Pruning Tools

Have the right pruning tool for the job

By Steve Piskor ©2015
Penn State Master Gardener
PA Certified Horticulturist (PCH)

March 21 -- In my first article, I discussed why you should prune trees and shrubs and suggested some resources for home gardeners seeking basic information on pruning. Last week, Doug Oster’s article and video described proper pruning cuts and addressed timing, which depends upon the bloom time of a tree or shrub.

The structure of deciduous plants is more obvious when they’re devoid of leaves. So with the exception of spring bloomers, now is a good time to prune. So now you feel empowered to make the first cut. But with what? As with most jobs, the right tool will make the job easier and more effective. Gardeners will need three essential tools listed below:

pole pruner
Pole Pruner with detachable head for tree trimming.
A saw can be inserted in place of it.

A hand pruner is the main cutting tool. Choose a pruner made of high-quality metals and polymers. Be sure it has an ergonomic design to fit the hand. A high-quality hand pruner should also have replaceable parts. Hand pruners are designed to cut woody stems up to ¾ inch thick.

Pruners come in two main configurations — bypass and anvil. There is also a hybrid configuration called a ratchet pruner helpful to those whose hand or wrist strength might need an assist. Quality pruners can be purchased to accommodate left-handed users or those with smaller hands.

A bypass pruner has two blades that are separated by a metal spring. As the blades are closed, the top (cutting) blade “bypasses” the bottom (non-cutting) blade, producing a smooth, clean cut. This is the best all-around style for a gardener to have.

An anvil pruner also has two blades separated by a metal spring. As the blades are closed, the top (cutting) blade comes to rest on the flat part (anvil) of the bottom blade. The area where the top blade meets the anvil results in some crushing of plant tissue. For this reason, an anvil pruner is best for cutting dead plant material.


A ratchet pruner is hybrid of an anvil pruner, but with two distinct advantages. First, rather than using a spring to open and close the blades, this type of pruner uses a ratchet mechanism. As the blade is closed, the ratchet assists cutting through the plant tissue by moving the blade in small increments. This results in a significant reduction in stress to the hands and wrist. Second, a few inventive manufacturers have modified the anvil part of the lower blade. A channel is cut into the center of the ratchet. As a result, when the blade cuts, it moves into the channel, resulting in a cleaner cut similar to that of a bypass pruner. This tool is ideal for people with hand issues but with a caveat — if you choose this type of pruner, be sure to purchase one that is ergonomic, made of top-quality materials and has a manufacturer’s extended warranty.

Bypass loppers used on a branch too large for hand pruners

lopper looks like a pruner on steroids. It has a larger cutting head and longer handles providing increased leverage because you use both hands. It cuts stems that are too wide for a pruner to handle — up to 2 inches in diameter. Loppers are available in bypass, anvil and ratchet configurations with short, long and extendable handles. A high-quality, ergonomic lopper should be part of a gardener’s tool box.

Pruning saw (folding)
The third cutting tool is a
folding saw. It’s small and compact and fits into a pocket when closed. It allows one to cut woody material that is larger than 2 inches in diameter. The saw’s blade can be 6 inches long or longer, with small, medium or large teeth. The teeth should have a tri-edge design, which produces smooth, clean cuts on woody plants. As with the other two tools, buy a high-quality, ergonomic saw.

pruning shears
These shears weren't properly dried-off and developed some light rust. WD-40 works well for these situations.

Maintenance of Tools
Once you’ve invested in good pruning tools, it is important to care for them properly to increase their longevity. The following guidelines will help keep these tools in prime working condition:

• Detergent clean, rinse, dry and lubricate after completing pruning activities.

• Keep the blade sharp to minimize damage to plant tissue. Sharpen pruners with a sharpening stone or diamond file each spring or if cuts become less crisp.

• If diseased plant tissue is being cut, disinfect the tool with 70 percent rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol. Dip or swab the pruners and let dry. Do not rinse. Disinfectants are not a cure-all for all plant diseases, but they help to reduce the spread of pathogens.


Part One: Benefits of Pruning

Part Two: Pruning Tools

Part Three: Primer on Pruning


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