The Keys to Great Scissor Work

While accomplishing an excellent finish might seem effortless from the sidelines, it requires several steps that are all important to the final product.




When I first learned to groom, it was not the clippers that made me so excited—it was the shears and scissoring. I remember, years ago, watching Michael Gersh come to the Trumbull Career and Technical Center to groom and scissor a Poodle for the first time. It was like the hair was just melting away. When he was done, there was a perfect finish. It was amazing to watch, and I told myself, “I want to learn to scissor like that.”


I attended a two-year animal care program. My teacher, Carol Knock, exposed us to so much. We went to dog shows, studied animal husbandry and obedience training, and learned how to run a grooming and pet shop business. I loved everything about those two years of school, but that demo was really my ‘ah-ha’ moment.


Little did I know how much went into the simple act of hand scissoring. Having Miss. Knock for a teacher was awesome because she is a perfectionist; she pushed us to be our best. I did not know at the time that giving your all is what’s needed to get a great scissor finish every time. What I mean is every step leading to the finished product is important. Like building blocks, with out one step, the whole finish falls apart.


A Clean Start

It all starts with the bath. Find a good clarifying shampoo and get the skin and coat squeaky clean. When I rinse, everything—from the nose to the tail—needs to squeak. If it doesn’t, I will rewash the area that did not squeak and rinse the entire dog again. It is so important to make sure you hold the hose in one hand and squeak with the other. There are very few conditioners I like in my coat when I know I am going to hand scissor. I use Hydro Surge Milk Bath in the tub and rinse until I feel the squeak again, or I will spray a small amount of Magic Touch/Crown Royal #3 while I brush and fluff dry.


The next step is learning how to dry a coat to get the best finish. Years ago, this meant learning how to use a stand dryer. Back then, it took a long time to dry one little Poodle—and forever to dry a Standard Poodle—using only a stand dryer. The trick back then was to keep the damp hair covered until you got to it, and then to use long, smooth, slow strokes with the brush to stretch and straighten the coat while using the stand dryer.


Thank goodness force-air driers were created. I learned to use them to get the same look as I did with the stand dryer. The trick is to use a slow, methodical back-and-forth motion. I work around the entire dog, and then I repeat and slow down even more. However, you never want to go so slow that you cause a wave to set in the coat.


Watch the hair straighten and keep moving as if you are stretching the hair with a stand dryer and a brush. Keep drying until you see no damp coat at the skin.


Another trick is to keep the nozzle of the force air dryer far enough away from the skin that you do not allow the ends of the hair to bend or curl.


Force drying a coat saves so much time, but when I want the very best finish, I will still brush through a damp coat using a warm stand dryer, like the Speedy Rocket. It has just enough heat and has just enough volume of air to finish the coat. I also love how quiet it is compared to many stand dryers. I will use long, smooth strokes with either a slicker brush or a pin brush to stretch and straighten the coat.


Know Your Dog

When my coat is perfectly prepped, I am still not ready to scissor. There are so many more things to consider before I cut loose. First, I need to understand what is under the hair. Knowing the dog’s structure is so important. I can’t scissor if I do not know where the dog deviates from a well-built or sound dog. More times than not, I need to hide faults to create the ideal image. The top five structural faults you need to look for are:

1. Bad topline.

2. Not enough rear and front angle.

3. Incorrect (not parallel) lines between the legs.

4. Incorrect tail set for the breed.

5. Not enough neck.


The other thing you need to have in the back of your mind before you get started is the breed standard for the dog you are working on. When I work on a breed I do not know well, I read the breed standard before I get started. Familiarizing myself with the dog’s detailed standard guides me when scissoring off coat. For example, if I am scissoring a slab-sided Standard Poodle, I will leave more hair over the ribs to create the well-sprung rib described in the breed standard of the Poodle.


Get Your Blades Out

Now, I can finally get my scissors out! But which pair do I choose? First, there are two kinds of scissor blades. Non-honed blades are sometimes referred to as German style scissors. These are shallow, hollow-ground blades that are reliable, strong and have a rugged edge that is about 20 to 35 degrees. The only issue is these tough blades tend to be a little dull and push hair, so they should be serrated. They are also loud and not very smooth, limiting your styling techniques. Honestly, I only like to use this style of shear for cutting out mats or trimming around feet so as not to nick the blade of my finishing shears on the dog’s toenail.


