How to Buck a Tree

Cutting Logs for Maximum Yield

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One of the first jobs that a greenhorn logger is entrusted with is bucking logs into their proper lengths. Even though this seems like a simple job, in reality, there are many facets of the job that need close attention to maximize yield. A bucker needs to pay close attention to the different characteristics of a tree, they need to have a knowledge of grade in a log as well as how to cut a log to maximize the amount of board footage that can be gleaned from that tree.

Measuring Techniques

It seems that every logger has their own unique technique of measuring and bucking a tree to length. As long as it is an accurate and efficient technique, then there is no need to change. There are a couple of measuring tools and techniques that are more common than others.

We will call the first one the “flip the stick method.”

Find yourself a nice and straight stick, preferably green and hard like oak or ash. Use a tape measure and cut the stick to either 4 feet or 6 feet exactly. I like to use 4-foot-long sticks because most log lengths are divisible by 4 feet. Mark the stick by cutting a groove in it at 2-foot increments. You will want to cut another groove at 4 or 6 inches from the 2-foot mark so that you can measure the extra length that is required by the mill. Most mills require the logs to be at least 4 inches longer than the exact length to account for any mistakes in cutting.

Start at the butt end of your felled tree and lay the stick on top. Then, place your finger at the end of the stick and flip it end over end. Repeat this until you have measured out the length of log you want. Don't forget to add the extra few inches of “fudge factor.” Now you can mark the spot to be cut either with a hatchet or some marking paint.

The other method is to simply use a loggers tape to measure your logs. The logger's tape is just a really long tape measure with some spikes on the end, and a clip for your belt. It is more accurate than the flip the stick method but it does have some problems.

If you want to cut several short logs out of a tree, and they all need to be 4” longer than the exact foot measurement, then you have to keep track of each measurement in your head. By the time you get to the end of a 60 or 70-foot tree, you most likely will have made a mistake and your logs will be odd lengths. You could get around that by cutting each log as you measure so you have a new place to measure from, but switching from sawing to measuring and back again can really slow you down. It is much faster to do all your measurements for a batch of logs and then start cutting.

Cutting on the Crotch

Now, where exactly would you imagine the crotch of a tree would be located? If you guessed that it is wherever the main trunk splits off in two or more limbs, then you would be right. Just as folks tend to be wider at the waist, so does a tree. This makes a perfect spot to cut your log to length, that is if it falls within the right length. A log with a wider end will scale bigger than a log cut on the tapered part of the trunk. Not only that, but you will get better grade boards if that wild crotch grain is at the end of the board instead of the center. Pay attention to your logs. Sometimes there are other places in the trunk that are naturally wider than others. Try to take advantage of this to get a maximum yield.

Cutting Crooked Tree Logs

There once was a crooked tree, who was cut by a crooked saw... No, it's not a nursery rhyme, there really are crooked trees, but they can be straightened out, so to speak. Of course, every crooked tree is different, so it is really about using good judgment. Your measuring stick can be a handy log straightening tool. You can use it to sight down the log and determine just how crooked it is. Then, you can cut the log to minimize the curves and crooks.

Many times it is just a matter of cutting all short logs out of a tree with a long bow shape. On the other hand, your tree may have a severe crook in the middle but other than that it is fairly straight. In this case, it would probably be better to just cut the crooked part out. If it is high-value wood like walnut you may be able to market the crooked section to gunsmiths and instrument makers. These folks are always looking for uniquely figured wood.

Recognizing Grade Logs

As part of your bucking responsibilities, it is important to be able to recognize grade logs. While all the ins and outs of grading logs and lumber cannot be covered in a short article we will touch on a couple important points.

Generally, the highest grade material is in the butt end of the tree, in other words, the part of the tree that is directly above the stump. This section will have the least amount of knots and blemishes. Be careful not to cut the first log too long. If you have a log that has 12 feet of grade and you cut that tree 14 feet long you either end up with lower grade 14-foot lumber or the mill has to cut that 2 feet off to make the grade. Believe me, the sawmill will not be happy if they have to do this. It is board footage lost which equals money lost. Learn to recognize blemishes that will become knots in the lumber and you will avoid costly mistakes.

Burning Butts

Remember this phrase “dull chains burn my butts.” It is not just a catchy slogan, it's true. Dull chains can get really hot and actually burn the end of a log. It is tempting to keep on working with a dull chain, but believe me, you will only end up tired and frustrated. You will get less done and the quality of your logs will suffer. Don't be the guy who “doesn't have time” to sharpen his chain. In the long run, you will end up losing time and money.