Digital GPS, 3D laser scanning, total stations, CAD... land surveying has become modernized, computerized and techno-ized. However, there is one aspect of surveying that will always remain the same. When bushes and trees are in the way, they must be cut.

Efficient techniques for cutting bushes and felling trees often prevent accidents and save time and energy.

High on the list of these techniques is assessment of the work area. Joey Harbarger, a land surveyor in Birmingham, Ala., says the crew he works with makes this their first priority. “We evaluate each job prior to beginning our work,” said Harbarger. “Part of that evaluation includes deciding if lines need to be cleared, and if so, what type of cutting tools are necessary for the clearing.”

Once woody obstacle courses are evaluated, surveyors can turn to Paul Bunyan personas. To take on the forestry areas safely, however, one must have the proper gear, tools and timber know-how.

Safety Gear

On-the-job-safety should be the number one consideration for any survey crew. Dan Robinson, Harbargar’s chief, requires his crew to wear steel-toed boots, safety glasses, chaps and gloves when cutting line. “Sometimes gloves have been a problem for the crew,” Robinson explains. “When you are holding a sharp cutting tool, you need to be able to grip the tool securely. But, there are gloves that provide both protection from cuts and allow the control that you need. A person needs to try out several pair to find what’s right for him or her.”

A variety of safety clothing is available for surveyors and loggers or anyone cutting trees. Special cut-resistant pants, chaps and gloves are made specifically for use with a chain saw and other cutting tools. Heavy-duty, waterproof logging boots are also available. These special boots have non-skid soles and are made of cut-resistant material.

“A hard hat is the most overlooked piece of in-woods safety equipment,” says John B. Auel, extension assistant for the Department of Forestry at Mississippi State University. According to Auel, a hard hat with earmuffs and a face shield is recommended for all saw work. “Bump caps” do not provide adequate protection against strikes from heavy tree limbs. They also do not have the eye and ear protection that loggers’ hats have.

“Safety equipment and clothing are designed to offer protection from tree material and to protect the operator from common hazards associated with chain saw use,” Auel explains. “Hazards include hearing loss from prolonged exposure to saw noise, eye injury from flying objects such as sawdust and debris, head injuries from falling limbs or tree debris, and cuts to legs, feet, hands, arms and shoulders.”

Cut To The Chase

Having a variety of cutting tools makes cutting lines and clearing paths easier. When choosing a tool for the job, there are several factors to keep in mind.

  • Bush axes and Ditch-bank blades make quick work of clearing line. Both tools are heavy and require a wide area for swing. Ditch-bank blades are sharp on both sides, allowing for cutting on both forward and back swings. They are also lighter weight than bush axes, which have only one sharpened edge. These tools are better used in areas that are clear of vines and debris, avoiding entanglement.

  • Machetes can be used for cutting a variety of undergrowth. They are lighter than bush axes and ditch-bank blades and easier to carry. A variety of sizes and types of blades are available. When choosing a machete, select one that is long enough and heavy enough to provide momentum to carry itself through a cut.

  • Chain saws are necessary for cutting large trees. The weight and shape make a chain saw more difficult to carry to the jobsite than other cutting tools; however, the inconvenience can be offset on some jobs due to time and energy saved.

For efficiency and safety, keep cutting tools sharp. A dull tool has a tendency to bounce off bushes and small trees. Many times the cutter is unable to control the deflection, leading to possible injury to the cutter or someone nearby.

Robinson encourages his crew members to sharpen their tools in the afternoon before going home. “We have vises and grinding stones at the office that make the sharpening quicker and safer,” Robinson says. “On some jobs, we have to take time out to sharpen our equipment during the day. We always carry a variety of files in the truck, so we can sharpen tools when they get dull.”

This elm became a witness tree and a reference for a property corner when it was blazed with a machete.

Environmental Factors

Weather conditions are troublesome foes for land surveyors. “It’s easy to dehydrate and suffer from heat exhaustion with too much exertion,” says Bill Bauer, a member of Robinson’s crew. “In the heat and humidity that we have in the south, we need to pace ourselves and make sure that each swing makes the best use of our energy.”

During winter months, surveyors should be cautious of allowing their body temperatures to rise too quickly. The cool weather conditions can fool a person into thinking that his or her body temperature is cooler than it really is. Taking regular breaks and drinking large amounts of water helps avoid exhaustion.

Remaining aware of your surroundings is another tip from Robinson. “Always look before you cut,” Robinson says. “Not because of snakes so much but because of flying insects.” Most snakes are not a problem because they will run away from the noise and activity of a survey crew. However, hornets and wasps build nests on low-hanging limbs and in tall bushes. “It’s easy to be on top of a nest before you know it,” Robinson says. “You need to know the season and keep your eyes and ears open.”

