The sharpest tools in the shed

This Saturday (3/12) from 10 am-12 pm, we’re very pleased to be leading a garden tool-sharpening work party at Livingscape Nursery. As a precursor to the event, I thought I’d post a few (well, it’s a few more than a few…but skim for what you need) tool care tips. So here they are:

Purchasing

We recommend purchasing high-quality tools, whenever possible. Even if a tight budget means you have to buy economy this time around, proper care can extend the life of your so-so tools so that you can save up to buy great ones in the future which (again, with proper care) will last for years to come.

Maintenance Schedule

After each use:

  • Tap or scrape digging tools to remove big clumps of soil; remove sap from pruning tools with eco-dish detergent or a non-toxic foaming cleanser, if you find you need it.
  • Remove smaller debris from blades and hinges with a brush &/or cloth.
  • Clean long-handled tool blades by pushing them into a bucket of oiled sand (see “Coolest Cleaning Technique” below); use a cloth to coat pruning tool blades with oil.
  • Store tools in the oiled sand, or hang on pegs.

Monthly: Sharpen blades, oil springs, and replace failing parts.
Once a year: Before storing tools for the winter, or while they’re safely stored, press the reset button. Clean your tools, remove any rust, sharpen, dry, lubricate, and store (see “How To” below for a few more details).

How To

Clean: Clean soil/sap/debris off your blade with hose, brush, sandpaper, and/or a steel wool pad. If you have used a pruning tool on diseased wood, disinfect it (10 min. in a 15% bleach solution) before you use it again. Remove rust with a non-toxic product like Bullfrog.
Sharpen: Sharp tools are more effective and easier to use, and are also safer for plants (ragged edges heal more slowly and encourage disease); tools that should be sharpened include hoes, shears, scissors, knives, loppers, pruners, hoes, and shovels. To sharpen the blade(s):

  • Secure the tool to a work bench.
  • Put a bit of oil on the blade.
  • File at the same angle as the bevel (angle) of the blade (usually 20 to 30 degrees) with a file of the appropriate size/coarseness: bastard file for hoes, shovels, etc./diamond file or sharpening stone for high-quality hand tools.
  • When you have honed the edge, run the file/stone over the back of the blade to remove the burr (the rough edge).

Dry: Well, this one’s easy. Use an absorbent cloth that you don’t mind getting a little dirty. Your goal is not to let the blades rust or the handles rot!
Protect: Wooden handles–get rid of the rough spots with sandpaper, then coat with boiled linseed oil once a year. Moving parts–use a “green” penetrating oil like SimplySoy to keep them well-lubricated.
Mark: Whether with tape, paint, or stickers, make sure to label your tools. Also, have a place to store each tool, and put every tool in its place–preferably off the floor in the garage (even if that’s just in an old garbage can).
Tighten: Nuts, bolts, screws. Make sure your tool is not about to fall apart!

Storage

Remember, clean your tools before you store them (even overnight!). Wipe shovels, hoes, etc. with an oily rag or dip them in oil-soaked sand; wash hand pruners loppers, etc. and drip a drop of oil on the cutting edges and on the moving parts.

When to Call It Quits

You can buy a new wooden handle for long-handled tools at your local hardware store, and you’d be surprised what kind of damage can be undone by a deep-clean. But if all else fails and the tool’s blade edge is beyond repair, it’s time to purchase a new one.

Coolest Cleaning Technique

The oiled sand bucket! To make your own, pour 3/4 quart vegetable oil into a 5-gallon bucket of damp (but not wet) sand. Clean your large tools with it, and store your small tools in it through the winter. Make sure to use vegetable oil: the last thing you want in your garden is petrochemicals from motor oil. Wipe off the sand with a clean(ish) cloth.

Long-Handled vs. Pruning Tools

In the end, they need the same things–no rust, no dirt, sharp edges, and protection from the elements (mostly via lubricant). Take care of them, and they will take care of you.

So, those are our tips. Make sure to check out Kate Bryant’s and Ann Murphy’s blog posts about the upcoming garden tool-sharpening fiesta. And peek around at the rest of their blogs, too–you’ll love ‘em! Registration is being taken care of through the OAN, so if you are able to attend, please sign up here.

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