A Beginners Guide To Blade Types And How To Choose The Right Cutting Tool.

A question that The Gardeners Show Shop hear regularly is “what’s the difference between bypass and anvil?”. The quick answer is that a bypass blade tool cuts against the side of a block, and the anvil tool blade cuts onto the top of the block. But the quick answer doesn’t tell you the more in-depth stuff; nor does it answer the hidden question of “what tool do I need?”.
Bypass and Anvil are just two types of cutting tool – snips and shears are often called Bypass but are essentially scissors. Then you have “simple” tools such as knives, axes, saws and hoes which are just a cutting edge. To help you pick the right tool here is a not too technical guide to what we see as the four main types of cutting tools, with some basic tool care tips thrown in for good measure. Enjoy!


Think of a knife. Just a plain basic knife. A handle and a blade. That’s all a simple cutting tool is. You hold the handle, place the blade against whatever you are cutting and then apply pressure at the force and angle that you need to make the cut. Or think of an axe – again, you hold the handle and “swing” or “chop” to make the cut. Precise pressure or brute force, the idea is the same. A simple tool is just plain and simple; one handle, one blade. (You could say no moving parts, but some knives and saws fold!)

For an example of a simple blade take a look at Darlac’s Sabre Tooth Folding Saw.


A scissor in garden tool terms is the same as the usual kind; two blades cutting against each other. If you take a close look at a pair of scissors you can see that each blade has a flat side (the inner side that touches the opposing blade) and a side with one (or more) angles. As you close the scissor, the cutting edge slides across the flat side of the opposing blade. Whatever is trapped between them is cut. So mind your fingers!

Scissor style blades (Cross Section)

Sometimes the blades are curved – when the scissor is closed you can see a gap and only the ends are touching. As you open the blades the “point of contact” moves down towards the jaw (the point where the two blades are joined).
Manufacturing designers do this by so the blade is only cutting where the two blade edges meet, making a more precise cut and, possibly, less wear and tear.

The scissor type of blade is designed for fine work. Snips and shears are ideal for foliage, grass, leaves, herbs, light pruning on soft stems. Deadheading (close to the flower on the soft stuff) is quite different to cutting an inch or two further down on a woody stem – this is when you need to move up to a different tool.

For an example of a scissor blade, take a look at Darlac’s Compact Snips – perfect for deadheading!


These tools have one blade and one cutting platform. As with snips, the blade will have a flat side and an angled side. The flat side slides across the cutting platform as you close the handles, cutting at the point of contact.

Bypass Style Blades (Cross Section)

Because of the laws of physics (which we won’t bore you with) you will find that the deeper into the jaw you cut, the easier it is. So, save the tip of the blade for the finer snippy stuff, and take the bigger stuff as far in as you can get it. Don’t be tempted to cut through wire – it will lead to a broken blade. (Some pruners have a wire cutting notch, such as Darlac DP1030a and& DP1631)
The bypass blade is ideal for this years growth on most perennials; it tends to be classed as a general-purpose pruner and is probably what you picture when you think of a secateur. A word of warning – bypass tools do not cope well with woodier stems. You may get away with cutting the odd denser stem here and there, but the pressure it puts on the blade (physics again!) causes it to move away from the cutting platform leaving you with “loose” or “floppy” pruners. If this happens you won’t get a good clean cut, no matter how sharp the blade, until the pruner has been (if possible) re-tensioned. If you know that you have a lot of woody plants to prune or are planning to cut back lots of old growth, consider an anvil pruner.

For an example of a bypass blade, take a look at Darlac’s Compact Pruner – a good all rounder, perfect for medium hands. The Compact Plus Pruner is a scaled up version for larger hands!


Similar to bypass tools, anvils have one blade and one cutting platform. Unlike bypass tools, on anvils the blade cuts down onto the cutting platform, which supports both sides of the stem being cut.

Anvil Style Blade (Cross Section)

Some anvil blades have a flat side, more often they have a cutting edge on both sides. This won’t affect performance but will make a difference to your sharpening regime.
Because the stem is supported on both sides of the blade, an anvil is ideal for woodier stems, harder woods like fruit trees, and old growth. There is a belief that you can’t cut soft stems with an anvil pruner because it will crush it. We believe that you can’t cut soft stems with a blunt pruner. Keep your blade sharp and it will cut not crush.

For an example of an anvil blade, take a look at Darlac’s Compact Anvil Pruner.

Handy Hints for Basic Tool Care

Always choose the right tool for the job.

Whatever you use, make sure that you don’t overwork the tool. You may be able to snip herbs with a very sharp anvil pruner, but that doesn’t mean that you can cut oak stems with a pair of snips. As the name suggests, snips are for snipping the small soft stuff. They don’t tend to put a cut capacity on the packaging for snips – if it’s big enough to measure its probably too big for a snip.

Bypass and Anvil pruners should show a maximum cut capacity. What doesn’t get put on packaging is a maximum density capacity That means that if you have a Bypass pruner with a 20mm capacity, it is not designed to cut a 10mm hard stem.

Clean your tool after use. Fresh sap is fairly easy to remove with the traditional oily rag, but we have found hand sanitizer gel to be really good for this. Because it is alcohol based it leaves no trace, and (bonus!) it will help prevent the spread of plant diseases around your garden. If you are dealing with older, ingrained dirt we would suggest letting a small amount of oil soak into it for a minute then rubbing with a rough cloth or scourer. If it’s really stubborn you may need wire wool.

Check moving parts to see if things need tightening. Nuts bolts and screws have a tendency to work loose over time, and it is so much easier to check and adjust them than it is to find them when they have dropped off “somewhere in the garden”; it is not a good idea to be using a tool with missing/loose parts as it can lead to damage occurring.

Oil areas where friction will happen. The key word here is OIL. It doesn’t particularly matter what kind; 3 in 1 is brilliant, bike maintenance oil, even vegetable oil from the kitchen if nothing else is available. Don’t use WD40, as this is a solvent. It will remove protective layers of oil.

Sharpen when needed. A blunt blade means you working harder to get poorer results. The pressure that you put in will always look for the easiest way out – a sharp blade is easy. (Nuts bolts and screws are an easier way out than a blunt blade; when you cut with a blunt blade things start loosening up and undoing themselves!)

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