Branching out with toppers

A lopper is a sort of in-between cutting tool. By that, I mean loppers are what you reach for when the branch is too thick for hand pruners yet too leggy to be managed with a saw. In these cases, which come up more often than you may think, there's no better tool for the job than a lopper.

A good pair of loppers has long, strong shafts of steel, fiberglass, or hardwood. At the ends, where you grip them, you want either vinyl or rubber handles, just to alleviate vibrations from cutting and make the work more comfortable. At the top, the curved hook and blade ought to be tough metal such as forged carbon steel — sharp, of course, and beveled. The point where these two elements come together needs to be strong and secure; look for strong, stout pins or rivets, as well as rubber bumpers.

Use loppers on wayward vines, on overgrown shrubs and hedges, and on small ornamental or fruit trees. You may find loppers especially handy if you have to reach into the greenery or work in tight quarters. Employ a pair of loppers when you need to cut something 2 inches in diameter or less. Some of the special ratcheted types can tackle somewhat larger material.

Moving up to pruning saws

The pruning saw is such a simple tool that people tend to underestimate it. The first thing you need to know about pruning saws is accept no substitutes. Don't use any household or carpenter's saw in its place. Those tools aren't curved — a feature of the pruning saw you can immediately appreciate when you use it. Plus the blade may be too thick, which chews up the branch instead of severing it, or the cutting teeth may not be right for the branch you want to cut. Invest in the saw that's meant for gardening! It's never expensive, and you won't be sorry.

Use a pruning saw on branches that won't yield easily to loppers — basically, anything over 3 inches or so. You can manage thicker branches using the standard three-way cut (see Chapter 11 for details).

If the job seems too big for your pruning saw — if you feel the slightest overmatched or in danger — hire someone else to do the job or use a chainsaw instead. (See the upcoming section titled "Chewing through chores with chainsaws.")

End to end, a typical pruning saw is between 14 and 20 inches long. Some shorter folding ones are handy for smaller jobs and are easy to carry in your pocket. The handle is traditionally of pistol grip design so you can hold and wield it securely and safely; it's usually wood, but it may be tough plastic. As for the blade, seek something that's rust-resistant and strong, such as tempered steel alloy. Look closely at the teeth — you want the tri-edge blades (the ones with three bevels), because this shape makes for the fastest, neatest cuts. Plain lance-toothed pruning saws are still around and are admittedly cheaper, but the cutting can be rough going.

What's the advantage of a folding saw? It's simply a safety feature, eliminating the need for a scabbard of some kind for carrying or storing the saw when it's not in use. Beware of cheap folding saws, though! A well-designed folding saw locks securely in both the open and closed positions.

The bow saw, which is a D-shaped saw, is bigger and more formidable, up to 3 feet long, intended only for bigger pruning jobs on larger branches. It allows both a push and pull cut. The frame should be of rigid steel so the blade is kept taut (or you can tighten it before each use).

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