Guide to shears: the beautician's best friend

Shopping for shears? Maybe you're already a professional stylist, or maybe you're thinking about a career in cosmetology. Aspiring beauticians choose cosmetology programs for different reasons. The beauty industry attracts people who want a job that can offer freedom, flexibility, creativity and social interaction. Stylists enjoy helping their friends and clients look their best.

Once you've chosen the life of a stylist, you need the right tools to achieve the fabulous results you're looking for. Shears can run the gamut of prices, from budget models to highly specialized instruments worth hundreds of dollars -- so shop wisely.

Test driving different types of shears

You may feel overwhelmed by all the choices for shears. Just the terminology can be confusing, between the Rockwell hardness rating and the definition of a semi convex edge. Take a look at these tips to figure out what's most important to you.

Left or right hand: Right-handed stylist can usually find shears easily. Lefties need a bit more specialization, since this design reverses the positions of the cutting and stationary blades. Most manufacturers produce left-handed and right-handed models.
Weight and grip: When evaluating shears, hold them in your cutting hand. Get a feel for the weight, the blade motion and the grip, since these factors have the most influence on your haircuts. Heavy shears can cause the hand and arm to tire quickly. The weight depends on the metal used.

Materials: Most quality shears use steel alloys with varying percentages of carbon, chromium and titanium. The hardness of a blade determines how long a shear keeps its cutting edge. A soft metal can wear down quickly, and repeated sharpening may reduce the product's lifespan. Harder metals stay sharp, allowing for more precise cutting for a longer duration.

Blade length: Haircutting shears come in a number of different lengths -- measured from tip to rivet, the length may range from about 4 inches to 7 inches. A shorter blade serves for detail work and tapering close to the head, while a long blade can be effective for cutting the initial length and perimeter of a style.

Cutting edge: Different models feature various types of edges. Our expert looks for hand-sharpened shears with a convex curve. A slight curve on the cutting edge holds the hair and keeps it from slipping away. Shears should be sharpest at the tips -- for precision point cutting -- and along the inside edge for straight perimeter lines.

Ergonomics: Some brands offer an adjustable design with the goal of increasing comfort. You can customize shears like the Shark Fin brand by adjusting the free-standing thumb or ring finger holes to conform to your own hand. With models like these, stylists may need a period of adjustment while they renegotiate certain hand positions for layering or adding graduation.

Taking care of your new best friend

Alignment: Haircutting shears consist of two blades held together at their juncture with a screw that you can tighten or loosen, depending on your preference. The two blades have different purposes: The stationary blade at the top of the shear remains still, held with the ring finger and supported by the pinky finger resting on the tang, which extends like a little hook. The thumb should control the cutting blade with an easy motion.

Shears differ from kitchen scissors, which use a pinching motion that brings the blades together. Beauticians try to avoid that pinching motion and allow blades to close naturally to about a half-inch opening. Chris Baran, a Redken stylist, demonstrates in his "Fuel for Design" videos how to evaluate proper tension and alignment. If the blade falls shut, it's too loose, and if it stays wide open, too tight. You can turn the screw to adjust.

Maintenance: Keeping your shears in good working order and clean is one way to avoid repetitive motion or other workplace injuries. To keep equipment clean, some manufacturers suggest wiping blades after use with a dry, soft cloth to remove moisture and hair, as well as oiling the screw joint every week.

Correct functioning depends on careful maintenance. Shears should cut accurately and easily when used on small sections of wet or dry hair. If shears push or bend hair, the blade tension may be loose and need adjustment, or the blades may need sharpening. Dull shears can fold the hair, not cut at all, or distress the cuticle -- the outside layer of the hair -- and cause it to frizz.

Sharpening: Most shear companies have a mail-in sharpening service. You can also call a local knife and scissor sharpener; these highly trained professionals can take care of your tools while you wait, or they may offer loaner shears so you don't need to stop working. If you purchased a warranty to protect your investment, see if the manufacturer requires the use of certain sharpeners.

Choosing your state-of-the-art shears

A buyer's list to shears appears on the website of the American Association of Cosmetology Schools (BeautySchools.org), a national, non-profit organization for privately owned cosmetology schools. In its magazine, Beauty Link, the AACS posts an interview with Randy Ferman, the driving force behind the Shark Fin Professional Shear company. Ferman calls shears the stylist's single most important tool.

Whether you're a professional or just entering the field, try out as many types of shears as you can get your hands on. When you research cosmetology classes, ask if you can work with the latest kinds of equipment and the shears that the salons use. Practicing with different models in beautician school can help you decide which shears to buy for your future.