Gardening Articles: Care :: Tools & Equipment

Maintaining Your Edge

by Beth Marie Renaud

Even top-of-the-line tools need to be cleaned and sharpened regularly to perform their best. Sharp pruning tools make cleaner cuts, allowing plants to heal faster, and sharp digging tools save you valuable time and energy when working in the garden, not to mention a backache or two. Midwinter, when the growing season has slowed and outdoor activities move inside, is the perfect time to devote to prepping your tools for the spring season ahead.

Clean as a whistle

The first step with end-of-the-season tool maintenance is a good cleaning. Throughout the gardening season, it's important to clean sap and dirt off your tools to prevent the spread of soil-borne diseases and weeds, but your annual cleaning should be even more thorough. Sap and dirt left on tools during winter storage will attract and hold moisture, encouraging the spread of rust.

Start by disassembling any tools that have moving parts, such as pruners, shears, and loppers. Remove the accumulated rust and dirt from all metal surfaces with a wire brush. If necessary, gently sand away stubborn rust on pruners and loppers with fine steel wool; use medium-grit sandpaper on larger tools. For a very heavy coat of rust on shovels, spades, or hoes, use an electric drill with a wire brush attachment. Whether using a hand-held brush or one on a drill, always wear safety glasses to guard against errant rust particles. Remove stubborn sap with a solvent such as turpentine or Break Free CLP, a synthetic oil containing solvent.

Sharpening techniques

Once your tools are thoroughly clean, you can tackle their blades' cutting edges. When sharpening, try to maintain the original factory bevel or angle. If the blade is beveled on only one side, as with bypass pruners, then sharpen only that side. File the flat side of the blade only to remove burrs (rough ridges of metal) caused by the sharpening process.

Use either a whetstone or a mill bastard file as a sharpening device, depending on the tool you're sharpening. Be sure you know which style of blades you are working with, and sharpen accordingly.

For pruners, you can use a whetstone (also called a honing stone), which produces a very sharp cutting edge. Start by applying a few drops of oil or water to the whetstone, depending on the type of stone you're using. The liquid carries away metal filings and lubricates the surfaces, making it possible to achieve that very sharp edge. With the beveled side of the blade against the stone, rub the sharp edge of the blade toward the stone in a curved motion, as if you were trying to shave off a thin slice from the stone. If the blade has any nicks, use an 8-inch-long fine-grit mill bastard file to remove them; a medium-grit file may be needed to remove large or numerous nicks.

To sharpen larger garden tools such as shears, loppers, shovels, spades, and hoes, use fine- and medium-grit single-cut mill bastard files instead of a whetstone. When working with a file, stabilize the blades you're sharpening in a vise or against a solid surface to avoid injury and ensure an even and correctly angled stroke of the file. Always push the file across the blade in a motion away from your body and moving diagonally. The direction of the diagonal depends on what type of file you're using; the objective is to have the cutting teeth on the file biting into the metal on the tool. Most mill files are made for right-handed people, and the serrations are angled so they will grip the steel only when pushed in a left-to-right, forward motion. Do not use oil when sharpening with a file; metal filings will accumulate and clog the file's serrations.

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