October 2008 - Horticulture Study Group

Maintenance of Garden Tools
presented by Sally Patrick and Sam Wasfy
"If you take care of your tools, they'll take care of you."
"A bad workman quarrels with his tools."
". . . not the sharpest tool in the shed."

Gardening can be one of the most relaxing ways to spend a day when the sun in shining and the temperature is perfect. This is especially true when your garden tools work effortlessly and your mind can wander or take in the beauty of your yard. But if your tools are dirty and dull, the wonders of nature quickly take a back seat to the struggle of the job at hand. When garden tools are properly maintained, yard work will be a joy rather than a job. Plants also appreciate a clean cut and will recover from a trim faster when done with a sharp tool.
In most cases it is best to buy the highest quality tools you can afford. Tools made from high quality steel and wood with a good balanced weight are a pleasure to hold and use. Tools that are cared for will retain their value and become "old friends."
Fall is the perfect time to sharpen garden tools because they will not lose their edge during winter storage and will be ready for use when spring arrives. But if you have a favorite tool that you use every day, sharpening it should be a part of your gardening routine. Sharpening tools takes time and should not be rushed. Rainy days are perfect times to sharpen tools.

What you need to have to sharpen tools
    - A work area, work bench is ideal with a vice attached
    - A drop cloth or newspapers to protect the area
    - Work gloves, preferably that can be washed and possibly machine dried
    - Safety goggles
    - Clean rags
    - Warm, soapy water & a small stiff brush
    - Steel wool - for cleaning
    - A wire brush - for cleaning
    - Possibly a cleaning solvent - like Sap-X - for tough evergreen residue
    - Medium to fine sand paper - to remove burrs and sand wooden handles
    - A diamond-embedded file - coarse and fine*
    - 10" mill file
    - Honing stone or whet stone
    - Screwdrivers - to remove bolts
    - Wrench and pliers - to reassemble bolts
    - Lubricating oil - like 3-in-1 oil or a spray oil - like WD-40
    - Linseed oil - for wooden handles >
    * The best sharpeners for hardened steel tools are made using synthetic monocrystalline diamonds embedded in nickel. Coarse files are used first for most jobs followed by a fine file or sandpaper. Fine files are used for scissors and knives.

Cleaning Your Tools

It is necessary to clean your tools after every use. Most of us do not do this, but there are many reasons why we should. Caked on soil needs to be removed because it contains moisture which will cause rust. Dirt and sap left on tools can contribute to the spread of soil-borne diseases and weeds. Rust will prevent your tools from doing their job and cause them to wear out faster or break. Usually a spray of water along with a stiff brush and soapy water will take off any dirt. Ideally it is a good idea to go over a blade with steel wool to create a clean, smooth and shiny surface before drying your tool and putting it away. You should store your tools off the ground where they will stay clean and dry. The ideal spot is a hook on the wall of your shed or garage because dry air will be able to circulate and it will be easy for you to spot an empty hook which will tell you a tool is missing

During the gardening season some people suggest storing your digging tools head down in a 5-gallon bucket of coarse sand to which motor oil has been added. This accomplishes several things. It is quick and easy and stores all your digging tools in one place. The sand scrapes away any loose dirt and debris while the oil prevents rust from developing.
However, it is good to know that abused tools can be helped. Caked on dirt can usually come off with soapy water and a stiff brush. If your tool has moving parts, such as pruners, it is sometimes necessary to disassemble it before cleaning. If you have severely hardened on sap you may have spend some time to remove it completely, but after you do, the tool should work like it did when it was new.


