate your climbing line as we call it, so as we get to the top here, there's no big movements in doing this. It's all pretty light. And, there we go. So, we are over and now we just need that puppy to drop down. This happens sometimes, too, where it doesn't want to come back down. Looks like there's definitely some finesse and technique required to make this work. A little bit. Is this where you'd want this line to be as slippery as possible? Yes, slippery, but it's also because I think it's in a tight crotch right now. Might need the carabiner for this. So, we got it out but we pulled it out of our crotch, so we'll have to give it another shot. The sun in my eye is definitely a factor here. Well, you're supposed to be a pro! We weren’t going to make this easy for you. I know. There we go. That looks like you nailed it. Think we nailed it. Oh yeah! Right in the crotch. Only took two tries. I think we'll call that a win. Okay. Very nice.

I think we are good. Now, I'm just going to isolate it from this side. We want it on the other side of that branch. Looks like you're fly fishing. Yeah. Oh, nice. There we go. Very cool technique. So, now we got this set. Oh, you know what? Actually, I can't get this ball to come over the branch. This is why you’ve got two. So, when you say “isolate,” are you trying to get it just on the strong branch that’s going to be supporting you? Yeah, you just want it around your, ideally, around your one crotch. So, see this last branch that's coming out? That branch, as I come up, would basically be in the middle of both of my ends of rope so I would either have to cut it off before I could ascend over it or reset my rope to avoid it. So, by doing this, now, both ends are just around that one singular crotch. So, we could take a climbing line and because we have already found out that it's kind of a tight crotch, we're gonna take the carabiner off and basically here all it does to attach it, it's a bowline that you tie on here then you use a girth hitch to attach it to the throw ball itself so it's nice and quick and easy. So that's off. Throw ball’s off. Now we're going to use the girth hitch again to attach our climbing line. So, we have a girth hitch there and then we'll just do a couple half hitches to keep it nice and tight.

Now, is the idea to make this kind of a small diameter so it doesn’t get hung up? Yes, small diameter so that it doesn't get hung up on branches. So, as you can see there, it's pulling it like basically right from the end. Okay. I can even slide this up a little bit so it's grabbing it right at the end there. Four points of attachment. If that gets hung up up there, that's a bad day. Right? Right. You always have this end to pull it back down but friction's the name of the game, again. Right back. And, wow, look at that. Perfect. So, here's my climbing system. So, we'll take the throw line off. Put the carabiner back on. Now we're ready to climb.

So this is basically the climbing system. This is the carabiner that attaches back to my saddle. This is a micro pulley. This is called an eye to eye. So, the eye to eye is what provides the friction on the rope to hold me up in the air. You tend your slack this way. That micro pulley helps reduce, again, more friction. That way, it's easier to pull and it holds it nice and tight, just rope on rope. So, I can throw on the spikes and saddle and get up in the tree. Okay. Let’s see it.


Well it's good to have you back down on the ground. It's good to be back on Earth. So, when you're up there taking off some of these limbs, I noticed there's some technique to how you're cutting them. It looked like there were two cuts for each one. Yeah, so when I'm up there and you have limbs coming off that are horizontal or somewhat inverted a little bit, I like to do a cut called the “snap cut,” which is you make a small undercut just the width of the bar. You cut about a third of the way through to halfway through depending on the size of the limb. And then, you make another cut on top of that a little bit in front or behind depending on the scenario. Basically what happens is that instead of just cutting from the top and the branch kind of peeling down when you're making that top cut with the bottom cut, it releases on the top, so to speak, and then it comes down and as soon as that bottom cut closes, it kind of snaps, hence the name, “snap cut.” And, the branch tends to lay down or fall more flat as opposed to coming down tips first or butt first. A lot of the time it creates less damage to the property because you don't have a bunch of pungy holes we call them with the butts coming down into the grass or the driveway or something like that. The other cut is just your typical box here. So, this was one of the tops that I took and it was positioned on the tree like this, so I came in with my bottom just flat at 90, or straight, and then you come in at a slight angle like a 45, and you make your directional wedge or box and then you come in from the back with your back cut and all of this wood here is your holding wood. So, in this scenario, I wanted to steer the branch a little bit to the right to avoid hitting into this oak tree here so I left more holding wood as you can see on the right there and cut more on the left. That way, it would hold and kind of pull the top over to the right more. Well, it didn't land on me so obviously it landed where you wanted it to. Yeah, we got it to go where we wanted and that's the name of the game. So, you can steer the tree if you know what you're doing. Which he does! So, now we've got these limbs to clean up. Let's get the chipper fired up and get this mess out of here and then get to the last step. All right. Sounds good.


