The rains have come. There will be days when it is too wet to go into the garden. It’s time to read a good garden book, start a flat or two of seedlings, re-pot those pot-bound plants and give your tools their annual maintenance. 

To tune up your hand tools, you’ll need; a barbecue brush or other scraper, a 10 or 12-inch long mill bastard file, some rags, medium and fine grit sandpaper, medium or coarse steel wool, linseed oil, motor oil, some masking tape, and a can or two of spray on rust primer and enamel. 

Start by fixing any tools that are broken. Straighten bent tines on forks or cultivators. Tighten everything that’s loose. Replace whatever is broken—handles usually. And do the job right. That means you don’t use duct tape to mend split handles; you don’t drive nails into a wobbly axe head. If you’re not sure how to make a repair, call our store and we’ll tell you how or bring the tool in and have us fix it for you. 

Inspect all wooden handles. Use medium, then fine sandpaper to smooth out rough spots, nicks and raised grain. Next, slop some linseed oil on a rag and apply it generously to each handle. Wait 15 minutes. If the handle has absorbed the oil, apply another coat. Repeat until the handle is still oily 15 minutes after being coated. Polish the residual oil off with a dry cloth. By the way, just about any good wood oil will do, including furniture oil. 

Clean major glop from the heads and other metal parts of each tool with your barbecue brush or other stiff wire brush or scraper. Then use steel wool to remove any remaining glop, crud and rust. 

Paint is next. Start with a coat of red oxide primer. Let it dry and follow with one or two coats of acrylic or epoxy enamel. (By the way, make sure your primer and paint are compatible. If they’re not, the paint will crinkle.) Any color will do. Bright colors are best. 

I've left sharpening for last because, if you sharpen first, you’ll need to take care to avoid cutting yourself while doing the cleaning and painting. I usually sharpen first, and have scars to prove it. 

To sharpen spades, shovels, hoes and such, use your large mill bastard file. The best technique is to clamp the tool head in a vise. Next best is to steady the tool head against the edge of a table, bench or other solid object. File with the edge of the tool away from yourself. That way, if you slip and the edge is sharp, you’ll still have all our fingers. Remember, when filing, to bear down on the forward stroke only. Lift the file slightly on the backstroke. If you don’t, your file won’t last long. 

Proper filing technique takes two hands. Hold the file handle with one hand and the tip of the file with the other. Use firm but not excessive pressure, and slow, measured strokes. 

A 45-degree bevel is about right for most tools that work in the dirt. Pruning tools, axes, knives and other cutting tools get a shallower bevel—20 to 35 degrees. 

Unless you have a particular preference, file on the same side of the blade that the manufacturer beveled originally. Some people prefer the inside edge, others the outside. The ground doesn't care. Axes and knives get sharpened on both sides. Bypass type pruners are sharpened only on the outside edge. 

A diamond file is a better choice for sharpening knives and pruning tools. 

Choose a fine or medium grit diamond file. 

Axes are given a final sharpening with a special round stone. Rotate it in a series of circular motions running parallel to the edge. Where shovels, spades and hoes should be sharp, pruners, knives and axes should be scary sharp. 

Finally, put a coat of oil on sharpened edges and other non-painted metal parts. This prevents rust. 

All of the above sounds more difficult and time consuming than it really is. A couple of hours on a rainy afternoon should do it. 


Robin Hager

Date 10/21/2016

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