Game of Logging: Chainsaw Training

Thu Jun 24 2021

This week I attended a Game of Logging training course by Northeast Woodland Training to learn the basics of safe chainsaw operation and tree felling.

Game of Logging: Chainsaw Training
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Logging is the most dangerous profession in the US - over 20x more deadly than the average job. Between heavy machinery, rough terrain, and giant falling trees, the hazards are obvious.

As a homeowner, there aren't many tools as dangerous as the chainsaw - a completely exposed razor-sharp chain that spins at around 60mph, and carried by hand through the brush without a guard on it.

We have a lot of trees to fell on our property - to construct the driveway, clear the house site and just maintain the forest in the future. We wanted to learn the skills to do it safely!

For many people, learning how to operate a chainsaw for felling, limbing and bucking is a skill passed down through generations. But is that the best way?

Clearing the Road

The land is ours and now the hard work starts. Our first project is to clear a road so that we can drive our truck onto the property.

Clearing the Road

I'd come across Game of Logging a few months ago. It's a franchise operation, and they run training courses and competitions through various organizations, particularly in the northeastern US. When I looked before, all their courses were fully booked almost through the end of the year, but at the prompting of our foresters, I checked again.

Amazingly I was in luck - a new course had just been announced, and I was able to enroll. This week, on Monday & Tuesday, I have just completed Levels 1 and 2 of the Game of Logging, taught by Ian Irwin of Northeast Woodland Training.

Concept

The Game of Logging was conceived by a Swedish logger, Soren Eriksson, in the 1960s. The original focus wasn't safety, but productivity - he pioneered new techniques that allowed loggers to cut more efficiently, using less effort to cut more trees in less time.

But a productive logger needs to be safe - an injury (or worse!) is a surefire way to reduce productivity. And so it quickly became apparent that there was a big overlap between safety and productivity. The modern curriculum for the Game of Logging places a strong emphasis on working safely, and that was its big appeal for me.

The Game

One aspect I didn't fully understand until taking the course was the "game" element. A deadly chainsaw doesn't seem like something to be playing with!

Having completed the course, it makes a lot more sense. It's a game in the sense that it's competitive. While there are actual competitions that you can enter (I won't be doing that any time soon!), it also provides a framework for you to compete against yourself - in other words, to get better over time.

Loosely speaking, each operation is separated into two parts: preparing the plan, and executing the plan. Afterwards, you can look back and evaluate the operation. Was the plan correct? Did you follow the plan correctly? By scoring yourself after each attempt, you can incrementally improve your skills. This approach really appeals to me!

Game of Logging: Level 1

I signed up for Level 1 on a course sponsored by the Vermont Youth Conservation Corp. It's a one-day course and cost $200. I'm not going to try to recreate the training here in the blog post - but I will cover the highlights of what we were taught.

In the morning, the big focus was on safety - the safety equipment, and safe handling and operation of a chainsaw. It was reassuring to learn that we had all the right safety gear already (particularly the forestry helmet and chainsaw chaps).

While much of what we were taught I'd already picked up from my own research, there were definitely some new lessons and some subtleties that I otherwise wouldn't have been aware of - e.g. ensuring your left thumb is wrapped around the handle and not lying along it to help in the event of kickback. It was also very helpful to have things broken down into simple checklists to ensure nothing gets missed.

Pre-Planning

Before even picking up a chainsaw, we would pre-plan each fell - checking for hazards (65% of all logging fatalities are from being struck by falling objects), examining the lean of the tree in two dimensions, identifying (and if necessary, clearing) an escape destination (86% of fatalities occur within 12 feet of the stump), analyzing the hinge information and determining the back cut plan.

We'd also mark out with a stake exactly where we wanted to tree to land, then use the lean information to position a separate stake that we'd aim for to compensate for the lean. The goal was to get as close to the target hit stake as possible.

Bore Cutting

The conventional way that most people would approach felling a tree (in the simple case) is to cut a wedge in the front at a 45° angle, then cut in from the back until the tree starts to fall.

But why is it done this way? In many cases, it's simply a legacy hangover from the days before chainsaws - axes cut efficiently at 45° and cross-cut hand saws work best when cutting at 90°, directly across the grain. With chainsaws, we're not constrained by this though.

The Game of Logging curriculum teaches a different technique. A wider notch, cut to a specific minimum width depending on the tree's diameter, and an angle of at least 70° is cut into the front of the tree - this aims the tree.

A bore cut is then created behind this notch by plunging the chainsaw straight into the tree. This leaves a hinge of uncut wood behind the notch, and a trigger at the back of the tree. Until that trigger is cut, the tree is completely stable, and a quick and easy cut through the the trigger is all that's needed to fell the tree.

This order of operations makes the felling very predictable. You're not just cutting from the back until it starts to fall, you know exactly when it will fall - when you cut the trigger. It also helps to reduce the opportunity for dangerous events such as "barber chairing".

Scoring the Stump

After felling the tree, we'd score the stump.

Did the tree land where we wanted it to? If not, why not - was our aim stake in the wrong position or was our aim off?

What about the stump itself? Was our notch the right angle and width? Did the two cuts meet nicely without bypass?