The honed blade is what is referred to as a Japanese style shear. The blade edge has a much sharper angle of about 45 degrees. The blade of this shear is very sharp, similar to a razor’s edge. These shears are also very quiet and smooth cutting. The downside is they dull easier and are prone to getting nicks in the blade.


Finding the right scissor may come down to the feel of the handle, the length and weight of the scissor. I personally like a shorter shank handle, so I do not have to reach backward with my thumb. You want the thumb to line up between the first and second finger. I prefer a medium to slightly heavier shear because they feel the best balanced in my hand. I know a lot of men like a heavier scissor, and many women like the lighter scissors, but all can agree the length is dictated by the size of the dog. Having a 6-, 7-, 8- and 10-in. straight gives you an arsenal of shears for any size dog. I also like to have a 7- or 8-in. curve and a 10-in. shear for big, round heads of the Bichon or the Poodle continental trim. Also, don’t forget your blending shears. I can’t live without a 45-tooth fine blender and a chunkier to touch up my scissor work.


I also can’t forget the lefties. In order to distinguish a right-handed scissor from a left-handed scissor, hold the scissor in your hand with finger ring on top and the thumb ring on the bottom. If the cutting edge is the blade closest to you and pointing toward the ceiling, you are holding the scissor in the correct hand. A left-handed scissor will have the finger and thumb ring to the left and, of course, a right-handed scissor will have the thumb and finger ring on the right.


When a left-handed groomer starts with a right-handed scissor, it is hard to switch to a “true” lefty scissor. The natural hand motion of a right-hander using a right-handed scissor is to force the blades of the shear together. When a lefty uses a right-handed shear, the natural hand motion would spread the blades apart and the hair would fold. Therefore, a lefty must modify their motion into the opposite direction for the shear to cut. This would have to be unlearned when using a true left-handed shear.


Once you have a properly fitted shear, correct scissoring motion is critical to achieving a great finish. Here are few tips for a great finish:


• Let your hand and fingers support the shears while your thumb does the work. Your movement should be natural and never forced; you should not feel strain in any part of your hand.

• Keep your scissors in a comfortable, secure grip using a smooth up and down motion, moving only your thumb and keeping your wrist as straight as possible to maintain good circulation in your hand. If you have trouble keeping your wrist straight, I recommend you use a loose-fitting bowling or carpal tunnel wristband while working.

• Always look ahead of your scissors and use your whole body, not just your arm, to push the shears along.

• Keep your shoulder in a normal position. Do not overreach! Avoid raising your arms over your head for long periods. Also keep in mind the further away you hold your shears from your body, the less control you have. You should always be about the same distance from the dog wherever you are scissoring, and your motion should be fluid.

• Pay attention to the direction your shears point and the angle of the scissor blades when cutting. If you want a straight line, scissor straight up and down. If you want curves or angles, turn your shear blades to angle accordingly.


I find that if you focus first on bathing and drying and then on the structure of the dog under the coat, you will create a nice outline when using your scissors. Your scissoring will improve naturally with time. The more comfortable you get with your knowledge, the easier scissoring will get.


Just remember, no picking at hairs. Keep your eye on the overall profile of the dog. Most importantly, scissoring will definitely add time to many grooms, so make sure you are charging for your time.  PB



Chris Pawlosky is a Certified Master Groomer, professional handler, breeder, grooming show judge and successful pet store and grooming shop owner (The Pet Connection) since 1985. For 20 years, she served as national training manager for Oster Professional Products, where she developed new initiative educational material to educate at schools and conventions all over the world. Pawlosky is currently working with Judy Hudson to produce the Grooming Professors—a service through which the two industry veterans share their many years of grooming, competing, dog show conditioning and handling with groomers across the country via Facebook and through an interactive website where visitors can access webcasts and videos about everything grooming related.


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