Soil and Cellar

Growing and preserving foods in Seattle

Cleaning and Sharpening Your Tools

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My pruners before cleaning and sharpening. They worked just fine - not very dull or chipped, but not as well as they work when properly cared for.

My pruners before cleaning and sharpening. They worked fine – not dull or chipped, but not as well as they work when properly cared for. Aside – when they are open like this I think they look like an excited bird. Or bad joke eel.

I haven’t written about the garden lately, because there isn’t much “happening” out there these days, plus, um, brr. However, yesterday was gorgeous, so I wanted to get out and do some pruning. Late winter is a great time to prune! And like most gardeners, I love love pruning, it’s so fun and satisfying.

Taking the pruners apart. Felco pruners are the best, and all parts come apart easily and are replaceable. However, all pruners have some kind of screw holding them together at the pivot point. Take apart as much as you can (that you can tell you'll be able to reassemble later!)

Taking the pruners apart. Felco pruners are the best: all parts are easily removed and are replaceable. But all pruners have some kind of bolt holding them together at the pivot point. Take apart as much as you can (that you can tell you’ll be able to reassemble later!)

We had a few nice days earlier this month, but I didn’t get out in the garden. In part, that’s because I didn’t clean or sharpen my tools last fall, and I wanted to do that first. I haven’t done that in a couple years. Ideally, I would have cleaned them at the end of the fall, and stored them in the basement so they would stay dry. I didn’t do that, so there’s a fair amount of gunk and rust on them.

When you disassemble your pruners, do it on a towel or something that will contain the mess and also make it easy to find all the parts later.

When you disassemble your pruners, do it on a towel or something that will contain the mess and also make it easy to find all the parts later.

Back in the day, I was a gardener for a living. I cleaned my pruners seasonally, and sharpened them at least once a year. I’m not a professional gardener anymore, and I don’t think I’ve sharpened my tools since I was. I had to buy a file and stone! It can be a project to clean and sharpen your tools, particularly if you are new or it’s been awhile. But it’s important to do. Sharp tools reduce the work for you and make cleaner cuts. Also, keeping your tools clean makes them last longer.

I didn't get a picture of me cleaning! I guess I was all soapy. Ideally you'd use warm soapy water and some steel wool to scrub away the shmutz. I didn't have steel wool, so I used a green scrubbing pad. It worked ok but not as well as the steel wool. In addition to soap and water, sometimes you should dip your tools in a bleach solution, particularly if you've been working on diseased plants.

I didn’t get a picture of me cleaning, but here they are cleaned! I guess I was too soapy to grab the camera. Ideally you’d use warm soapy water and some steel wool to scrub away the shmutz. I didn’t have steel wool, so I used a green scrubbing pad. It worked ok, but not as well as the steel wool. In addition to soap and water, sometimes you’ll want to dip your tools in a bleach solution, particularly if you’ve been working on diseased plants.

Tools can spread diseases from one plant to the next, or around on one plant. I don’t have huge concerns about this in my garden, other than black spot on the rose, but I still don’t want to create problems where they weren’t before by spreading disease.

I’ll be doing the rest of this post as a photo essay, because a picture tells a thousand words, right?

Here's the cutting edge before sharpening. My pruners are bypass pruners (the blades move past each other). There is only one beveled edge on the cutting blade, so I only sharpen one side. If you have anvil pruners, you sharpen both sides of the blade, like you would with a knife.

Here’s the cutting edge before sharpening. My pruners are bypass pruners (the blades move past each other). There is only one beveled edge on the cutting blade, so I only sharpen one side. If you have anvil pruners, you sharpen both sides of the blade, like you would with a knife.

File the blade first, particularly if it's been awhile or you have large chips in the blade. File in the direction you cut (see the red arrow), life the blade, and file in the direction again. Don't rub back and forth.

