Hedge shears: a landscaper's best friend

Man's best friend is said to be a dog. And a dog's best friend could be a shrub. But a landscaper's best friend is surely his hedge shears. After all, hedge shears provide the pleasing symmetry, balance and beauty to most of the shrubbery, some grasses and even the small trees he tends.

By investing in quality tools, you can earn dividends through reduced fatigue, fewer breakdowns and longer tool life. When selecting the type of hedge shears you want, consider how much you'll use them, where you'll use them, who will be using them, and, of course, how much you can spend on them.

Your main decision will be whether to buy power or hand shears. Power tools offer speed; hand models provide more accuracy. You may decide you need both, for use in different applications.

Here are some factors to consider before making your selection.

Gas-powered shears A gas-powered hedger gives you torque to cut up to a 1-inch branch, and the longest option on cutting blade, 42 inches (the range is 16 to 42 inches). You can choose from single- or double-sided edges. A gas model offers more mobility than electric or hand trimmers, but also weighs more than electric or hand models and will require more maintenance.

Some brands now offer a cutting head that can pivot and rotate 180 degrees. The rotation keeps the tool comfortably balanced while you're cutting properly and efficiently. Other models offer a rotating rear handle that is faster to change from position to position, although they still don't provide the variety of angles of an articulating head.

Recently developed anti-vibration features provide smoother operation and greater control while causing less fatigue. Even on bigger jobs, you can trim more efficiently and with less effort.

Noise also can be an issue with gas-powered shears. As more communities and states are beefing up their restrictions on noise pollution, major manufacturers are making strides to bring down the 2-cycle hedger's decibel levels. Pay attention to the decibel output of the machines you're buying--especially if your jobs are in upscale neighborhoods. It may save you from getting screamed at by a little ol' lady-or possibly even getting a citation from city hall!

Safety is another consideration. Manufacturers recommend ear protectors, but it's hard to get some landscapers to wear them. So using power tools with lower noise output protects your workers, too.

One of the latest innovations is a gas-powered long-reach trimmer. By extending your normal reach by more than four feet, this "hedger on a stick" allows you to trim 10-foot-high shrubs without the hassle of climbing a ladder.

Electric-powered shears Another power option is an electric hedge trimmer. It can provide many years of simple plug-in reliability. Electric hedgers are lighter (6 to 10 pounds compared with 10 to 14 pounds for gas units). Plus, they are easier to maneuver and usually are still powerful enough to handle branches of 1/4 to 1/2 inch. With both electric- and gas-powered models, the blades' reciprocating action almost self-sharpens them.

The main problem with electric shears is the cord-the darn thing gets in the way, and you can accidentally cut right through it! You're also restricted to areas that have electrical outlets within about 100 feet of where you're trimming.

To overcome these disadvantages, consider a battery-powered hedge trimmer. It's still electric, reliable, mobile-and is fairly lightweight, even with the battery pack. The main drawback is having to replenish the charge, but fortunately, several manufacturers use the same battery types that power their other cordless tools.

Features to watch for Whether you opt for gas or electric, consider these factors: * Dual-reciprocating blades move past each other. This reduces vibration and makes them easier to handle. * Forged, ground, high-carbon blades wear longer and are worth the extra investment compared with inexpensive models that have stamped-steel blades. * The articulating blade is a good option on long-reach trimmers because it helps make up for restricted maneuverability. * Check the reputation of the manufacturer to ensure the company will stand behind its products.

Hand hedge trimmers Purists and topiary specialists often argue that hand tools are the only type of hedgers you should use on any plant. They contend that hand models provide sharper cuts that are better for the plants, better cutting accuracy so you trim only what is necessary, and a quieter performance.

Well, if you've ever faced a couple of hundred feet of hedge, you no doubt appreciate using power generated from someplace other than your own muscles. Yet, there are several good reasons for using hand hedgers and several options in selecting them.

If your work is up close, opt for a shorter blade (about 6 inches) and a short handle. For those huge high-and-wide jobs, you'll likely prefer a longer blade (maybe 12 inches) and a longer handle. Remember-a longer blade and handle can prevent backaches because you don't have to stoop down as much.

Longer blades and handles, however, will add weight that may tire you out sooner. You might consider the newer fiberglass and aluminum models, which offer superior strength and balance-and are lighter than the wood versions. (Wood tools do have a more natural feel to them, though, and build more "character" with age.)

Choose your blade type Three types of blades are available.

* Straight-blade shears. These are the most commonly used shears and come in a variety of sizes and materials. A hallmark of good shears is that the blades are shaped so they are touching only at the cutting point. This reduces friction, sticking-and your own fatigue.

* Wavy-blade shears. These shears practically grip the plants and prevent them from sliding along the blade during the cut. So, you get a nice, uniform finish without clumping. These shears are especially useful for cutting open-structured plants like pines and vines.

Wavy blades require professional sharpening, so if you sharpen your own, you may want to think twice about buying these.

* Blade-and-edge shears. These are like a larger version of grass shears. The upper blade is sharp-edged, and the lower is flat. The broad front face supports stems and twigs while the top blade cuts cleanly. They are designed for use on grasses and soft-leafed plants, including hops and ivy.

Additional recommendations Here are a few more features to look for when choosing a tool.

* Models with serrations near the bottom of the blades are a real plus when you're gripping and cutting larger twigs or hard wood.

* A carbon-steel blade with a Rockwell hardness of 52+ and that is hollow-ground will give you precise clean cuts with less effort. You want 52+ because it's tough and has good elasticity to return it to the original (sharpened) state.

* An adjustable pivot-bolt assembly allows you to control the blade tension so your scissoring action cuts cleanly.

* A rubber buffer that deadens the shock when closing blades is well worth the investment. These "shock absorbers" reduce stress on your elbows and wrists.

Good grooming If you want to keep your hedge trimmers cutting cleanly, you need to take care of them. Sharp blades make cleaner cuts, which are better for the plants, and you won't jam nearly as often. Have a pro sharpen the blades for you, and clean and lubricate as needed.

After each use, clean your hand shears with an oily rag to wipe off sap and debris. A bit of oil between the blades and near the bolt will keep scissors action smooth. Power hedger upkeep requires regular motor maintenance and spraying WD-40 or its equivalent on blades after each use. Then wipe them down with an oily rag to clean and protect the blades.

Pick a pedigree Most landscape crews use different hedge shears for different jobs. And we all know the right tool for the job makes everything easier and saves "green" in the long run. So buy the right tool for the job. Factor in the ease and efficiency of use instead of settling for the cheapest.

Choosing tools with a good pedigree will bring you many years of dogged service. You and your co-workerswill appreciate working with hedging shears that become your best friends, through branches thick and thin.

Greg Stephens is vice president of A.M. Leonard Inc., Piqua, Ohio, a national mail-order company specializing in horticulture products. Its web site is www.amleo.com.

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