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Garden Tool Maintenance


Story & Photography By Jeff Rugg

A Clean Tool is a Safe Tool

In the garden, everything has its season. Fall is the season for cleaning and preparing tools for spring. Dirt and rust are harmful to just about everything, but especially to garden tools that are often wet and dirty. We depend on our tools to be safe and effective. Dirt and rust make our tools less safe and make us work harder. Water may be great for the garden, but it is the enemy of our tools.

Oil to the Rescue

Water on metal promotes rust, and on wood it promotes mold and mildew. A thin coat of oil on wood or metal will protect them from moisture in the air.

Back in my grandfather’s time, garden shovels and rakes were often stored in buckets of oily sand. Used motor oil needed to be disposed of by the mechanics of that time period. Used oil was poured into the bucket of sand. The shovels were cleaned of any dirt and then pushed into the bucket several times to polish the metal with the sand and to coat the metal with oil.

Few of us have used motor oil on hand anymore. Even if we did, recycling it would probably make more sense. Also back in the day, steel wool was used to scrub the shovel, but now we just use a green kitchen scrub pad. If there is a thick patch of rust on a tool, steel wool or a wire brush may be needed.

Another thing that every garage workbench used to have was an oil can. It had a long spout that could reach into hard to reach squeaky spots. I doubt that your house has a working oil can, but I would bet it has at least one can of WD-40.

WD-40 was invented by chemists trying to prevent rust on rocket parts. WD-40 literally stands for Water Displacement, 40th attempt. I don’t know if it will do the 2,000 household hacks as seen on the internet, but it will do exactly what we want it to do on our garden tools – stop water. It can be sprayed on the metal or wood of any tool, although don’t get it into the electrical components of a power tool. Even though WD-40 is petroleum based, it doesn’t take the place of oil. If you need to ‘oil’ a squeaky hinge on a pruning tool or ‘oil’ a slow wheel on the wheelbarrow, you should use actual oil, not a water displacement product.

Keep it Sterile

Even plastic tools need to be clean. Are your tools used in more than one garden location? Do you help friends or neighbors with their garden? Are the tools used in a community garden plot and in your landscape? If you answered yes to any of these questions, what do you do to prevent soil-borne insect and disease organisms from spreading from one garden to the next? After the tools are cleaned of any dirt, you can sterilize the tool with a solution of 10 percent bleach and 90 percent water. I find this solution damages the metal on some of my tools if I don’t thoroughly rinse it off and quickly oil the tool. I prefer to use rubbing alcohol straight from the bottle to sterilize the tools.

Types of Tools

Hand Tools

Wood is long lasting and durable when it is properly cared for. Tool and wheelbarrow handles dry out if not oiled occasionally. Dry wood cracks, creating splinters. Sliding your hand down a rake or shovel handle and hitting a splinter will ruin your day.

First, do a light sanding to get rid of any nicks or splinters. Wipe the wood down with oil, let dry and oil it again. Linseed or Tung oil are two popular oils for tool handles as they are designed for outdoor use. I prefer not to use paint or varnish on handles as they can wear off, and the chips can lift up like splinters.

Garden tools are made from several metals, including iron, steel and aluminum. All of them benefit from cleaning and oiling, but especially iron tools that rust quickly if not cleaned and oiled. Wash them with soap and water and then wipe them dry. Wipe or spray them with oil and lightly dry them so the oil won’t drip off.

As a young Boy Scout, I learned that sharper knives and axes are safer. For instance, a dull ax can bounce off of the wood and strike your leg. A sharp pruner or saw cuts with less effort. If you are struggling to make a cut, you can break the tool or push too hard and injure yourself. If you don’t sharpen the cutting tools before each use, do it at least once each year. Since you are cleaning dirt and sap from the blades before storing them, go ahead and sharpen them now. And then coat them with oil. Some pruners have replaceable blades.

Power Tools

Every power tool comes with a set of instructions on how to maintain it. If you are like me, you don’t remember reading them and don’t know where they are now. They may be online at the manufacturer’s website.

Every power tool will benefit from being wiped clean and having its blades sharpened. Check the cord for damage and replace it or the whole tool if it is damaged. As you are cleaning the tools, gently fold any hoses or belts backward. Do they show a lot of cracks? They may need to be replaced.

If the tool is powered by gasoline, you have two choices for winter storage. Run the tool until it is out of gas or store it with gas in the tank. Which way does the instruction manual say is best? Running the engine until empty can allow water, dust and debris into the engine, gas tank and fuel lines. Nothing good can happen here. At the same time, if the manufacturer says to store it dry, then that is best.

If you are going to leave gas in the tank or in the gas can, water can contaminate the gasoline over the winter. Old fuel in the gas tank can go stale. Who knew? Adding a fuel stabilizer to the gas and running the engine to get the stable fuel throughout the system will prevent the fuel from going bad over the winter.

Most gas-powered tools have an air filter and maybe a gas line filter. Both should be cleaned or replaced.

If you can’t do this power tool work, then take the summer power tools in winter to a good small engine mechanic who can clean, repair and tune up the tools when there is no rush to get them back. Even though a slightly handy person can sharpen a lawn mower blade or replace the spark plug on a lawn mower, a professional will probably do a better job. Prices can vary, so do a little calling around or ask your neighbors where they take their tools. Next spring when you pick up your mower, drop off the snow blower.

Watering Tools

Many people neglect their garden hose, but it is a very useful garden tool that will last longer if properly stored over the winter. After you finish washing the other tools, straighten it out and make sure water runs out as you coil it up. Water left in the hose can expand into ice and create weak spots in the hose. Store it out of sunlight. UV rays from the sun will ruin the plastic or vinyl if it is left in the sun. Don’t hang it on a single nail where it will kink over the winter. Make sure all of the nozzles and sprinklers are dry so water can’t rust and ice can’t damage them.m

Jeff Rugg is an Internationally Certified Arborist, an Illinois certified nurseryman and a registered landscape architect with a background in zoology, horticulture and landscape architecture. jrugg@sbsmags.com

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