An important tool for any orchard worker or gardener, pruning shears are scissors-like tools designed for cutting the branches of trees and shrubs. Unlike the common scissors and hedge shears, they have short blades - typically about two inches long - and instead of the closed “finger-guard” handles common to scissors and clippers, they have handles like pliers, usually coated with rubber or plastic and shaped to fit most hands quite well. Springs are fitted between the handles, close to the fulcrum, to open the armature after each cut. Because of these springs, most pruning shears also have clips or latches to keep the shears closed when not in use.
A good pair of pruning shears is an elegant piece of equipment, and something of a status symbol amongst orchard workers. I remember the day I received my own pair of Felco shears as a day of honour, a recognition of blood, sweat and tears invested in those trees - an acknowledgement that I was a real orchardsman, worthy of more than the temporary and seasonal workers who had to make do with cheap second-rate models. It might have been a silly thing to get so excited about, but in that culture it was a potent symbol of achievement.
There are two basic types of pruning shears: anvil shears and scissors-action shears. (It must be noted that in both types, the lower jaw of the shears is called the anvil.)
Anvil shears have a straight blade on the top “jaw”. This blade bites down on a flat metal anvil surface, pinching the branch between blade and anvil to cut it. The straightness of the blade means that large branches tend to get squeezed out of the shears instead of being cut neatly. This results in messy cuts that heal slowly, with a danger of infection. To make matters worse, the anvil itself tends to become notched after a few months of use, making it almost impossible to cut all the way through a branch without mangling it. All the anvil shears I have ever seen were second-rate tools with no replaceable parts. When the anvil wore down, or the blade dulled, you threw the shears away, which was wasteful. (You couldn’t sharpen the blade more than once or twice, because you would end up with a blade that didn’t reach the anvil). Although there are a few good companies making better anvil shears than the ones I used, I personally have nothing but contempt for this kind of shears.
Scissors-action shears - these are the real deal. Scissors-action shears have a curved blade on the top jaw, which slices down past a matching angled anvil on the lower jaw. The anvil is not a cutting blade like on a pair of scissors, but it does have a sharp angle to facilitate clean cuts. Due to the curve of the jaws, branches do not slip out. There is a notch at the base of the top blade, which can be used to cut wire or twine - both of which are used extensively in orchard work. It’s not a bolt-cutter, but it works pretty well for common gauges of wire. The blades on scissors-action shears can be sharpened as needed, and are usually replaceable. Although these cost more than anvil shears, they are the shears to buy if you respect your trees and workers.
The leading manufacturer of pruning shears is Felco, a Swiss company. Felco shears, with their trademark red handles, cost about 1 ½ times as much as other companies’ similar models, but they are more than worth it. Almost every piece on a Felco is replaceable, and they are all extremely well made, with attention paid to every detail. Their “classic” model, the Felco 2, featuring such niceties as a sap groove and rubber stops between the handles to prevent wrist jarring, lasts longer than most fruit trees and is probably the last pair of shears you will ever buy. Other models are available with ergonomic features like rotating grips, angled heads, smaller handles and reversed blades for lefties, but the Model 2 is just about perfect for most people.