The most ubiquitous pruning tool is probably the hand pruner, also called hand shears and—in England—by their French name: secateur. These range from small floral shears (used to cut flowers) to large hand shears that can cut 3/4-inch-diameter branches.
Basically, there are two styles of hand pruners: those with a bypass blade and those with an anvil blade. The bypass blade is generally superior because you can get it close to the trunk for a clean cut. Also, it is not as apt to crush the end of a twig as the anvil blade.
In both types, the handles are covered with molded vinyl for comfort and gripping ease. A return spring opens the blade after each cut. Most hand pruners have a locking device to keep them closed for carrying or storage. Those with locking devices at the rear of the handle may cause blisters on the heel of your palm.
Since the size of the grips can vary considerably, spend a few minutes trying out several to see which feels most comfortable. Choose carefully: Pruning for 30 minutes to an hour or two is tiring. You may want handles that do not spring open wider than the size of your hand.
Bypass hand pruners use a scissor-action bypass style. Because the cutting blade usually is tapered and thin, these tools are effective in narrow spots among limbs. The blade passes against the “hook” or lower blade that is curved to catch and hold the branch while the cutting blade comes down on it. Bypass pruners give a smooth and accurate cut close to the tree. Good bypass pruners are made of stainless steel or forged steel. The overall length of most of these pruners is about 7 to 9 inches. On good types, the parts are replaceable.
In anvil hand pruners, the cutting blade comes down in the center of a soft metal or hard plastic anvil. The design of these pruners allows them to cut larger branches with less probability that the blades will be sprung. But because the blade comes down in the anvil, you cannot cut as close to the trunk as with bypass pruners, and you are more likely to leave a small stub.
When you’re cutting through a branch, angle the pruning blades so that you are not cutting directly across the grain of the wood but rather at a diagonal. This will offer less resistance.
Unlike bypass pruners, anvil pruners are not made from forged steel, even when of top quality. Forging is not considered necessary because of the direct cutting action and the soft metal required in the anvil. But look for tools that have specially hardened and tempered cutting edges.
Keeping the shears clean is vital to their effectiveness. Disease can be spread from plant to plant, and sap can gum up the action (even though many pruners have sap grooves in the hook to carry the sap away). During extensive pruning, carry a rag in your pocket to wipe sticky blades down, or use a jackknife to scrape the blades whenever they start sticking. Clean away any debris that gets caught between the blades or else the blades won’t close properly.
To take pruners apart for cleaning or sharpening, follow the direction indicated by the small arrows on the bolt head (some are reverse-threaded). If the pruners can’t be taken apart, you will have to prop them open.
Remember that clippers and shears are beveled only on the outside of a blade. The inside of these blades, where they meet when closed, should never be filed—this would create a slight gap and inhibit the slicing action. Remove any burrs that result from sharpening by honing the flat of the blade.
On curved-blade pruning shears, normally only one of the blades is beveled for cutting. The other, the hook, is square-edged and should not be touched up. To sharpen a blade that has been separated, clamp it in a vise. Use a whetstone and move it down against the edge and around the curve. Work from the area nearest the pivot toward the tip. At the end of each pass, lift the stone and repeat.
For small pruning shears that cannot be taken apart, spread the handles and follow the same procedure as discussed above.
Anvil-type shears often have two beveled edges, the first about 45 degrees and the second, a narrow one right near the edge, at about 85 degrees. (You may have to use a magnifying glass to see it.) Take the shears apart and sharpen only the small bevel next to the edge. This is best done on a bench stone.
Inspect anvils regularly to detect deep grooves; these can impair the cutting ability and ultimately tear the bark. If the blade is too deeply grooved or worn to be sharpened, replace it.