The Best Pruning Shears
If you want a sharp, compact, all-around pruners to slice your shrubs into shape, go buy a pair of ARS HP-VS8Z pruners. You will keep them forever, and you will not regret your purchase.
Gardeners are commonly described as “growing” plants, but the ugly truth is that anyone who maintains a yard spends a lot of time destroying the vegetable kingdom. Shrubs are trimmed to keep their branches from blocking walkways, lilacs and daffodils are severed from their stems to sit idly in table vases, raspberry canes are hacked back to restrain them from taking over the lawn. To keep chaos at bay—and to make pretty flower arrangements—gardeners and landscapers need a good pair of hand-held bypass pruners, also called pruning shears.
Bypass pruners have two blades that pass each other when you make a cut, the same way scissor blades work. You’ll also find anvil pruners at most hardware stores, where a sharpened blade simply stops dead on a hard, flat surface. Although their mashing-action is fine for crushing limes for garden party daiquiris, anvil pruners will mangle any living stem they contact; save them for cutting dry, dead brush.
Basic bypass pruners should be sharp enough to cut flowers and small branches precisely without crushing the stems or leaving dangling fibers, and they should be sturdy enough to cut green branches without twisting or collapsing. Most importantly, pruners need to fit your hand. Pruners that are too large are unwieldy and hard to close for cutting; pruners that are too small don’t let you take full advantage of your hand’s awesome plant-amputating strength.
Beyond the fit and the cutting blade, there’s a third factor: durability. While any pruner blade can be sharpened, sooner or later another part of the pruner will wear out: the spring that holds the handles together, the screw between the blades, the clasp. The manufacturers of pruners in the $40+ range generally sell replacement parts so you can repair your favorite pruner—and if you spent that much money on a pruner, you’ll want to repair it.
I set out to test nine pruner models from six manufacturers. To simulate typical garden use, I tested the pruners by cutting scallions, ¼-inch raspberry canes, ¼-inch wooden dowels, and ½-inch Norway maple branches ten times apiece. I judged them by the quality of their cut—whether they mashed the material or left fibers hanging; the force required to cut the material; and whether they cut consistently. I also asked members of a local gardening group to handle the pruners and rate how well they fit in their hands.
My experience gardening (AKA why you should consider my advice)
I’ve been gardening in the Boston area for 19 years, and I am one of the pillars of the Menotomy Gardeners e-group. I earned a certificate in Field Botany from the New England Wild Flower Society in 2007, and I co-founded the Lexington Community Farm Coalition, which is devoted to preserving working agricultural land. In 2010, I published the Boston Gardens and Green Spaces, a Boston Globe Local Bestseller, and I am the co-creator of the GREEN SPACES: Boston app. I have appeared on NPR’s Radio Boston and WCVB’s Chronicle discussing Boston’s open space, and my work has been featured in the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, Boston Magazine, and the Time Out Boston guide. I give frequent talks to historical societies, garden clubs, and book groups about New England landscape history and agriculture. My blog about Boston’s plants and landscape appears at Green Space Boston.
Who should buy this?
If you don’t already have a pair of pruners, save yourself some misery. Go get a pair of quality pruners. Poorly made pruners make garden work a struggle, fall apart, and make your hands hurt. If you’re planning on spending more than two hours a year maintaining your yard, get the tools that will make your job easier.
Women and men with medium-to-small hands who will be doing occasional weekend pruning will be happiest with the ARS HP-VS8Z, which costs all of 30 cents less than Felco 2s ($50), and carry a lifetime warranty against manufacturer’s defects. They cut slightly more cleanly than other pruners, according to my testing, and they fit women and men with medium-to-small hands better than other models, which is why I ultimately landed on this selection.
This judgement was a close call. Almost everyone who has opinions about pruners talks about Felcos, which have been very widely marketed for decades, come in many shapes and sizes, are reliable, and can be repaired with a variety of widely-available replacement parts. ARS pruners aren’t nearly as well-known; search in any shopping site, and you’ll find at least five times as many Felco pruner listings as ARS.
