Gardeners can be very partisan when it comes to naming their favorite tool, but few will deny the absolute indispensability of a good pair of hand pruners. You can get by with a good pair of scissors or flower shears for soft stems, but sooner or later you're going to have to get in there and trim, prune or hack back hard, woody stems and you'll be glad you have the appropriate tool.
There are basically three types of hand pruners: bypass, anvil and ratchet. Bypass garden pruners are probably the most popular. They make a nice clean cut using two curved blades that bypass each other in the same manner as a pair of scissors. One blade is sharpened on the outside edge and it slips by a thicker unsharpened blade.
In contrast, anvil garden pruners have a single straight cutting blade that closes down on a flat edge or anvil. Anvil pruners have a slicing action similar to a knife against a cutting board and work well removing tough, dead wood. They tend to be a bit bulkier than bypass pruners, making it more difficult to get in close for crotch cuts.
Ratchet garden pruners are basically anvil pruners with a mechanism that performs the cutting action in stages. Ratchet style hand pruners offer more leverage for smaller or weaker hands. If you will be doing a great deal of pruning, ratchet pruners might save your hand and wrist some strain and fatigue.
Which is better? Each style has its devotees, but I would say because of the closeness and cleanness of the cuts, a bypass hand pruner would be the style to start with. If possible, you should tryout or at least hold the pruners before making a purchase. Get a sense of the feel in your hand, the weight and the ease of grip.
Prices vary widely from less than $10 to well over $75. As with any other tool, buying the best you can afford will save you effort and money in the long run. First look for a quality brand name such as ARS, Corona, Felco, Fiskars or Sandvik. Then look for key words like Professional or Heavy Duty. These styles should have blades made from high-tempered carbon steel, which can be sharpened. You'll also want hand pruners with replaceable parts. It is a mechanical device after all and parts will wear out. Most quality hand pruners will come in a range of sizes. Felco, for example, has been making their classic model #2 for decades now. It has always been popular with professionals, but their #6 model would actually be easier to use for someone with smaller hands.
Pruning can tire the hardiest hands, but if you are already starting out at a disadvantage with carpal tunnel or arthritis, you should look into ergonomically designed models. There are cushioned handles to reduce pressure, rotating handles to lessen wear on your wrist, even models with a horizontal inclination to allow the hand to remain in an unbent, neutral position. Left handed gardeners havent been forgotten either. There is usually a model designed just for them, although they tend to be harder to find in garden centers.
Bottom line is, find a garden pruner that makes clean, easy cuts and feels comfortable in your hand. When you are cleaning up winter damage this spring you will be so impressed with yourself for having invested the time and money up front to find just the right tool.