filed under: tools & tool use
These are the most commonly used sawing and chopping tools with tips on using them safely and effectively.
When you’re talking about chopping and cutting trees, there’s a few different human-powered tools you can take out into the field with you depending on the job, how much moving you’ll be doing, and how much space you have to carry tools. These tools, usually a saw or a hybrid axe, are must-haves in a trail builder’s cache.
The bow saw is a popular tool for shorter treks to the site. These saws come in a variety of sizes, and while the smaller ones can be used to cut brush, the larger ones are used mainly to clear medium size logs along the trail. When properly maintained, they cut quickly and efficiently, but they can bind easily. The blades can’t be resharpened, so once they become dull, the blade will need to be replaced.
The bows sometimes may come with a sheath, but more often than not, you will need to fashion one to carry it on the trail with you.
Safety tip: With how the bow sax is fashioned, you do not want to make cuts above you. Opt for a curved folding saw or a pole saw instead.
Whether building or maintaining a trail, one of our favorites is the folding saw. The folding saw is a smaller alternative to the bow saw, that is easy to pack and carry when on the move. They are well suited for tight places and come in a variety of blade lengths, styles, and tooth size.
Smaller saws work great for brushing and sawing small limbs off the occasional tree to maintain the trail. These small folding saws fit nicely into pockets or backpacks, and are a big go to when performing fast and light trail maintenance. They work well for the small limbs and vegetation. Many backpackers and mountain bikers will carry these with them on the trail to perform light clearing work when they come across branches that have fallen into the corridor.
Folding Saws that are curved are a very popular choice for hard and heavy work. These saws are great for making cuts above the head, or below the waist. When encountering a lot of deadfall or avalanche debris, these saws are recommended when a chainsaw can’t be brought out into the field. A lot of these saws come with slightly longer blades that are still short enough to make transportation a non issue when folded.
Silky Saws are some of the more popular folding saws on the market as they have quite the reputation for being sharp. All have replaceable blades that can be purchased when the blade goes dull and many people carry the replacement blade on them as it can be replaced in the field. With their packability and lightweight features, these saws are used especially by trail builders who are covering a large amount of miles quickly.
Safety tip: The blade needs to be in the locked position before using. The finer the teeth, the more precise a cut will be.
These saws have an extra thick, extra wide razor-tooth blade for rigidity and are used to cut limbs encroaching on the trail, cutting small trees or shrubs at the base, and removing small to medium sized windfalls. They come in a wide variety of sizes and tooth patterns.
These saws aren’t typically seen on the trail. The extra large teeth on some of the folding saws and their rigidity have replaced a lot of the protooth saws.
Safety tip: Given its extra sharp teeth, a razor-tooth saw should be sheathed when not in use.
For making those high cuts, we love the pole saw. There are a few different types out there, but the telescoping saws are popular for trimming limbs that otherwise would be out of reach, especially in the corridor ceiling. These come in sections from two or more and allow the saw to extend when needed while still maintaining stability. The telescoping saws typically have a removable head to allow for easy carrying when performing trail work.
The built-in pruner can be operated from the ground with a rope. When cutting larger limbs with the pole saw, it is best to use a two-step process. Begin by cutting the branch, first from underneath and then from the top, leaving a 4- to 6-inch stub. This prevents stripping the bark from the trunk of the tree. Next, cut the stub flush with the trunk.
Safety tip: Never stand right below the branch you are cutting. Stand well clear of the falling branch.
Cross cut Saw
The cross cut saws are used mainly to replace the chainsaw. They are larger and provide larger, more efficient cuts than a folding saw, but are much larger. These saws are used primarily when vehicle transportation is an option, but a chainsaw can not be used for a variety of reasons. A cross cut saw also allows the user to stand a little further away from the log than a chainsaw, which is why some may opt to use the cross cut instead.
The cross cut saw is broken out when clearing a large amount of deadfall from sites. They come in single person and two person saws, to allow users the option to cut through much larger limbs than other saws on this list. These saws also are either bucking saws or felling saws.
The bucking saws have a straight back and are heavier and stiffer than felling saws. These saws are better suited to cutting downed trees and limbs. Felling saws, on the other hand, are less stiff and typically curved inward to conform to the arc of the cut and the operator’s arm. They are usually a little lighter as well. Felling saws are more often used to cut down standing trees, and their design allows for easier wedge placement.
Safety tip: Know where the log will roll after you cut it and plan your stance accordingly.
While there are many great axes out there, you won’t see a lot of them being used in the field. Axes are usually only used for cutting jobs too thick for available saws. Trail builder typically opt for saws as they are generally safer, lighter, more efficient to use.
If an axe is being used in the field, it is typically to shop deadfall, shape stakes for turnpikes and waterbars, and cut notches for structures made of timber. These are typically single bit axes (one sharp side) rather than double bit axes (two sharp sides). If the axe has two sides, it is usually a hybrid tool. Our favorite axe to use is the Pulaski. The axe side works for your chopping needs, but when flipped over, works like a pickaxe and is good for digging trenches.
Safety tip: Never use a single bit axe as a sledgehammer or as a splitting wedge.
Pick Axes and Hybrid Axes
The pick axe comes in handy for chopping the roots from the tread when digging where a different tool just won’t do. These are sometimes referred to as ‘grub axes’. Pick axes like the pick mattock are good for cutting through hard ground and roots on the adze side (similar to an axe, but the blade is perpendicular to the handle, rather than perpendicular) and work like a pick to pry rocks on the opposite side.
Another popular hybrid tool is the ProHoe HX. The hoe/axe combination tool is a favorite among trail builders for its ability to rip out root effectively and efficiently. Many trail builders prefer tools that are hybrid tools since they can do a variety of jobs, so if you see an axe on the trail, it will most likely be a hybrid one.
Remember, when trimming limbs to utilize best practices. Cut the limb at the base. This is both healthier for the tree and blends the cut naturally. When making these cuts, the three cut system is preferred to not strip the bark. After clearing limbs, don’t leave piles, but rather spread it out, leaving it with like vegetation, close to the ground to decompose. Hide these parts behind like vegetation and away from the trail.
You’ll want to keep these tools sharp as well. A dull saw or axe can be very dangerous to the user and those around. Always keep an eye on the fall zone of what you are cutting and adhere to proper safety procedures as outlined by the trail supervisor. When the saw is not in use, keep it sheathed and properly stored.
Published January 2004
There are a few options for striking tools that you may see out on a project. Some like the sledge hammer will be seen more, while others may only be pulled out for special projects.
Tools for Trails discusses the importance of the right tools for every job.
A compilation of best practices and guidelines for the planning, design, construction, and management of your trail employing sustainable design.
The National Crosscut and Chainsaw Program was created to train smart volunteer and professional sawyers across the nation.