But in my test panel of gardeners, the ARS HP-VS8Z pruners outperformed Felcos by a small margin. They cut slightly more cleanly than other pruners, according to my testing, and they fit women and men with medium-to-small hands better than other models.
These weren’t as comfortable as our main pick and cut a little bit worse. But if you’re thinking about opening your own pruning business where you would develop iron hands from performing many hours of pruning, by all means, buy Felco 2 pruners for $50. Felco 2 pruners, like the ARS HP-VS8Z pruners pruners, cut almost as cleanly and consistently , and can be repaired easily if you somehow manage to damage them. But they have a more legendary reputation as being a pro’s tool and have lots of popular opinion to back that up. The consensus is that you won’t need to do that for a few decades unless you throw them under a front-loader or leave them in the compost all winter. Again, they are not the top pick because women testers rated them as somewhat less comfortable than the ARS, but not grossly so, and because their cutting slightly flattened a ¼” dowel which the ARS cut cleanly. It was a close call, though, so if you’ve got a pair of Felco pruners, certainly don’t toss them out.
However, Felcos are also some of the most expensive pruners on the market, and very few gardeners spend 20+ hours a week pruning. For the average homeowner who hasn’t developed Fingers of Steel, are the Felcos actually arguably better, or just more expensive? Popular Mechanics reported that the Felco pruner blades were less damaged by cutting chicken wire than other brands—but why would anyone use a pair of pruners to cut chicken wire when a pair of wire cutters works better and costs less than $10?
How we tested
Overall, the ARS HP-VS8Z did the best job of cutting a variety of materials cleanly and consistently with the least amount of force; but the Bahco PXM2, the Corona 3180, the Fiskars 9124, the AM Leonard 1286, and the Felco 2 were not far behind—all because they tended to crush the ¼-inch dowel slightly.
The Felco 2 pruners performed well on all cuts, but they weren’t any better than several other models: the AM Leonard 1286 pruners (a visual twin of the Felcos with slightly more orange handles), the ARS HP-VS8Z, the Bahco PXM2, and the Fiskars 9124.
If, for some arbitrary reason, you’d rather buy pruners made in France than Swiss Felcos, the Bahco PXM2 has a different handle shape which some people prefer for a similar price ($47.29) and similar set of replacement parts on offer. Much like the Felcos, women rated the Bahco PXM2 pruners as slightly less comfortable than the ARS pruners, and a few raters found their unconventional shape awkward. In all other regards, the Felco 2s and Bahco PXM2 pruners perform equally well.
The scallions proved surprisingly challenging. Most models cut the green and white parts cleanly and consistently, but the Corona 7100 and Fiskars 7736 repeatedly mashed them. You could probably sharpen these blades to work better on thin plant material—but why would you get pruners that aren’t in perfect condition when you buy them? The Corona 7100 were also the only pruners to crush the raspberry canes, which weren’t a problem for any other model.
The woody tests moved beyond finesse. For the ¼-inch dowel, only our pick, the ARS HP-VS8Z pruners, provided effortless, clean cuts; all other models mashed and flattened the dowel slightly, although the Corona 3180‘s cuts were almost as clean.
Pruners aren’t just a cutting edge, though; they also differ in how they feel in your hand. One of the reasons professional landscapers like Felco pruners so much is that they come in a variety of sizes and left-handed versions. In the gardening group, men preferred the feel of Corona 7100 and Fiskars 7936 over other models, but only slightly. The women, who have generally smaller hands, strongly preferred the AM Leonard 1286 and ARS HP-VS8Z over other models, praising the ARS HP-VS8Z’s “nice small span” that fit in their hands. The Fiskars 7936 has a rotating lower handle that rolls as you squeeze the handle shut. It’s supposed to reduce finger and fatigue; the reviewers just found it “weird,” “bulky,” and “disconcerting.” The Fiskars 7936 and 7736 also drew grumpy comments for having plastic clasps and gear housing that looked like they would break easily, while the Felco 2 and AM Leonard 1286 pruners drew praises for the covers on their springs, which keep spring-gumming grit off their mechanisms.
