5 Clues You Might Be Hinge-Cutting Too Much

March 2, 2017 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.
hinge cut

Hinge-cutting has exploded in popularity in recent years, and as with anything that explodes in popularity, some people take it too far, focusing too much on the technique while missing the bigger picture. It has happened before in deer management, and this time it has even become a point of tension in the wildlife management community.

On one side, some foresters and biologists believe expectations for what hinge-cutting can produce have gotten out of hand. On the other, many experienced habitat consultants and their satisfied customers swear by the practice and bristle at any suggestion that hinge-cutting is not a fantastic technique. The solution, in my view, is to consider the valid points that both sides bring to the discussion.

Hinge-cutting – which is the technique of zipping a saw halfway through a small tree then pushing it over so it stays alive but horizontal, providing cover and sometimes browse for deer – is a valuable tool for managing deer habitat. But it is one of many techniques, and it has specific applications. Overusing it or using it incorrectly can be counterproductive – and even dangerous.

Here are five clues to help you know if you’ve been hinge-cutting too much.

1. You Can’t Name the Tree Species You are Cutting

Hinge-cutting is one of several techniques for Timber Stand Improvement (TSI), and a fundamental goal of TSI is carefully choosing which trees are removed and which remain. If your TSI goal is deer nutrition, then the trees you cut should be species deer will browse, and the trees you leave should be those that produce mast. You also want to consider future timber value, so the trees you remove should have lower value while the trees you leave should have greater value.

If you can’t name the tree species you are hinge-cutting, you can’t do any of this. You could be causing long-term damage to the quality of your forest in both wildlife and timber value.

“I’m seeing people hinge-cutting merchantable trees,” said A.J. Smith, consulting forester and owner of West Shore Forestry LLC in Michigan. “When you see someone has dropped a 10- to 14-inch sugar maple that’s worth a few hundred to a thousand dollars, that hurts.”

That’s not to say that every sugar maple, or every individual of any other species, is untouchable. If a stand of any species is crowded or dominated by trees of a certain age, it can be good to remove some of them.

“My concern, particularly on small parcels like 20 to 40 acres, is I’m seeing people hinge-cutting a lot of the wrong species and a lot of intermediate-age trees,” said A.J. “They’re potentially creating a regeneration gap that could set their forest management back 20 to 40 years. They’ll be looking at a big gap with no mature timber ready to be harvested on their property.”

“You need a plan to start with,” said Jim Ward. “You don’t want to end up with deer bedding or traveling randomly across a property.”

Of course, not everyone is interested in timber income. Many hunters buy small, affordable properties specifically for deer hunting and don’t intend to ever harvest timber. Jim Ward, a QDMA member and habitat consultant from Indiana, said he’s met hunters who say they aren’t concerned with timber value because they won’t live long enough to see a harvest.

“I am always concerned, even if they are not, with what it’s going to look like in 25 years,” Jim said, “because that’s what it is to be a steward of deer and habitat. You’re not always going to own this land.”

Jim’s advice: Ask a state agency or consulting forester to visit the property and teach you to identify the low-value and high-value tree species where you hunt. You do not have to choose between deer habitat and future timber harvests – it’s possible to manage with both in mind. But it starts with getting guidance from a professional forester who is experienced with both wildlife habitat improvement and timber income management.

2. You Don’t Know If Invasive Diseases or Insects Are a Problem in Your Area

Invasive diseases? Insects? If you’re confused, then maybe you should stop hinge-cutting until you learn more.

“A lot of people are advocating the hinge-cutting of black and red oak because they are such good basal sprouters,” said A.J. Smith. “But we have oak wilt moving into our area of Michigan. Hinge-cutting oaks in spring creates an entry point for oak wilt in those wounded trees.”

Oak wilt is a fungal infection that has now spread throughout the eastern United States and is particularly common in the Midwest.

Hinge-cuts should be seen as a fine pencil used for drawing lines on your hunting-area map, not as a wide brush for painting large blocks of timber.

Then there are insects, like the invasive emerald ash borer, now a factor in most of the eastern United States and Canada. Female borers are attracted to stressed ash trees for egg-laying sites in spring. Guidelines are in place in many areas, such as recommended months to avoid cutting trees, to help prevent the spread of damaging diseases and insects. Again, a visit with a local forester for information can help you avoid problems.

3. You Didn’t Look at an Aerial Map Before You Cranked Your Saw

Hinge-cutting has one primary advantage over all the other techniques for producing deer forage and cover: It’s instant. If there’s no structure in the understory to provide bedding or fawning cover, not enough woody browse to go around in late winter, or not enough natural screening cover between your access trail and a food plot, hinge-cutting can fix each of those issues immediately. That’s one of the main reasons for this technique’s popularity. But in their excitement over producing instant deer cover, some hinge-cutters are forgetting to use the technique strategically.

“If you don’t do it right, you can limit deer activity rather than improve it,” said Jim Brauker, a QDMA member from Michigan and author of the book Extreme Deer Habitat. “In fact, we do this on purpose in some places where we want to discourage deer activity. We do what we call ‘tornado zones.’ We randomly hinge-cut trees and criss-cross them in such a way that deer can’t or won’t penetrate it.”

hinge cut
“If you don’t do it right, you can limit deer activity rather than improve it,” said hinge-cutting expert Jim Brauker of Michigan.

