Hair clippers are specialized implements used to cut head hair. They work on the same principle as scissors, but are distinct from scissors themselves and razors. Similar but heavier-duty implements are used to shear sheep, but are called handpieces or machine shears.
Hair clippers comprise a pair of sharpened comb-like blades in close contact one above the other which slide sideways relative to each other, a mechanism which may be manual or electrical to make the blades oscillate from side to side, and a handle. The clipper is moved so that hair is positioned between the teeth of the comb, and cut with a scissor action when one blade slides sideways relative to the other. Friction between the blades needs to be as low as possible, which is attained by choice of material and finish, and frequent lubrication.
Manual hair clippers are operated by a pair of handles which are alternately squeezed together and released.
Barbers used them to cut hair close and fast. The hair was picked up in locks and the head was rapidly depilated. Such haircuts became popular among boys, mostly in schools, and young men in the military and in prisons.
While they were widely used in the past, the advent and reduction in cost of electric hair clippers has led to their largely replacing manual clippers. Some barbers in Western countries continue to use them for trimming. They are also used in the Russian army: when conscripts enter boot camp, they cut their hair close to the skin, sometimes using manual clippers.
In Greece male students had their heads shaved with manual hair clippers from the early 20th century until it was abolished in 1982. The same practice was used in the military, where recruits had their heads shaved as they set foot in boot camp. In the 1950s and 1960s a law was implemented in Greece whereby head shaving with manual clippers was to be used as a punishment for young people caught by police, such as teddyboys and prostitutes. This practice was extended to Greek hippies and leftist youths during the 1967-73 military regime. Obligatory hair clipping was abolished in Greece in 1982.
Manual hair clippers are used extensively by barbers in India to give short back and sides haircuts.
Electric hair clippers work in the same way as manual ones, but are driven by an electric motor which makes the blades oscillate from side to side. They have gradually displaced manual hair clippers in industrialized countries.
In early 1921 Mathew Andis, Sr. built a working model of an electric clipper that withstood a wide range of performance tests. Production of these new clippers began in the basement of his home, with help from Anna, Mathew’s wife. Mathew sold the electric clippers door to door to barbershops in Racine, Wisconsin and the surrounding area. A year later, he established the Andis Clipper Company. Today, Andis Company remains a family-held business, and manufactures hand-held tools to trim, cut, curl, straighten and dry hair. In 1928 the John Oster Manufacturing Company entered the electric clipper market and became an industry standard in the USA. Many other companies make electric clippers, including very cheap unbranded units usually made in China.
There is a range of electric hair clippers from bargain consumer units, sometimes sold with accessories such as clipper guides for adjusting the length of the cut, to clippers for hair-care professionals. The quality difference between the consumer grade and professional grade electric clippers has narrowed significantly over the years. The primary difference between the two grades is usually added thermal insulation to prevent the unit from heating too much during the prolonged use of professional operation. Professional units may have more durable metal parts in place of some plastic parts in home-use units.
Blades are usually made of stainless steel, which is much less prone to rusting than normal steel.
Ceramic cutters are available; they are corrosion-free and stay sharper longer because of a higher resistance to wear than metal blades. They remain cool to the touch even with prolonged use, as they conduct less heat than metal blades. However, ceramic blades are brittle and easily broken, and more expensive to replace than metal blades.