How to Use Hand Pruners (Secateurs)

woman trimming plant with shears
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Pruners are designed to smoothly cut thin pieces of wood, as well as anything softer such as the non-woody stems of perennials. If the wood is thin enough (about half an inch or less) and you know where to make your cut, go ahead and do it. Pruners don’t take any special technique.

If you have more shrubs and perennials than lawn, you’ll be using your pruners more than any other tool, so it’s nice to take a few moments to think about the steps you go through and consider a few tips to make the job easy on your body and wholesome for your plant.

The Two Types of Pruners

There are two ways that pruner blades cut: bypass-type and anvil-type. We’ll describe both here, but you should probably buy and use bypass pruners.

  • Bypass pruners, the most common kind, have a single-edged blade that slices past a thick base as it closes.
  • Anvil pruners have a blade that slices to the center of the fat lower base, contacting that base at the completion of the cut.

Why are bypass pruners the best? Anvil-style pruners let you exert extra force, but hand pruners are not meant to be forceful. They are meant to be accurate and make a razor-clean cut. A well-honed bypass cutter does this. Anvil-style pruners are more likely to crush, especially if not perfectly sharpened—crushing a plant stem is an awful thing to do to it. It’s the equivalent of a surgeon bludgeoning off your wart instead of properly removing it.

As long as you keep your solemn Gardener’s Oath to switch to loppers when your wood is too thick for hand pruners, you have no reason to own anvil-cutting pruners.

General Technique for Pruning With Hand Pruners

  1. Perfect the cut location for bypass pruners: For the most exactly-placed cut, line up the blade itself with your cutting site. Remember that the blade passes to the side of its thick base, so the precise spot that the blade comes through shifts about a 1/4” when you flip the tool. When cutting close to the main stem (a common move), you’ll often feel you need to use the tool “upside down.”
  2. Select the correct angle. If your plant is opposite-branching, you should cut directly across the stem above the node. If it is alternate-branching, cutting straight across is fine, but it’s even better to cut on an angle sloping away from the single bud at the node. This drains rainwater away from the bud, so none gets trapped on the stem or in a crotch and promotes rotting.
  3. Get the wood deep into the pruners. Completely open your pruners and get the branch all the way in. It’s tempting to snip-snip wood like your pruners were scissors, but this weaker cutting method will stress your hands and dull the blade tip.
  4. Make the cut. With the wood properly positioned, close the loppers through the branch in one fluid motion.

Other Tips and Cautions For Using Pruners

  • Work comfortably. The primary concern with pruner use is that you are making a lot of cuts using just your hand muscles. This can lead to fatigue and soreness, and repetitive stress injury at worse. To stave off these problems always use the deepest part of the blade to cut, to get maximum leverage. Operate the pruners with the balls of your hand and finger bases, not fingertips. When the wood resists a pruner cut due to its thickness or density (ironwood is a lot harder to cut than pine), switch to your loppers.
  • Try carrying them in a belt holster for easy access. Go to a place where professional gardeners work, such as a botanical garden, and you will see that everyone is carrying a pruner on his or her belt. Buy a holster that your pruners fit snugly into and with a hole at the bottom. This allows wood chips, dust, and debris to fall out instead of collecting in there, as it will tend to.
  • Don't cut wires. At some point, you will be tempted to cut a piece of metal wire with your pruners. Don’t do it; you will permanently nick the blade, making every single cut you make afterward just a teeny bit harder. Some pruners, though, have a small notch where the wire can be inserted and cut.
  • Keep ‘em sharp and clean. Dull pruners are useless and easily sharpened. Marie Iannotti has you covered with her gallery step-by-step on cleaning and sharpening pruners.