There are many different styles of pruners but the two basic styles are bypass and anvil. Bypass pruners have a single cutting blade that slides past a blunt edge. They work best on thin branches. Anvil pruners also have a single cutting blade but that blade is usually sharpened on both sides like a kitchen knife. It strikes a flat solid surface. They are good for larger branches and solid stalks. In either case you sharpen only the cutting blade which usually has a beveled edge.
But before you sharpen you must clean the pruners and that means taking them apart. It is a good idea to work on a small towel or rag so you can keep track of all the pieces. Remove the nut or screw that is holding the two blades together, and then separate the two blades. You may need to use a screwdriver to take out a gear first. There may be a spring coil between the handles that will slip off. Line up all the screws and pieces in order of their removal so that you will have an order for reassembly. Place the blades into a bucket of warm soapy water and using a small, stiff brush scrub all the areas where dirt can hide. If you have hardened on sap you may need a solvent. Once you are satisfied that they are clean, dry them well. If you can still see sap on the blades use some steel wool or sandpaper, then rinse and dry again.
Now you are ready to sharpen. Sharpening can be an intimidating step, but even a less than perfect job is better than not sharpening at all and you will get better with practice. First locate the beveled (cutting) edge. If you take a black magic marker and draw along that edge, you will have a visual cue to show you where to work. Take your file or stone and put it almost parallel to the blade - about 20 degrees - on the beveled side. Use an even amount of pressure and move the file or stone along the blade and your magic marker line, away from you toward the tip end. Lift and repeat. Do not go back and forth. After doing this about 3 times you will start to see shiny metal. It may take up to 10 times or more before you restore your blade to its original sharpness. Your magic marker line will disappear as you file. Test the edge very carefully! If there is a rough burr on the other side of the blade - use a bit of sand paper to smooth it. Then reassemble the pruners by sliding the two blades back together, position the spring and replace the nut or screw. The pruners should move easily when correctly tightened. When you have them back together give them a spray of lubricating oil on all the moving parts.

This job should be done at least once a year with normal use. If they are your favorite tool it should be done more frequently. The more often you do it the easier and faster it will become.

Clippers and Hedge Shears

Both of these tools function in a similar manner. The two sharp surfaces of the blades come in contact at the base and cut all the way to the tips. They shear the grass and twigs from the stem of the plant with a scissors action. The two opposing surfaces are finely ground at the factory to the precise angle that makes them the most efficient. The key is to sharpen exactly along the factory-cut bevel.
Start by cleaning the blades in soapy water and with a piece of steel wool. If this tool is used close to the ground for clipping it is often wet which can lead to rusting. Soil can get between the blades and grind with each squeeze of the handle.
The blades on clippers and shears are long and subject to becoming bent. If you find they are, loosen the pivot nut and separate the blades. Put the bent blade in a vise and tweak it until it is straight. If hedge shears have been abused you can check to see if the pivot nut needs tightening.
Once the blade is straight, reposition it in the vise with the blade side facing up. Look for the factory edge, hold the file with both hands and follow the direction of the bevel. Use one broad stroke with a coarse metal file and move it away from yourself along the entire cutting edge. Apply moderate pressure on the downward side of the file, going across the blade. Repeat this motion several times until the whole edge shows an even line of exposed, clean metal. This may take up to 10 strokes. You may want to switch to a medium file, and then repeat the process on the other blade. Remove any burrs on the back of the blade with sand paper making a circular motion. Then reassemble and oil the moving parts.

Shovels and Spades

Digging tools need to be cleaned to get moist dirt off of them to prevent rusting. They should be kept sharpened to a thick strong edge that will cut roots as they penetrate the soil. Do not sharpen to a chiseled edge like a knife or blade because that could quickly break. Always look for the original factory-cut bevel and file to maintain it.
When sharpening a shovel you only need to sharpen the upper edge of the shovel. The best way to do this is to fasten the shovel into a large vise with the head facing you. It is very hard, though not impossible, to hold with one hand and file with the other. Start at one side of the shovel with a 10" file held at a 45 degree angle pointed toward the middle. Make four or five strokes, then move the file about an inch toward the center and repeat the motions until you get to the middle of the shovel. When you reach the center, move over to the other outside edge and again work your way back toward the middle of the shovel. Your goal is to smooth it out, and remove small gouges. Flip the shovel over and lightly file the back of the blade to remove the thin burr.
Spray with WD-40 or rub with 3-in-1 oil over the surface of the metal to prevent the fresh edge from rusting.
Tools with wooden handles need maintenance as well and usually once a year is enough. Over time the wood will dry out and begin to splinter. Wipe off the handle to clean, and use little if any water. The handles can be sanded with fine sandpaper and then rubbed with linseed oil. The fall is a good time to do this because cold air tends to draw moisture out of the wood.
Even snow shovels - plastic or metal - can benefit from an occasional sharpening. The edges of snow shovels are always flat and quite tapered. They need to be flat and thin to get close to the asphalt. Over time the thin edges start to roll and chip. When this happens the snow begins to stick more. Take a medium file, because you do not want to remove much material, and smooth out the edge. This will work on plastic shovels too. Also waxing snow shovels with car polish makes the snow release much better.

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