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Garden tool care and keeping — How to clean, sharpen, and store your garden tools to keep your plants safe and your tools in good working order. And some tips on taking care of that hardworking wheelbarrow, while we’re at it.

June 18, 2019

Until recently, I thought I was taking good care of my garden tools if I simply left them in a spot where I could find them again. (I can’t imagine how many of those little dandelion pickers, which I use for all weeds, are still hanging out amidst the plants I’ve tended.)

Now, though, I’m determined to clean, sharpen, and correctly store my garden tools. Why bother? Well, they’ll last longer, work better, be better for my plants and yard, and, yes, be easy to find when I need them. Know what else? They’ll look so much nicer. And to tell the truth, I’m crazy about things that look good because they’re well cared for.

Here are some tips for keeping your garden tools in stellar shape:

Cleaning

Clean tools last longer and are less likely to rust. Besides, dirty tools just aren’t as sweet to work with, are they?

• Wash your garden tools with warm, soapy water. Use a stiff brush for scrubbing. For tough, caked-on dirt, a wire brush or steel wool pad is handy.  Rinse and air dry or wipe with a towel.

• For big tools (like shovels), use a hose and a putty knife to knock off the big clumps of dirt first.

• For small tools, use a nail brush.

• To remove sap, I like to use vegetable oil. Just wipe it on with a rag, leave for a few minutes, then rub off.  For very stubborn spots, a little baking soda will offer some abrasion. (You’ll find myriad suggestions for sap removal online—from toothpaste to turpentine. Please let us know if you’ve had success with a natural solution!) Clean afterwards with soapy water and rinse and dry well.

• Don’t forget to clean the dirt from the area where the handle meets the top of the tool.

• After washing and rinsing, make sure you dry the tool well. You don’t want remaining water to cause rust. I dry mine with an absorbent towel and then set the tool in the sun to bask for a few minutes.   

Rust Removal

• A wire brush or steel wool should help get any rust off. (I hear a wire brush attachment for your hand drill works nicely, if you’re eager to use your electric tools.) Don’t rub harder than necessary, or you’ll weaken the tool by thinning the metal.

• After rubbing with a brush or steel wool, you can finish with 80-grit sandpaper. I do this by hand, but an electric hand sander apparently works well for this, too.

• Vinegar will help remove rust, so you might try rubbing a bit of it into those rusty spots. Another option is to soak the rusty tool in vinegar water (half and half solution) overnight, then rub with steel wool, wash with soapy water, rinse well, and dry thoroughly.

• Strong black tea also helps banish rust on hand tools. Simply plunge the tools in a pot of the brewed tea and let them sit for a few hours. When they come out, you should be able to wipe off the rust with a clean rag. Again, wash, rinse, and dry well.

Refurbishing

Once per season, or whenever you’re feeling especially appreciative of your tools, you can give them some extra TLC:

• Take your tools apart (unscrew the nut that holds them together). Soak any rusty parts in a half vinegar/half water solution or a brew of strong black tea (see above). Wash all the pieces in soapy water.

• Rinse and dry each piece well, rub with oil, then reassemble.

• Notice how the wood handles of your tools get rough over time? That’s because moisture raises the grain of the wood. Simply sand them with medium (80) grit sandpaper, followed by a finer grit (120-150). Once sanded, dust off the sanding dust and rub the wooden handles with oil; this will provide a nice finish and also help prevent drying and cracking.  

• It’s okay to tape any cracks in handles with strong tape—as long as it won’t be dangerous if the tape gives and the handle breaks. (Imagine an axe head falling out of a broken handle on your best swing.)

• Lubricate the pivot point, hinges, and other moving parts on shears and pruners once in a while. It only takes a couple of drops!

Sterilizing

Did you know that garden tools can spread disease throughout the garden? Makes sense, though I never thought about it before! If you think your tool might have been exposed to bacteria or fungi or sap or unfriendly insects—anything you don’t want to spread around the garden—you’ll want to take the time to sterilize it. Some options:

• Bleach is the sanitizer most often recommended for sterilizing garden tools. But standard household bleach is toxic for people and the environment and hard on tools (corrosive). Without certainty that it’s as effective (I’m willing to make that trade off), I use chlorine-free bleach (companies like Seventh Generation and Ecover make non-chlorine, biodegradable bleaches that rely on peroxide for cleansing ability.) Simply dip your tool in a diluted bleach solution. (Use about 9 parts water to 1 part bleach.) Rinse and dry well.

• Other natural disinfectants—which are less harsh than standard household bleach—would also work on tools. You can use these full-strength or dilute them. The companies that make non-chlorine bleaches also make natural disinfectant sprays and wipes. (I don’t recommend the wipes for sustained use, because they seem wasteful, but in a pinch they’d be handy to have around.)

• Garden supply shops often sell industrial disinfectants, made to kill bacteria, fungi, and other nasties on contact. If you’re lucky, your local shop might have an organic option.

