Tool Care for Safety – and for Years of Use

Safety and staying safe has been on our minds recently. Perhaps you are safe from virus at this point – but how about your garden tools – are they safe to use? (I’m not talking sanitized.)  Research by OSHA shows that most homeowner tools fail safety tests! Spend some time to make your gardening tools safer to use.

Safety First

Back in Journalism we learned that “fear sells.” I started my story with a call to action that included an element of fear. I don’t want to scare you, but I do want you to read this and be safe out there. Life is hard enough, no need to add bodily injury to the tally of issues one has to deal with.

A shovel with a sharpened edge on it will dig into the soil better – yes, even in our hard soil.

Sharpen for Safety

Get out the sharpening instruments. Don’t have any? Every gardener should have a whetstone and flat file, and know how to use them. If you have a grinder, you can use that for some sharpening tasks.

Use the Whetstone

For prunners and loppers use the whetstone to sharpen. Most whetstones have a coarse side and a fine side. Start using the coarse side of the stone if your tools have nicks in the blade. Otherwise the finer side is sufficient.

This whetstone has coarse, fine, and superfine, nicely labeled for the beginner.

Put enough honing oil on the stone so that a light sheen appears on the surface. Set the beveled edge of your blade so that the bevel is flat against the stone. Keeping this angle, pull the blade across the stone. Or the stone across the blade. Turn the blade or stone evenly as you pull so that the whole edge becomes sharp. The edge will start to develop a bright edge if you are holding it at the correct angle. Keep honing until all nicks have disappeared and the blade is sharp.

Often a burr, a thin ridge of metal, will roll over the back of the beveled edge. Simply lay the flat edge against the stone and draw it across once. Then go back to beveled edge and give it a couple of light strokes to break off the burr.

It takes some practice to learn to use a whetstone. Do not get discouraged. Keep practicing. You can’t really hurt your tools with a whetstone. Worse comes to worse, hardware stores offer sharpening services.

Why Sharpen for Safety?

Because sharper tools cut more easily. You have to work less hard with every cut – and thus you will not get so tired. Tired people get forgetful.  Tired people forget about safety and do unsafe things, like rake backwards and fall off ledges and get hurt (sigh – the voice of experience).

It is better for your lawn if you cut it with sharp mower blades. The grass heals better after the mow and will need less water to recover.

Dig Better with Sharp Edges

Sharpen your digging implements too. This is where you can use a flat file or grinder, or keep using the whetstone. Put an edge on hoes, shovels, spades, cultivators and yes, even your hand trowels. While diggers should not be as sharp as cutters, it sure makes digging easier if the edge is honed to a less-than-blunt edge. Again – easier digging makes you less tired at the end of the task, and less likely to make safety mistakes.

A flat file is good for sharpening shovels and hoes.

Wood Care

Our dry Southwestern climate really does a number on wood. Even tools kept out of sunlight in a shed will dry out. Help prevent splinters or broken tools with a little oil ahead of time.

Everything with a wooden handle benefits from a good soak with oil. Linseed oil works very well and is available in hardware stores.  Cooking oil works well too. Soak a flannel rag or old tee shirt with oil and rub it right in. Keep adding oil as long as it soaks in. This can be a surprising number of applications. How much oil also depends on the species of wood used to make the handle, and the grain exposed. All wooden handles benefit from oils, even if they are already rough and splintery.

Don’t forget the wheelbarrow shafts and handles too.  While you are working on the wheelbarrow – give the wheel axle a good squirt of oil.  It will roll easier.

You don’t need to use the super expensive vegetable oil, but it will work too.

Yes Granddad oiled his tools with used crankcase oil, and I salute his thriftiness – but! Motors today are different, and used motor oil has been heated super hot in your engine and thus has broken down. It now has an acidic component not found in fresh oil. Wood is best treated with vegetable oils, not mineral oils. Think of it this way – wood is plant-based and should be fed a plant-based diet.

Science Nerd Note

Mineral oil is a by-product of refining crude oil. Crude oil was originally plants millions of years ago, but these ancient plants became fossilized or mineralized over time. Problem is that once they became mineralized they also became definitely “carcinogenic to humans” according to the World Health Organization. Let’s remember safety – and reduce our exposure to carcinogens.  Keep mineral oil for the insides of metal machinery.


Clean is Good

Finally – make sure you get mud and debris off metal tools. Ideally, you should clean your tools after every use. Remove alkaline soil from digging implements to help them last longer. Plant acids and other compounds should be removed from cutting implements to prevent pitting of the metal. After cleaning, wipe down metal and wooden parts with an oily rag or spray some WD-40 (yes it’s mineral- based, but it’s better than nothing).

With good care, good tools can last a generation or two. I still have tools that I purchased three decades ago. And they have seen some hard use. More treasured still are the tools I inherited from my Granddad. Some of those have been in use for seventy years now. With good care they should last into the next generation.

Enjoy – and lets be safe out there!


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soule-southwest-gardenMore about overall care of your land and landscape in this book: Month by Month Gardening for Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press).  This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute will get a few pennies – at no extra cost to you.

© Article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. You must ask permission to republish an entire blog post or article. Okay to use a short excerpt – but you must give proper credit to Gardening With Soule. You must include a link to the original post on our site. No stealing photos.

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