Posted by: highmountainmuse | June 27, 2009

The crosscut saw

The crosscut saw on the stump of a felled tree along the ditchbank

The crosscut saw on the stump of a felled tree along the ditchbank

The ditch lies at the base of a mountain spread heavy with dead standing trees, mostly spruce trees, victims of the devastating but natural cycle of a beetle.  We refer to this as “beetle kill,” and it’s become a familiar site here in Colorado, and from what I hear, throughout the Rockies. 

Sad though it may be to see a hillside brown with dead trees, when we walk in that same forest, we see lush life and new growth plentiful, and await the changes Mother Earth plays out before us, knowing how little control we have over these matters, but appreciating that in the long run, the forest will regrow and remain strong long after we are gone.

In any case, these dead standing trees are a current threat to the ditch we maintain. With a shallow root system, they fall in the wind and weather, taking the ditch bank with them as they fall or blocking the flow of water in their path, and as was the case earlier this month.  The blocked flow of water backs up, rises, and causes the resulting blow-out on the banks. 

With these dead trees comes a new part of our job besides digging and moving dirt:  felling trees.  Easily said and done when we’re back home at the Ranch.  Bob’s a master with his chainsaw.  But therein lies the problem.  No chainsaws in the Wilderness, and remember, this is the heart of the Weminuche Wilderness where we’re working here.

And so, we begin to learn the old lost art of felling with the cross cut saw.  We began last year, slowly and not so surely, felling and removing a few threatening trees from the ditch bank.  We were slow.  It was hard.  We longed for the chain saw.

Since then, we have practiced more, read more, learned more, and began to use new equipment – including an antique two-man saw that was hanging on our cabin wall as decoration.  After a little sprucing up from Bob’s dad, we packed the saw in by horseback, and gave it a go.

A dozen trees down from that old saw last week, and we’re on our way to learning.  A long way to go before we master the art, but if you look at the number of dead trees in need of removal along the ditch bank, one can but assume we’ll be pretty proficient by the end of this season.

Anyone interested in a little how-to?

Forrest clears bark from the tree we will fell, and prepares the area

Forrest clears bark from the tree we will fell, and prepares the area

We begin by de-barking the area the saw will cut into.  Although there are specific tools designed for de-barking, we find an ax works well.  Debarking is essential for maintaining a sharp saw, and believe me, you won’t want to waste your time cutting with a dull saw.  At the same time, the area is cleared, an “escape path” is established, and footing is secured.  This can be a problem working along side a ditch filled with water.

Bob and I working on the face cut

Bob and I working on the face cut

Next we make the undercut, or face cut.  This is the wedge that will determine the direction of the fall, and counter balance any lean to the tree. We begin with a horizontal saw cut into the tree, and use an ax to chop out the sloping cut.

Forrest and I working on a backcut

Forrest and I working on a backcut

We follow then with the backcut, two of us sawing a horizontal cut from the back side towards the facecut just above that first undercut, with the third person spotting, keeping careful observation of the top of the tree which is where you’ll first note movement, and alternating by tapping wedges in behind the sawers on the backcut to prevent the saw from binding.

It is all about rhythm and motion, flow and tempo, pulling and giving, pulling and giving… any pushing causes a bind and throws off the rhythm, undermines the team efforts.  We work to be smooth together.  We strive to get that saw to sing.

We try to make it look easy but it’s not yet.  I don’t know if “easy” will ever be the word for it, but our goal is to be good at it. Chances are, a few dozen more trees and we’ll get the swing of it…

And yes, please don’t worry, safety is our top concern.  Remember, those are my boys I’m out there working with!  And the added bonus?  It sure beats going to the gym.

Bucking logs is so much easier...

Bucking logs is so much easier...



  1. My morning walk with the dog pales in comparison to the workout you are getting! So interesting!

  2. Oh my! We buy our wood in, you aren’t allowed to cut wood unless you own it in our area, but I do enjoy seeing your boys sawing! 🙂

  3. Looks like fun .I could get in shape to do it in about 10 years if im lucky .Like you said there is no gym workout that will get you in shape like hard work .Gyms make you look good work makes you tough .For smaller things i like a bow saw .I have made a couple os mall ones and have a larg one started .Working with a two man saw is a art .Bob and Forrest look good .After all that work i wouldnt want to arm wrestle eather one .You are doing a good thing giving nature a helping had not thying to change it .Good work !!!

  4. How awesome to see family team work!!! I’m really enjoying this sight …

  5. Thanks so much, Shari. I am VERY lucky that way, to be able to work with my boys like this. I’d say it’s the best part of life!

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