Heavy duty pruners
During testing, the surprise came when I tested pruners on ½-inch diameter Norway maple branches. Even though all these pruners are rated to cut branches up to ¾ inches thick, most of the pruners required significant effort—and two hands on the pruners—to cut through the the ½-inch branches. However, the Fiskars 7936 PowerGear pruners, which required more force than other pruners to cut scallions and raspberries, and cut the ¼-inch dowel inconsistently, actually cut through the Norway Maple branch with just one hand.
If you really need to cut 1/2”+ branches with a pruner instead of a long-handled lopper, and you don’t mind if you have to use a bit more effort to cut small branches, the Fiskars 7936 PowerGear pruners for $18.83—but beware that the clasp, the handles, and the gear housing are all made of plastic. Once they break, you will have to buy a new pair. They also didn’t cut as cleanly as more expensive pruners in tests on scallions, raspberry canes, and 1/4″ dowels. Still, if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s your best alternative at the price. But if you’re cutting a lot of thick branches, you’ll get more leverage with a pair of long-handled loppers.
Consider getting a set of ratcheting pruners instead (more on that below). These pruners have internal mechanisms similar to a car jack that allow users to cut through a branch in stages, and are invaluable to users with hands weakened by arthritis and other conditions.
Women and men who don’t have quite so much money to burn could get the AM Leonard 1286—and keep them for the long term, since AM Leonard also sells a replacement part kit for $8. AM Leonard 1286 pruners are almost as comfortable and sharp as AS VS8Z pruners and cost almost $20 less. The AM Leonard 1286 are my budget pick at $32 for people with small- to medium-sized hands.
The Corona 3180 is an economical choice for $21, and replacement parts are available. It performed slightly better on cutting tests than the AM Leonard 1286, but its wide span when the handles are open is unwieldy for women and men with smaller hands, which is why it is not the top budget pick.
The ARS-V87Z is the right tool for most people, and performed better than all of the ratcheting pruners we tested. However, not all of us have the strength of Conan the Licensed Professional Arborist. If you’re a gardener with weak hands (or big branches), you may wish use ratcheting pruners, which take longer to cut through branches, but require less force to use. For a mere $14, the economical Ace® 8in Ratchet Pruning Shears will make your pruning a slow, gentle breeze.
While conventional bypass pruners are basically put together like scissors, ratcheting pruners have an interior mechanism that allows you to squeeze the pruners multiple times without re-opening the blades. Each time the blade closes a little more, the ratchet mechanism ticks up another notch, keeping the blade in place. (Skip to 0:50 in this video to see a ratcheting pruner in action.) Instead of trying to muscle your way through the branch in one forceful blow (with two forceful hands), you can cut through the branch by repeatedly squeezing the blades single-handedly—in theory.
Buyers should also keep in mind that since ratcheting pruners have a more complicated mechanism than conventional bypass pruners, they’re harder to repair when they break. Although some companies offer replacement blades, or a lifetime guarantee, you can’t get replacements for the ratcheting mechanism. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
I found no reliable internet reviews devoted to ratcheting pruners, so I selected top-rated ratcheting pruners from Amazon for further testing. All of these pruners were technically anvil pruners, not bypass pruners; instead of having two cutting blades, like scissors, they had one sharp blade and one flat “anvil” blade for holding material. Various commentators say that anvil blades will mash green woody stems to a pulp—as conventional anvils do when dropped from great heights on Wile E. Coyote. But in my sample, only one of the pruners mangled my plants: the Scotts® 18900 Titanium Bonded® Nonstick Dual Pruner. All the others yielded clean, neat cuts.
I evaluated ratcheting pruners the same way I tested the conventional bypass pruners, by cutting a variety of substances and rating how easy it was to cut and how cleanly the pruners cut; for the ratcheting pruners, I also noted how many ratchets it took to finish the cut. I hacked up scallions, 1/2” thick raspberry canes, 3/8” Norway maple branches, 3/4” common buckthorn branches, and 1/4” and 1/2” wooden dowels. To finish off the day’s slicing, I snipped through scallions again, then washed and dried them so that my home office wouldn’t smell like onions while I was writing the review.
