How to Properly Prune Using the 3-Cut Method and The Reduction Cut

Follow these basic steps to learn how to prune your tree without causing long-term harm.

We must make proper pruning cuts to avoid accidentally killing a tree while pruning it. We can learn how to make these cuts by looking at how trees naturally function in the forest.

Through careful observation, we find that trees naturally perform self-pruning to shed weak and inefficient branches. The fancy term for this process is cladoptosis. They do this in a way that prevents wood-decay fungi from killing the tree. This process is driven by something called the branch collar. The branch collar is located at the base of a branch, where it meets the trunk (or a larger branch). The branch collar consists of overlapping layers of tissue that create a strong attachment point with the trunk and help prevent wood-decay fungi from entering the trunk.

The key takeaway from these observations? Do not damage the branch collar when pruning. Otherwise, we could accidentally harm or kill the tree. With that in mind, now let’s learn about the 3-cut method.

The 3-Cut Method

Before we begin, we will need the following tools:

  • Bypass pruners: Use these for cuts on branches that are less than ⅓-inch in diameter.
  • Loppers: Use these to make cuts on branches from ⅓-inch to 1-inch in diameter.
  • Hand saw: Use this to make cuts on branches 1-inch in diameter and larger.
  • Optional: Pole saw and pole loppers. These are great for cutting branches that are out of reach.

Let me add two important warnings before we dive in:

  • Wear personal protective equipment required for each tool. I recommend eye and hand protection at a minimum. Wear a helmet when cutting branches overhead.
  • Work from the ground on safe, flat surfaces only. Do not work from roofs, ladders, and other sloped and unstable surfaces without professional training and safety equipment. These are dangerous places.
illustration of a branch collar

To begin, we must first identify the branch collar. The branch collar is a bulge at the base of the branch where it meets the trunk (or a larger branch). With practice, it will become easy to locate the branch collar. Whenever we make a pruning cut, the goal is to make the cut immediately adjacent to the outside of the branch collar. We do not want to remove or damage the branch collar, but we also do not want to cut too far away from the branch collar. Both make it hard or impossible for the tree to create protection against wood-decay fungi.

For branches less than 1-inch in diameter, we use bypass pruners or loppers to make the cut outside of the bulge, on the side furthest from the trunk (or larger branch). For any branch larger than 1-inch in diameter, we should use a hand saw to make the pruning cut. But be careful! These saws are sharp. Make sure hands, arms, and legs are not behind the direction of the cut—we do not want to accidentally slice our body after the saw breaks through the final bit of wood. It hurts!

When we use a hand saw, we encounter a new issue: As we are cutting the branch, it could fall and peel bark from the underside of the branch collar and the trunk below where the branch attaches. This creates a serious wound that leaves the tree susceptible to attack from wood-decay fungi. We must avoid this or risk killing the tree. To do so, we perform something called the 3-Cut Method.

Step-by-Step: 3-Cut Pruning Method
  1. 1
    Cut 1
  2. 2
    Cut 2
  3. 3
    Cut 3
  4. 4
    Complete Cut

Here is how to perform the 3-Cut Method:

  1. We make the first cut under the branch to keep it from peeling bark from the underside. This cut should be made approximately 2–3 inches from the branch collar.
  2. With the first cut in place, we move our hand saw beyond this cut, to approximately 4–5 inches from the branch collar. Make this second cut starting from the top of the branch. Please note that the goal of these first two cuts is to reduce the weight of the branch without peeling bark, thereby freeing us to make an exact final cut.
  3. The third and final cut must be made immediately adjacent to the outside of the branch collar. Do not damage the branch collar. Using a sharp saw will help make a great cut.

Sometimes we only need to reduce the length of a branch instead of fully removing it. For this, we can still use the 3-Cut Method, but we will need to apply it using a slightly different approach. We'll use a new method called a reduction cut. Let's learn how to do this next.

The Reduction Cut

A reduction cut is one where we reduce the end of a main branch back to a smaller side branch (the fancy term is a side lateral). That remaining side branch should be at least one-third of the diameter of the main branch so that it can sustain life for the remainder of the branch.

For small branches less than 1-inch in diameter, use bypass pruners or loppers to make the cut. For any branch larger than 1-inch in diameter, use the 3-Cut Method. Again, the goal with the first two cuts is to reduce the weight of the branch, thereby freeing us to make a very precise final cut without having to worry about peeling bark. For reduction cuts, the third and final cut must be made at a 45° angle to the side branch and should not damage the branch collar of the side branch.

Step-by-Step: Reduction Cut
  1. 1
    Cut 1
  2. 2
    Cut 2
  3. 3
    Cut 3
  4. 4
    Complete Cut

Congratulations! You've now mastered the art of proper pruning techniques. Now, armed with the knowledge of the 3-Cut Method and the reduction cut, you're ready to tackle structural pruning with confidence. Remember, if you ever need professional pruning help, please don't hesitate to reach out to us for a free consultation!

Start your next project with us!

Get a free quote for tree and shrub care, compost tea, planting, pruning, Piedmont Prairies, Pocket Forests, and more!

