Another chapter in the design of everyday objects — objects crafted to perform their functions well, and to provide pleasure to the user or the viewer. The occasion is the early summer sprucing up of my front patio, just outside the big windows by the table where I work, providing me, during my long months in pandemic isolation, with the visual satisfactions of a substantial container garden and temptations for birds and squirrels (and, alas, a small but tenacious colony of roof rats).

Now it is finally both warm and usually dry, and I’m mostly recovered from my reactions to the Pfizer vaccine: notably, an unfortunate interaction — twice — between the vaccine and my osteoarthritis that caused many of the finger joints on my right hand to swell painfully, making that hand virtually unusable.

But now I can begin coping with the mess that the patio has become, including trimming and pruning the plants, cutting out the old wood, and chopping up the plants that have died. So I discover that my secateurs, or pruning shears, had gotten exposed to our rainy season and needed replacing. With an object much like this excellent tool from the local Ace Hardware:

(#1) Ace anvil pruners

On anvil vs. bypass pruners, see below. But first, on the terms secateurs, pruning shears, and pruners.

Naming the object. First, the name — secateurs, (pruning) shears, or pruners — is plural, like names of bipartite tools in general (also scissors, pliers, loppers, tweezers, clippers, cutters, (seam) rippers, (thread) snippers), and no doubt others).

Then, I was long familiar with secateurs and pruning shears as names for tools like #1, but neither quite satisfied me: secateurs is British, and pruning shears is a two-part compound, on the longish side. But what appears to have become the standard commercial name in the US, pruners, is just right. And it allows for a nice contrast with another kind of shears, the two-handed loppers (essentially like heavy-duty secateurs) vs. the one-handed pruners. (Separately, there’s a size contrast between the two-handed hedge shears or garden shears — sometimes called just shears — and one-handed scissors.)

For one further adventure in nomenclature, the NOAD definition:

pl. noun secateursBritish a pair of pruning clippers for use with one hand.

(with pruning clippers).

History and design. From Wikipedia:

Pruning shears, also called hand pruners [or simply pruners] (in American English), or secateurs (in British English), are a type of scissors for use on plants. They are strong enough to prune hard branches of trees and shrubs, sometimes up to two centimetres thick. They are used in gardening, arboriculture, plant nursery works, farming, flower arranging, and nature conservation, where fine-scale habitat management is required.

Loppers are a larger, two-handed, long-handled version for branches thicker than pruning shears can cut.

[History:] Cutting plants as part of gardening dates to antiquity in both European and East Asian topiary, with specialized scissors used for Chinese penjing and its offshoots – Japanese … and Vietnamese … – for over a thousand years.

In modern Europe, scissors only used for gardening work have existed since 1819, when the French aristocrat Antoine-François Bertrand de Molleville was listed in “Bon Jardinier”, as the inventor of secateurs. During the late 1890s, secateurs were sold all over Europe and the US. Today secateurs are widely used by gardeners, vintners and fruit farmers.

The world’s first anvil pruners were developed and produced in 1923 by Walther Schröder in Kiel, Germany. The pruners were given the product name “Original LÖWE” and were distributed internationally as far back as 1925 [by various companies].

(#2) Bypass pruners (photo from the Wikipedia entry)

[Designs:] Anvil pruners have only one blade, which closes onto a flat surface; unlike bypass blades it can be sharpened from both sides and remains reliable when slightly blunt. Anvil pruners are useful for cutting thick branches; one can bite into the stem from one direction, swing the handle around and bite further through narrowed wood from another direction. The anvil is made of a material softer than the blade, so that the blade is not damaged when it meets the anvil.

… Bypass pruners usually work exactly like a pair of scissors, with two blades “passing by” each other to make the cut. At least one of the blades will be curved: a convex upper blade with either a concave or straight lower one. Some bypass designs have only one blade, the lower jaw being broad (like an anvil) but passing the upper jaw.

[Handle length:] Secateurs have short handles and are operated with one hand. A spring between the handles causes the jaws to open again after closing. When not in use, the jaws may be held closed by a safety catch or by a loop holding the handles together.

Satisfactory pruners are heavy enough to provide the force necessary to cut through woody stems (everyday scissors won’t do the job) but light enough to be used by an ordinary gardener. And their handles must fit comfortably in an ordinary gardener’s hand (note the notch in the lower handle in #1 and #2, to hold that handle firmly against the user’s index finger). The spring and safety catch are further features making the tool easy to use and store.

The tool, evolved into its current satisfying form over about 200 years, is a pleasure to use (even in my poor damaged right hand.

On the design of everyday objects earlier on this blog. My 8/3/20 posting “The art of everyday objects” surveys barn doors and provides links to postings of mine on parking lot arrows, manhole covers, vent pipes, storm grates, downspouts, urinals, the garlic press, and Anchor ovenware. A random sampling from the world of design.


2 Responses to “pruners”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    We have several of these tools, at least one of each type; I think we have generally called them “clippers” (although we also use that term for the short-bladed, two-handed version). I had never heard the term secateurs until I encountered it in one of the books in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, where the context made it clear exactly what they were.

  2. Mitch4 Says:

    Just a day after reading this entry, I came across “secateurs” being discussed (as a vocabulary item to be recovered, as well as the tools themselves) in the British TV show “Breeders”.

    Written up at

    Maybe an image will embed ….

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