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Maintaining garden tools

Winter is a great time for building tool care into your garden maintenance plan.
Winter is a great time for building tool care into your garden maintenance plan.

Clean, sharp tools are more effective and will save gardeners time and energy. Keeping tools clean will help limit the spread of plant disease, as well.

To clean tools that come in contact with soil such as spades, rakes, hoes and trowels, practice cleaning them after each use. Use a wire brush to remove stubborn clay or soil. Use a cotton rag to do a final cleaning and store them indoors in a garage or garden shed.

When it comes to cleaning cutting tools such as pruners, shears, scissors, axes and knives, wipe them down with a rough cotton rag. Be sure to remove any sap or grime with a cloth dampened with a commercial lubricant if needed and dry with a clean cotton rag.

If tools have rust, it will need to be removed. Use a stiff wire brush or steel wool. A general rust removal product can be used, too, but be sure to follow the label directions. Wipe with mineral oil or spray lubricant for easier rust removal. Finish by wiping the tool with a cotton rag to remove excess oil.

In general, when sharpening your tools, a file or stone can be used. Always move the file in one direction rather than back-and-forth. Hand files work well for tools like shovels, axes, hoes and trowels, while honing stones are better for pruning shears and knives.

Start by slowly pushing the file or stone away from you and the sharp edge of the tool. Be sure to sharpen the bevel at the same angle created by the manufacturer, typically 20 degrees for cutting tools.

You may notice burrs, or raised edges, form. Those can be removed by running a file along the backside of the blade. After sharpening, lubricate the edge to prevent corrosion.

Specifically, for hand filing shovels, axes, hoes and trowels, use a bastard cut mill file with handle for ease of holding. Start by securing the tool.

Next, use the file to sharpen the blade at a 45 degree angle. Typically, it will take five to 10 passes and monitor your progress as you should notice the blade getting sharper and shinier.

When sharpening shears, pruners and knives, it is best to remove the hinge, when possible, for better access to the blades. Be sure to note how to put the tool back to together; taking a photo may help.

Use a two-sided, well-oiled honing stone. If blades are nicked or very dull, start with the coarser side of the honing stone and finish with the smoother side. Work the stone until you recover the 20-degree angle, typically in 10 to 15 passes.

For scissors and snips, cutting multiple times through fine sandpaper will sharpen them somewhat. For a sharper edge, a honing stone or diamond sharpening rod could be used. Be sure to sharpen at the same angle as the manufacturer intended.

Winter is a great time for building tool care into your garden maintenance plan. This task will pay off in the long run by keeping you safe, your plants healthy and extending the life of your tools.

Nancy Kreith is a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

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