Clean and sharpen garden tools
Jerry Haynes – Grayson County Master Gardener
At the end of the gardening season, most of us toss our tools in the shed or garage and forget about them. But smart gardeners clean, oil and sharpen tools now before putting them away. Then they'll be ready to go for winter pruning or spring planting. Of course, most gardeners have never sharpened their pruning shears, much less their shovels. Why is it important?
A dull tool is a dangerous tool, just as a dull kitchen knife is more likely to hurt you than a sharp one. Sharp tools are also easier to use and don't put as much strain on your hands and body. It's a whole lot more fun to cut with something sharp than with something dull.
It's better for your plants too. "A dull cutting tool rips and shreds plant tissue. A sharp tool cuts clean, and the plant will recover better. If you have dirty tools, you spread weed seeds and disease around."
It's a skill worth learning — keeping knives and tools in good condition is satisfying as well as thrifty.
Start with a clean, dry tool. Brush off dirt with rags or old paintbrushes or old toothbrushes; for shovels, use a putty knife or a wire brush. Remove any rust from metal with a wire brush, steel wool or sandpaper. A rag and mineral oil or WD-40 will take off sticky plant sap.
Do not buy anvil-type pruners. They damage living plants by crushing stems. By-pass pruners, with curved blades, are best for most garden work because they have a scissor-like action that makes clean cuts — if they're sharp.
To hone pruners, use a whetstone. Although many people lubricate whetstones with water or fine oil, it isn't essential, and you may use your stone dry. I prefer small diamond whetstones, which have industrial diamond dust embedded in them. They come in various grits, so you can start with fine and finish with extra-fine. On bypass pruners, you sharpen the top blade, which is usually thinner. One surface of that blade is flat. On the other, you will find a bevel, a narrow band that meets the cutting edge at an angle of about 23 degrees. Your goal is to preserve that same bevel angle while you get the edge sharp.
Wearing gloves, clamp the pruners in a bench vise if you have one, or hold them down on a table, pointed away from you, with the bevel up. Starting at the base of the blade, near the hinge, lay the stone or diamond file against bevel, following its angle. Using moderate pressure, stroke the stone toward the edge while also moving it along the edge toward the tip. It should take 10 to 20 strokes, always in the same direction, before the whole edge is sharp.
Test the pruners' sharpness by cutting a small branch. This same technique can be used for other cutting tools; the key is always to follow the bevel angle. On hedge clippers and grass shears, sharpen the beveled cutting edges on both blades. Loppers are simply really long-handled pruners.
After sharpening, oil the mechanism and wipe all the metal parts with oil to protect them against rust. It is best to use WD-40 spray lubricant because it can expel water from the inner workings.
Most people don't know that shovels, spades, hoes and other digging tools come from the factory dull and need to be sharpened. A sharp shovel makes digging easier and will cleanly slice roots. It's always worth sharpening the shovel before a major digging project or before dividing perennials.
The best tool for this task is called a bastard mill file ("bastard" is a degree of coarseness). You may need to buy the fill and the handle separately; insert the skinny tang of the blade firmly into the handle.
Ideally, clamp the shovel face-up to a workbench or sturdy table. Otherwise, have someone firmly brace the tool while you work on it. You will need both your hands for the file.
Wearing heavy leather gloves, grasp the file handle in your weaker hand and, with the fingers of your right or dominant hand, hold the tip of the file blade firmly, with your thumb on top. Standing by the shovel's handle, lay the end of the file near your thumb against the shovel edge at a 30 degree angle. In a continuous stroke, use your right hand to push the file away from you while at the same time guiding it along the shovel edge. Always puush the file away from you, picking it up to start a new stroke near the tip; never saw it back and forth.
Work along the shovel blade until the entire cutting edge is sharp. It doesn't need to be a knife edge but should be sharp enough to cut a root.
Oil the shovel blade with WD40 to keep it from rusting.
Coat wooden handles of tools with boiled linseed oil, which soaks in to form a tough coating on wood and dries quickly. First, sand the handle to remove any factory varnish on a new shovel or to remove splinters on an old one. Apply a generous amount of the oil with a rag and wipe off any that doesn't soak in. Let the coating dry before putting the tool away.
Note: Since boiled linseed oil is highly volatile and flammable, use it only in a well-ventilated area. Cap the leftover oil tightly and immediately dispose of the soaked rags, which can catch fire if carelessly stored.