Home Improvement Expert Danny Lipford

How To Trim Large Tree Branches

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Nicely healed (and healing) pruning wounds.

If you’re trimming heavy tree limbs, you have to be extra careful not to damage the bark or interfere with the tree’s natural healing response. Doing it right is actually no more difficult than doing it wrong, particularly if you think ahead to how much work it would take to remove a dead tree!

Here’s how to cut large tree limbs in your yard in three simple steps.


Poorly healed wound due to an improper pruning cut.

How Trees Heal

The truth is, trees don’t actually heal like we do. When you cut off a tree branch, the tree forms a special callous tissue (like a scar) that covers over the wound to keep out disease and decay. That scarred part of the tree will be there forever, sealed off so that the rest of the tree can keep growing. It’s very important to prune trees correctly so that we don’t interfere with this process – incorrect pruning will leave the tree weak and vulnerable to disease.

In the top photo, you can see the evidence of several large pruning cuts. The bumps show well healed pruning scars, most of them completely covered over. The “donut” shaped scar is normal, too. The callous tissue grows from the outside edges toward the center, so it’s still in the process of sealing over.


Take the time to do it right.

How to Cut a Tree Limb

Proper pruning of large tree limbs involves three cuts:

  • Cut #1, Notch Cut: Cut a small notch in the bottom of the limb, 2-3 feet away from the trunk, and about a quarter of the way through. This notch will keep the bark from splitting when you make the next cut.
  • Cut #2, Relief Cut: Just outside the notch, make a relief cut completely through the branch. This removes the weight of the branch, so that you can make your final cut without the branch splitting and falling.
  • Cut #3, Final Cut: This is the one that matters! Your final cut should be right where the branch collar (that swollen bump) transitions to smooth branch bark. Follow the slant of the branch collar. If you can’t fit your saw into the crotch at the right angle, then cut it from the bottom up.

Common Tree Trimming Mistakes

  • Cutting the Branch Too Short: We used to think that branches should be cut off flush with the trunk – boy, were we ever wrong! The branch collar is responsible for forming the scar tissue. If you cut into the branch collar, the tree will have a very hard time recovering. When you see rotten holes in tree trunks, or seeping wounds, you’re looking at the aftermath of cutting off the branch collar.
  • Leaving the Branch Too Long: The branch collar on the truck can only do its job of allowing the wound to heal if all of the branch that it has to cover over has been removed while leaving the branch collar itself intact. In the photo on the right, you can see how the branch stubs that were left too long are interfering with and actually preventing the healing process from taking place.
  • Failure to Make the Relief Cuts: If you fail to make the relief cuts and remove most of the weight of the limb before trimming the branch back to the trunk, you run the risk of having the branch split off. This can cause substantial damage to the trunk, as seen in the photo at right. This can make the wound on the trunk susceptible to disease and insect infestation and take much longer to heal.

Further Information



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10 Comments on “How To Trim Large Tree Branches”

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  1. Lakefarm Says:
    May 19th, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Hello and thanks for providing this information on cutting large branches. I have a mulberry tree that suffered substantial winter damage and the bark on some branches has died 360 degrees around the branch. It was so mushy all I had to do was rub it away, exposing the underlying wood. A) will these branches ever regain their bark or should I remove them? B) if I should remove them, when would be the best time to do so?

    Thank you.

  2. Chris Francis Says:
    November 15th, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Good info on making the actual cut. And, the article is right to say that trees don’t actually heal; they seal. But the wound or resulting decay will stay there forever, likely getting worse with time – tree species and location play a large role in how much decay and how fast. What is not covered here is which branches to trim and why. Of course, that can be complex. Assuming you have a low branch that rubs on the roof or your vehicle, follow the above instructions. Otherwise, it is desirable to leave as many leaves on the tree as possible because that is where the food is made through photosynthesis. Of course, there are some branches that will need to be pruned from trees in urban environments. Why don’t trees in the forest need to be pruned? Trees in their natural environment grow differently due to the available light and phototropism (picture a flower in the kitchen window). What we are looking for is a strong central leader and good branch connections and spacing. The most important reason for pruning urban trees is to eliminate or reduce competing leaders by removal or reduction cuts. And if we know that a limb is a temporary branch, we also know that it will be removed one day, so it is a good idea to keep the diameter of that limb small so that the future wound from removal is also small. If in doubt, call a Certified Arborist.

