How to (Half-Assedly) Maintain Your Garden Tools!

A beginner’s guide to maintaining your garden tools from cleaning your shovel to sharpening your pruners.  I personally think a well used, slightly mangled garden tool is the sign of a real gardener, but every once in a while you do need to spruce them up a bit if you expect them to actually work.

Trio of garden tools leaning against a brick wall before receiving routine maintenance like cleaning, sharpening and oiling.

I’d like to pretend I’m one of those people who cleans off, shines up and sharpens her tools after every use – but I’m not.  I’m the kindda gal who drops them in the dirt, walks 2 feet in another direction and then can’t find them again for 4 days. I just consider it an amusing game of garden tool hide and go seek. Often they’re found when I trip over them and injure myself.

How to Maintain Garden Tools

What you need:

Grid of everything you need to sharpen garden tools including a metal brush, steel wool, speedy sharp and a bastard file.

  1. Wire brush
  2. Steel wool
  3. Pocket Sharpener
  4. Bastard File  (just a file that isn’t too coarse)
  5. 3 in 1 oil or WD40 (optional)

(You can find everything you need in one spot on my Amazon The Art of Doing Stuff Shop page.)

Which side to file?  On each picture of the various tools I show you which part of the tool you should actually sharpen.  Pruners for example only get sharpened on one side of one blade.

Pick up your tool and assess the mess.  Look at what needs to be taken care of.  You can see rust around the spring at the centre of the handles and on the blades of these pruners. They’re covered in dirt, sap and if I remember correctly a bit of human skin.

(You don’t file the inside of the hoe, just the outside)

You should never EVER leave soil on your tools. It’s more apt to create rust than leaving them in the rain because if they’re clean and get rained on they’ll eventually  just dry.  If there’s soil on the tool, then the moisture is trapped between the soil and the tool which creates rust … like this.

Garden shovel prior to cleaning and sharpening with a bastard file.

And this.  As you can see from these before shots I do not follow my own advice.  Who has the time? Seriously.  If you have one ounce of daylight or energy left after gardening to wash your tools then you aren’t gardening right.   I have a hunch you aren’t any fun at all in fact.

Felco hand pruners after being cleaned and oiled in general maintenance.

Cleaning garden tools.

  1.  Use steel wool to clean off moderate surface rust.  You can also use a plastic scouring sponge if that’s all you have around.


Garden stirrup hoe, also called a loop hoe, being cleaned in white enamel kitchen sink with a wire brush.

2. For tougher rust use a stiff wire brush.

3. When you’re satisfied you have the rust off, wash with soap and water when all the rust is gone. DRY very well.

You can also go really crazy and use a wire brush on a drill or a Dremel to bring the metal back to like new.  In a complete plot twist, I chose not to go too crazy for once and didn’t pull out the power tools.


Sharpening Your Garden Tools

Click here to skip right to the quick video.

Most garden tools can be sharpened with one of two things: a bastard file or a pocket sharpener.

Tools to sharpen with a bastard file:

  1. shovels
  2. hoes
  3. edgers

How to sharpen.

  1. Hold the tool in a secure place. If you have a vice put your tool in it.  If you don’t have a vice, hold the tool steady somehow.  You can hold it against your body or kneel on it if it has a long handle.

2. Find the bevel of the edge.  This is the angle that the manufacturer gave the tool to begin with. Copying that same bevel and running your file over it will give you the best result.

3. Run the file in a steady, long movement along the bevel.  Keep the file edge on the bevel. And hold the file with two hands. One at the top of the file and one on the handle.

4. Only run your file in one direction. In other words don’t work it back and forth like you’re sawing.  File on the forward stroke, lift it up, put it back in position and file on the forward stroke again. On the backward stroke the file shouldn’t touch the tool.

Sharpening a stirrup hoe with a metal bastard file while it rests on a black wicker chair on a front porch.

5. Keep filing along the edge of the tool until it shines from the start of the bevel to the finish. Once you see gleaming metal all along you know your tool is sharpened.  Gently run your fingers to feel for burrs under the blade edge. And I do mean GENTLY.  You are just checking for burrs which are very sharp pieces of metal. If you have those on the underside of the tool it means 2 things, that you’ve actually sharpened to the cutting edge of the tool (which is good) and that you need to gently run your file over those burrs to get rid of them.

Tools to sharpen with a pocket sharpener:

  1. knives (garden knives that you’d use to cut asparagus etc.)
  2. scissors
  3. pruners
  4. loppers
  5. hoes or spades (that just need a bit of extra sharpening)


How to sharpen with a pocket sharpener.

I have a Speedy Sharp which is a small, micro sharpener that fits in your pocket and can sharpen almost anything. It has a carbide tip (whatever that is) and is like a weird little miracle sharpener.