The Ace Pruning Shears had one drawback. The small plastic clasp which keeps the pruners closed is stiff and hard to move one-handed. It took me a good two minutes to get it to open in the first place, although it did loosen up slightly with repeated use.
The Step Up
For gardeners who want the easiest pruner to close, the Gardener’s Friend Ratchet Hand Pruners will set you back $40 on Amazon – or $42 including shipping if you order the Horizons Heavy-Duty Ratchet Pruner (H107), which appears to be the exact same pruners with red plastic in place of black. It takes significantly less force to cut through 1/2” dowels and 3/4” branches with the Gardener’s Friend than the Ace pruners, even though it takes the same number of ratchets for each pruner to cut through the them (two to three for the dowel, three for the 3/4” branch). If you are dealing with especially painful arthritis, weak hands, or repetitive strain injuries, it might be worthwhile to get these pruners instead of the Ace pruners. The Gardener’s Friend pruners are made for slightly larger hands than the Ace Pruning Shears—a benefit or a drawback, depending on your hands—and their clasp is easy to slide back single-handedly. They also cut scallions perfectly.
Otherwise, the Gardener’s Friend pruners perform identically to the Ace Pruning Shears—that is, perfectly—and weigh the same as well (8 oz). The Gardeners’ Friend pruners also come with a little mineral-oil-saturated sponge embedded in the handle for cleaning and oiling the blade, which saves you the bother of getting a rag out. For $26 more than the Ace pruners, you could probably buy a few hundred rags at Goodwill, but who am I to judge?
The Barnel B888 8-Inch Aluminum Straight Blade Garden Ratchet Hand Pruner ($17) is a decent alternative to the Ace pruners if the Ace model isn’t available, and you can actually open and close its latch with one hand. The Barnel pruners don’t do quite as clean a job of cutting scallions as the Ace or the Gardener’s Friend, and they take more ratchets to cut a 1/2” dowel than the Ace model (four vs. three). Otherwise, they perform identically to the Ace shears.
The Gardenite Ratchet Pruning Shears ($23) are perfectly reasonable. They’re slightly larger than the Ace Ratchet Pruning Shears, and they require a second squeeze at the end of every snip to engage the ratchet for a clean cut—even on soft scallion tops. That final squeeze makes cutting feel somewhat clunky compared to the Ace’s smooth action. The Gardenite also required more ratchets to cut through branches than the Ace: four to cut the 3/8” Norway maple branch, five to get through the 3/4” buckthorn. If the Ace’s handles feel too small for your hands, you might wish to try the Gardenite pruners; otherwise, stick with the top pick.
The Florian 701 Pruner ($30) weighs in at 4 0z, and was the lightest, slimmest pruner in my sample. It makes a gentle clunk! when the ratchet closes, and it will not be rushed; I had to wait a fraction of a second after each cut for the ratchet to completely close on the raspberry canes to get a clean cut. Its light weight isn’t always an advantage, though. When I was cutting the 3/4” buckthorn branch, the slim pruners would twist out of position, making the ratcheting action useless. I had to remove the pruners and reposition them to keep cutting. If having a lightweight pruner suitable for smaller hands is important to you, the Florian is a fine choice—but it isn’t as useful on as wide a range of materials as the Ace or the Gardener’s Friend.
Are you the kind of person who likes to humiliate your friends by giving them objects that don’t quite work the way they’re supposed to, then saying, “No, no, you don’t just pull the lever! You have to to jiggle it like this!”? Then you’ll love the Scotts® 18900 Titanium Bonded® Nonstick Dual Pruner. ($34 for three pairs; not yet available singly.) I’m sure there’s something you can do to make it function—perhaps sharpening the blades when you get it?—but I don’t know what it is, and I’m not willing to put in the time to find out. The Scotts pruners were sent to me in lieu of a soon-to-be-discontinued pruner model by the same manufacturer, and they could not consistently cut through scallions, or raspberry cane, or a 1/2” dowel, or a 3/4” buckthorn branch (which is not surprising, given that they were only rated to 1/2”). The ratchet was hard to engage, clunky, and frequently just got stuck; I couldn’t move the handles. If your branch-cutting is limited to 3/8” Norway maple branches, you might get some use out of these pruners. Or, if you need a laugh, you could hand them to Conan and see what they look like once he’s through with them.
