Falling the Big Ones with an Axe

It is difficult to imagine what the first loggers felt when they first saw the coastal redwoods. It takes a lot of moxie and muscle to down a three hundred foot high tree. But they did. How?

The first step in cutting down a large redwood tree often included setting springboards. These were placed into notches in the tree which were cut with an axe. The springboards acted as scaffolding to allow the fallers access to the base of the tree above basal swells, basal hollows or to gain access to the downhill side of a tree growing on a hillside.

Once the fallers could get into position they began the process of chopping the face cut with axes. The face cut would be chopped into the tree facing the intended direction that the tree was to fall. The idea is to cut 1/3 to 1/2 of the way through the tree with the bottom of the face cut being horizontal and the top being angled downward; essentially removing a pie piece from the tree.

It was important for the tree to fall in the correct direction. And to ensure this, the back of the face cut needed to be perfectly perpendicular to the direction of fall. To make certain they had accomplished this task fallers would typically make use of a gun stick.

After the face cut was completed a layout was constructed on the ground. Because redwoods are relatively fragile the logs will break when the tree is cut if they fall onto rough ground. So workers would pile up mounds of loose soil or brush in the path of the tree to be felled. The layout would also be enhanced by smoothing out any high spots in the layout to further prevent breakage.

How big should the axed cut be? Look at the photo left.

When the face cut was done and the layout was completed then the fallers would begin the back cut. The back cut was made using a long crosscut saw with one faller on either end and each would pull the saw through the cut in turn. The idea was to make the back cut parallel to the face cut and nearly on the same plane as the bottom of the face cut. When the back cut had sufficiently cut through enough of the wood the tree would begin to tip toward the face cut and the fallers would scramble off the spring boards to watch the tree fall into the layout.

The men and their tools: the axe, the saw and the “gun stick” behind the men lying in the cut. This was used to sight the direction of fall:

The loggers’ tools were few and simple as this diagram at right shows: