Garden Tool Maintenance

Yes, you do need to clean your garden tools.  And an occasional sharpening would make your work in the garden a whole lot easier too.  It doesn’t matter if you do it spring or fall or anytime during the season, but fall is ideal to store them clean for winter.  Even if you have seriously neglected the maintenance, just a few minutes will get them back in great shape.

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Unless you plan on replacing garden tools frequently, a quick clean up and sharpening each year will keep your favorite tools working like new for a long time.  I have seen some fairly complicated looking instructions on cleaning and sharpening all manner of tools.  But over the years I have learned to keep it to the important basics for the common tools we use in the gardens.  So this doesn’t have to take a long time.

I do try to get this chore done in fall so that the tools are stored clean, but it often winds up waiting until spring.  Getting it done in the sunshine of a warm autumn day before you shut down the outside spigots for winter is much more pleasant than trying to work in a cold garage with a bucket of water just before spring arrives.

Get all the tools together.  Take all the long handled tools off the wall, the pruners and shears off their hooks and check all the tool drawers and don’t forget all the hand tools you left in garden trugs and buckets.  Finding a forgotten tool later is frustrating, so go out to the garden and patio too, see if you left any tools lying around.

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Clean all the dirt off blades hinges and handles.  For the shovels and larger steel blades a wire bristle brush does a great job.  For small blades of pruners and small hand tools use a small wire brush or steel wool.  Simple brushing may be enough for some tools but you may want a bucket of water handy to slosh the brush in for really dirty tools.  Just keep scrubbing with that wire brush until all the dirt and grime and even the rust is gone.  Warm water is nice, soap isn’t really necessary.  Spread the tools out in the sun to dry as you finish them or wipe down with an old towel.

Tighten any pivot nuts on hedge clippers, pruners and shears.  It should be snug but not tight.

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All blade and cutting edges of your tools should get sharpened.  The pruners, grass clippers, and shears of course have obvious cutting edges.  But don’t forget the blade of your square shovel, all the way around your long handled spade and hand trowel, and the edge of the hoe.  Even your garden fork tines should get sharpened up.

Secure the tool to sharpen in a vise if you have one.  Otherwise find a way to keep the tool steady on a bench or stool as you work on it.  Keep a foot on it or have one of the kids sit on it :)

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Use a long flat file called a mill file.  Starting at the point end of the cutting edge of your tool blade, place the tip of the file on the tool edge following the existing bevel.  Push with one long stroke away from you applying light even pressure against the tool blade.  Lift the file and position again next to the first spot.  

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Continue all along the blade edge.  You should see fresh steel all along the edge when complete.  Feel the back side of the tool blade to check for burrs (tiny sharp pieces of steel that are still clinging to the tool).  Sand off burrs on the back side with 300 grit wet/dry sandpaper.  Do not over sharpen your tools, leaving a thin edge will make it very sharp but also prone to damage.  Following the original edge bevel will keep your edge strong.

For small and fine shears and hand pruners you can use a scissors sharpener to sharpen up the edges.  Draw the sharpener along the blade from base to tip with light but steady pressure.  It may take several passes to get your blade sharp.  Check the back side of the blades after sharpening for burrs and sand them off.

Next disinfect your tools so that you don't spread any fungus or disease they may have been in contact with.  A quick disinfecting is a good idea after every use, but I know first hand that just doesn’t get done.  So make sure if is part of your annual routing.  Wash down shears and pruners with one part bleach and 10 parts water.  Wipe dry with an old towel.

Wooden handles can be lightly sanded to smooth out slivers and raised grain from being wet from the garden hose or left out in the rain.  Make sure the wood is good and dry before sanding it smooth.

To prevent rust on steel tools and to prevent wood handles from cracking, they should be oiled.  Do not use petroleum oils, getting that in your garden is not a good for your soil and plants.  Use boiled linseed oil, which is safe for the steel, wood, soil and your plants.  Actually vegetable cooking oil works just fine too.  Apply generously with an old rag to all parts of your tools.  Allow to absorb for 15 minutes or so and wipe down with a dry rag.  I have seen WD-40 recommended for coating garden tools.  If you need to oil hinges and springs occasionally a petroleum based oil, just make sure you don’t get it on the cutting blades and wipe off any excess or drips with an old rag.

To keep your garden tools in great shape, a little maintenance throughout the season will minimize the annual chore.  Make sure you rinse mud off your tools after use, the wet soil will encourage rust.  Let your tools dry in the sun before storing.  Hang tools if possible, standing them on a cutting edge, stacking them, or throwing them in a draw where the cutting edges will rattle against other tools will dull the edges.  A quick coating of oil once in a while will help the tools shed soil and water and prevent rust.  If you have a place to keep it, a bucket filled with a sand and vegetable oil mixture is great for your shovels and sharp edged tools.  You might want another small bucket for small pruners and trowels if you need more room.  Use about 5 gallons of sand and a half gallon of oil.  The mixture will clean the tools and the sand grit will refresh the sharpening each time you push the tools in.

Sharon Dwyer