Early observations led Sanio [Wissen. Bot., 8, (1872) 401] to state that xylem conduit diameters and lengths in a coniferous tree increase from the apex down to a height below which they begin to decrease towards the tree base. Sanio’s law of vertical tapering has been repeatedly tested with contradictory results and the debate over the scaling of conduit diameters with distance from the apex has not been settled. The debate has recently acquired new vigour, as an accurate knowledge of the vertical changes in wood anatomy has been shown to be crucial to scaling metabolic properties to plant and ecosystem levels. Contrary to Sanio’s hypothesis, a well known model (MST, metabolic scaling theory) assumes that xylem conduits monotonically increase in diameter with distance from the apex following a power law. This has been proposed to explain the three-fourth power scaling between size and metabolism seen across plants. Here, we (i) summarized available data on conduit tapering in trees and (ii) propose a new numerical model that could explain the observed patterns. Data from 101 datasets grouped into 48 independent profiles supported the notions that phylogenetic group (angiosperms versus gymnosperms) and tree size strongly affected the vertical tapering of conduit diameter. For both angiosperms and gymnosperms, within-tree tapering also varied with distance from the apex. The model (based on the concept that optimal conduit tapering occurs when the difference between photosynthetic gains and wall construction costs is maximal) successfully predicted all three major empirical patterns. Our results are consistent with Sanio’s law only for large trees and reject the MST assumptions that vertical tapering in conduit diameter is universal and independent of rank number.