So, what's next? So, now we're going to drop the stick here, the remaining part of the tree. This is my climbing line, the red, and this is our pull line, the yellow. You never want to pull over a tree or potentially shock your climbing rope for obvious reasons, so to get the yellow rope up to the same spot where the red rope is, I'm going to tie a sheet bend it's called. So, you make a loop like that. Take your other rope. Go up through, around the back, and back down. So, that's a sheet bend. So now, I can pull on the red rope. Might be a tight crotch. Let me give it a whack. Yeah, give it a flip. Ready? Now! There we go. Okay. Yeah, tight crotch up there. So now we got it back down on the groun, let’s loosen this up. Get our red rope out of here. We’re done with that. Now we're going to tie what's called a running bowline and this is a knot that you can cinch down from the ground. Make a loop. It’s just like a regular bowline. You might recognize that knot but there's a loop and it's running so I can pull on this side and it goes all the way up. So now we're set. I can take my rope here all the way back to the tractor. Okay, so now we're at the other end of the rope. We're going to attach it to the grapple on the tractor. To do that, we're going to tie a bowline on a bite. So, to do that, you take your rope, double it over, and essentially just tie a bowline on itself. So, what this does… this is great for if you have two guys and you want to pull, it's like two handles, but in this case, we're just going to loop it up over the grapple and around the tooth. Now we're ready to go. Rope's pretty taut. Back up the tractor. I'll make my box and then we'll have this tree down in a Jiffy. Right where you want it. Okay. So, let's get this puppy on the ground.

Well, Jake, thanks for showing us how a pro takes down a tree. Absolutely. This was fun. Yeah. Well, some of the things I found interesting might even seem like the more mundane aspects of this, like the thing about the throw ball. This little $30 tool. Yeah, you know it's the little things. You have the right tools and it makes the job a whole lot easier. I mean, a lot of time we want to talk about the sexy, expensive chainsaw and the tractors and the chipper and all that cool gear but just seeing how a little device like that gets your rope up there. Right, that's what starts the whole process. And then at the end there, seeing you use the green rope to pull the tree down and all those knots, it really dawned on me how this kind of tree work ties in things like, I know you boat. “Ties” in! Yes, knots, ties. But, I know you do boating with your dad. You've done some rock climbing, all those knots, the harness. It's interesting how it brings together these other worlds that a lot of us who might split firewood and heat our homes with wood but we also might like boating, maybe we do some rock climbing, I mean, it just brings so much together. Oh, yeah. The knots are huge. I'm a knot nerd. I find them really interesting and doing tree work, you use all different types of knots all day, so you’ve got to be good with that but they help tremendously just like the throw ball does. Yeah. I mean, at some point, there's only so much that the new fancy tech can do. You’ve got to know knots. You’ve got to know your ropes.

Bring the tree down and then, well, what's next for us? So, next, I mean, I think we'll run down the log here with the Mingo marker and mark it out to 16 inch sections. Then we'll cut those sections into log-length, maybe 8-10’. Haul them back to the wood yard and then we could fire up the RuggedMade splitter and split it all up into firewood. All right. Well, we're going to wrap it up here but stay tuned for the next installment where we're going to be doing the bucking and processing some firewood. Yeah, can't wait. All right. Well, thanks for having us down here, Jake. All right. Thanks for coming, Jared. See you at the next one! All right, see you guys.