    CHRIS FRANCIS
    * ISA Certified Arborist
    * Alabama State Licensed:
    – Tree Surgeon
    – Landscape Designer
    – Landscape Contractor
    – Pest Control Supervisor

    Chris Francis Landscapes

  3. Larry Host Says:
    November 20th, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    I found your site by a websearch. The instruction to trim at the branch collar is really great. What I was looking for was what to do if the collar was cut back and a doughnut hole has formed. If you can add a picture and explanation of that, it would be even better. Thanks.
    Larry Host
    Sacramento, California

  4. Chris Francis Says:
    November 21st, 2012 at 7:15 am

    Larry,
    I’m not really following. The doughnut hole could be formed by woundwood rolling in. If that is the case, it should soon cover the entire wound. If there is dead wood beyond that woundwood, you can prune it out to allow the woundwood to completely close over the wound. Be careful not to cut into the branch collar or woundwood in the process. If someone has already cut into the branch collar, there really is not anything that can be done. If the tree has good vigor, it can eventually form woundwood over the cut, but it will be a larger wound, cut into the trunk tissue, and it will not have the “right stuff” if the branch collar has been cut off (as in a large flush cut).

    CHRIS FRANCIS 
    • ISA Certified Arborist 
    • Alabama State Licensed: 
      - Tree Surgeon 
      - Landscape Designer 
      - Landscape Contractor 
      - Pest Control Supervisor
    • Certified Landscape Professional 

    Chris Francis Landscapes & Tree Care

  5. maureen Says:
    June 16th, 2014 at 8:03 am

    We had a very large tree limb fall on to our car. How do you remove the branch without causing more damage to the car (landed on and destroyed the windshield). We will of course be using a chain saw, but fear the damage it may cause. Thank you!!!

  6. Chris Francis Says:
    June 25th, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    Call a professional. Your auto insurance carrier will pay for the removal. I fear your safety moreso than the car, but a professional can handle it.

    CHRIS FRANCIS
    • ISA Certified Arborist
    • Alabama State Licensed:
    – Tree Surgeon
    – Landscape Designer
    – Landscape Contractor
    – Pest Control Supervisor
    • Certified Landscape Professional
    • AUFA Certified Urban Forester

    Chris Francis Tree Care

  7. Mary Ann Says:
    July 26th, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Had a maple tree trimmed last year. They did a terrible job, and left us with a ‘broccoli’ looking tree. This year we have a lot of new growth and the branches are growing downward. Are these just suckers, and should they be removed?

  8. Chris Francis Says:
    July 28th, 2014 at 11:23 am

    Sounds like they “topped” your tree. The new growth will be succulent and vigorous. Leave them there. Let them grow. Then, select which ones to keep. You will need to contact a Certified Arborist in your area to either consult with you or perform the correctional pruning. You will have to balance out letting the tree put on enough green to keep it alive with removing enough branches to keep it structurally sound.

    CHRIS FRANCIS
    • ISA Certified Arborist
    • Alabama State Licensed:
    – Tree Surgeon
    – Landscape Designer
    – Landscape Contractor
    – Pest Control Supervisor
    • Certified Landscape Professional
    • AUFA Certified Urban Forester

    Chris Francis Tree Care

  9. Carol M. Says:
    August 13th, 2014 at 10:18 pm

    So when are we going to get those drones that cut the 1 inch tops off the trees so we can keep them from ever getting that big and out of control? Hopefully the professionals will be getting them in a few years so we can hire them cheaper to do the job. Yeah, technology!!

  10. Karen M Says:
    August 26th, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Wow, advocating putting arborists out of business and posting it right on the internet. Way to go! So glad my company can’t use drones to eliminate my job! Not yet anyway.

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