Like this article? Pass it on.

Related Articles

Still Using Hedge Trimmers? Hand Pruning is Better for Your Shrubs
Are Your Trees Safe? Prune to Make Them Stronger.
[Case Study] Before and After: Structural Pruning on an Oak Tree
What is Tree Care?
How to Perform Structural Pruning
Video | How to Perform Structural Pruning
Video | How to Perform the 3-Cut Pruning Method
How to Properly Prune Using the 3-Cut Method and The Reduction Cut
April 2024 Treecologist Tribune
Video | Learn How to Save Time and Help Heal Earth in Our New Book
Setting the Stage—A Conversation About Why Change is Necessary
Tree Root Structure
January 2024 Treecologist Tribune
Point of View: 2023 Year in Review at Leaf & Limb
November 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Bats are the Best (and, Unfortunately, They're Endangered)
October 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Video | The Story of A Seed
September 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Video | Meadows, Thickets, and Pocket Forests: Going Beyond the Traditional Landscaping Model
Strength in Numbers: The Basics of a Pocket Forest
Wondering How to Get Rid of Crape Myrtle Bark Scale?
August 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Video | From Seeds to Serenity: The Piedmont Prairie Process
10 Native Flowers and Grasses to Plant in a Central North Carolina Piedmont Prairie
July 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Video | Tree Roots Don't Break Pipes
Do Roots Cause Damage? Debunking 3 Common Myths About Tree Roots
Stop Blaming Tree Roots: 5 Ways to Proactively Prevent Property Damage
June 2023 Treecologist Tribune
10 Native Shrubs to Plant in Central North Carolina
Video | How to Manage Invasive Plants
Managing Invasive Plants
May 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Video | Earth Day is Every Day
Plants Make the Planet Go Round
Spring Scavenger Hunt
March Treecologist Tribune
We Are Safe At All Times: Our Approach to Tree-Climbing Safety
Video | Climbing with Archie: How to Climb a Tree Like an Arborist
Video | Day in the Life
February Treecologist Tribune
Why I Recommend Herbicide for Some Ecological Restoration Projects
Point of View: Behind the Scenes at Leaf & Limb
Video | How Hand Pruning Your Shrubs is Faster, Cheaper, and Healthier than using a Hedge Trimmer!
Checklist: Tools and Supplies for Hand Pruning Your Shrubs
Still Using Hedge Trimmers? Hand Pruning is Better for Your Shrubs
January 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Sapling Stories: Bald Cypress
October 2022 Treecologist Tribune
Friend or Foe? Snakes (Yes, Even Copperheads) Are Important to Our Ecosystem.
Project Pando Needs Your Help! How to Collect Native Tree Seeds
Project Pando: Community Seed Collection
Video | Piedmont Prairies: An Alternative to Grass and Lawns Where Beauty and Life Thrive!
August 2022 Treecologist Tribune
Planting a Piedmont Prairie Helped Change the Way I See the World
Piedmont Prairies: The Process & What to Expect
Video | How to Structurally Prune a Tree for Strength
[Case Study] Before and After: Structural Pruning on an Oak Tree
Video | How to Spot a Dead or Dying Tree
Video | Bigger is Not Always Better! Planting Small Can Lead to Big Benefits.
Bigger is Not Better! 3 Reasons Why You Should Plant Trees When They are Smaller
Video | How Invasives Harm Our Local Ecosystem (And the ONE Thing You Can Do to Help)
How Invasive Trees and Shrubs Harm Our Local Ecosystem and One Way You Can Reverse That Damage
10 Invasive Plants to Watch Out for in Central North Carolina
Spring Scavenger Hunt
Fascinators and Flagella: How to Host a Tea Party for Soil Microbes
Compost Tea Makes Soil Healthy and Trees Happy
Video | Tea for Your Trees
Video | Mulch Volcanoes: Deceptively Deadly
Are Mulch Volcanoes Threatening The Trees in Your Neighborhood?
Sapling Stories: Beryl's Beauties
Video | Sheep, Seeds, and Swales: An Update from Project Pando
6 Reasons Why Planting A Native Tree Benefits the Environment and Our Local Ecosystem
Video | Drop That Rake: Save Time and Money by Leaving Your Leaves
Project Pando: Native Seed Drive 2021
Video | How to Plant a Tree: The Definitive Guide to Proper Planting
10 Simple Steps to a Perfectly Planted Tree or Shrub
Video | 3 Ways City Life Stresses Trees (And What You Can Do to Help)
Why is Tree Care Important? Outside of the Forest, Trees Face Unique Challenges.
Emerald Ash Borers are Killing Trees. A Simple Treatment Can Stop Them.
Business Conservationist of the Year
Video | Did you Know? The Secret to Fertilizing your Trees and Shrubs Without Using Chemicals.
Chemical Fertilizers: 3 Surprising Myths and Why You Should Choose Organic Matter Instead