Wrapping it up
For me, the superior performance and easy feel of the ARS VS8Z are worth paying an extra $18 because hacking up shrubbery is one of my dearest joys. After all, it’s the plants you want to cut up, not your hands.
What are the best hand pruners?, Fine Gardening, May 29, 2009I use ARS V-8 pruners, and I wouldn’t trade them for a box full of Felcos. Well, maybe for a box full -- but it would have to be a big box.
Hand Pruner Showdown: Felco VS Corona VS Bahco, North Coast Gardening, April 15, 2009"I bought my first Bahco product the next day and soon was sawing away merrily at all my jobs. My contractor friend, encouraged, bought me a pair of Bahco pruners a couple months later, and even though I loved my Felcos with a passion usually reserved for items involving chocolate, I figured I’d better give those Bahcos a try.... The Bahcos have become like an extension of my body. They cut thick branches and stems with such ease, and make pruning into the joy that it should be. I would never have tried Bahcos were it not for my friend, because of the amazing reputation Felcos enjoy. And while Felco makes a solid product, I’d really urge you to be open to trying other brands and types of tools, because they aren’t necessarily the best choice for everyone.
Selecting and Maintaining Hand Pruners , Organic GardeningBottom Line Fiskars' pruners cut with the least effort, and no tool could top Felco's blade durability. But the best all-around performer was also the least expensive: A.M. Leonard's 1286.
We put hand pruners to the test, Chicago Tribune, August 20, 2006
Top 4 Bypass Pruners, Gardening.About.ComCorona is a respected name among professional gardeners. The popular "Clipper" pruners have replaceable, sharpenable heat-treated blades. I've recently been seeing Corona replacement parts popping up in all the local hardware stores, which makes it more convenient.
The Felco Classic Manual Hand Pruner ($43) is probably the best hand pruner you can buy. Yes, you can pick up a cheaper pair for $15 or $20, but this is the type of tool professional gardeners and landscapers use, knowing it will hold up for years and years. Felco has been making this same model for nearly 50 years, combining precision cutting Swiss blades with plastic-coated handles and a shock absorber for comfortable use. They cut cleanly and easily, and are designed for easy maintenance and use.
Best quality hand pruners and loppers, ArboristSite, August 10. 2009Love my Felco hand pruners. Had them for years. Changed the blades only once and use them at least three times a week.
Road Test: Garden Shears, The New York Times, May 12, 2010A relatively small bypass pair from ARS was a favorite...the shears were lightweight but not insubstantial, with good resistance and excellent cutting ability
Best Garden Hand Pruners, TibestiAnne says: The original Felco design and still a favorite of horticulturists around the world. It’s the pruner (secateur even) that many a horticulturist has held in their hands as they learned the trade and now refuse to give up their “old friend” for anything (me included). This pruner has been the standard for over 40 years. Often imitated but never duplicated. Easy to deconstruct and reassemble after cleaning and sharpening. Although rarely needed, all parts are available for replacement.
Great Pruning tools, Better Homes and Gardens
Bypass or Anvil?, GardenWeb, March 23, 2010
Pruners, Shears, and Bypass Pruners, Blade Forums, January 2009Any Felcos are well worth the money and built to last. I prefer the #6 though. To speak to their durability, I found a #6 in a compost pile at work. They were rusted, spring was shot, they had probably been there 2-3 years, but the rubber was fine. Took them apart, replaced the spring (a big plus for me is that all the parts are individually replaceable), oiled and sharpened up the blade and they were good as new. GREAT PRODUCT!
Favorite Pruners? , Ecological Landscaping Association LinkedIn List, March 2013
Originally published: June 23, 2013