How to Prune Large Tree Branches Properly

Properly Pruning Large Tree Branches Requires a Bit of Care and Knowledge So You Won't Harm the Tree

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Old hand saw

How to prune large tree branches properly requires a bit of care and knowledge. It’s not a job you want to tackle willy-nilly, because taking the wrong approach can harm the tree.

What constitutes a large tree branch? You might be able to get away with safely cutting a branch up to one-inch thick using pruning loppers, but for any larger than that you’ll want to pull out a pruning saw (or chainsaw, if it’s a really big branch) and take additional steps to ensure the branch cuts cleanly and safely.

Whether you’re cutting a live branch in a bad location or a dead branch that needs removing, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it:

The Wrong Way to Prune Large Tree Branches

You grab any old saw—maybe a dull one that doesn’t cut very well—and you start making a cut through the large branch. Regardless of how thick and long it is, your head right for the origin point and refuse to shorten it or remove smaller branches down the line.

You start on top, since that’s convenient, and work your way down through the branch. You pay little attention to where you start cutting; maybe you’re five inches out from the trunk of the tree, or maybe you’re as close as you can possibly get to the trunk.

As you cut, the branch starts to sag under its own weight. Then, with surprising speed, the branch falls before you’ve cut all the way through. As it falls, the uncut bark on the underside refuses to break, and the weight of the branch pulls a long strip of bark off the tree trunk. Now the tree has a gaping wound, exposing it to infections and rot. And healing the branch stub may prove difficult or impossible if you’ve left it too long or too short.

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Yikes! Clearly this isn’t the way to go.

Properly Pruning Large Tree Branches

To properly prune a large tree branch, consider cutting it off in pieces, removing smaller branches and shortening its length to reduce the overall size and weight.

Once this is finished, make a shallow cut on the underside of the branch, perhaps tow to three inches away from the branch’s origin point (whether that’s the tree trunk or an even larger branch). This will prevent the bark from tearing away as the branch falls. Use a sharp saw that will cut cleanly and efficiently.

After the underside cut is made, switch to cutting the top of the branch at a point roughly an inch or so farther out from the origin point. Cut all the way through. You’ll be left with a branch stub several inches long.

Now you can make the final cut. Don’t cut flush against the tree trunk/larger branch. You’ll likely notice a swelling around the base of the branch you’re cutting, perhaps with ridges in the bark. This is the branch collar, and you don’t want to cut it off or damage it, since the branch collar will work to heal over the cut you make. Make your final cut at the point where the branch collar ends (in many cases, it will be obvious), and cut straight through.

Congratulations! You’ve properly pruned a large tree branch in a manner that gives your tree the best chance to heal.

This article about how to prune large tree branches was written for Hobby Farms magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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