Another environmental hazard is poisonous plants. Although they are not as threatening as climate, poison ivy, oak and sumac can be especially dangerous for those with severe allergic reactions. They are often found around the base of trees and many times climbing high throughout trees. Hands and arms should be covered before coming in contact with these plants.

Watch for trees in poor condition that can complicate felling. These “danger trees” may have structural defects, dead branches and limbs, and small, off-colored leaves. Broken branches and limbs, cankers (areas on the trunk or limb where the bark is sunken or missing) and vines covering the tree are additional hazards requiring special attention before and during cutting to avoid injury.

When cutting a danger tree, plan your cut carefully and have a spotter watching at all times. The top of the tree could break off or large limbs could be loosened from the cutting vibration and fall to the ground prematurely. If vines become tangled in the cutting tool, remove the vines before completing the cut.

Take extra precautions when working on a broken tree. Regardless of how large or small the tree is, if it is under pressure, one misplaced cut can cause it to spring up and propel the cutting tool toward the cutter.

Safety chaps are a must for surveyors cutting line with a ditch-bank blade.

Dwindling the Kindling

Efficiency counts when clearing and cutting line. A plan of action allows Bauer to save time and energy. “I have a limited number of swings available each day,” he explains. “If I plan my cuts I can make each swing count.”

Good technique for cutting bushes comes with practice; however there are two key points to effective cutting: using a sharp tool and cutting the correct angle. Cutting through tall grass requires a smooth swing, parallel to the ground. However, an effective cut for bushes and thick vines is a downward angle.

“It is more efficient to cut bushes at a 45-degree angle,” Robinson explains. “Never strike bushes and trees at a right angle to the trunk.”

Depending upon size, many trees can be felled with a machete or a ditch-bank blade. Although the method is a little different than when using a chain saw, the basic cut is the same.

“To cut a medium-sized to large tree with a machete, we cut a larger face cut or angle than we would with a chain saw,” Harbarger explains. “The larger cut allows us to have a more powerful swing. We remove as much wood as possible with each swing. We make the back cut when the front cut is about halfway through the tree.”

Whether using a machete or chain saw, you should first determine if the tree is leaning or if it has more branches and leaves on one side that will create an uneven weight. These factors will influence the direction the tree will fall when cut.

Give yourself a good, clear working area. Clear any bushes and vines from around the base of the tree. Then cut a wide escape path leading away from the anticipated fall of the tree.

Felling a tree requires two cuts. The face cut is a 45 to 90 degree wedge cut into the side of the tree facing the direction you want it to fall. The back cut is a straight cut made on the opposite side of, directly behind, the face cut. This cut should be a smooth cut, parallel to the ground. As you make this cut, the tree will begin to weaken. Do not cut completely through the tree; leave about an inch of wood between the back cut and the face cut.

When the tree begins to fall, remove your cutting tool and move quickly, along your escape route, away from the falling tree. Before you leave the jobsite, make sure that what you have cut is on the ground. Never leave a tree or limb hung in another tree.

For all kinds of logging gear, visit these websites:

  • Stratford Safety Products:

  • Ben Meadows Company:

  • Teritex:

  • Eagle USA Inc.:

    Sidebar: Blade Cutting Safety Tips

    • Make a visual inspection of the cutting tools prior to using. Check handles for cracks and breaks. Assure all bolts are in place and properly tightened.

    • Maintain a minimum of 15 feet between you and the next person.

    • When passing a cutter, announce your presence and intention.

    • When storing and carrying a cutting tool, use a protective sheath to cover the blade.

    • Carry a cutting tool with the sharp edge of the blade away from your body.

    • Never rest a cutting tool on your shoulder.

    • Wear protective gear—steel-toed boots, cut-resistant gloves and clothing, eye protection and a hard hat specially made for logging.

    • Keep feet firmly on the ground while cutting.

    • Avoid cutting overhead.

    • Avoid cutting into glass, wire and other debris.

    Chain Saw Safety Tips

    According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, nearly 100,000 injuries involving a chain saw occur each year. Following a few common-sense rules can prevent injuries.

    • Read the instruction manual for the saw you will use. Saws may differ in features and operating procedures.

    • Visually inspect the saw before cutting. Determine if the housing and handles are secure. Make sure the chain is sharp and the tension is adjusted properly.

    • Wear protective gear including boots, gloves and cut-resistant clothing. Be particularly mindful of face, eye and ear protection. Choose a hard hat specially made for logging.

    • Always have at least one spotter to watch for falling limbs and any movement of the tree.

    • Plan and clear a retreat path.

    • Place the chain saw on level ground before pulling the starter.

    • Keep both feet firmly on the ground while cutting.

    • Do not let the tip of the chain saw come in contact with any logs or limbs.

    • Do not cut overhead or near fences or other wire.

    • Keep people and animals at a safe distance from the cutting area.