How to Sharpen Garden Tools

Posted in: Storage
A gardener sharpens pruning shears.

Look sharp, look clean! This old-time barbershop mantra has a different meaning when it comes to maintaining gardening tools. Gardeners know that the best tools aren't just well made — they're also made to last with proper care. Follow this guide on how to sharpen garden tools and ensure your tools are always looking sharp and clean.

How to Sharpen Garden Tools

What garden tools need sharpening? Primarily pruning tools and digging implements. Pruning tools need sharpening more frequently because they require precise cuts. You'll know when they need sharpening because they'll leave ragged, frayed edges, and cutting will become more difficult. Shovels and spades are a little trickier. They can go a lifetime without sharpening, but they'll gradually become less and less efficient at slicing through soil, particularly heavy clay.

Shovels and Blades

Before sharpening, use a wire brush to remove dirt and rust from metal surfaces of shovels, spades, hoes and other digging implements. If blades are rusty, use steel wool to remove the rust before sharpening. Set the tool in a vise, then make a few passes over the blade with a coarse file. Hold the file at a 20-degree angle and push away from yourself as you follow the shape of the beveled cutting edge with each pass. Do this for 15 to 20 strokes. Remove any nicks with a bench grinder or a power sander paired with a coarse grinding disk. Be sure to wear goggles and gloves when using either of these power tools.

Shears and Clippers

Use a flat 10-inch file to give blades a finer hone when sharpening pruning shears, hedge shears and grass clippers. Clamp the tool in place and hold the file in both hands as you sharpen. Follow the existing bevel — it was designed and engineered to cut at the most efficient angle — filing away from yourself and in one direction only. File the entire edge, repeating 10 to 15 times until you have exposed clean metal the entire length of the edge. Repeat the process on the other blade. Once that's done, lightly sand the backside of each blade to remove any burs. Finish by applying lubricating and penetrating oil.

Saws

With regular use, chainsaws will need periodic sharpening — either with a file and a guide at home or a trip to a small equipment dealer. However, when pruning saws and bow saws become dull, it's simpler to just replace the blades, which are available at hardware stores.

Burpee Tip: To avoid having to replace blades prematurely, avoid using a pruning saw to cut roots, as the dirt dulls blades quickly. Instead, invest in a root-pruning saw, which is intended solely for that purpose.

How to Clean Garden Tools

After each use, use a hose to wash dirt off shovels, trowels, spade forks and other digging tools, then let them dry before storing. If you have caked-on mud, soak the business end of the tool in soapy water for a few minutes, then clean with a hard-bristle brush, hose off and allow to dry.

Pruning tools should also be wiped with a 10% bleach solution between cuts whenever cutting diseased plants. Once a year rub down rough wooden handles with sandpaper to remove cracked varnish or splinters, then brush the handles with linseed oil. Place the tool in the sun so the wood absorbs the oil, then apply another coat and wipe off the excess. After cleaning, you can also wipe down the metal blades on shovels and spades with linseed oil to prevent rust.

How to Extend Tool Life

Buy quality tools — they can last a lifetime if given proper care. They also perform their jobs better, making life easier for you. An important thing to remember is to use tools only for their intended purpose. For example, don't use shovels to dig out rocks when a mattock or pry bar is called for. Hand pruners also won't last long if you're using them to cut stems better suited to loppers. And those same loppers are apt to give up the ghost if set against overly thick branches. In that case, it's best to use a saw.

Proper storage is key to tool care. Keep tools out of the elements, and never put them away wet. It's an invitation for rust, which isn't just unsightly, but it also impacts a tool's performance, as anyone who has tried to snip grass with rusty grass shears can verify. A garage can work just fine for garden tool storage if space is available and tools remain accessible — that is, stored in a rack or hanging on the wall, not buried in the back behind miscellaneous stuff. In the end, however, you may find that a tool shed offers the easiest, most convenient access to your tools.

Check out Burpee's guide to cleaning garden tools for more tips on how to extend the life of your garden tools.

Written by Luke W. Miller, Garden Ideas

Luke Miller is an award-winning garden editor and Master Gardener who has worked with Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Media, Lowe's Creative Ideas and Garden Gate magazine.

October 11, 2021
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