How to Prune a Tree with Hand and Power Tools – an In-Depth Guide

How to Prune a Tree with Hand and Power Tools

Pruning and trimming trees is vital for their healthy growth. It’s also important for the safety of you and your property. Nobody needs a fat branch of a 100-year-old oak tree falling on their car. But then you look at what a good arborist costs and I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to try your hand at the job itself, especially if it’s a small one. Of course, for big jobs I still recommend getting a professional to do it – you can do a lot of damage to the tree and yourself if you try to jump into cutting off a thick branch high up off the ground your first time – but it’s certainly possible to learn how to prune tree branches by yourself.

This is an in-depth guide to trimming and pruning a tree at home, with hand or power tools. You’ll find out about the best types of cuts to make, where to make them, and how to do it safely and efficiently. Let’s get stuck into it!

Why do you need to prune a tree?

There are two main reasons for pruning a tree – functional (more stability, safety, and production on fruit trees) and aesthetic (making it look better). The two overlap – if you remove dying branches the tree is both safer and looks better. Topping fruit trees allows for more yield in the future and a fruit tree with a few thick limbs bearing fruit also looks better than several smaller, spindlier branches in the future.

Pruning and trimming trees lets a tree grow in a more structurally stable way – left to itself, it can bend and contort, making it more likely it’ll collapse in the future. That’s important if it’s going to be a large, heavy tree such as an oak or a maple.

What tools do you need to trim a tree?

Tree pruning and trimming can be done with all sorts of tools – starting from a simple pruning shears for small branches to more serious tree trimming tools such as saws and loppers, and power tools such as pole saws and chainsaws for thick branches or tree limbs.

Small branch pruning tools

Pruning shears

Hedge clippers

A sharp knife

Even scissors, if they’re big and sharp enough, will work on small branches

Medium-sized branch pruning tools

Loppers (also called anvil shears)

Pruning or folding saw

A regular hand saw can also work

A hatchet or an axe

Tools for large or high-up branches

Pole saw (powered or hand-operated)

Pole pruner

Chainsaw (or pocket chainsaw)

Hatchet or axe (for finishing a started cut if the branch is still hanging on)

How to prune a tree

Three Cut Method

The three cut method for pruning and trimming trees is perfect when you want to remove a thicker branch that even larger loppers won’t manage (or you don’t have access to them). As the name implies, you make three cuts. The first cut is made starting from the bottom side of the branch, a few inches up from the branch collar (the swell and connection where the branch joins the trunk), but not completely through. The second cut is a short distance further up the branch and this time from the top down, removing it completely. The final cut is near the branch collar to remove the stub of the branch. 

When preparing to prune a tree, it is good if you can disinfect the saw that you’re using after every cut. This reduces the likelihood of infection. You can disinfect or sterilise the sawblade using bleach mixed with water (25% to 75%) or an at least 70% rubbing alcohol solution.  Here are the steps in detail:

  1. Make an undercut (cut from bottom towards the top) several inches from the branch collar that goes about a third of the way through. This undercut will prevent bark tearing off the trunk when you complete the next step and remove the branch entirely.
  2. A bit further up make a regular top-down cut – this is to remove the branch entirely. Make the cut as clean as possible, the branch should come right off. 
  3. Finally, get close to the branch collar – but not right onto it – to remove the remaining stub. Make the cut close to the collar but don’t cut into it.
The three cut method for pruning a tree branch
The three cut method for pruning a tree branch

That’s it. The three cut method is simple and easy, and a great way to protect the tree from the branch ripping off a chunk of bark as it falls. 

Here is a great video on the technique, with helpful explainers:

Afterwards you can seal the cut if you like or just leave it be – I prefer the latter as sealants can lead to rot if you use the wrong kind or you apply it poorly, but mostly because it’s a sticky task and trees have their own in-built system for sealing such wounds. Just focus on making the removal as clean as possible.

How to Prune a Tree with a Hand Pole Pruner

If you need something with more reach than a regular pruning hand saw or loppers, hand-powered pole pruners might be the tool for you. There are two main types of pole pruners – tree pruners that function like shears and the traditional long pole pruners with a curved sawblade at the end of a long pole. There are also tools that combine both, with a saw and a  clipper at the end.

The idea with the pole pruner-clipper is to maneuver it into position with the “hook” grabbing the branch you want to snip. Then you use your second hand to pull the piece of rope or twist the lever that makes the pole pruner scissor closed and cut through the branch. Here’s a great video by a lady who really knows her way around pruners on the ins and outs of using – and repairing – a manual pole pruner.

How to Prune a Tree with a Power Pole Saw or Chainsaw

Pruning a tree branch with a pole saw or chainsaw is the fastest way to work through medium-small and larger branches, especially if there are quite a few of them. Pruning several mature fruit trees, such as in a small (or large) orchard, will also be easier with a pole saw. Power tools don’t do much when you can just snip off whatever you need to prune with gardening shears or loppers, but they make the bigger jobs much easier and speedier.

You have to be careful, though. The principles remain the same – use the three-cut method, standing back from the branch or limb you’re cutting. 

Tree Pruning Safety Tips and Warnings

You have to be safe when removing tree branches. Even a relatively small branch from an oak tree can seriously injure you if it falls on you and hits the right (or wrong) spot. Here’s some important safety tips to keep in mind when pruning a tree.

  • Never stand directly under the branch you’re pruning!

People ignore this important common sense more often than you think. The problem is the extra (little bit of) effort and reach required when standing at a safe distance to the side, so people choose to go the easier route, standing under or just to the side of the branch they’re pruning. It’s not worth it! A falling branch of a heavy wood such as an oak or maple can knock you out cold, kill you, or leave you injured for life.

