My gardening arm is relatively weak, but I can cut heavy wood with ease with a well-chosen lopper. The best tool for cutting wood too thick for secateurs but not thick enough to require a saw, loppers have long handles that also facilitate access to the interior of crowded shrubs such as forsythia and beautybush. And they enable me to reach low tree branches.
Types of blades
Loppers have either bypass or anvil blades. Bypass blades make a clean, surgical cut to living wood, leaving tissue intact; crushed tissue could open pathways to infection from pathogens. The hardened tissue of dead wood often requires the massive crushing motion of anvil blades, which are very strong. It's better to own both rather than attempt to use one style for both purposes.
Why choose loppers?
Loppers are meant to eliminate strain from heavy cutting tasks and are most efficient when there's a good fit between your arm and the tool's length. Handle length varies from 45 to 75 centimetres, and some models telescope out for a farther reach. Although loppers with longer handles have more cutting strength because of increased leverage, the 75-centimetre size is awkward to control with my short arms. It's best to try out loppers if possible, or at least open and close a few different sizes in the store. The blades also vary in capability, with some cutting wood only up to four centimetres in diameter, while larger blades can slice through wood up to six centimetres thick.
Different lopper features
Not all loppers are created equal, and there are several features that make using them more comfortable and effective. The cutting blades are the business end of the tool and need to be seriously sharp and strong. Look for blades made from hardened carbon steel with a precision-ground cutting edge. An oil groove and adjustable tension bolt will ensure the action between the blades is fast and smooth. Some blades have a self-cleaning sap groove to draw sap away from the blades, and others are coated with non-stick materials such as Teflon to shed wood sap.
Many loppers have a bumper or shock absorber (made from rubber or plastic) just below the cutting blades to prevent the handles from crashing together as each cut is completed. These bumpers add to the cost but also increase efficiency. For my money, the most important features are a prominent hook at the tip of the bottom blade, to help hold wood in place, and a ratcheting action. The ratchet mechanism has a series of gears, allowing me to squeeze the blades effortlessly, cutting through heavy wood like butter. Two or three squeezes may be needed to get through thick wood but they require less strength on my part.
Do handles matter?
The handles of loppers are made from metal, wood or fibreglass and are designed for strength and comfort. I prefer wood handles, made from ash, hickory or oak, primarily because I like the way wood absorbs stress and shock from the cutting end. But I also own a smaller lopper made from PVC-coated, rust-resistant, forged steel that works like a dream on smaller brush and sticks. Hollow aluminum tubing is used for telescoping handles, and its light weight is a help to gardeners with a touch of arthritis in their hands; cushioned handgrips ensure a good grip.
Loppers are good for cleaning up storm-damaged wood from trees, such as redbud and dogwood, quickly cutting it down to the one-metre lengths required by my municipality for removal. And I use small loppers to cut up the huge accumulation of twiggy birch branches I rake up from the lawn in late winter. To me, my loppers are the next best thing to having a wood chipper.