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How to Choose and Use Pruning Tools

Tame your garden with these pruning tools! I'll show you how to use pruning shears, loppers and saws to whip your yard into shape!

how to choose and use pruning tools

Creating a beautiful garden is all about coaxing your plants to look their best. To do that, you need to wield a variety of different tools. There isn't a one size fits all approach to pruning, but there's usually one tool that will give you the best results.

Sometimes, you need the surgical precision of pruning snips to deadhead flowers that are past their peak. And other times, you pull out the big pole saw to hack off a branch that's rubbing against the house. You need a variety of pruning tools to get all your gardening tasks done right!

using pruning shears to trim rose bush

I'll show you the different types of pruning tools and how to use them properly. Then, I'll share some of my pruning tips and answer the most commonly asked questions about this task! 

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How pruning tools cut

Most pruning tools aren't like your regular household scissors. Different methods of cutting can help your plant recover from their trim faster and with less risk of disease. Here are the terms you might come across when shopping for a new pruning tool.

  • Bypass - This is a term used for pruning tools that cut similar to scissors. There's a large main blade that slides past a smaller blade. This is the most common type of pruner you'll find.
  • Anvil - Anvil shears have a single blade that chops down into a blunt base. Think of it like a knife falling onto a chopping block. These types of cutting tools tend to crush the plant at the bottom of the cut, so it's better to use them for dead, tough branches.
  • Ratchet - This type of pruning tool operates by repeatedly opening and closing the handles. Every time you open and close the handles, the shears become tighter instead of springing back. If hand strength is an issue for you, this may be the best solution!
  • Saw - This type has a blade with serrated teeth on one side to cut off larger branches in a back and forth motion. Teeth pointed towards the end of the blade means you cut when you push, and teeth pointed towards the handle cut on the pull stroke.

Now, let's discuss some common pruning tools. 

Pruning tools and their uses 

You can't expect a single pruning tool to do all the jobs in the garden. You want to use the right tool so you get the best results without getting frustrated or damaging the plant. But when you're confronted with a wall of things that cut, chop and saw at the garden center, it might seem a little overwhelming.

Here's a list of common pruning tools that you might see and how they work. 

Pruning snips

Pruning snips are a small variation of pruners, and they look a lot like scissors with their sharp, pointy blades. Snips are for light-duty, detailed work like trimming flowers or light green shoots. They'll struggle to cut woody branches of any diameter, so save those jobs for the bigger shears. 

pruning snips cutting flower

Pruning snips should be easy to operate with gloves, and some are spring-loaded to make it easier on your hands. Longer pointed blades can poke further into the foliage to trim at the base of the stem without damaging the surrounding area.

Hand pruners 

Hand pruners are the Swiss army knife of pruning tools. You'll find yourself carrying these around with you and using them often in the garden. I use them for everything from trimming dead branches to cutting drip irrigation tubing!

hand pruners

Hand pruners typically use a bypass blade to cut plants. They should fit in hand comfortably and have more cutting power than snips. In general, hand pruners can cut green branches up to ½ inch in diameter. Anything larger, you may want to pull out the loppers. 


Loppers are similar to bypass hand pruners, but with longer handles for increased leverage. These tools can usually cut any green branch that comfortably fits between the blades - especially if it has a ratchet mechanism

loppers cutting small branch

If you have lots of dead branches that need trimming, you may want loppers with the anvil cutting mechanism. Anvil loppers are not typically recommended for pruning live branches, as they tend to crush and damage the plant. However, dead branches may require the added stability and force of anvil loppers. 

Hedge Shears

Hedge shears are those large shears you wield to create elaborate topiaries, as well as straight, orderly rows of shrubs. They have long blades resembling a giant pair of scissors. 

hedge shears cutting boxwood

Use hedge shears to prune hedges (obviously). Their long blades allow them to cut across a broad surface and efficiently shape a bush. I also like to use them to cut back ornamental grasses in one fell swoop!

Make sure to take a step back and examine your work every once in a while. You don't want a lopsided hedge from overly enthusiastic cutting!

Pruning saw

Pruning saws come in several designs. Usually, you can find these saws with a blade that folds into the handle. Use the pruning saw for branches that are too large for the lopper. Branches from 2-8 inches in diameter can be fair game, depending on the size of your saw. 

pruning saw cutting a branch

Look for a pruning saw with a blade that can flip from an overhand to an underhanded cut, like the one shown above. This makes it much easier to create a relief cut on the branch's underside first to prevent the bark from tearing out and damaging the tree when it gives way. 

