When spring chores start competing for your gardening time, you won't want to tackle them with a rusty, dull tool. Sharp tools will make...

Share story

When spring chores start competing for your gardening time, you won’t want to tackle them with a rusty, dull tool.

Sharp tools will make most jobs easier, reducing blisters and backaches. Clean tools will avoid the problem of spreading soil diseases, insects or weed seeds from one part of the garden to another. Also, clean pruning cuts will ensure healthier shrubs and trees. And finally, well-maintained tools will last longer, keeping your gardening expenses down.

Gardening author and Territorial Seed Co. founder Steve Solomon says a backyard gardener needs only three tools: a shovel, a hoe and a rake. He outlines the use and care of these basics in the recent “Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times.” Key to his plan is to keep them in good working order, so he adds a fourth tool: the file.

Maintenance can be considered in three realms: cleaning, repairing and sharpening.


First step is to clean dirt and rust from hand tools, shovels, rakes and pruning tools with a wire brush or rag. Use fine steel wool with a light spray of oil to remove tough rust.

A good, smooth finish on a wood handle is essential, especially to prevent splinters. Clean with rags and sandpaper, then apply a thin coating of boiled linseed oil. Let it sit for a half-hour, and if all the oil has disappeared into the wood, apply another coat. When absorption stops, wipe any excess oil off the handle.

Everyday maintenance

• Rinse or wipe off dirt after each use.

• Plunge digging tools into a bucket of oiled sand (may be stored there, too).

• Hang tools; keep sharp edges off concrete floors.

• Regularly oil moving parts (springs, pivot bolts) on pruning tools.

A light-duty shop lubricant (3-In-One oil or WD-40) can be applied to clean metal parts. Some disassembly may be required to clean, de-rust and oil the fine parts of pruning tools. A drop of oil on the hinges and bolts of these tools will keep the moving parts operating smoothly.


When cleaning, look at the tool handles for cracks that would make handle replacement necessary. The business end of the tool — the shovel edge or pruning tool blade — may have nicks or rough edges. In many cases, sharpening the tool edge or blade may be sufficient, but badly worn blades or tools that no longer hold a sharpened edge may need replacement.

Repair blades and kits that include springs and screws can be purchased for use with good-quality hand pruners and saws. They are often in stock at a full-service hardware store or garden center.


Many gardening tools can be sharpened at home with a couple of simple tools. However, getting your tools sharpened professionally is a good investment, and you should do this for difficult-to-sharpen tools, such as lawn mowers.

To sharpen hand tools, you’ll need a mill file and a sharpening stone. The best file for shovels and hoes has a “bastard cut” and a wooden handle. Sharpening stones, or whetstones, are used for precise, short-bladed tools such as hand pruners. Often, stones are used wet, with oil or water.

• Round-point shovels, digging spades and hoes with beveled edges should be secured in a bench vise or by another method that leaves your hands free.

• Inspect the tool closely to determine the original angle of the edge, known as the bevel.

• Hold the file in both gloved hands and move it away from your body across the edge of the tool at the bevel’s angle.

• Use long strokes, one direction only.

• After filing to smooth the edge, check for sharpness.

• Only the beveled edge of the tool gets sharpened, but burrs may accumulate on the back edge. Remove them by briefly running the file across the back edge.

Sharpening hand pruners or loppers may require taking the tool apart to get to the blade. A bypass pruner blade gets sharpened on the outside surface, while an anvil-type tool needs both sides sharp.

Secure the tool or blade with the edge to be sharpened facing you, then slide the stone across the blade, in one direction only. If handling just the blade, hold the stone securely and slide the blade over it. Pass the stone over the back edge occasionally. Use a coarse-grit stone to remove nicks, then a finer grit one to create a sharp edge.

It is possible to oversharpen tools, which will result in the steel becoming brittle or getting dull very quickly. It’s best to sharpen conservatively, see how the tool performs and sharpen again if necessary.

After sharpening your tools, keep them lightly coated with oil. This will prevent rust buildup and make future cleaning easier.

Sand, oil, bucket … clean

Once the tools are clean and sharp, there’s an easy method to keep them that way.

Fill a 5-gallon bucket three-quarters full with builder’s sand. Pour in a quart of oil and stir vigorously. (Organic Gardening’s editors suggest vegetable oil, or this is a great way to recycle used lawn-mower oil.) Then, after a tool gets used, plunge it into the sand a few times to scrub off any grit or soil, which can prevent even a sharp edge from working properly.

Tools can also be stored in this sand bucket for a time, but if they will not be used for some months, they should be wiped clean, oiled lightly and hung on a hook.

Bill Thorness is a freelance garden writer in Seattle: bill@thorness.com