You just run it along your blade a few times in one direction and you have a sharpened tool.  One edge of the Speedy Sharp is for sharpening, and the other is for honing. So you sharpen the edge with the one side, then go back and give it a couple of swipes with the honing side.

  1. Find the bevel of your tool edge and run the Speedy Sharp along it. There will be some resistance as the sharpener shaves off the edge.
  2. When you see your edge shining, the pruners are sharpened.

Sharpening Felco pruners correctly with a Speedy Sharp by finding the original, factory bevel.

3. Hone the sharpened edge.

In the picture below I’m honing the pruner blade, pushing the Speedy Sharp away from my body.

Karen Bertelsen sharpens a pair of Felco pruners with a Speedy Sharp.

Finishing Touches

To help prevent rust you can spray your garden tools with vegetable oil, then wipe them with a cloth or paper towel.

For  your pruners, lubricate and oil them with WD40 or a 3 in1 oil, wiping away the excess.

Various garden tools laying on grey porch floor after doing easy routine maintenance and sharpening.

Need to see how I’m doing it? Here you go …

Garden Tool Sharpening Tips

  1. Don’t over sharpen.  Over sharpening wears your tool edge out before its time.  Also, a super-sharp shovel can be dangerous. You don’t need it to be as sharp as an axe. You just need it to easily go through soil.  If you slip you don’t want the edge of the shovel to be so sharp it’ll cut through your boot or foot.
  2. Really do try to remove soil from your tools after using them.  Even if I don’t.
  3. Wood handled tools can be sanded and varnished, painted or protected from the elements with a waterproofing material like Thompson’s Water Seal.
  4. Wear eye protection whenever you’re filing metal. You don’t want a metal sliver in your eye because eye patches aren’t sexy on everyone.
  5. Don’t want to lose your tools like I do?  Paint them a bright colour so you can see them in the garden.


Again, everything you need is on my Amazon Shop page.  I’m not even close to being a sharpening expert, master guru. But the good thing about garden tools is you don’t really need to be.  It’s not like sharpening a $500 Japanese fish boning knife. It’s a scuffed up shovel and a pair of pruners.  Just always be careful when you’re working with blades and sharp edges.

One final piece of advice I have to impart on you, don’t bother calling “Come out, come out, wherever you are”.  Garden tools rarely respond to that.

→Follow me on Instagram where I often make a fool of myself←


How to (Half-Assedly) Maintain Your Garden Tools!


  1. Shelagh says:

    I did a search on your site for boning knives and found this… everything is helpful… thank you. Will you be doing an article on the best knife to debone a chicken anytime soon?
    I have 20 whole chickens being delivered in September 2020 and would like to butcher them myself… advice?

    • Karen says:

      It’s not on the schedule at this point, no. :) But just Google breaking down a chicken and watch YouTube videos. I use a chef’s knife and just a thin very sharp knife for cutting the skin and between joints. If you find some good videos they’ll show you how to follow the fat lines as a guide to where exactly to cut. ~ karen!

  2. Penny says:

    Just a thought . . . why do so many manufacturers of garden tools give them GREEN handles??
    I may be a cynic, looking at the world through sludge-tinted specs, but I’ve often wondered if they actually mean us to lose the bloody things so they’ll sell more!
    I’ve invested in Sugru, a moldable silicone putty, and made custom grips in freaky colours for my secateurs. Much easier to find, and more comfortable to use with my slightly arthritic hands.
    And Mark is right, stainless steel tools last longer and are especially good if you have a heavy, sticky, clay soil to work with.

  3. Marna says:

    Thanks for the reminder. I mostly only use small garden tools these days, can’t even manage a large shovel, have kid sized ones, but they are for adults. I remember my dad always cleaning and working on his garden tools. :)

  4. Mark says:

    Some good ideas in your post and comments, however this would have been a much more appropriate post for December or January when there’s nothing else doing for the garden. I’d also recommend taking your Felco or similar pruners entirely apart – giving them a good steel wool cleaning, a little oil, perhaps replacing blade or spring as required and of course a sharpen. Much easier to do when the blade is removed from the rest of the pruner (so I suppose not ‘half-assedly maintaining).
    My other suggestion to help with the maintenance is invest in stainless steel tools – as they are so much easier to clean and also a lot easier to work with as they slip through the soil much easier.

  5. leo muzzin says:

    ok so here is the last word on stamped vs forged shovels. Guess which is which if the picture uploads.

  6. Jackie Johnson says:

    Thank you so much.

  7. Judith says:

    Last summer I took my much abused clippers and trowels soaked them in a coffee can partially filled with vinegar and after a day or two of soaking was really surprised with rust free tools.