4 Options for Fertilizing Trees and Shrubs the Cheap, Easy, and Healthy Way
Video | 4 Fundamentals of Tree Care
Not Sure How to Care for your Trees? 4 Simple Steps to Happy, Healthy Trees
[Parody] Video | Introducing Timber: the Only Dating App for Trees
Video | Introducing Archie the Arborist: 5 Amazing Tree Facts
We Show That We Care: The History of Project Pando
How to Spot a Pine Borer Infestation
Video | How to Plant a Tree: 5 Questions to Ask Before You Pick Up a Shovel
Drop that shovel! 5 Questions to Ask Before Planting
10 Native Trees to Plant in Central North Carolina
Holiday Gift Guide for That Special Tree in Your Life
Measure What Matters - We are B Corp Certified!
Video | Wood Chips: The Secret Ingredient to Healthy Trees
Top 10 Reasons to Choose Wood Chips Over Other Types of Mulch
Healthy Eating Plate for Trees
Video | Welcome to Project Pando
Video | Structure is Strength - How to Make your Trees More Safe Using Pruning.
Are Your Trees Safe? Prune to Make Them Stronger.
How to Select a Safe Branch for a Tree Swing
Your Dirt is Hungry
Video | Soil is Alive
Recipe: Savory Soil Casserole
How Trees Can Heal Earth & What We Can Do to Help
Earth Day Bingo
Video | How Trees Can Save the Earth
Spring Tree Care Checklist
Spring Scavenger Hunt
Don't Make a Deadly Mistake: Top 10 Questions to Consider Before Pruning
Video | Planning to Prune? Use this simple framework and avoid deadly mistakes.
Video | Rooted by Our Purpose: A New Direction at Leaf & Limb
Why Dead Wood is Good Wood
Video | Want More Birds in your Backyard? Plant These Native Trees.
Best Native Trees for Butterflies
Fall & Winter Tree Care Checklist
Video | Fall Tree Care Checklist: Leave your Leaves, Plant New Trees, and Other Important Tasks
Top 10 Most Surprising Benefits of Trees
How I Learned to Love My Trees
Video | Trees are Critical to Our Future
Think Your Tree is Dead? Look a Little Closer
How to Spot a Dead or Dying Tree
Video | How to Spot the Warning Signs: Dead, Dying or Hazardous Trees
Right Tree, Right Place: What to Plant and Where to Plant it
Video | How To: Choosing the Right Tree for Any Location
Our Favorite Tree Recommendations for Tricky Areas
Using Fertilizer? Think Twice Before You Do.
The #1 Reason Most Soil Tests Don't Work
Friend or Foe: When to Take Action Against Pests
The Insect Apocalypse is Here. How Can You Help?
16 Fascinating Facts About Fungi
Mycorrhizal Fungi: The Unsung Heroes of Tree Care
Case Study: Watch How Soil Improvement Turned this Tree from Sickly to Stately
From Dead Dirt to Healthy Soil in 7 Simple Steps
6 Pruning Mistakes to Avoid
How to Install and Enjoy Your Rain Gauge
Help Save the Monarch Butterflies!
4 Fascinating Facts About Mistletoe
Proper Care for Newly Planted Trees
8 Ways to Accidentally Kill Your Tree When Planting
Drop that Rake! Why Leaving the Leaves is Vital to Your Trees' Health
Save Time This Fall: Leave Your Leaves
Video | How To: The Fundamentals Of Watering
Video | The Fundamentals of Mulch: Proper Care, Installation, and Selection
Too Many Choices: Which Mulch or Weed Barrier Should I Choose?
When Good Mulch Goes Bad
How To: The Fundamentals of Mulch Installation
Five Ways to Spot a Thirsty Tree or Shrub
Soaker Hoses, Irrigation Systems, and Treegators, Oh My!
Drought Resistant Trees
How To: The Fundamentals of Watering
The Joy of Planting Native Trees in Durham, North Carolina
Brightening Up Neighborhoods Across Durham
Changing lives one seed at a time in Durham
Soil Decompaction - An Essential for Good Tree Health
Emerald Ash Borer is in NC!
Cabling & Bracing - Options for Making Your Tree Safer
Tree Care for Crape Myrtles
How to Prevent Tree Damage
Help! My Tree Has a Disease!
Dragon’s Blood Tree
Deep Root Fertilization: Myths & The Truth
The Dangerous Truth About Ghost Insurance Policies
Happy Trees Begin With Proper Planting
Trees & Shrubs Need Check-Ups Too!
How To Protect Your Trees from a Lightning Strike
Mulching: A Cheap, Easy Way to Increase the Health of Your Trees!
Crape Myrtles: A Tale of Love, Murder, and Proper Pruning
The World's Oldest Trees
Help! Insects are Attacking my Trees & Shrubs!
Tree Care: Save Money and Increase Your Property Value
Root Collar Excavation is Critical to Your Tree's Survival!
Tree Risk Assessment: The Key to Safer Trees & Peace of Mind!
10 Tips on How to Choose the Right Tree Service and Avoid Scams
Happy Trees Grow From Healthy Soil
TCIA Accreditation: Empowering You With Confidence
What is Tree Care?
Mulch Volcanoes: the Mt. St. Helens of Tree Problems
Trees Need a Thriving Soil Food Web
Call Leaf & Limb Send an Intercom Message