Trimming the Tree

Keeping trees healthy and attractive requires strategic trimming or pruning on occasion. To effectively trim trees, it's important to have the proper training, use the right equipment and implement safe practices and techniques.

Why is it important to keep trees trimmed? Cutting out weak, diseased or dead limbs keeps trees healthier. Low-hanging limbs that obstruct walkways or those that may have contact with structures also need to be trimmed for safety purposes.

As with any project, proper preparation will help ensure a safe and successful result. There are several parts to the preparation process, including training, equipment, safety gear and planning and communication. Each of these elements should be in place and “in sync” before beginning a tree trimming project.


The first step, and the most important one, is to be sure that the operator has had proper instruction and training before beginning any tree trimming project.

A person who has not had proper training and tries to operate a piece of power equipment, such as a chain saw, is a danger to himself and others. Risk management and liability are issues for many organizations and proper training helps address those concerns.

Some managers view training as an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, but it is important to take a long-term perspective. By using safe techniques, operators reduce the chances of an injury that can increase healthcare costs as well as man-hours lost. In addition, by learning efficient techniques, projects can get done more efficiently — thus more than make up for the time spent on training. Consider training to be an investment that pays off in the long run.


For small clipping or pruning projects, a handsaw or long-handled branch clipper, called a lopper, will do. When using these tools, be sure that hands and fingers, as well as clothing, are safely out of way of the blades.

For larger limbs, a chain saw is usually the tool of choice. Many different features and options are available. A local equipment dealer can provide invaluable guidance in the selection process.

However, before visiting your dealer, here are the key issues to consider:

  • Weight and engine size

    For cutting limbs, a light chain saw is easier to maneuver and also helps reduce operator fatigue. However, the lighter the saw, the smaller the engine, so be sure to select a saw that has sufficient power to do what you need.

  • Bar length

    The bar length on the chain saw should be selected based on the size of the trees or branches to be cut. For cutting large branches, a saw with a bar length of 16 to 20 inches is recommended.

  • Ergonomic design

    A well-designed saw will offer a comfortable working position, thus reducing fatigue. Look for low vibration levels in the handle, a slim, well-balanced saw body and a high center of gravity.

  • Safety features

    A saw's chain brake helps prevent serious injury. The chain brake should be designed to activate in the event of kickback or if the operator's hand forces the kickback guard forward.

  • Maintenance

    Evaluate how easy it is to perform routine maintenance on the saw — changing the oil, adjusting the chain tension and so on.

A variation on the chain saw that may be helpful is the pole saw. In essence, the pole saw functions similarly to a chain saw, but the blade is on the end of an extended pole. The primary benefit is that you can reach higher limbs or branches while remaining on the ground, thus eliminating the need for a ladder. Pole saws can generally reach anywhere from 6 to 16 feet from the operator.


Again, training and instruction are paramount when operating a chain saw. You should study the owner's manual for a review of the product's features and operating techniques.

Before beginning a tree trimming project, it is important for the operator to be outfitted head-to-toe with the proper safety apparel. Here is a rundown of the necessary equipment.

  • Chaps or pants

    About 40 percent of chain saw injuries involve the legs, so specially designed chaps or pants are a critical part of safety gear. Chaps or pants that bear the UL label have been tested in accordance with ASTM F1897 for cut-through protection and washability.

  • Ear protection

    Constant exposure to the high noise level of chain saw operation can impair or damage hearing. Ear protection can help to reduce the level of noise an operator experiences, thus reducing the risk of hearing damage.

  • Eye protection

    With the wood and dust that flies during chain saw use, safety glasses help to keep debris from interfering with your vision, or scratching your eye and causing damage to your sight. The glasses should fit close to and wrap around the face for the best protection.

  • Gloves

    Wear gloves with built-in cut resistance for the best protection. Chain saw protection is usually only added to the back of the left hand, where most chain saw cuts occur.

  • Boots

    Cut-resistant footwear helps to protect your feet when saw slippage occurs. Select a pair of boots with plenty of tread that is durable, comfortable and appropriate for the work at hand.

  • Helmet

    An approved safety helmet is necessary. Helmets should be replaced every 2 to 4 years, as ultraviolet light weakens the helmet material.

Since you spend a lot of time using your safety apparel, select pieces that are comfortable and durable. The clothing you select should fit closely but not so tight that your movements are restricted.


Ensuring that you have sufficient room to work is another important component of safe tree trimming. Develop a plan for the project and communicate with those who may be in the area.

Begin by walking completely around the tree that you will trim, noting if the ground has any angles or low spots and if the soil is loose for your footing. Also pay attention to the wind, the location and direction of the limb(s) you will be working on and other environmental factors that may impact your work.

Then, clearly mark your work area to keep bystanders away. Place warning signs or string a rope or yellow work tape to effectively maintain safe space.

If you're working with a partner, make sure you communicate what the plan of action will be. If you're unable to see your partner, shout, “Clear!” before starting to saw. Wait for your partner to respond “All clear!” before beginning.


According to the International Society of Arboriculture, there are four specific types of pruning that may be necessary to maintain a mature tree in a healthy, safe and attractive condition.

  1. Cleaning: the removal of dead, dying, diseased, crowded, weakly attached and low-vigor branches from the crown of a tree.

  2. Thinning: the selective removal of branches to increase light penetration and air movement through the crown. Thinning opens the tree's foliage, reduces weight on heavy limbs and helps retain the tree's natural shape.

  3. Raising: removes the lower branches from a tree in order to provide clearance for buildings, vehicles, pedestrians, and vistas.

  4. Reduction: reduces the size of a tree, often for clearance for utility lines. Compared to topping, this helps maintain the form and structural integrity of the tree.

The amount of live tissue that should be removed depends on the tree size, species and age, as well as the pruning objectives. An important principle to remember is that a tree can recover from several small pruning wounds faster than from one large wound.


With all of the pre-work completed, the project should go smoothly and efficiently. The preparation process, which may seem time-consuming, results in reduced risks for the operator and the tree.

If you have concerns, or if the project is particularly complicated or difficult, consult with a professional arborist.

Operators have to work “smart” when dealing with power equipment and trees. Every project has numerous variables, making every situation different. By following guidelines and preparing appropriately, you will be ready to accomplish your goal. The end result will be that the trees you care for will continue to look good and stay healthy.

Mark Michaels is a product manager for Husqvarna (Charlotte, N.C.).

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