  8. Katie says:

    do you sharpen the sides of the shovel to the point (like from the back to the point) or same way with the bastard all the way around? I am going to get my butt in gear this year! (fingers crossed!) K

  9. Hazo says:

    When my dad, who had huge gardens, started showing signs of dementia he would lose his tools in the garden and get quite frustrated. We came up with the idea of spray painting the handles of the rake, shovels, hoes etc with fluorescent colored paint. Worked wonders and he was always able to find the tool. I still do it whenever possible with my tools…which I inherited!

  10. TucsonPatty says:

    Great advice and visuals! Every once in awhile, I think, I really should file that “thing”, (whatever thing it might be) and then remember – the half-assed ex-husband took every tool he had. A good friend threw a Happy 60th Birthday/Divorce/Tool party, and I received new tools, gift cards to the tool buying places, and my favorite – extra well-loved tools they had laying around. I still need to buy a file. I don’t have any files – not even a bastard. (The bald one is the one with all the tools.) Do you have a suggestion for one favorite multi-use, or a small assortment? P.S. It was always the joke in our family that Dad was planting pliers instead of wheat. :)

  11. Idaho Girl says:

    Thanks again for acting as my conscience and reminding me to give my tools some love. I do keep a bucket of sand and oil in the shed, so things get dipped in there if they make it back to the shed in between jobs. I’ve always intended to paint my tool handles in bright colors, but I always lose them before I do… I have an attachment for my dremel that I’ve sharpened my lawn mower blade with, I wonder if it will work on garden tools? If not, I’m definitely going to get the Speedy Sharp. And speaking of hand pruners, I just have to add this… last Spring my sister birthday gifted me a pair of ratcheting pruners and it was life changing! I don’t have a lot of hand strength and those have become my very best garden friend, so I highly recommend them to anyone who struggles when pruning shrubs, etc!

    • Carol says:

      The sand/oil bucket was also in use at my house when my grandfather was taking perfect care of his tools – he dipped them in there and then rubbed the sandy oil into the surface of the tool and then wiped them clean – it also kept the edges sharp for a little longer. After this point, I am endeavoring to clean things up a bit and try to get into the habit of using the sandy oil bucket, because it kept his tools looking like brand-new, even though he used a lot of them when he was a kid – which means they were in use since the 1920s. This is what general care and the sand/oil bucket can do for you! (or, in the case of my actually doing this, me!)

  12. karen says:

    What is honing??

    • Dalton Thomas says:

      Honing is akin to sharpening, however on a much finer scale. First you shape the edge profile with say, a course file, then sharpen the edge with a fine file or stone. Then *hone* with a fine stone, and if you really want to go crazy, strop on leather or canvas with a stropping compound for that truely polished edge, much like a barber glides a straight razor, (cut throat to the misinformed) against a leather belt. However that it’s really only for slicing tools like knifes and hand planes. A shovel or pair of shears should be fine with just a fine file.
      Paul Sellers has an excellent video on youtube about this exact process.
      As an extra tidbit, to ‘Whet’ is an archaic term for honing, thus the phrase, “whet your teeth” and why a whetstone is spelled as such. (Not because you use water to make it *wet* without an ‘H’; that would be a water stone vs oilstone)

  13. Jonathan Skrine says:

    An angle grinder fitted with a flap disc will clean off all the rust and gunge before oiling tools.

    It’s how a friend of mine refurbishes all the dead tools he buys at car boot sales….. and then sells them at a profit, gleaming as new.

    • Karen says:

      True! I suggested a drill because I was assuming most of my readers wouldn’t have an angle grinder. :) – karen!

  14. Mary W says:

    Forgot to mention, I made your pumpkin pie last night – easy as pie. It was good and like the old kind, not all fluffy and puddingy, just great pie. My breakfast is waiting, YUM.

  15. Mary W says:

    Dear Sweet Karen, I thought I was doing good to keep my shovel inside but now I see I’m whole assing it. I knock the dirt off and bring it in. It is older than dirt but well loved. I have a lot of kissing up to do on that poor old thing. You have given me another job but so glad it is before the really hot sets in. Thanks for keeping me informed and half-assed.

  16. Karen A says:

    Fantastically useful, as usual, and timely. Thank you.

  17. Elmer Starchuk says:

    Do yourself a favour and sand the wooden handles Follow that with a nice rub down with linseed oil. You will be kinder to you hands and avoid splinters.

    • Dan Stoudt says:

      There is almost nothing worse in the garden than a tool with a dry wooden handle. As you say, the boiled linseed oil will save you the pain of splinters. Good call.

    • Karen says:

      I did wax the handle with a beeswax/mineral oil mixture. Forgot to mention that. ~ karen!

