Bumper guide to prunersAre you a keen gardener? Have you ever wondered what the difference is between a $10 pruner and a $100 one? How you can pick a good quality tool from a bad one? I've spent the past year traveling in Taiwan and China where the vast majority of secateurs, loppers and shears are produced. During that time I have toured many different factories and seen many different products and designs. The difference in quality can be astonishing. Before you invest $50+ in your next garden tool I suggest you take the time learn about the variety of pruners available as well as some of the things that make the difference between a great tool and a waste of money.
Secateurs , Loppers and ShearsThere are 3 basic types of pruners: Secateurs, Loppers and Shears. In addition there are 3 common types of blades:
- Anvil – in which one cutting blade closes onto a flat 'anvil'
- Bypass – where one blade passes another surface to make the cut
- Scissors – which have long scissor like blades. Shears always have these blades.
Secateurs are a small hand tool like a pair of scissors that are used for trimming off small branches. As a bare minimum no gardener should be without a pair. Secateurs can be found with any of the 3 kinds of blade.
The bladeThe blade is the heart of any kind of pruner. During production the blade is usually the most expensive part and therefore the area where manufacturers are most likely to try and cut costs. Factors that are important are the carbon content of the steel, the thickness of the steel and its finish. When buying a tool be sure to check for a tight fit between the blades and that when closed the blades sit nicely and the tips do not overlap too much. If you are buying shears and the blades are held together by a screw, ensure that they come with a way to adjust the tension.
Types of steel
The chemical composition of the blades’ steel can have a very important effect on its longevity. High carbon steels such as SK3 and SK5 will maintain their edge longer, however they also cost more. Tools with medium carbon steel such as S50C cost less but also lose their edge sooner. No matter what kind of steel the blade is made from it should be heat treated which increases its strength and flexibility.Usually the blades are stamped from a large thin sheet of metal before being ground to form a blade. However some more expensive tools have drop forged blades instead which have better strength and keep their edge for longer. Drop forged tools are generally very popular amongst garden professionals.
Although they are relatively rare some secateurs and loppers have blades made from stainless steel. This is highly resistant to corrosion and keeps its edge very well though generally these products will cost a premium.
ThicknessThe thickness of blade is quite important and because it’s something that most people don't notice it’s also an area where manufacturers can skimp to save costs. You may think that a difference of 1 mm is insignificant however a company can save thousands just by using thinner steel in their tools. It goes without saying that these blades are much more likely to crack or deform during heavy cutting. Generally the larger the surface area of the blade the thicker it should be. The following is a rough guide for blade thicknesses for different kinds of tools:
- 6+ mm - Drop forged tools
- 6 mm – Heavy duty loppers
- 5 mm – General loppers
- 4 mm – Shears
- 3.2 mm – Small shears and some secateurs
- 3 mm – Secateurs
FinishThe cutting blade should be Teflon coated to reduce resistance while slicing through wood. Be wary as some tools use 'fake' Teflon. Some of the cheapest just use black spray paint! Tools which have a genuine Teflon finish generally have a small red diamond shaped 'Teflon' sticker. DuPont hold the Teflon trademark. They have recently changed the licensing rules for the red Teflon stickers to combat fakes. Unfortunately this had the opposite effect which means many tools that have a genuine Teflon coating no longer carry the sticker! Any tool in the medium to high price range is likely to have a genuine Teflon coating while the very cheapest tools are practically guaranteed not to.
In anvil and some bypass tools there is a non cutting blade which holds the branch while the blade cuts it. This should be hard chrome plated (This is NOT the decorative shiny chrome you see with a mirror finish) to protect from rust and moisture. Some drop forged tools instead have have a 'polished' finish. These require more protection by oiling the blade. However if you re-sharpen the tool you are less likely to get in trouble by wearing away the protective coting. The cheapest tools just have bare steel – if you buy one of these you might as well throw your money away. The cheap unprotected steel will rust the first time it gets wet.
MechanismMost loppers as well as some shears and secateurs will have a mechanism to increase your cutting power. The common types are:
- Ratchet mechanisms – These are used in loppers to allow you to lock the head in place while you move the handles out again.
- Gears – Some loppers have a gearing mechanism between the handles and blade which gives you more cutting power.
- Compound action – These can be found in loppers as well some high quality shears. They contain a number of levers which increase the cutting power of the blade.
In my experience all three of these mechanisms work well and it’s largely a matter of personal preference which you prefer. Some absolutely massive geared loppers exist which allow you to cut branches which would otherwise have you reaching for a saw. But the downside is they have more moving parts and hence there is more chance of something going wrong. On the other hand compound action loppers are very simple but don't have the potential to provide as much power. Ratchet mechanisms take the middle ground – less complex than some geared mechanisms yet providing more power than a compound action tool.
HandlesThere are a wide variety of handles available that range from a simple wooden pole, all the way up to detachable aluminum telescopic handles. When buying tools make sure that the handles are firmly attached to the head and that they have comfortable non-slip grips.
The most common type of handles are hollow steel or aluminum ones. Aluminum handles are lighter than steel however aluminum prices are also much higher than steel which drives up the cost. Tools with plastic handles exist and these can range anywhere from cheap plastic handles used on some secateurs to lightweight high strength composite handles on some loppers.
Check to make sure that the tool closes smoothly. Some tools will have plastic 'bumpers' which reduce the hand jarring that occurs when the tool closes. The tool should also have comfortable soft rubber grips. This reduces fatigue and makes the tool easier to grip.
Loppers and shears are also available in long pole mounted variants. These save you from climbing up ladders to cut high branches. If you are considering one of these tools make sure that the connection to the blade is tight and that you can exert plenty of pressure while still maintaining control of the tool. If the blade is controlled via a rope check the number of pulleys the tool has. More pulleys will allow you to exert greater force with less effort.
Country and BrandWhile the country and brand of the tool can give you a general indication of quality it can also be misleading. Usually the best quality and therefore most expensive tools are produced in Australia, America and Europe. Japan produces some good quality garden tools. Next in the list is Taiwan which produces medium to high quality tools. China produces medium to low quality tools with the lowest quality products being manufactured by other developing countries such as Vietnam and Pakistan.
Similarly brand can give a general indication of a tool’s quality, but there is no point on relying on it alone. It’s true that a company with a good brand is unlikely to jeopardise it by putting their name behind bad products. But you might be surprised to learn some tools with a good 'European' brand come from exactly the same factory as those with a 'no name' brand. With a few notable exceptions most of the brands you see in shops are just trade companies that buy their products from whichever factory can produce the best products at the cheapest price.
Thankyou for reading the bumper guide to pruners. I've invested a large amount of time in this guide, if you find it helpful please vote! If you have any suggestions or comments don't hesitate to contact me and I will include them in the next version of the guide.