How To Top A Tree Without Damaging It

Have an overgrown tree outside of your home? If you’re one of the many homeowners who have issues with their trees getting too top heavy recently, then you might want to consider cutting off the tops, also known as “topping.”

Although there are controversies over doing so due to safety hazards for those involved in the tree cutting and the possibility of tree decay if not carefully done, it’s still the preferred option for clearing tree tops.


Especially when they can pose problems for houses, telephone wires, and other nearby items should the tree end up breaking off due to weather conditions (e.g. wind, rain, thunder), having clean-topped trees is the way to go.

​In this article, we offer you a few ways on how to top a tree without damaging it, as well as yourself and others around you. With our step-by-step tutorial, we will help you become knowledgeable and prepared for your next tree-topping session! Let’s get started.

What You’ll Need For This Step-by-step Tutorial

#1- ​A Ladder

​While a rope-and-harness method might sound like a good alternative, a ladder might be better to use instead, just because you can distance yourself from having to be directly on the tree while topping it, for safety reasons. Get a ladder that is not only high enough to reach the top branches, but also sturdy enough to remain stable on the ground.

​For a solid tree ladder, we recommend getting Guide Gear’s 20’ Climbing Stick, which you can find here.

#2- ​A Tree Saw

Tree Saw

​Make sure you invest in a saw that’s specially designed for cutting trees: other types of saws will most likely not work, as they tend to be more suited for thinner items and might be dangerous if used on a thicker object. With that said, purchase one that not only can slice through just about any thickness, but also is durable for long periods of usage.

​If you prefer to stay on the ground, instead of climbing up to top the tree, you can consider getting a telescoping saw or a pole saw to reach those elevated heights without the need to make that extra effort to climb and then do the work up there.

You may need to know how to choose the best pruning saw for trees, just read our post here.

#3- ​Tree Pruners

Perhaps if there are some small, thin branches at the top of the tree, you can just use pruners to carefully trim them off, rather than using the large tree saw for everything.

#4- ​A Helmet

Regardless of whether you’re at the top of the tree or firmly rooted on the ground, wearing a helmet is essential to your safety. Should tree branches fall and you’re in the way, being protected will minimize the damage done.

Here is a good, sturdy helmet that we recommend for your safety:


Step-by-step Instructions On How To Top A Tree


Be Experienced

If this will be your first time topping a tree, then it’s advised not to do so, since it can be very dangerous not only to you, but also to the tree if not done properly.

To be experienced in cutting down tree tops is to know their structure, how to safely remove the branches without taking off too little or too much, and also how to keep yourself and others around you away from harm.

Instead, consider shelling out the money and hiring a professional tree-topper to get rid of those overgrown branches at the top. While you might be reluctant to pay for these kinds of services, know that it’s for your safety, as well as everyone else’s, and perhaps you can learn a thing or two from the expert, so that you can top the tree on your own next time!

For a demonstration of tree topping, check out this video:


Know Which Branches To Cut Off

On the other hand, if you have plenty of experience topping trees, then you can go about figuring out which branches need to be sliced. Branches that are about to die or are already dead definitely need to be cut, as well as those that are decaying, in order to prevent the decay from spreading to the rest of the tree.

Also trim off branches that interfere with power lines, satellite signals, and even other plants that receive little to no sunlight. By doing so, you can help prevent safety hazards from happening while also keeping the tree in good shape.


Check Where It Leans

Whether it’s the way the wind is blowing or how it naturally bends, taking note of which direction the tree leans will help you gauge where you should be positioned to cut the branches off; in other words, if the tree bends to the left, then you go on the right.


Give Yourself Enough Space

Not only do you give yourself enough room to cut the tree tops down, but also for a drop zone (also called “lay”) down on the ground. Measure out the area around the tree, estimating the range that tree branches can drop down safely and clearing out the path for it. This will help make sure that you and the surroundings will be safe from fallen tree branches.


Start With Smaller Branches

Slowly ease yourself into the tree topping by starting off cutting off the smaller branches before working your way to the bigger ones. By doing so, you can clear the way for slicing off the larger branches and also for reducing their size if the smaller branches are part of the bigger ones.


Use The Three-Way Cut On The Collar Of The Branch

This is a special cutting technique to cut off tree branches effectively:

  • Locate the collar of the branch (the crook, or intersection, of where two offshoots meet).
  • Slice a notch into the bottom off the branch, around two feet away from the tree trunk. Cut only about one-fourth inch into the trunk. Do the same from the top of the branch, careful not to directly cut through the collar.
  • Slice the branch completely off just outside of the collar, and continue to the other branches on the tree.

Trim as many tree branches as you can, but also be careful not to cut off too many of them, since too many bare spots can lead to problems with too much sunlight and other issues for the plant.

For a demonstration of the three-way cut, check out this video:​


Clean Up

Clean Up

While probably the most tedious work after topping the tree, it’s still important to clear away the debris in order to prevent accidents from happening on the ground.

You can either throw away the branches into the recycle bin for trash day pickup, or use them as kindle for the fireplace at home. Whichever option you decide on, know that you’re helping the environment!

Take Away Message

​While it’s considered dangerous and even harmful to the environment if not done properly, tree topping is still a useful method to clear an overgrown tree top not only for the plant’s health, but also for the safety of the people and objects around it. Doing it in a safe, professional manner will keep the environment protected and beneficial in the way.

​Topping a tree might seem daunting at first, especially if you don’t have any experience in it or have the necessary equipment to do so. However, by doing some research and getting some secondhand experience from professionals beforehand, you will be ready to top your first tree!

​Enjoyed the article? Feel free to share and comment!

Shary Saunders

Shary Saunders is the founder and chief editor of Gardening and landscaping have been her passion for years. You can find Shary on Twitter at @SharySaunders. Read more about Shary here.

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