Also, take a look at the angle of the cutting teeth on the blade. If your pruning saw was designed to cut on the pull stroke, you could waste a lot of energy trying to cut on the push stroke! 

Pole saw 

A pole saw is, essentially, a pruning saw attached to a long pole. This added length allows you to prune branches that would otherwise be out of reach. 

A manual pole saw will typically have two different methods of cutting branches. The first is a long blade that you pull back and forth like a pruning saw. The second method is an anvil type cutter that you can hook onto a smaller branch. There's usually a rope that you pull to close the blade down on the wood.

pole saw cutting down broken branch from a tree

When using the manual pole saw, use that long, flexible pole to your advantage! You want to push the pole when it's flexed up and pull when it's flexed down. Check out the video below to learn more about this technique.

Electric pole saws like this one make the job quick and easy! It's basically a battery powered chain saw on a stick, so take the proper precautions when using this tool. A hard hat and safety glasses protect your head and eyes from falling debris.

trimming branches with an electric pole saw

Frequently Asked Questions

Now that you know what all these pruning tools are and how they work, let's go over a few common questions. Hopefully, this section will put your mind at ease and give you the confidence to attack your list of gardening tasks. 

Can you use regular scissors to prune? 

While you could certainly get away with trimming very young plants or grass with a pair of household scissors, they're not really up to the task for anything bigger. Also, household scissors don't usually have wide finger holes - this makes it difficult to use them while wearing gardening gloves.  

What are the advantages of pruning? 

Pruning stimulates growth, inhibits disease, and improves a plant's aesthetics. When you cut the stem of a plant, called a heading cut, you promote further growth below the cut. When you cut a dead branch, you keep your plant healthy and prevent disease. Sometimes all your plant needs is a little haircut to perk it up! 

Where do I cut when pruning? 

Where you cut depends on the type of plant and what you're trying to achieve by pruning.

For pruning trees and woody plants, cut the branch just before the collar. The collar is that little nub at the junction between branches, as seen along the dotted line below. Leave the collar intact so the plant can heal quickly and prevent disease. You can learn more about how to prune trees here.

pruning branch at the collar

To encourage fuller growth on a shrub or smaller plant, prune just above a set of buds, leaves or stems. This will signal to the plant that it should put its effort into those side shoots, not more vertical growth. 

When should I disinfect my pruning tools? 

Pruning tools are the instruments we use to keep plants healthy. You should disinfect your pruning tools anytime you suspect you've encountered a diseased plant - you don't want anything to spread! It's also recommended to disinfect everything in the fall when you're putting away your tools for the season, so you can start fresh in the spring.

How do you clean pruning tools? 

Pruning tools can get caked in sap and rust over the course of a season. You'll want to get in the habit of cleaning your tools often to keep them in good working order and to prevent damage to your plants. 

I typically clean my pruners and hand saws at the same time as my other woodworking tools, since all the supplies are out and ready to use. I have a full tutorial on how to clean saw blades that also applies to your garden tools!

how to clean saw blades with a toothbrush

Allow your pruning tools to soak in warm, soapy water for a few minutes to loosen up the grime. Then give them a good scrubbing with a small wire brush to remove the sap and dirt from the blades and bolts. If your pruners are having a hard time opening and closing, you may need to disassemble them to dislodge the gunk inside. 

After everything is clean, you'll want to apply lubricant to the moving parts to keep them moving smoothly and prevent them from rusting.

Here's a great video showing you how to clean your pruning tools properly!

How do you remove rust from pruning tools? 

Many sturdy pruning tools are made with carbon steel instead of stainless. Unfortunately, carbon steel tends to rust over time. 

To remove rust from pruning tools:

  1. Place your pruners in a bowl of white vinegar. The acidic vinegar will erode the rust.
  2. Leave the pruners in the vinegar for 24 hours.
  3. Scrub with an abrasive brush or steel wool.
  4. Finish by applying some lubricating oil

This video shows you a few different ways to tackle this process!

How do you sharpen pruning tools? 

If you notice your pruning tools aren't cutting as easily as they used to, it's probably time to sharpen them! Start by cleaning the blades and removing any rust by following the steps above. Then use a sharpening tool like this one to create a fresh, sharp edge. You can also use a sharpening stone, but the specialized tool makes it so much easier!

Take the coarse side of the sharpener and go over the blade in small circles, matching the angle of the edge. Flip and do the same with the smooth side of the blade. Finish by honing the edge with your carbide sharpener. 

This video goes into the sharpening process in much more detail.

Hopefully this guide helped take some of the mystery out of shopping for pruning tools. Now it's time to tackle all those gardening tasks and make your outdoor spaces beautiful!

pruning tools