Pruning Trees - Proper Tools to Use

Close on the teeth of a pruning handsaw.

The health and look of your trees and shrubs may demand you prune from time to time, and proper tools are essential for satisfactory pruning. The choice of which tool to use depends largely on the size of branches to be pruned and the amount of pruning to be done. If possible, test a tool before you buy it to ensure it suits your specific needs. As with most things, higher quality often equates to higher cost.

TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Karen Thurber adds, "Safety equipment that should be used include; well-fitting kevlar gloves, safety glasses or a face shield, long pants and ear protection if working with power equipment."

Hand Pruners

Generally speaking, the smaller a branch is when pruned, the sooner the wound created will seal. Hand pruners are used to prune small branches (under 2.5 cm diameter) and many different kinds are available. Hand pruners can be grouped into by-pass or anvil styles based on the blade configuration. Anvil style pruners have a straight blade that cuts the branch against a small anvil or block as the handles are squeezed. By-pass pruners use a curved cutting blade that slides past a broader lower blade, much like scissors. To prevent unnecessary tearing or crushing of tissues, it is best to use a by-pass style pruner. Left- or right-handed types can be purchased.

Lopping Shears

Slightly larger branches that cannot be cut with a hand pruner (up to 7 cm diameter) may be cut with lopping shears with larger cutting surfaces and greater leverage. Lopping shears are also available in by-pass and anvil styles.

Pruning Saws

For branches too large to be cut with a hand pruner or lopping shears, pruning saws must be used. Pruning saws differ greatly in handle styles, the length and shape of the blade, and the layout and type of teeth. Most have tempered metal blades that retain their sharpness for many pruning cuts. Unlike most other saws, pruning saws are often designed to cut on the "pull-stroke."

Chain Saws

Chain saws are preferred when pruning branches larger than about 10 cm. Chain saws should be used only by qualified individuals. To avoid the need to cut branches greater than 10 cm diameter, prune when branches are small.

Pole Pruners

Pole pruners must be used to cut branches beyond reach. Pruning heads can cut branches up to 4.4 cm diameter and are available in the by-pass and anvil styles. Once again, the by-pass type is preferred. For cutting larger branches, saw blades can be fastened directly to the pruning head, or a separate saw head can be purchased. Because of the danger of electrocution, pole pruners should not be used near utility lines except by qualified utility line clearance personnel.

Tool Care: Sharpening

To ensure that satisfactory cuts are made and to reduce fatigue, keep your pruning tools sharp and in good working condition. Hand pruners, lopping shears, and pole pruners should be periodically sharpened with a sharpening stone. Replacement blades are available for many styles. Pruning saws should be professionally sharpened or periodically replaced. To reduce costs, many styles have replaceable blades.

Tool Care: Cleaning

Tools should be clean and sanitized as well as sharp. Although sanitizing tools may be inconvenient and seldom practiced, doing so may prevent the spread of disease from infected trees to healthy trees on contaminated tools. Tools become contaminated when they come into contact with fungi, bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms that cause disease in trees. Most pathogens need some way of entering the tree to cause disease, and fresh wounds are perfect places for infections to begin. Microorganisms on tool surfaces are easily introduced into susceptible trees when subsequent cuts are made. The need for sanitizing tools can be greatly reduced by pruning during the dormant season.

If sanitizing is necessary it should be practiced as follows: Before each branch is cut, sanitize pruning tools with either 70% denatured alcohol, or with liquid household bleach diluted 1 to 9 with water (1 part bleach, 9 parts water). Tools should be immersed in the solution, preferably for 1 to 2 minutes, and wood particles should be wiped from all cutting surfaces. Bleach is corrosive to metal surfaces, so tools should be thoroughly cleaned with soap and water after each use.