File the blade first, particularly if it’s been awhile or you have large chips in the blade. File on the same angle as the bevel, and file in the direction you cut (see the red arrow). Lift the blade, and file in the same direction again. Don’t rub back and forth. Try to keep the angle of the bevel even throughout the process.

Now do the same with a stone. I got this stone for $2 at a hardware store, they are worth having. The stones in kitchen stores are more expensive (and the saleswoman tried to talk me out of it, thinking I was sharpening my knives with a stone. I have a knife sharpener for that!) Working with a stone on your knives is a skill you probably don't have, and you can mess up your knives if you don't know what you're doing. Pruners are less precise.

Now do the same with a stone. From the striations you can see I did run the back side of my blade on the stone, to clear off any burrs from filing. I got this stone for $2 at a hardware store, they are worth having. The stones in kitchen stores are more expensive.

Ta-dah! Look at the cutting edge, so sharp!

Ta-dah! Look at the cutting edge, so sharp! You can also tell I was working with a pretty good angle, since not too much else got shaved down.

Before reassembling all the parts, lubricate everything you can. If it moves, spray it. When I was a gardener, I also used grease in the pivot point, but I don't have any laying around the house.

Before reassembling all the parts, lubricate everything you can. If it is a place where metal sits on or moves against metal, spray it. When I was a gardener, I also used grease in the pivot point, but I don’t have any laying around the house.

Reassemble all the parts. Sometimes it takes a couple times flipping the pieces around, they don't fit intuitively. You might want to take a picture of it at the start. (This is the photo of me reassembling after cleaning, I took a few days in between steps, that's why it doesn't look sharpened.)

Reassemble all the parts. Sometimes it takes a couple times flipping the pieces around, they don’t fit intuitively. You might want to take a picture of it at the start. (This is the photo of me reassembling after cleaning. I waited a few days in between steps due to time constraints, that’s why it doesn’t look sharpened.)

In the above photo, you can see my initials carved into the handle. These are pruners I got over 10 years ago working at an Arboretum in Philadelphia. Pruners for a gardener are like knives for a chef, they are personal. People don’t share (usually). I’d rather buy replacement parts for these than get a new pair. (Felco is the best, they will sell any single part individually. You get the blades in any store that sells them, but online they have everything.)

Here she is, reassembled. Again, this is post-cleaning but pre-sharpening.

Here she is, reassembled. Again, this is post-cleaning but pre-sharpening.

In action! I did a lot of pruning on my pear tree yesterday. With my sharp pruners, it was a cinch!

I did a lot of pruning on my pear tree yesterday. With my sharp pruners, it was a cinch!

Not only was it easier to cut with sharpened pruners, they were easier on the tree. Look at that, no jagged edges, no squeezing the branch while you cut. I still got it :)

Not only was it easier to cut with sharpened pruners, they were easier on the tree. Look at that, no jagged edges, no squeezing the branch while cutting. Yup, I still got it 🙂

I’ll be cleaning all my tools soon, and sharpening a few, too. My loppers definitely need it, but also my shovels. Soil and rocks are so hard on the edge of a shovel, and sharpening will help with ease of digging and cutting through roots.

Once you get this “housekeeping” done, your gardening experience will be much easier. Happy gardening!

6 thoughts on “Cleaning and Sharpening Your Tools

  1. Thanks for visiting my blog today. I just got a pair of Felcos so hope they will be sharp for a long time, but good to know this technique.

  2. I wrote about this in my Home & Garden column for a local publication last fall. But do I actually do it? Not so much….

  3. My pruners look like your “before ” picture. Thanks for all the pictures. Guess I need to get work cleaning and sharpening!

  4. Cynthia, it is a service to remind people to clean and sharpen their pruners. I bet many folks don’t even realize that is something they can do to improve their experience.

    As for using them, that cut shown in your picture looks nice and clean, but I think the tree would heal faster and better if it left the branch collar instead of cutting flush: http://statebystategardening.com/state.php/wi/newsletter-stories/make_the_right_cut_when_pruning_trees/

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