The Weekenders: Chainsaw Safety

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If you like wood, and you like chainsaws, this week’s post is for you. We have a guest post from none other than Mr. Sticks.  He’s going to tell you all about a course he took this Memorial day.  Also, since our wedding is nigh upon us, we’ll be taking a break from posting until August.  Hope everyone enjoys the beginning of summer!

Of all the tools a weekender might choose to do work around the yard, none is more dangerous, or is used with less than the necessary experience, than a chainsaw.  And the first time that many weekenders hold a chainsaw in their hands, whether fresh from the store or borrowed from a friend, is likely to be the same day that they intend to use it.

As a new user, the first thing you may notice is just how razor sharp the cutting edge on a chainsaw is—you can easily peel a long curl of fingernail from the tip of your thumb with a properly sharpened chainsaw. What is not immediately obvious is how much of a risk you’re taking by firing this chainsaw up and using it with no experience.  Consider this, if you take sharpest pointed knife you have and thrust it into a log or the trunk of a hardwood tree as hard as you can, the furthest you’ll penetrate it is a few millimeters at most. Try substituting the log for your thigh and I promise you the results will be entirely different. With a fraction of the effort you just used with the knife, a chainsaw can bore through hardest wood in a couple of seconds, so it doesn’t take much imagination to realize how much damage a fast-running saw could do to an arm or leg with just one accidental passing glance.

When we first got our place upstate, we erred on the side of caution when we needed to fell some dead trees, so we hired a friend who was an experienced logger to cut them down for us. However, we had so much clearing to do that it soon became obvious that we’d have to buy a chainsaw of our own to do our own work; otherwise, we’d have to provide room and board to have our friend on hand whenever we needed something cut.

Fortunately, there are many good online resources and videos on YouTube that offer basic primers on how to use a chainsaw—and there are enough anecdotes and grisly shots of chainsaw injuries to instill the right amount of caution; however, the biggest favor you can do for yourself before you even think of heading for the trees, chainsaw in hand, is to sign up for a chainsaw safety and training course. Better still, if you don’t plan to be the logger in the relationship, make the course a gift for a loved one.

And so, a few weeks after my birthday,  I awoke to a 5:45 a.m. alarm on a recent Saturday morning to head out to the Catskill Forest Association in Arkville, NY, which was hosting a day-long session of the chainsaw course “Game of Logging Level 1.”

The Catskill Forest Association is “a non-profit organization that dedicated to enhancing all aspects of the forest in New York’s Catskill region” and it hosts a series of workshops throughout the year. As this section on their website for the Game of Logging describes:

Game of Logging Level 1 focuses on varying aspects of chainsaw safety and techniques for properly felling trees. Participants are introduced to open face felling, personal protective equipment, chainsaw safety features, reactive forces, bore cutting, pre-planning the fell, and understanding hinge wood strength. Individuals will be responsible to provide their own chain saw, helmet, leather boots, chaps, safety glasses or face screen, ear muffs or plugs, and to dress for the weather. Participants should pack a brown bag lunch and enough water for the day. Class limited to 10 participants.

I met my fellow participants at the Catskill Forest Association where we signed the register in the association’s cozy pellet-stove-heated office and then convoyed up to the training site in freezing rain. If we knew the course was going to run from 7:30 am till 6:30 pm, that we were going to be outdoors the whole time and that this rain wasn’t going to let up except for the 20 minutes we had lunch, we might have felt a little less enthusiastic. Although many women do sign up for this course, on this day the turnout was mostly young guys who were there as a work requirement for their jobs. Standing together in the rain, it felt like the first day of basic training in an old WWII movie when you’re thrown together with a bunch of strangers, each with their own personality. There was a joker, an oldster, someone who’d be more at home as an interior decorator than as a logger, a country boy, the professor, and, of course, a weekender. (And from Brooklyn to boot—yup, there’s always a guy nicknamed “Brooklyn”).

The Game of Logging, is as much a concept as a practical training course. Developed in the 1960s and brought to the U.S. by logger Soren Eriksson from Sweden, it introduced new techniques for making the necessary cuts to fell a tree and made learning these things more engaging within a framework of organized friendly competition. There are four levels in the Game, which can train novice to expert. The program breaks the craft of logging into clearly defined steps that can be taught, practiced and scored throughout the course.

Our instructor, Bill Lindloff of Bill Lindloff’s ProCuts, based in Endicott, NY, is a competition logger and so each member of the course was scored according to competition rules. Points were awarded for clean cuts and accuracy of felling; points were deducted for safety violations, such as the very common “not having the thumb curled around the handle while making the cut,” which almost everyone was guilty of. Additional points were deducted for walking more than three steps without locking the chain drive (apparently it’s not a good idea to trip and fall on a running chainsaw) and for not retreating back far and fast enough on the escape path when the tree is starting to fall.

The day started with Bill taking our emergency contact information and discussing a plan for emergencies (uneasy glances all round). This was followed by instruction on: personal protective equipment; the parts of a chainsaw and how it works; safety and maintenance, including sharpening; the daily “Five Point Safety Check” of the machine; awareness of reactive forces that can push and pull the machine; and the dangers of kickback.

