How To Use A Pruning Saw

Tips and Tricks For Pruning Thicker Branches In Large Shrubs

Pruning branch of old Malus (apple) tree
Mark Bolton/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Once you’ve decided you need to make a pruning cut and know that the wood is too thick for the otherwise-preferable use of hand pruners or loppers, it’s time to get out your pruning saw. Pruning saws are your choice for wood about 1.5 inches thick or more and your last resort before the very large stuff that you might only be able to do with a chainsaw. As such, they are used to cut a wide range on the large end of wood thicknesses.

Since saws are used on thick, often long wood, their use often comes with more cautions and considerations than pruners and loppers, which are basically strong and specialized scissors. Saws can require significantly more strength and control.

This guide covers tips and cautions for the use of saws in pruning you can reach from ground level. Long-handled pole saws for tree pruning have additional risks.

Pruning With A Saw, General Technique

Wear sturdy work gloves and possibly safety goggles if you’re in a dense shrub. Choose the exact spot to cut and a healthy cutting angle. As you prune, it may help to consider these steps:

  1. Notice nearby wood you want to preserve. Often you will be working in tight-angled crotches or near other branches you do not want to cut. More than any other pruning tool, saws easily slip and can quickly injure wood unintentionally, so note this risk in your mind.
  2. Choose a comfortable direction of cut. When possible, choose to cut from a top side to a lower side, so gravity is pulling the saw into the wood. By changing where you stand relative to the plant and the angle of your saw, you can usually make the same cut in many different ways to suit your access and comfort.
  3. Reduce limb weight with preliminary cuts. This step is crucial and not anticipated by many gardeners. Thick or long branches have significant weight that will cause a premature break and tear before you can complete a saw cut. This is because your saw cut will reduce the wood holding the limb to a weak, narrow strip. To prevent a tearing wound to the plant, you must tactically remove this weight before even starting your last cut at your chosen spot.
  4. Begin your final cut with a starting groove. Without this groove, the saw will want to slip away from your site. Slipping is especially a risk on non-horizontal branches.
  5. Begin to cut. Working in the groove to guide your strokes, you can cut at a brisk speed now, straight back and forth, keeping in enough control to not slip and wound nearby wood or yourself. Cutting happens on the pull stroke, so bite into the wood on pulling and push back lightly.
  6. Finish the cut. Saw until the branch comes cleanly away from the plant. Occasionally some rough wood will be left at the bottom of your cut, like a splinter beard. To achieve that perfect, baby-smooth cut, you can shave this off with a light stroke of your blade pressed flat against the pruning wound.

Other Tips and Cautions for Pruning Saw Use

  • Work comfortably. Set your stance a little wide and plant firmly. Take long pull strokes when possible and pull with a lean of your body for major cuts or at least your whole arm, not just at the wrist and elbow. Conserving strength makes mistakes less likely and makes you a happier gardener.
  • Keep the blade straight. If the blade flexes, you are applying to much pressure when you push it, or you are not pulling straight. Slow down. Apply pressure only on pulls. Get back to a straight, controlled cut and slowly increase your speed.
  • Working near the ground? When working near the ground with any tool, try to keep the blade from getting into the soil. Sand and pebbles in the soil quickly dull any blade. You’ll have to do this a lot during renovation pruning, which involves making a lot of low cuts into the thick, old wood of prolific shrubs like lilac and beauty bush, for example.
  • Wear your saw in a holster on your belt. This is safe and handy and makes you feel pretty tough, too. Another approach by some is to use a folding pruning saw that can be carried in the pocket. I like these much less—they flex at the hinge under stress. The hinge also tends to collect sap or grit and rust.
  • Clean your saw out before storing it. Tap the tool on dead wood to release most of the sawdust. Wipe sap and sawdust out of the teeth with clean burlap or other sturdy cloth. Storing tools dirty causes them to corrode and lose edge.