What is the difference between a tornado zone and quality bedding cover? According to Jim, it’s visibility and travel paths. The hinge-cut trees do not dominate the landscape, they are offered in small patches or groups. And they are cut in such a way that deer can move among them easily, see out in several directions, and have options for escape in multiple directions.

Hinge-cuts are particularly useful for directing deer traffic. Drop a tree across a deer trail or the entrance to a food plot to steer travel patterns. Or, drop a series of trees in a line to funnel deer toward a certain destination, within range of a certain stand, or away from your access route. But planning this type of traffic control is best done from an aerial view of the whole property.

“You need a plan to start with,” said Jim Ward. “You don’t want to end up with deer bedding or traveling randomly across a property.”

4. You Failed to Consider Alternative Methods

Hinge-cutting can produce cover and forage. So can a lot of other tools in your habitat toolbox – and most a lot more effectively.

A closed canopy stand of trees with no understory can be made to produce understory cover and forage through timber thinning to admit sunlight. The trees can be sold and removed by loggers, or you can cut them yourself with a safe “felling cut,” dropping them directly to the ground where you can use them for firewood. Or, you can girdle these trees with a chainsaw and (or) inject an appropriate herbicide into the bark and let it die standing. However these trees are killed, you get the same result: Sunlight hitting the ground and producing a response from seeds in the soil.

Performed on the wrong tree, a hinge-cut greatly magnifies the risk that you will be injured.

If you want to “feather” the edge of a food plot, you can simply remove overcrowded trees along the edge, and the additional sunlight will do the rest. If you want to screen the boundary of a sanctuary, you can plant wildlife-friendly shrubs like thicket-forming plums or dense-growing cedars.

Truthfully, except where the hinge-cut tree is needed as instant physical structure to manipulate deer movements, removing the selected tree entirely is usually better. From this perspective, hinge-cuts should be seen as a fine pencil used for drawing lines on your hunting-area map, not as a wide brush for painting large blocks of timber.

“There’s a lot of cutting you can be doing where you should totally fell the tree,” said A.J. Smith. “Take it out of the woods, use that timber, and you’ll end up with plenty of regeneration from the stumps but also from opening up that canopy. You’re setting up good cover and forage, but you’re also investing in the future of your forest and ensuring such an abundance of browse that the deer can’t possibly eat it all.”

5. You Think Hinge-Cutting is a Technique for Any Size Tree

Performed on the wrong tree, a hinge-cut greatly magnifies the risk that you will be injured. In fact, the most straight-laced forestry and chainsaw safety experts will not endorse a hinge-cut for any tree.

I’m definitely on the safety side of the debate. I prefer a tree that I can cut with a quality hand-held saw with just a few zips of the blade and that I can push or pull to the ground with my hands. With this size, I won’t be injured if the tree does the unexpected, like when the tree splits vertically and the top collapses (called a “barberchair”), or when it splits as it falls and part of the trunk springs upward or whips in an unexpected direction. Or the hinge breaks and the tree rolls to one side.

I’ve seen photos on social media of hunters hinge-cutting very large trees, far larger than anyone should be hinge-cutting. I’ve even seen photos of people using long poles to pull large hinge-cut trees down in their direction. I cringe when I see photos like these, just as I cringe when I see a hunter in a treestand who is not wearing a safety harness.

So, where is the line between a tree that’s small enough to safely hinge-cut and one that’s not? Hinge-cut proponents Jim Ward and Jim Brauker told me the limit should be a diameter of 8 inches. But an 8-inch diameter tree is still more risky to hinge-cut than a 4-inch diameter tree.

“Even an 8-inch tree can pack a wallop,” said Jim Brauker. “An 8-inch tree that’s tall and straight-stemmed should get a felling cut. In fact, you should be using a felling cut more often than a hinge-cut, especially with these larger diameter trees.”

Jim Brauker of Michigan said he does most of his hinge-cutting with a hand saw on trees less than 4 inches in diameter.

Felling cuts are designed to help steer the direction a tree will fall and to help prevent dangerous reactions like splitting, kicking and barberchairs. This diagram shows how to make a felling cut.

To those who would argue they are experienced enough to feel safe hinge-cutting larger trees, remember there’s no measurable value in doing so. You get the same or better response in cover and forage production simply dropping the tree with a felling cut. Why take the risk?

Stump Speech

In researching this article, I also talked with my fellow QDMA staff members Kip Adams, a certified wildlife biologist, and Matt Ross, a licensed forester.

“I like hinge-cutting. I use it a lot,” Kip told me. “But it does seem to be like food plots were 10 years ago. Many people wanted to plant food plots without any thought given to the rest of the habitat, and now more people are balancing that with efforts to improve natural cover and forage.”

Matt Ross agreed.

“Quality Deer Management is a toolbox with a lot of options and solutions for many situations,” said Matt. “Hinge-cutting is one of the tools. There’s a right place and time to use it, but not every place and time.” 

When you use hinge-cutting, use it correctly. Know the trees you are cutting and why you are cutting them in that location. Consider the alternatives that could produce the same or better results. And above all else, reserve hinge-cutting for smaller trees that present very low risk to your personal safety.

Your forest and your family will thank you.

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About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.