How to Sharpen and Clean Garden Tools

how to sharpen and clean garden toolsThe best time to clean garden tools is each time after you use them. Everyone gets busy during the gardening season from spring until fall and usually do not find time to clean-as-you-go. When you have dull hand tool blades or shovels, here are some tips to help you. Tools are expensive to replace today, so with good maintenance, they should last for many years. Do not forget to sharpen, clean, oil and polish all tools before putting them away for the winter.

Some Gardening Tools

Spade (square), rounded shovel, garden forks
Bow rake, straight rake, leaf rake
Cultivator with long handle
Cultivator hand-held
Triangular and/or scuffle hoe
Pruning shears
Fishtail weeders/dandelion forks

Cleaning Garden Tools

1. Washing off the dirt, clay, and weeds can be done with a garden hose using its maximum water pressure with the nozzle. Let your tools air-dry outside on a sunny day. A small hand shovel or putty knife is useful for removing the caked-on mud from the last wet day. Steel wool or a boar- or metal-bristle brush is handy for the final tweaking for cleaning tools. Use steel wool for smoothing any pits or burrs on your metal tools.

2. Washing keeps fungi, insect eggs, weed seeds, and disease away that could be spread to your garden soil next spring. Cleaning your tools with sharp edges prevents rust from accumulating on the edge eventually rusting the metal. The rust will simply flake off and that was your sharp edge that has disappeared from rust.

3. Apply turpentine, paint thinner, or kerosene on an old cleaning cloth for hard-to-remove debris using water alone does not get off. These solvents help dissolve plant sap when working around conifer trees. Use 3-in-one oil or motor oil (best) to rub over all the clean tools. WD40 is not recommended since it is a synthetic (not oil) silicone and it does not last. Wipe off excess oil; do not let it be so thick it drips. The oil prevents rust in humid climates. The oil will not hurt the soil next spring.

4. For your wood handles, clean using a small grit sand paper and use linseed oil to seal the pores so that the wood does not dry out and start splitting and breaking. Do this with your hand tools such as pruners, and hand-held shovels. Pruning shears will rust from the humidity in your house if you keep them there. Air and moisture (and other chemical reactions) create oxidation, called rust. Plastic handles just need to be wiped down with water and/or dish detergent then dried.

5. When wood-handled tools break, a new handle is available at hardware stores or garden centers. All handles including ax handles can be replaced eliminating the duct tape or black sticky electrical tape that does not work.

Storing Garden Tools

Hang your tools on a storage organizer available at garden centers. Some people prefer to put long thin nails into their garage wall studs drilling a hole in the top of the wood handle. However you store your tools, be sure the rake tines face the wall to prevent people from tripping and hurting themselves. Shovel blades should also face the wall.

Sharpening Garden Tool Edges

1. Files and rasps come in many shapes for smoothing metal. Some have closely spaced steel hardened grooves. They function well to sharpen lawn mower blades, and the edges of shovels and garden-type rakes. They can be flat, round, and rat tail in shape. Burrs or pits can be removed as well. File in the direction of the factory original edge—this is key for success. File downwards away from the back. The edge needs to be at a 90-degree angle running the file two to three times until the edge is sharp enough to slice through paper. File in only one direction, not back and forth. Use one long motion the length of the file each time you slide it down the blade or edge.

2. The cut of the file is determined by how fine the teeth are for texture going from rough to smooth surfaces. Having one set of parallel teeth on a file is called a single-cut. The cut of the file refers to how fine its teeth are. The file ratings are rough, middle, bastard, second cut, smooth, and dead smooth. A file with one set of parallel teeth is known as single-cut. To create diamond teeth, a double-cut or cross-cut file is manufactured with a second set of teeth. The teeth in a Swiss-pattern file are cut at a shallower angle. Numbers for coarseness grades are provided, i.e., a number 1 file is coarser than the number 2 file. Most specialty flat files have one edge or face only; however, most files have teeth on all faces. The specialty type files allow you to come close to an edge without damaging its finish.

Hedge Shears, Grass Clippers, Pruning Shears

hedge shear

1. Scissors use a different type of sharpener that moves across both edges simultaneously and has a finger guard. They are useful for your household scissors, garden pruners, and grass clippers.

2. Use a mill file against each blade tooth on hedge shears (and chain saws). Be sure to align the blade at the same angle for each tooth on both sides including the tip cutting edge. Files sharpen only when moving forward in a downward direction. The teeth will become shiny as you sharpen. Turn the trimmer over and do the same thing on the other side.

3. Use a small file for pruning shears until the blade is shining using downward strokes in the same direction as the factory sharpened edge.

4. Wipe clean and oil all tools you have sharpened and be sure to use a thin coat of oil. You will be amazed at how the sharpened blades or teeth give you an easy-to-cut clean and crisp edge.

5. Fishtail diggers can be sharpened on both digger sides on the front and back and then they will be able to dig out the dandelions and weed roots better with the clean sharp edges.

Metal Rake Teeth and Hoes

metal rake teeth

1. For garden rake teeth, file downward in the direction of the edge. Follow the factory sharpening direction. Leave rakes do not need to be sharpened.

2. Do the same process for hoes that have 3-pointed fingers and your 3-pronged hand cultivator.

3. Flat-edged hoes usually have 3 sharpened sides. File the sides in the same direction as the factory edge and you will have a sharp clean edge for hoeing out weeds. A sharp tool is a safe tool and does the work it was designed to do.

4. As with all gardening tools, wipe clean, and use a thin coat of oil, wiping off any excess.

Preventive Care for Garden Tools

1. Oiling moving parts on pruners and shears will have them work so they do not rub or hang up when cutting. It is not difficult to take pruning devices apart. Be sure to put them back on the same way you took them off. After taking the pivot nut off, sand the blades with a fine grit sandpaper or steel wool removing any pits or burrs. Rub down with machine oil or motor oil and wipe away all excess with an old cloth. Do the oiling to the bolds, nuts, or screws. Everything runs better when oiled and increases the life of your tools.

2. Use bleach on blades for shears, pruners, and saws that were used for cutting plants. Bleach will remove any viruses and diseases that were on your plants, especially tomatoes that are prone to soil-borne viruses and disease. Some bugs will give plants a disease as well.

Lawnmower Blades

1. Reel mowers or engine-driven power mowers are not an easy task when sharpening unless you have a bench grinder. It might be best left to the professionals. New blades are not that expensive, so get a new one already clean and sharp.

2. A very important consideration is that some manufacturer’s blades must be balanced. If not balanced the same as from the factory, they will tear up your mower the first time you start it up.
When you maintain your equipment and hand tools at least 2 to 3 times each growing season, you will save yourself the headache of them breaking down when you need them most. It is a cost-effective task for saving money.

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1 thought on “How to Sharpen and Clean Garden Tools”

  1. Unlike some woodworking tools, gardening tools must be at all times cleaned immediately after use. This is because most gardening tools like the trowel are made for literally digging in the dirt. Therefore, gardening tools will always be surrounded with dirt and possibly be exposed to moisture if the soil is wet.


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