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Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006 01:49 am

Tool time

Preventative maintenance now will pay off next spring


Except for leaf-raking, your fall garden chores are probably nearing completion. Before you lock up the garden shed for the season, though, be sure to care for your tools. A little preventive maintenance now can help prevent frustration next spring, and just think how nice it will be when you go to the garden shed or garage in the spring and find all you garden tools ready for use.

My grandmother has always had strict rules about her garden tools. If you use one of her tools, you must clean, oil, and sharpen it before putting it away, and you’d better make sure you put it back where you found it! Most of us struggle to clean our tools once a month, but these are good rules to follow to prevent rusting and keep tools in working order.

Before storing tools for the winter, remove soil and debris. Use a strong spray of water, a wire brush, or a scraper to remove caked-on soil. Remove small soil particles and rust spots with sandpaper or steel wool, then lubricate pivot points and springs.

Sharpen larger tools such as hoes and shovels with a mill file. Before sharpening, place the tool in a vise and put on a pair of leather gloves — and don’t forget your safety glasses. The cutting edge should be sharpened to the same angle as the original bevel. Starting with the top edge of the tool, file away from you, and only file one way. File the opposite side lightly to remove metal burrs. Don’t be discouraged if the first few attempts take a while; sharpening tools takes practice. Once you’re done, wipe metal parts with a soft cloth and a thin, penetrating oil such as WD-40.

Once the metal parts are clean, the handle needs some attention. Fiberglass handles just need to be washed and dried. Rough spots on wooden handles should be sanded with a fine-grade sandpaper to help prevent splinters. Weak or broken handles should be replaced; most hardware stores carry replacements.

After dust has been removed, linseed oil should be rubbed into wooden handles and allowed to soak in. Apply the oil until the wood will absorb no more, then wipe away any remaining oil. Tighten nuts, bolts, and screws, replacing them if they are worn or rusty. Last but not least, apply a band of brightly colored paint or tape to the handle. This will help you spot tools that have been left out in the yard or in your neighbor’s garage.

Clean pruning-tool blades after every use and lubricate moving parts of clippers and pruning shears with oil. Once a year or as pruners become dull, sharpen the blades. Many pruners can be disassembled for sharpening — but make sure you remember how to put the tools back together. Use a whetstone to sharpen beveled blades, taking care to maintain the original shape of the bevel.

Don’t forget about chemical sprayers. These should be cleaned after every use. Before storing a sprayer for the winter, thoroughly wash and rinse all parts. Most chemical manufacturers recommend triple rinsing. Check the owner’s manual for other maintenance suggestions such as applying oil to all moving parts. Hang the sprayer upside down until it’s thoroughly dry.

Garden hoses are often forgotten in the fall; often they haven’t been used lately and we forget to store them properly. Be sure to drain all water from the hose and store it in a dry location. In the winter, water left in a plastic hose will expand, causing the hose to crack. Store hoses on a hose reel or coil them loosely.

Wheelbarrows, carts, and wagons should also be cleaned thoroughly. Touch up chipped paint with spray paint to keep exposed steel from rusting.

Refer to the owner’s manual for specific instructions on cleaning and storing power equipment. Avoid costly mistakes such as storing a power washer in an outdoor shed. Power equipment such as lawnmowers, tillers, and chippers should generally be thoroughly cleaned. Remove caked-on soil and plant material from equipment, tighten loose screws and nuts, and sharpen blades.

If you don’t have the tools to sharpen the blades of a mower or pruner (or don’t feel comfortable with the task), take the blades to a professional. It is best to do this in the fall, when sharpening services aren’t as busy.

Remember, proper maintenance of garden tools and equipment can extend life and make these items easier to use.

Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at

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