  • Wear head and eye protection

On a similar note, the most basic protection – safety glasses for the eyes and a hard hat – can save you from so much grief. Tiny chips of wood or bark falling or being blown into your eyes is so annoying and can stop work completely. In the same way, a hard hat can make the difference between just a scare from a falling branch hitting your head and a concussion or blood wound that requires medical attention.

  • Wear good work clothing

Long-sleeved shirts will give you a layer of protection against scratches and gashes from falling branches or work tools, the same goes for gloves, and sturdy work boots will protect you from foot and toe injuries. They’re especially good if you’re working with power tools like pole saws and chainsaws.

  • Never prune tree branches within ten feet of electricity lines

Not only is this extremely risky and foolish to do if you’re not trained, it’s also illegal in most places. Those wires will kill you quick, and if you’re on a ladder or otherwise elevated, enjoy the fall to the ground.

Best Time of the Year to Prune Trees

There’s no bad time to remove lifeless branches and dead growth from a tree. Pruning live branches, however, should be planned out with greater care. If you want an explosion of growth in the spring, prune in mid-to-late winter. If you actually want to slow a branch’s or limb’s growth, prune during the summer. This should be done with care, and the best time to do this is after the seasonal growth reaches its apex. That’s around the time of midsummer, which is when the tree gets the most light, but can vary from tree species to species, so make sure to do some research before mid-season pruning.

In autumn, after the summer’s growth, is also fine. Don’t wait too long – August and September are better times to prune than October or later. That’s because a long, wet autumn, with cool temperatures (but above freezing) is a high risk for freshly-pruned trees. Diseases can get in and rot can start, so I’d avoid pruning then and just wait until deep winter or next year to prune.

How Often do Trees Need to be Pruned?

The rule of thumb for mature trees is that they should be pruned every 3 to 5 years. Younger trees grow faster and should be pruned every 2 to 3 years. But you can take care of your tree and make trims and prunes every year – after all, that’s what bonsai enthusiasts do and they create beautiful trees. You should also prune every year if you don’t want the tree to grow big, at least not as fast. 

Finally, it’s important to look for and snip new crossed branches and stagnant air. Open your tree up and thin the small branches out! Trees need good airflow between their branches to stay healthy, since stagnant air is a perfect place for fungus, diseases, or unwanted insects to take hold. 

Early Blooming and Late Blooming Tree Pruning

Timing of pruning is also important with early bloomer and late bloomer tree species. Whether you have an early bloomer or late bloomer dictates whether you should prune in autumn or spring.

Early bloomer species form buds on the previous year’s growth. If you prune this growth during the winter, the tree won’t bloom the following spring or summer. But if you prune the tree right after it finishes blooming in the early part of the year, it’ll have the whole summer to put out new growth that will set the stage for next year’s bloom.

Examples of early blooming trees are:

  • Magnolia
  • American wild plums
  • Sour and ornamental cherry
  • Dogwood
  • Apricot

And others

Late bloomer trees (late spring-early summer) form flower buds on the same year’s growth. It grows in early spring and starts blooming in late spring and summer. So a tree species that blooms in June would be blooming on growth from earlier in the year. These trees should be pruned in early spring to get the best bloom later on in the year.

Examples of late blooming trees are:

  • Hawthorn
  • American linden or basswood
  • Catalpa
  • Japanese tree lilac
  • Smokebush or smoketree

Before pruning trees that flower, make sure you figure out whether they’re early or late bloomers! 

Types of Tree Pruning Methods

There are several tree pruning “methods”, and they’re defined by their goals. Is it to thin out the foliage, or are you cutting back some long-established branches and looking to sculpt and direct the tree’s growth? Each method needs its own approach and tools. Here they are:

Crown thinning

Crown thinning is the most common and necessary type of pruning for mature trees. The purpose of thinning the crown is to increase the penetration of sunlight throughout the canopy as well as improve air flow. It can also prevent specific branches from dying slowly or breaking due to stresses caused by wind, ice, snow, or just gravity.

You’re not changing the size or shape of the tree when thinning the crown, and the procedure should be consistent for the whole tree. Don’t thin one side and the other not at all – remove 10% to 20% of branches along the canopy. With large trees, you can remove the ends of limbs that have a diameter of between 1 and 4 inches.

Smaller trees such as ornamentals and fruit trees should have limbs that are between ¼ and ½ inch in diameter trimmed.

Crown raising

Raising the crown means pruning lower branches to “raise” the crown up. The purpose can be to make the tree look better or it can be more practical – to clear space for a vehicle or traffic, power lines, pedestrians, or just to provide a better view beyond the tree. Regardless of the reason, crown raising can be done every year, but it should be a slow, gradual process. Removing too many lower limbs at one time leads to a weak tree, as the presence of lower branches leads to the trunk beneath them growing thicker and more stable. Trees also need branches for their leaves, for photosynthesis, so don’t prune too much in your enthusiasm to raise the crown. In general, the crown should make up around 60 percent of the tree. Any less than that, and it begins to weaken. With conifers (spruce, pine, and so on) the ratio is a bit more forgiving – the crown/trunk proportions can be 50/50 and the tree will stay healthy.

Crown reduction

Crown reduction is crown thinning, but flipped. If crown thinning is about removing new growth and airing the tree crown out, crown reduction is about removing older branches and encouraging new growth. 

Crown cleaning

Cleaning the crown simply refers to removing dead, dying, broken or diseased branches from the tree. This can be performed as part of any of the previous pruning approaches or by itself at any time, since those branches and limbs can present a danger to people or property under them. If the limb is thick, heavy, and/or high up in the tree, I recommend biting the bullet and paying a professional to remove it. It’s not worth the potential lifelong injuries if you try to remove a massive dead oak limb and something goes wrong.