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  • Writer's pictureJulie Bare

Getting Sharp: Tips for Tool Sharpening

It's that time of the year when I imagine most people, like myself, are hunkering down and waiting out winter. Now is a perfect time to set yourself up for a successful growing season by doing a little tool maintenance. In between looking at seed catalogs, make some time to clean and sharpen your garden tools. You will thank yourself come spring and hopefully incorporate it into your regular winter maintenance routine.

This past November Women in Horticulture hosted a tool maintenance workshop, Getting Sharp with Bernard Pettit at PHS Meadowbrook Farm in Jenkintown, PA. Bernard, PHS Meadowbrook Farm Associate Director, demonstrated how to properly sharpen pruners, loppers, hoes, and shovels. We want to extend a huge thank you to Bernie and Meadowbrook Farm for hosting this event! In this blog, I am going to share the information that we learned at that workshop so you can try some of these techniques and tips at home.

Bernie demonstrates how to sharpen pruners.

Take a look at the tools you find yourself using most often in the garden. For me it is pruners (I use Bahco pruners with a rotating handle, but I know many people who recommend Okatsune pruners), a digging knife (I use a Lesche but I know lots of fans of the Hori Hori knife), loppers, hoes, and shovels. All that digging in the dirt and pruning can wear down your blades and make your work harder than it needs to be. Did you lose any tools in the compost pile this summer, only to find them completely rusted when you unearthed them this fall? There is hope for those too! Gather up all those tools that look like they need a little T.L.C..

There are three main steps for cleaning and sharpening tools; clean, file, then oil. Some of the supplies you will need for cleaning and sharpening you might already have on hand. For cleaning tools, Bernie recommends using a wire brush, steel wool, or a scouring sponge depending on how dirty your tools are.

Wire brush, steel wool, flat file, and Okatsune pruners.

If you are trying to clean very fancy tools, he recommends using a fine grade steel wool or a scouring sponge. The first step to the sharpening process is cleaning. Use the wire brush, or one of the other options, to get all the dirt off of your tools before you begin to sharpen. If you have tools that have a lot of rust on them, use the wire brush first and then use steel wool to remove some of that corrosion. For tools that you can take apart, like hand pruners, soak all of the removable parts in warm water. Then wipe down the blade to get rid of any residue. Once your tools are clean you are ready for the actual sharpening.

When it comes to sharpening your tools, the type of tool you are sharpening will determine what kind of file you should use. A round file is useful for sharpening most gardening tools. You may also want to invest in a flat file and/or a diamond file to have in your arsenal. A diamond file is great for small hand blades, it is a much finer file and gives you a nice sharp edge and doesn’t pull off too much steel. They are also pretty inexpensive. A hand grinder is another great tool for sharpening, it really helps to get chips out of your tools. Bernie recommends 80 grit sandpaper when using a hand grinder. Now is a good time to make a quick note about safety! Always file away from your body, use caution, and wear eye protection if using a hand grinder!

Charlotte Kidd testing out the hand grinder.

When you are sharpening tools, you are not only removing metal but you are also folding the metal back in. Think of it as aligning the metal. If your tools are already pretty sharp, you will just be honing the blade. A round file or diamond file should do the trick if you already have a pretty good edge. When sharpening, simply run the file along the beveled edge of the tool. File with the contour of the edge until it becomes honed. If you are sharpening something like pruners or loppers, once you have sharpened the beveled side, run a flat file on the backside to finish it off. Bernie recommends working at a 40 degree angle when filing. If you are sharpening a shovel, which may have more chips in it, this is when the hand grinder might come in handy. Using the hand grinder, grind out any chips. If you don’t have a hand grinder, simply use the round file to create a sharp edge. A round file is also effective for any of your digging tools, such as the Lesche digging knife or Hori Hori knife. If you are sharpening something like an axe or hand scythe, follow the same process for the tools listed above. Once you have a sharp edge on these tools, black polyethylene pipe (cut in half) makes a nice cover for sharp blades. Some recommend spraying your tools with WD-40 before winter storage to prevent rust.

Once your blades are cleaned and sharpened, the last step is maintaining your wooden handles. Well tended, smooth handles last longer. Oiling and sanding helps preserve handles so you get more for your money. You never want to oil anything that goes into the dirt, such as blades. Before applying oil, you will want to lightly sand your tool handles. I do this for all of my shovels, hoes, and anything else with a wooden handle. Bernie recommends 100 grit sandpaper for this step. You can follow this up with a finer grit for a smoother finish. Once the sanding is done, the next step is oiling. There are a few different oils you can select for this process. Mineral oils or pledge work perfectly well. I have always used linseed oil. Use a rag to apply a thin coat you while wearing gloves, but be cautious- linseed oil can be very flammable! Read the label and make sure you let oily rags dry out completely, away from anything else that is flammable, before disposing of them. Camellia oil is an option for finishing off very special tools, but it is much more expensive.

Attendees get close up to the sharpening action.

It is always good to keep in mind that investing in high quality tools and maintaining them will save you money in the long run. Bernie recommends Hida Tools or Japan Woodworker for quality made tools. I wish you luck in all of your tool sharpening endeavors and happy gardening!

Thank you to all who attended!

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