Kickback is the holy grail of chainsaw dangers—where the saw can become momentarily snagged and then, upon release, propel itself towards your upper body with great force while still running. I could go into more detail about what this is, but I’d be doing you a bigger favor by telling you to read all you can about it online. This will teach you far more than I can in this post—and you may have the added bonus of seeing some photos of the victims of kickback so you will take this very real hazard seriously. A few of my fellow participants had been using chainsaws for a long time but had rightly come to the conclusion that they had developed unsafe work habits. Talking to people, I found this to be fairly common. I have three friends who have had many years experience using chainsaws and two of them received nasty gashes on their legs when not using chainsaw chaps, which are protective leg coverings that are designed to protect you from injury from an errant cut. My girlfriend’s dad Dave (or should I say, my soon-to-be father-in-law) has his own sawmill in North Carolina which he operates for fun. In his mid-70s, Dave’s idea of “fun” is a hard day’s work. When he came to visit us upstate, we casually mentioned that we were thinking of having someone cut down the two dying fir trees that were on our lawn. Both were full-size 50-60 footers.

Without saying a word or breaking stride he picked up our friend’s chainsaw and felled both of them while wearing only a short-sleeved shirt, sandals and a pair of shorts. He said he felled his first tree over 60 years ago and he’d long lost his fear of the chainsaw. While it’s good that he is so skilled, he admitted it wasn’t a good idea to get so complacent with such a potent tool. Last time I talked to him on the phone one of his friends with similar experience had got so comfortable that he started cutting a limb while standing on a step ladder. He lost his balance and when he went to correct himself he overcompensated and the saw jumped out of his hand, twisted and almost severed his arm at the wrist. It only took a second.

While I’ve been fortunate to have had a head start over the average novice by having had Dave teach me the fundamentals of using a chainsaw, this anecdote combined his old school ways from the moonshine hills of the Appalachians had clearly omitted some vital elements:  never get over confident, always concentrate, don’t use the saw when you’re tired or in an unstable position, and use chainsaw chaps, steel-toed boots, helmet, face visor and ear protection for every cut—always!

After a break for lunch, and armored like extras from that other game where a bunch of folks roam around in the forest bearing potentially lethal hardware, the Game of Thrones, we headed into the woods to cut down some trees. No half measures here, the main objective of the course is for each participant to cut down a very tall tree, and have it land where it’s supposed to.

Now, you may do a little more standing around than you’d think on this course. I thought it would be much more hands on, with us all doing a lot of cutting throughout the day; instead, the emphasis is on observation and repetition. With ten participants on the course, and with each carrying out a cut while the others watch, things that you miss seeing a guy do on the first pass are obvious by the time you see it done by ten guys ten times. Cutting a measured notch cut and felling a tree can give you a quite a buzz when you know you’re being watched by everyone on the course and every movement is being scored by Bill, but when the adrenaline is flowing you can get caught up in the moment too much to really absorb everything you’re doing: making cuts at the right angle; holding the saw properly; keeping the saw steady; using the correct part of the cutting edge; and avoiding kickback. It turns out that when you can see the same actions that you have done or are about to do being performed several times by nine other folks you can learn much more than by taking the cut yourself and then immediately moving on to the next phase.

(Additional tip I gleaned from fellow participants: spitting a stream of Skoal juice with your helmet face screen down while you’re in the middle of a cut isn’t the best of ideas either.)

Bill Lindloff has a way of keeping you engaged. With unblinking eye contact (nobody escaped the “stare” to see if you understood what he was saying) and a sense of mischief, he is a humorous guy, and as hard as nails. While we were all standing around stamping our feet and trying to warm our wet-gloved hands under our armpits, Bill went through the whole day barehanded and so enthusiastic you got the feeling he could easily finish teaching this course, sleep out in the woods with no sleeping bag in freezing sleet and a howling wind and still have enough energy to chop down a dozen trees before breakfast the next day.

But take heart, newbies, you don’t have to be a grizzled outdoorsman to do good. The oldster, who’d never even fired up his brand new and shiny chainsaw before he brought it on the course, beat vastly more experienced guys who are out using a chainsaw for work every day to come in second out of ten in our informal competition. The course also seems to be designed to build a sense of camaraderie among the participants that will encourage the most urban of urban lumberjacks or lumberjills, whatever your lack of experience.

In sum, I had a great time. By the time it was all over I felt like I’d been through the Game of Flogging rather than the Game of Logging, but though I’d felt cold all day I had a warm feeling of accomplishment and confidence about using a chainsaw, cutting firewood and felling trees that I couldn’t have managed to achieve left to my own devices (and YouTube). I also felt less of a hapless weekender. And that large bourbon I had when I got home? That was one of those drinks I will remember for a lifetime. Game of Logging 2?  You bet—but maybe on a sunny and dry fall day next time.

Game of Logging and Woodland Training courses are available all through the Northeast and cost $150.00 for the day. Level 2 will give you experience in a wider variety of logging techniques, such as limbing, bucking and spring pole cutting, Level 3, techniques for handling difficult trees (you want it to fall left, but it leans right) and Level 4, ways to maximize a harvest plan and felling at working speed using all the techniques from previous levels.

For more information contact the Catskill Forest Association at: 1-845-586-3054

Also check out the Game of Logging Newsletter

Bill Lindloff’s ProCuts
Contact & Instructor: Bill Lindloff
blprocuts@aol.com1387 Tilbury Hill Road
Endicott, NY 13760
Telephone: (607) 786-5462

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