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.
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.
Table of Contents
How to Maintain Garden Tools
What you need:
- Wire brush
- Steel wool
- Pocket Sharpener
- Bastard File (just a file that isn't too coarse)
- 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.
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.
Cleaning garden tools.
- Use steel wool to clean off moderate surface rust. You can also use a plastic scouring sponge if that's all you have around.
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:
How to sharpen.
- 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.
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:
- knives (garden knives that you'd use to cut asparagus etc.)
- 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.
- 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.
- When you see your edge shining, the pruners are sharpened.
3. Hone the sharpened edge.
In the picture below I'm honing the pruner blade, pushing the Speedy Sharp away from my body.
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.
Need to see how I'm doing it? Here you go ...
Garden Tool Sharpening Tips
- 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.
- Really do try to remove soil from your tools after using them. Even if I don't.
- Wood handled tools can be sanded and varnished, painted or protected from the elements with a waterproofing material like Thompson's Water Seal.
- 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.
- 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.
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Thank you so much.
ok so here is the last word on stamped vs forged shovels. Guess which is which if the picture uploads.
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.
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. :)
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.
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?
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!