Spark and Shine: Tips for Garden Tool Tune-up

March 5, 2024 Abigail McLennan , Horticulturist

So, what have gardeners been up to all winter? Resting the body, enhancing the mind with classes and conferences, and preparing for spring. One of the best tasks to prepare for spring is tool maintenance. Proper tool maintenance extends tool longevity, improves performance and minimizes both environmental and budgetary footprints. Ideally, tools get cleaned, sharpened and repaired often. I like to dedicate time during the winter to ensure the task gets done well at least once per year. 

Well-used garden tools get grimy between soil, sap, plant resin, dust, grease and more. Periodic tool-washing prevents the spread of plant diseases and enhances performance. Cleaning takes the basic form of soaking to loosen caked-on gunk, washing with warm and soapy water, rinsing and sanitizing with a diluted isopropyl alcohol spray. 

Once sanitized, the tools are ready for sharpening. Wearing hand and eye protection is important for this process. What you aim to sharpen determines your tool, such as flat files, round files and whetstones. The general movement is lengthwise along the blade. Start from the base of the blade and go to the tip, trying to maintain a consistent angle. Sharpening in the same direction keeps the striations consistent along the edge. The goal is to have an even plane that angles down at around 20 degrees from the bevel. 

For smaller tools, like bypass pruners, foam sanding blocks and hand files are preferred. The foam block buffs out rust and grime across the whole blade. The hand file fits better in the small curve of the pruners. For tools with hinges and bolts, adding some 3-in-1 tool lubricant makes a nice final addition for rust prevention and improved mobility.

For more power, consider using an angle grinder for medium to large hand tools. Insert a flap disk and use a vice to clamp whatever needs to be sharpened. Be sure to wear that hand/eye protection! Also tie up loose hair and remove anything flammable from the workspace. An angle grinder with a flap disk works well for getting through the many shovels, shears, edgers and soil knives in the horticulture team’s tool inventory. Without excess pressure, run the tool flat against the angle that requires sharpening, going back and forth. Sparks may fly as the metal is cut, which can be quite dramatic. Finally, pull a whetstone (or other finishing grit sharpener) across the back edge of the blade to remove the potential burr and create the desired smooth, sharp edge. 

Maintaining tools extends their functionality and makes the work easier and more enjoyable. So, with spring knocking at the door, consider giving your tools some TLC before putting them back to work. 



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