Few garden tools see more use than an ordinary pair of scissors-style hand pruners. When used for its intended purpose—deadheading flowers and trimming small branches and roots—a good pair of hand pruners can last for decades with just occasional cleaning and sharpening. But for many gardeners, hand pruners are the go-to tool for all sorts of jobs: cutting wires and twine, hammering stakes, cutting tree branches. You might even secretly dig up a weed or two with your pruners when you don't feel like going to the shed for a weed fork. Such hard-working hand pruners may need some tender loving care on a monthly basis.
To keep your hand pruners in top shape despite the abuse, you need to keep them clean, sharp, and lubricated. Fortunately, this is a simple job.
How you approach cleaning and sharpening a pair of hand pruners can differ slightly depending on the style of the tool. Some pruners are structured so you can take them apart for cleaning and sharpening the individual parts, while others may be one-piece tools that need to be sharped as is. This can be a little awkward, but it's still possible.
Expensive, top-end pruners from companies such as Felco or Fiskars often have parts designed to be replaced if they become too badly worn. For example, these manufacturers make replacement springs and cutting blades that you can purchase and install as part of your maintenance routine. There are even "tune-up" kits available that let you replace all parts except the handles.
Sharpening the blade can be done with a rattail or mill bastard metal file, but a better tool is a whetstone, which will give more uniform results. Although some homeowners have tried it, using a power bench grinder to sharpen a pair of hand pruners is usually not a good idea, as the grindstones are too coarse to put a good, sharp edge on the small blades.
Pruners have sharp cutting edges, so use all reasonable caution when disassembling and cleaning the parts, when handling the cutting edge, and when reassembling the tool. Wearing a pair of good leather work gloves is a good idea, as it is very easy to get a nasty cut.
Equipment / Tools
- Small scrub brush
- Metal file or whetstone
- Small wrench
- Steel wool
- Medium- to fine-grit sandpaper
- Clean cloths
- Cleaning solvent
- Lubricating spray
Disassemble the Parts
Begin by disassembling the parts of the pruners, if possible. While a few cheaper pruners may be held together with a permanent rivet, most pruners have a screw or a bolt and nut that holds the two halves of the tool together. The actual disassembly process will vary depending on the manufacturer.
Remove the nut or screw holding the two halves together, and separate the two main pieces. There may be multiple screws on the pruner, but you only need to concern yourself with the one in the center of the two blades. Once the blades are separated, if your tool has a spring coil, it will slip off. It's a good idea to work on a towel or a plate to keep track of the pieces.
Inspect the Pieces
Carefully examine each piece of your tool. You should buy replacement pieces for any that are badly corroded or worn. It's quite common, for example, for the spring coil to become rusty or worn, and it's usually easy to buy a replacement at your garden center or from an online retailer. Small nicks in the cutting blade will usually disappear during the sharpening process, but if the blade has large nicks or breaks, you'll probably need to buy a new blade.
If you buy a new cutting blade for your pruners, you may be surprised to learn that it's not extremely sharp when you remove it from its packaging. Many gardeners like to slightly sharpen a new blade before installing it—much the way a new lawnmower blade needs to be sharpened before use.
Scrub Away Dirt
Use soapy water and a small, stiff brush or old toothbrush to scrub away any dirt from all parts. Pay particular attention to the nooks where dirt can be trapped. When you're satisfied the parts are clean, rinse, then wipe them dry with a clean, dry cloth.
Hand pruners often get caked with plant sap and other gummy residues over time. Use steel wool or sandpaper to abrade away any of this gummy material from the parts. Focus especially on the cutting blade of the tool. Make sure your tools are clean of all dirt and plant sap before you move on to sharpening.
A drop of cleaning solvent or penetrating oil can sometimes help loosen this caked-on residue.
Sharpen the Cutting Edge
Sharpening is the key step that intimidates some people, but even a less-than-perfect sharpening job is better than no sharpening at all. And you'll get better at it each time you do it.
To start, identify the beveled or angled edge of the cutting blade. Anvil pruners, with a single blade that comes down on a flat plate, tend to be beveled on both sides, like a knife—they will need to be sharpened on both sides of the blade.
By-pass pruners have only one beveled blade that cuts by sliding over the other jaw, much the way scissors cut. To sharpen, take your file or whetstone and lay it almost parallel to the blade, on the beveled side. With pressure on the outer edge of the blade, file around the curved edge of the blade in one direction. Lift and repeat. Don't go back and forth, as this defeats the purpose.
Do this a couple of times, and you'll start to notice the edge getting nice and shiny, and you'll be able to see that the cutting edge has been restored. Don't over-sharpen the tool, as it's not necessary for the blade to be razor-sharp to work effectively.
With bypass pruners, it is usually not necessary to sharpen the lower non-beveled blade, unless it has nicks or gouges that need to be smoothed out.
If your cutting edge requires a lot of honing, a drop of lubricating oil on the whetstone may help get the sharp edge you're seeking without causing the metal to overheat.
Reassemble the Tool
Now you need to reassemble the pruners. Simply slide the two parts back together, position the spring, and replace the nut or screw. Test the pruners to be sure you haven't over-tightened and that the blades move correctly. Correctly adjusted, the jaws should scissor past one another smoothly, with no gap between the blades.
Lubricate the Tool
Once the pruners are reassembled, give all the moving parts a spray of lubricating oil. Also coat the blades, to prevent rust. Wipe off the excess oil with a clean cloth.
How Often to Clean and Lubricate Hand Pruners
You should clean and sharpen all your garden tools at least once a year, at the end or beginning of the gardening season. Pruners that see extra-hard use will probably need it more often. The more you do it, the easier the job becomes and the less time it will take. And you'll notice a big difference when you go to use your sharpened tool.
As a regular part of your routine, get in the habit of wiping down your hand pruners after each use with a cloth moistened with lubricating oil. This will prevent rust and sap build-up, and it make the regular sharpening routine much easier.