Look Sharp

By Aaron Jermain

Are your tools falling all over each-other? Create systems to keep them organized

You’re ready for spring! But are your hand tools? Did they get hung up neatly in the tool shed last fall, after a thorough cleaning and re-sharpening? If not, don’t worry! Better late than never. But if you’d planned to just claw through the pile of shovels and rakes for the right implement and get right to work this spring, don’t do it! Don’t subject your legs and back to a dull shovel. Don’t subject your plants to a blunt lopper. A few hours today will save you weeks of wasted effort and shoddy work.

Keeping hand tools clean and sharp is not just easier on your body and more enjoyable; it also sets a standard for yourself and your teammates to achieve quality and beauty with your efforts. Did I mention it makes it easier for your body and more enjoyable?

Every craft benefits from clean, sharp, well-maintained tools; farming and gardening is no different. Here’s all you need to do to rescue your aging relics:

  1. Assess the damage. Are the tool parts intact? Wash or brush away any dirt sothat you can see all the parts clearly. Wooden handles can crack and split from abuse or age. Severe rusting can irreparably damage blades and other steel parts. Some plastic parts become brittle with sun exposure. Impact tools like axes and maddocks need strong handles and a tight connection between the tool head andhandle; don’t use a loose or damaged tool for swinging or heavy work! Leave metal repairs to someone with experience. In most cases severely damaged tools need to be replaced. If you’re really committed to taking good care of your tools, paying for a quality tool will be a good investment.
This axe handle is cracked and could come apart during use. Don't use one like this! Visit your local home center and look for replacement handles
This axe handle is cracked and could come apart during use. Don’t use one like this! Visit your local home center and look for replacement handles
  1. Replace wooden handles as necessary. Wooden handles are often easily replaced by anyone with basic tools and experience. New handles are available at hardware stores; local stores may have more options than “Home Despot” or similar. If you’re not confident replacing the handle on a tool, see if a woodworker can help you.

A flat file like this Nicholson Handy File makes quick work of shovel and hoe edges
A flat file like this Nicholson Handy File makes quick work of shovel and hoe edges
  1. Remove rust from metal edges and joints. It’s not necessary to remove every rust spot from your tools; in most cases an outer layer of rust slows further corrosion. However metal joints need to move freely, and edges must be sharp. So start by brushing down important metal parts with a wire brush. Power tools such as a wire-wheel, flap-wheel or other abrasive methods may speed this up for you. In general, don’t use a grinding wheel on surfaces that don’t need repair or sharpening. Lastly, lubricate metal joints with a small amount of vegetable oil. Rapidly opening and closing the tool works the oil into the joint; you can feel the difference!

  1. Sharpen metal cutting edges. Now consider what grinding options you have. For basic edges like on shovels and hoes, give them a quick re-sharpening with an electric grinding wheel or with a flat file. I am partial to using small hand-crank grinders from the last century; they’re safer and less likely to damage the tool. If you use an electric grinder go slowly and cool the tool often with water. Over-heating tool edges will result in oxidation colors appearing on the edge, purple, blues, reds, and yellows, showing that you’ve heated the edge enough to soften the steel. This makes the steel quicker to dull, and is something to avoid! Unlike most knives, shovels and hoes are only sharpened from one side; look closely at your tool to see the original bevel, and regrind this. For harvest knives, loppers, and other tools with very sharp edges, you’ll need a more refined approach to sharpening. A two-grit whetstone, such as you’ll find in any hardware store, will work for most knives. No matter what the instructions tell you, use whetstones with pure water, unless you really need a big oily mess on your workbench. There are as many ways to sharpen edges as there are people sharpening their tools, but you can find good information on ways that work by doing a web search. You’ll need to see sharpening in action, so look for videos or find an experienced friend who can show you. Just remember, there are endless gadgets and jigs out for your money. An abrasive stone or two is all you need.

Before sharpening on the left, and after sharpening on the right
Before sharpening on the left, and after sharpening on the right
  1. Wipe tools down with oil. Raw linseed oil is my preferred wood and metal preservative. It’s made from flax seeds, and unlike Boiled Linseed Oil, it doesn’t contain toxic metal driers. Raw linseed oil can be rubbed on every part of a tool that is either bare wood or bare metal. Metal components only need one light coat. Wood can take several coats, if you give them a long time to dry in between. Better to just rub down the whole tool every few months with an oily rag. The dry time can be anywhere from a few days to a few months, depending on the temperature. Once dry, linseed oil turns into a polymer, sealing out water, preventing rust, and is dry to the touch. In fact, dry linseed oil can add a bit of extra grip to handles. Other drying oils include walnut, poppy seed, and tung oils. Give your old motor oil to a mechanic who has an oil furnace; don’t use it on your hand tools!

Cover handles and blades with a thin coat of raw linseed oil
Cover handles and blades with a thin coat of raw linseed oil

That’s it! If you did all that, you should have weeded out the unsalvageable tools in your collection, and restored the rest. New tools may need to be sharpened as well, so check their edges before heading into the fields. Now keeping your tools looking this great only requires washing or wiping them off after use, sharpening them as necessary, and oiling them every few months. Plus, now that you have such sharp looking tools, you’re willing to make room to store them away from moisture, and in such a way that the edges won’t get damaged. Consider an organized tool shed. At the very least, bring them in from the fields and tuck them away from the rain!


Aaron Jermain is an experienced and knowledgeable hand tool-maker, and currently enrolled in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Sustainable Food and Farming program. He wants you to use more hand tools; to accept the limits of human existence; and to enjoy slow rhythms, elegant artifacts, and beautiful vistas. Send him love letters or other general interest to aaronjermain@gmail.com.


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