      • Peter Oster says:

        Paint or varnish on a long handle (hoe, shovel) will cause blisters. I scrape all paint off any wooden handle, sand smooth and put oil on them.
        I think Karen’s beeswax/mineral oil is the most health conscious or just mineral oil. “Boiled” linseed oil is not boiled! A “dryer” added to raw linseed oil is a metallic salt, usually COBALT, that acts as a catalyst aiding in chemical linking of the molecule which is how linseed oil “dries”.
        Cobalt compounds are considered very toxic things. On a scale 1 to 6, cobalt compounds are considered a 5 according to the Scorecard (, a pollution information site

        • Jan in Waterdown says:

          And that’s why boys and girls, you NEVER use boiled linseed oil on wood cutting boards or salad bowls.

  18. Marie Anne says:

    Hi Karen, why vegetable oil on the shovel and wd40 on the pruners? The only oil I ever have in the house is olive oil

    • Karen says:

      WD40 or machine oil is for lubricating moving parts. Like hinges etc. The spray vegetable oil is thicker and not good for that sort of thing. It’s for preventing rust. ~ karen!

  19. Lynn says:

    Okay, I have been looking at my dull Felco pruners for a while and feeling bad about how I care for them. And my stirrup hoe, etc. I just bought all the shit on Amazon- thanks Karen! Needed that nudge to take care of things since I really do not like buying new things when I could have taken care of the old.

    • Karen says:

      It’s a really simple job! Although if you keep on top of it it’s even simpler, lol. Took a bit of work to get my stirrup hoe sharp again. ~ karen!

  20. Marilyn Meagher says:

    I am brutal with my garden tools
    ..I drive my husband crazy. I want a new pair of felcos for moms day. Mine are at least 20 yrs old. Best product ever.

    • Karen says:

      They really are! ~ karen

    • jacqueline says:

      All Felco pruner parts are replaceable…a truly splendid thing about Felcos. Usually it’s just the cutting blade that one needs when the bevel is too worn from sharpening.

  21. SuzNKton says:

    My grandfather was a gardener. He had a tobacco can filled with (as I remember) sand and oil. We had to clean off the tools with a sturdy brush and then stick them into the sand and oil before putting them on a specific hook for each tool, hanging in the garage. Jump 30+ years and I was using his Dutch hoe and his *forged* (now that I know what one is!) Shovel. Both of which are, by now, at least 50 years old. Worth it to take care of tools properly!

    • Dd51 says:

      My grandfather did the same thing! Since I am not as compulsive and am willing to buy new tools as needed, what I did was fill a bucket with sand and poured a can of left over car oil, 20w-50 I think. When I bring my tools in to the the shed I rinse off the most obvious soil then stick the hoe, shovel, whatever, into the bucket. Wiggle it around and up and down and then put it in this grid thing I found and you are good to go. Not perfect but it is better than not doing anything.

  22. Sabina says:

    Well I can tell you that my pruners are sharp…just look under the band aid on my middle finger…

  23. Ina says:

    Pardon my ignorance, I have obviously wandered into a place where I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. ?? stamped rather than forged shovel?? Whatever is the difference and how does it matter?

    • leo muzzin says:

      Karen’s shovel is “stamped”, and that means it starts off as a flat piece of soft steel which is hit with a press to turn it into the shape of the shovel. Soft steel = weak shovel which eventually will bend out of shape. The part that goes into the handle is open at the back. Apply enough pressure and it will become loose from the handle. A forged shovel is much heavier and will not bend or crack. It is welded to a stong sleeve (tubular i.e. closed at the back) and will not open up and become loose at the handle. For rough jobs the forged one would last much longer.

      • SuzNKton says:

        Huh! Never would have known that! So cool!

      • Mary W says:

        Great info! I just examined my much loved smaller shovel. It is stamped but the part going up the handle is really long and a bolt, nail, whatever is through it and both ends of the “pin” look the same as if it were double headed and it has been used for years and is still tight. It is extra short and fits my short fat legs perfectly. I hide it next to my front door behind a chest so that it is always available and out of the weather. Thanks for ‘splainen it Lucy’. (I’m old enough to remember Ricky and Lucy talking.) We live in sandy Florida so I didn’t need a heavy duty, weightier shovel.

  24. leo muzzin says:

    I do wash off the tools every now and then, but I find that after a bit of vigorous use the rust wears off. Surprises to see you have a stamped rather than a forged shovel ! LOL

    • Karen says:

      It was free. :) The guys who installed my fence several years ago left it at my house. When I let them know they forgot it, they told me to just keep it. So I did! ~ karen!

  25. Katy says:

    I love the speedy sharp! And it’s made right here in Idaho! Now I need to follow your advice… at least I already have the sharpening tool!

  26. Cathy Reeves says:

    I am the queen of lost garden tools. In fact I feel as though I invented the concept
    and I require a royalty from of the rest of the gardening misfits out there in the dirt!

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