YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Key to a Sharp-Looking Yard: Sharp Tools

How to Bring Out the Best in Shears, Shovels and Rakes With Regular Maintenance


Even the humblest garden tools need maintenance. And if you own high-quality tools, time spent cleaning and sharpening them is worth it. You'll work a lot more efficiently with a shovel or hoe that isn't bent or dull. What's more, sharp pruners make cleaner, faster-healing cuts so plants stay healthier.

Bob Denman of Denman & Co. in Orange knows how to keep tools in top shape. He makes Red Pig garden tools and consults for tool manufacturer Corona Clipper. He advises the following:


Long-neglected pruners require thorough cleaning and sharpening. You might also need to replace the plastic grips on the handles.

It will take about 30 minutes to disassemble, clean and sharpen pruning shears.

Start by removing the pivot nut and bolt and cleaning the opening to remove sap and dirt. This will help the blades move freely after you reassemble the tool. To clean the pruners, use a wire brush and then buff with fine steel wool. To speed up the process, try a wire wheel, attached either to a bench grinder or a hand-held electric drill. The wire wheel also produces a sheen that's hard to match with hand rubbing. If you do use a drill attachment, clamp the pruners in a vise for safety.

To sharpen bypass pruners, you'll need a small, fine-grit diamond file. Sharpen the beveled side of the curved blade. Do not sharpen the flat side of the curved blade or any part of the opposing hooked blade--this will create a space between the blades resulting in a frayed edge on cut branches.

Anvil pruners are different. The sharp cutting blade on them descends to meet a soft metal anvil. Sharpen the blade with a double bevel, which is similar to some knife blades. Run the file parallel to the blade, from the base to the tip. Be sure to keep the blade edge straight.

Replacing handles. A liquid plastic, called Plastidip, makes replacing worn handle grips a cinch. After dipping each bare metal handle into the Plastidip, lightly clamp an uncoated portion of the tool in a vise (or use a hand clamp) so the plastic can dry undisturbed. Drying time is about two hours. Plastidip (about $6 for a 14.5-ounce can) is sold at hardware stores and home centers.

Once the handles are in good shape, reassemble the tool and adjust the pivot bolt. Finish by lubricating the blades. Denman recommends using Break Free CLP (sold at hardware stores and gun shops, about $7 for a 4-ounce bottle) or Corona CLP (available at nurseries, around $3.40 for a 0.68-fluid-ounce bottle). Both contain a synthetic oil that lubricates and leaves a light film that repels dirt and protects against rust. They also contain a solvent that will remove sap.


Tools equipped with long handles require two kinds of attention: Cleaning and sharpening the metal working end, as well as some touching up of the wood handles to prevent them from drying out and splitting.

Tool-head care. First, clean the metal head of the tool. Do this by hand with a wire brush, or use a wire wheel attached to a bench grinder or hand drill motor.

If you must reshape the point of a shovel, use an electric bench grinder. Protect yourself by wearing safety glasses, and hold the tool in such a way that the wheel cannot pull the blade in or flip it. Remember also that an electric grinder takes metal off fast, and you want to remove as little as possible.

Next, sharpen the existing beveled edge using a mill bastard file, a flat file with medium-coarse parallel serrations. With the tool head locked in a vise and both hands on the file, apply long, smooth strokes across the whole working edge.

When sharpening a shovel, push the file toward the shovel point. Use light pressure and inspect your work frequently. Try to duplicate the angle of the factory bevel. Always push the file away from your body and the blade so you don't get cut. Lift the file off the tool on the backstroke.

Next, spray paintthe metal to protect it from rust. Denman uses Rustoleum rustproof primer, followed by a coat of metal paint.

Handle maintenance. To refurbish almost any wood tool handle, Denman recommends sanding off the factory varnish. Use a medium-grit paper, followed by a fine-grit paper. Then protect the wood and keep it supple with boiled linseed oil, sold at hardware and paint stores.

Wipe the oil on with a cloth; apply several light coats, letting the oil soak in after each application. Wipe off any excess with a dry cloth.

Handle replacement. Replace a broken or split handle with a new one made from straight, tight-grained hardwood. Expect to pay anywhere from $8 to $18, depending on handle style. Bring the broken handle with you when shopping; the replacement should have a similar profile at the head so it fits the tool socket.

To remove the broken handle, first file or grind off the head of the shovel pin (rivet), which connects the socket to the wood. Then remove the pin using a punch and hammer.

Denman then drives the handle from the socket using a metal dowel, called a drift pin. A short length of 12-inch rebar will also do the job.

Push the new handle into the socket. If necessary, you might have to plane or file the handle head to fit. To ensure that the handle is securely in place, hold the tool head up in the air and firmly tap the end of the wood handle a couple of times on a board or piece of plywood that you've placed on the ground.

Next, drill holes for the new shovel pin. Insert the pin, leaving a 14- to 38-inch end exposed. Then, heat the exposed end of the pin (using a grinder or small propane torch) and strike the hot metal with the rounded end of a ball-peen hammer until the pin mushrooms to form a rivet. Treat the new handle with boiled linseed oil, as described above, and you're ready.

Reprinted from Today's Homeowner magazine. To receive more expert advice on improving your home, call (800) 456-6369 or visit the Web site at

Los Angeles Times Articles