• Pine oil products are used for disinfecting, though they’re considered not as effective as some other disinfectants. You can easily make your own pine cleaner by adding pine essential oil to a combination of warm water and liquid castile soap. (Use about a tablespoon of soap per quart of water.)

• Vinegar is considered a natural disinfectant, though it can also be corrosive. To use for sterilization, simply mix half and half with water and dip your tools. Rinse and dry well.

• To avoid using disinfectant liquids altogether, I’m told you can steam small garden tools to disinfect them. Place the tools in a steam basket in a pot with a small amount of boiling water. Cover and steam for about 30 minutes. I wonder if this wouldn’t promote rusting, though? If you have any experience with this method, we’d love to hear about it!

Sharpening

It’s important to keep tools sharp, both because they’ll make your gardening tasks easier and because sharp tools are better for your plants. (I’m guilty of tearing branches with a dull blade rather than cutting them cleanly with a sharp one. Shameful!)

You can have your garden tools sharpened professionally (ask at your local hardware store), or you can do it yourself. Here are some tips for the DIY route:

• Wear eye protection, to avoid getting metal in your eye. Heavy gloves will protect your hands, too.

• Secure your tool with a vise or clamp.

• Use a flat file (think super-heavy-duty nail file, available at hardware stores) to file the edge of the tool blade.

• For a finer edge (on shears, for example), you might want to use a whetstone. (A whetstone is a block of fine-grained stone that’s used to sharpen scissors, knives, chisels, etc.)

• Aim to maintain the existing bevel angle (usually 20 to 45 degrees) rather than make it steeper/sharper. A very thin, sharp angle will become damaged more easily. (It’ll also be unnecessarily dangerous.)

• File or sharpen in the same direction (not back and forth).

• To keep blades sharp, carefully seal the edges with oil after sharpening.

Storing

At last, my favorite part! Once the tools are all cleaned, oiled, and sharpened, it’s fun to tuck them into their storage spots. Properly, of course. This way:

• Don’t leave tools outside. Store them in the shed or garage or mud room, or whatever inside designated spot you have. Let’s keep them dry—and rust free.

• Hang your big tools (shovels and big shears and such) up in a dry, ventilated area. Don’t stand them on their tips!

• Make a sand storage container for your hand tools (small garden tools like hand trowels, forks, dibblers, etc.)  by mixing a plant-based oil with a bucket or pot of sand. (I like to use terra cotta pots for this. Actually, I like terra cotta pots, period.) Use enough oil to make the sand damp, not wet. The mixture will condition the metal and help protect is from rusting. Place the pot or bucket in a cool, dry place. BTW, this is a great way to store your tools through the winter months.

• Some gardeners like to keep their hand tools in a mailbox right in the garden. This keeps them dry and, well, handy! You can still clean and plunge the hand tools in the sand bucket before storing them in the mailbox. That way they’ll be clean and greased for the next use.

Don’t forget your hard-working wheelbarrow

Most of the tips above can be used to take care of a wheelbarrow, too. It’s just a large, very valuable tool, after all. Sand and and oil the wood handles, clean out the barrow with soapy water, rinse and dry well. Use the same rust-removal and refurbish tips outlined above. Also oil the axle every once in a while, and keep the tire inflated with a bicycle pump.

About oils:

I’ve mentioned using oil on your garden tools quite a bit in this post. Coating your tools can help prevent rust (that layer of oil keeps water and oxygen, which are rust-makers, off the metal). It can also keep dirt from sticking to your tools as you work.

Gardeners use all kinds of oils on their tools, including WD-40 and motor oil. But since whatever you use is going to wind up in your garden via the tools, I like to stick with more natural, non-petroleum products, such as:

• Vegetable oil. Yup, whatever’s in the fridge that day. I just pour a bit into a container to store with gardening supplies. Adding a little baking powder provides a little abrasion when needed, too (to get that sap off, for example).

• Boiled linseed oil. Linseed oil comes from flax seeds, and it’s long been used to treat garden tools. The oil isn’t really boiled; it’s combined with solvents that cause it to dry more quickly, the way it would if it were boiled. So, yes, it does contain solvents in addition to the natural oil, which would become hard in the can without it. Another trade off. Apparently, the solvent evaporates, so letting the tool dry for a day before using will give the solvent time to disappear. (I still find it more appealing than motor oil.) Linseed oil will become gummy if applied too thick, so spread lightly.

• Camellia oil. I’m excited to try this! Made from the seeds of the Camellia oleifera plant, camellia oil is an odorless, non-staining, light oil (less likely to become gummy like linseed). It’s used as a cooking oil in Asian cuisine, and is often employed in cosmetic products, like soaps and creams. Woodworkers tout its ability to prevent corrosion.

When using oils (and especially linseed oil), please take care disposing of cloths. Spontaneous combustion is a scary, very real prospect!  Don’t wad up the rags and throw them in the trash—or even leave them in a hot garage. Instead, place in a metal container with water or lay the rag flat, away from flammable items, until completely dry.

What are your favorite tips for taking care of your gardening tools? We’re still learning, so please contribute!

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