Was the hinge the correct width? Did we have excessive fiber pull where the hinge broke? Did we have a nice, level back cut?

Each of these questions corresponds to a number of points, allowing us to score the stump. Did we get a perfect score? If not, where do we need to improve next time?

Game of Logging: Level 2

Level 2 was, again, a one-day course and was scheduled for the day after Level 1.

We spent the morning focusing on basic safety checks and chainsaw maintenance - things we should be doing before each day, at mid-day, end of day, end of week, and once or twice a year.

Our instructor showed us how to do basic servicing of a chainsaw engine - cleaning the air filter, replacing the sprocket, servicing the bar, etc. Maintenance on a battery-operated chainsaw like ours is a little simpler, but it was good to learn anyway in case we by a gas chainsaw in future.

Chain Filing

Afterwards we moved onto the chain where we learned about different types of chain, the structure of the cutting tooth, and how to check a chain for sharpness. We then learned how to file a chain by hand to quickly and efficiently return it to full sharpness - a sharp chain isn't just more efficient, it's safer too!

I was able to use the tools in our chainsaw sharpening kit to file our chain.

Spring Poles

In the afternoon we were back out in the forest, dealing with spring poles. Spring poles are typically created when a smaller, flexible tree is crushed underneath a heavier tree. The spring pole can contain a lot of potential energy that could be released explosively and dangerously if cut the wrong way - they're a common cause of injury.

We learned techniques for slowly releasing the energy before cutting the spring pole in a very calm and undramatic manner - drama is rarely a good thing in the forest!

Ice Storm Damaged Trees

In 1998, a massive ice storm hit Vermont, damaging trees across the state and leaving them with precarious leans. Cut conventionally, these trees have caused many injuries and fatalities.

Our instructor showed us a method to safely fell these trees - allowing them to fall slowly to the ground (the one we cut took about a minute to fall) rather than explosively splintering.

Levels 3 & 4

Unfortunately there are no dates scheduled for the rest of this year for Levels 3 and 4, although based on my experience so far, I'd be very interested in taking them.

Level 3 begins to focus on more difficult trees, and felling them against their natural lean. Level 4 has different potential focus areas - either looking at improving harvesting productivity even more, or methods for dealing with storm damage.

Conclusion

Prior to the Game of Logging training, I had read every article, blog post and manual, and watched every YouTube video I could find on how to safely fell trees. Without having someone on hand to teach me directly, I'd done the best I could.

The students in the class with me had varying levels of experience - some, like me, just starting out and others who were more familiar with chainsaws. All of us learned something. Our instructor has also taught this class to groups of professional loggers, and he said even the most hardened loggers, forced to attend by their boss, usually walk away at the end with some new skills and an appreciation for the approach.

Completing this course does not make me an expert. Far from it. But it's given me a new set of techniques to leverage, some hands-on experience alongside an instructor with decades of logging experience, the confidence to take on the felling on our land, and the tools to critically evaluate my skills and hopefully improve over time.

Our instructor, Ian Irwin, was a fantastic teacher. He patiently answered all of our many questions, and gave us the confidence to learn and practice new skills in a group environment.

So many people we've spoken to about felling our trees have told us stories of friends or family members who've been injured or even killed using a chainsaw. I'd highly encourage anyone who wants to learn more to investigate the Game of Logging and see if you think it could help keep you safe.

Battery Chainsaw

As an aside, I want to talk about our Dewalt 60V Cordless Chainsaw. We've had a few comments about our decision to buy a battery-operated chainsaw - namely that it's not as powerful as a gas chainsaw.

We chose a cordless chainsaw because we like the benefits it offers - no engine to maintain, no gas to buy, carry around and refill, and no exhaust fumes. It's also much quieter, simpler to operate (no pull start, choke, etc) and more environmentally friendly. We have enough batteries and the ability to charge them at our property that we should be able to run it all day long.

But how does it compare to a gas chainsaw?

I took it along to the course, honestly expecting the instructor to laugh me out of the room. Far from it.

During the course itself, we all used the instructor's gas chainsaw so that everyone was working from a level playing field. It was a Husqvarna 550XP - a nicely balanced, powerful 50cc gas chainsaw. I liked it!

At the end though, our instructor asked to try out our battery-powered chainsaw. He was really impressed. It was capable of doing all the cuts required (including boring straight through the tree), albeit slower than the 50cc gas chainsaw.

Our chainsaw has a reduced kickback micro-chisel chain on it, but it seems to have plenty of torque so he thinks that a different chain (which will probably require a different bar) will improve its cutting speed significantly. We're looking into this at the moment to try and find the right bar and chain combo.

Our best guess is that our chainsaw is probably comparable to around a 35cc gas chainsaw - certainly not the most powerful, but still pretty impressive! Given the benefits of the cordless chainsaw, we're going to stick with it for now and see how it gets on, but we're not averse to getting a gas chainsaw in future if necessary - the cordless one will still be great for limbing.

Today's battery chainsaws are a huge improvement even compared to just a few years ago. The instructor was sufficiently impressed with ours that he's now looking to buy one himself to learn more about their capabilities and limitations.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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