What, Why and How of Deadwooding

Tree pruning, including the removal of dead wood, plays a vital role in tree care.

One of the first things we do as arborists when we prune a tree is scan the tree canopy for any dead limbs, dying, damaged, crossed, broken, diseased branches, or other anomalies.

In arboriculture, deadwooding is the most common pruning practice, especially on mature trees. It’s the term used to describe removing dead branches from the tree.

Deadwooding is not just an aesthetic touch-up; first and foremost, it reduces the potential hazard of falling branches on your property, particularly in periods of high winds or harsh weather.

If you’re new to this concept, this guide will walk you through the what, why, and how of deadwooding.

What is Deadwooding

Deadwooding is a common pruning practice in the world of arboriculture. Simply put, deadwooding is the process of removing dead branches from trees.

Benefits of Deadwooding

Deadwooding is more than just enhancing the visual appeal of your trees. It’s beneficial for a number of reasons:

Reduces Risk of Falling Branches

Large dead branches are weak and can fall without warning. Deadwooding is especially important in public areas.

Heavy branches can cause serious damage to property, power lines and pose safety risks to pedestrians and vehicles. Regular deadwooding is essential in maintaining urban tree health and a safer environment.

Improves Appearance

Research shows that having a house with trees can add as much as 3.5% to 15% of its value. This is because many home buyers prefer homes with trees for privacy and aesthetic appeal.

Dead branches are bare and often discolored, making them stick out from the rest of the tree. Deadwooding makes trees look healthier and more vibrant, adding to your house’s aesthetic value.

Promotes Healthy Growth

By removing dead branches, you’re allowing the tree to redirect its energy and resources toward new growth.

Moreover, dead branches can attract pests and insect infestation. So, deadwooding prevents them from further spreading into the rest of the tree.

before and after deadwooding a tree illustration

When to Deadwood

Since deadwooding doesn’t involve cutting any live branches, it can be done at any time of the year. It’s a good idea to cut them before they fall or deteriorate further to keep your property safer and cleaner.

Signs a Tree Branch Is Dead

Identifying dead branches is fairly easy. Here are some key indicators:

Dry, Brittle Branches: A dead branch often becomes brittle and can easily snap. It lacks the flexibility and resilience of a healthy branch.

Lack of Buds or Leaves: A healthy branch will show signs of life, such as budding, leaves or flowers. In contrast, a dead branch will have no buds or leaves, indicating it’s no longer alive.

Branches Falling Easily: Dead branches are weak and can fall off the tree even with minimal force.

Fungal Growth: The presence of fungi, like mushrooms or shelf fungi, is a common sign of decay within the branch.

Discoloration: Dead branches often have a different color compared to the healthy parts of the tree. They may appear darker or have a grayish tone.

Pest Infestation: An increase in pests around a branch can indicate it’s dead or decaying, as pests are attracted to weakened wood.

Bark Peeling or Cracking: The bark on dead branches may start peeling or show cracks, unlike the intact bark of living branches.

PRO TIP: “Scratch Test”

The scratch test is a simple yet effective method to determine the vitality of a branch. Choose a branch that you suspect might be dead. Gently scratch a small area on the branch’s surface by using your fingernail or a small knife. Look at the color and texture of the layer beneath the scratch.

  • Green and Moist: If it’s green and moist, the branch is alive.
  • Dry and Brown: If it’s dry and brown, the branch is likely dead.

How to Deadwood

For small trees or minor deadwooding, you might do it yourself with the right tools and safety precautions. However, hiring an arborist is safer and more effective for larger trees or more complex situations that require climbing a tree.

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

1.Select the Right Tools

hand saw

For small branches, you can use tools like bypass loppers or secateurs. For bigger branches, you’ll need a sharp handsaw. Pole saws are ideal for branches that you can’t reach.

2.Identify the Branches to Remove

Look for branches with no foliage, dry bark or other signs of decay.

3.Make Thinning Cuts

branch collar

To cut the branches, you’ll need to apply a so-called thinning cut. Cut the branch just outside the branch collar (the enlarged area where the branch connects with the stem). This allows a tree to heal and compartmentalize the wound better. Avoid cutting too close to the trunk, as it can damage healthy tissue and lead to rot.

Safety Considerations

Did you know that forestry jobs consistently rank in the top 10 most dangerous professions in Canada? So, safety is paramount when deadwooding. Even many trained arborists get bad cuts using a handsaw, so exercise caution when maneuvering with the pruning tools.

  • Wear Protective Gear: This includes gloves, safety glasses, and a hard hat.
  • Be Aware of Surroundings: Watch out for power lines, buildings, and people in the vicinity when you’re cutting off the dead branches.
  • Know Your Limits: If a tree is large or the branches are high, it’s much safer to call a professional arborist.

Need a Hand?

Winter, when trees are dormant, is a great time to prune trees and evaluate tree’s health. We offer year-round services (except when the weather is dangerous) and are experienced in on-site tree assessments. If you’re worried about any of your trees, fill out a request form. We’ll be happy to advise or recommend the best course of action.

example of deadwooding


Why does a tree have dead branches?

As a tree grows, it concentrates more energy into the top of the tree, where it receives the most sunlight and might sacrifice lower branches. Some other reasons include disease, lack of sunlight, insect infestation, extreme temperatures, storm damage, natural aging, etc.

Can deadwooding harm a tree?

If done correctly, deadwooding doesn’t harm a tree. However, improper pruning techniques or cutting too close to healthy tissue can cause damage and lead to decay. It’s essential to follow proper pruning practices and consult with a professional arborist if you’re unsure how to proceed.

How often should deadwooding be done?

Deadwooding is typically done on an as-needed basis. Trees should be regularly inspected for dead or dying branches, and deadwood should be removed promptly to prevent safety hazards. Regular pruning can also help prevent the need for extensive deadwooding in the future.

Is it safe to do my own deadwooding?

It’s generally recommended to hire certified arborists for deadwooding. They have the proper training, tools, and equipment to remove deadwood safely. However, if you choose to do it yourself, make sure you research proper pruning techniques and take necessary safety precautions.

What should I do with the dead branches after they’re removed?

Dead branches can be chipped for mulch or cut into firewood. Contact your local waste management or tree care service for proper disposal options.

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