How to trim tree branches

The proper and safer way to trim trees on your property

By David ZimmerDavid Zimmer


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Like a circus elephant that juggles trumpet-playing midgets, felling a cottage tree – with its whoomph! and kaboom! — always steals the show. But limbing and bucking a tree – removing its branches and cutting the trunk into bite-sized pieces — takes far more time in terms of labour. And because limbing work is often done low to the ground, close to your legs and feet amidst a jumble of branches, the odds of getting hurt start to increase. Fortunately, there are limbing methods used by professional foresters that are not only inherently safer, they’re also easier on the saw operator — lessening the chance you’ll need Advil or a chiropractor when the work is done.

First, though, the obligatory reminder about safety gear, advice that most cottagers routinely ignore. No kidding around — if you operate a chainsaw you should wear this stuff. You need: safety boots, chainsaw pants (or chaps), face protection, a hard hat (a skinny branch, falling from above, can really ring your bell), gloves, and ear protection (big muff-style units will keep branch tips from poking out your eardrum). I can’t be blunt enough. If you choose not to wear any of this equipment, make sure someone in your family knows the quickest route to the hospital.

Okay, back to the fun stuff. Rather than just lopping off branches willy-nilly, proper limbing technique uses a more orderly approach that combines cutting with the bottom of the bar (called the “pulling chain” because it tends to pull the saw away from the operator) and the top of the bar (called the “pushing chain” because it tends to push the saw towards the operator).

A good all-round technique that works well for conifers in particular is called the “sweep method,” a limbing style that keeps the body of the saw between you and the chain as much as possible. To begin, work from the base of the trunk toward the top. Standing with the saw on the left side of the trunk, get into a balanced stance with your knees comfortably bent, and support the body of the saw with your right thigh.

Step 1

Rev the saw right up, then make a forward sweep, about two feet long, lopping branches off with the pushing chain (the top of the bar), and taking care not to reach farther than is comfortable.

Step 2

Flip the saw on top of the trunk and make a sweep back towards the butt using the pulling chain (the bottom of the bar), taking care that heavy branches don’t pinch the chain. (In fact, it’s best to take the weight off a hefty limb first by removing a section or two, working back to the trunk.)

Step 3

Place the guide bar on the right side of the tree, resting the saw body on the trunk, and make another forward sweep using the pushing chain.

You’ve just cleared three sides of a short section of the trunk. When you finish Step 3, keep the guide bar on the right side of the tree as you walk forward, ready to excise the next set of branches. If the cut branches are a trip hazard, engage the chain brake, and clear away the debris before continuing. When you get near the end, and all that’s left is a small Christmas tree, just cut off the top of the tree.

Lower limbing, removing the branches trapped under the trunk, is generally easiest to do once all the other branches have been removed. If the trunk is really close to the ground, or supported higher than waist height, roll it over to expose the bottom branches. Lightly support the guide bar on the trunk and work backwards using the pulling chain. Otherwise, starting at the butt end, cut away the underlying branches and you will be left with a cleared section of trunk, held up at a convenient height for bucking into big chunks — called “blocks”— by the branches that still remain under the trunk. As you move up the tree, removing underlying limbs and cutting away blocks, you’ll also reduce the weight of the trunk that rests on the remaining bottom branches, making them easier to remove. Lower limbing can also be performed after each sweep sequence by facing the trunk and making a short pass backwards using the pushing chain.

When cutting bottom branches, keep in mind that many limbs will be under compression as they lie squashed under the trunk. To safely cut these without binding the saw or getting walloped by a spring-loaded branch, first relieve some of the pressure by making a few small cuts (no more than one-third the branch’s diameter) on the side of the limb that is in compression, then cut through the side that is held in tension.

While it might seem odd to be bucking with a heavy trunk propped off the ground, if you’re mindful of where the trunk will drop, it’s often a more comfortable way to work. Comfortable, of course, is a bit of a euphemism. By this time you will be sweating like a racehorse, tired, and possibly covered in insect bites. But if you did your limbing carefully, you shouldn’t need the services of a surgeon or a back specialist. Like the man said, better safe than sorry.

This article was originally published on October 3, 2005

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David Zimmer