Year-round gardening: Take time for tool maintenance

December 24, 2012

The activity: Maintaining digging tools

Why: Good gardening tools should last a lifetime — or longer. Simple tool maintenance can extend their life and will make your time in the garden easier and safer. Tools used in the soil will dull quickly. Sharp shovels, trowels, hoes and other weeding tools will require less effort by the gardener to dig, scrape, chop or divide plants. Sturdy, secure handles prevent mishaps that might lead to injury.

How: Remove soil with a water wash or wire brush. Dry the blade. Follow this initial washing with a rub down using steel wool to remove fine debris and rust.

To sharpen the blade, hold the tool tightly under your boot or secure the tool in a vice. Wearing leather gloves, draw the edge of the file across the beveled edge of the tool, working in the same direction with each pass of the file. Keep both hands on the file. Pay attention to maintain the same angle as you draw, and to avoid getting too close to the sharp edge as you stroke.

If you are sharpening for durability, hold the file at a narrow angle such that you create ¼ inch of shine. This angle is used for digging tools. For a sharper edge, for chopping or cutting, hold the file at a wider angle to create a narrow ridge or burr that is thin and very sharp. Use this angle for weeding tools, for edging spades or when dividing plants for propagation.

A bench grinder can be used in place of a hand file. A grinder makes the job go quickly. If that is the case, the same guidelines regarding angles apply. One difference is that the grinder is held stationery while you manipulate the tool across the grinding stone to create the edge. Use protective eye wear to prevent eye injury.

After sharpening, apply a thin coat of oil to prevent rust. Use a rag to apply the oil, or use a spray lubricant.

Check handles for splits, cracks, stress fractures at the points of attachment, including blades and handles. Consider replacing damaged handles if needed. Very dry wood handles benefit from the application of preservatives such as linseed oil, Tung oil, or Danish oil. These finishes can be wiped on with a rag to extend the life of the handle.

Dispose of the rag in a fire-safe way.

It is helpful to mark hand tools with bright paint or tape so they are less likely to get lost in the garden.

When: Whenever you have time, which for a gardener most likely means in the winter. Sharpening and oiling digging and scratching tools should really be as needed throughout the season. Once a tool is sharp, you should only need to file it yearly to keep it keen.

What’s needed: 8-inch mill file with a bastard cut (fairly coarse teeth), wire brush, steel wool, cloth, motor oil (30W motor oil works fine). Optional but helpful: a vice or bench grinder, brightly colored tape or paint.

When you have questions, CSU has research-based answers. Get answers to you horticultural questions by calling the Master Gardener Volunteer Help Desk at 520-7684 or emailing Note: Volunteers are “on call” during our winter hours. Please allow 7-10 days for a response.

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