Henry Homeyer: tips for extending the life of your tools

By Henry Homeyer
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

By now most of us have put our gardens to bed – or done as much as we will this season. The morning of the first snow storm I finished cutting back the perennials in my last two flower beds. Whew, just in time. The vegetable garden has long been cleaned up, weeded and mulched with fall leaves. Only the kale is still standing, and I will continue to pick and eat it.

What I have not done, and am betting you have not done either, is to get all my tools ready for winter. It’s always one of the last thing I do before my annual hibernation. This is a good time to work on your tools.

Fuel stabiliser will help your small engines start in the spring.

First, anything with a gas engine needs to have fuel stabilizer put into the gas tank to keep the engine from getting clogged up with gunk over the winter. And if you can buy gas without ethanol in it, that stuff is better than ordinary gas. But stabilizer really cuts down on the hassle of starting your mower or chain saw, come spring. The bottle will tell you how much to use. Run the engine for 5 minutes after you add it.

It’s time to clean off the dead grass that accumulates under the deck of your lawnmower. If possible, tip your mower on its side to clean off the gunk with a putty knife or gardening tool. Or just reach in through the place it shoots out the grass and scrape off as much as possible. What you don’t want is accumulated gunk that holds moisture, causing your mower to rust.

I know that some mowers also have ports where you can attach a hose to blast the grass off (my riding mower came with one) but I find they don’t really do the job – especially if you don’t do it every time you use the machine.

In the past I have had mice nest in the air filter of my riding mower. Now I put a handful of mothballs in an old sock, and place it over the air filter and that deters them.

As a man of certain age – past 70 that is – most of my tools have wooden handles. Yes, I have tried those new-fangled fiberglass-handled tools, but don’t like them. Some of my tools were used by my grandfather and/or my parents before me. I treasure them knowing that 3 generations of sweat has seeped into the wood, giving the tools a nice dark polished look. That patina is enhanced by an annual application of boiled linseed oil.

60 year-old shovel ready for annual linseed oil treatment.

Late each fall I take some time to polish the wooden handles of my hand tools and sharpen the blades, where appropriate. Using medium to fine grit sandpaper I rub out any rough spots or potential splinters on the wooden handles. Then I polish the handles a little more with some fine steel wool and wipe them clean. Lastly, I use a paintbrush to apply several coats of hot linseed oil and let it soak in. That keeps the handles from drying out. A well-oiled handle rarely breaks or gives splinters.

My father always painted some red “Rustoleum” paint on the metal parts of garden tools to make them easier to find and to identify them as his. I found one of his old shovels in the back of the barn and saw that the handle was dry and cracked – I had not used it or maintained it in years. I sandpapered the many rough spots before polishing with steel wool and the applying 3 coats of linseed oil. I just kept reapplying the oil until it stopped soaking in.

A wire brush is a good tool for cleaning up the metal blades of tools – I use one to get off rust. After that, I use a rag with a little linseed oil on it to oil the metal. Something like WD-40 would work, too, and even get off some rust, but I don’t particularly want to introduce chemicals and petroleum products to my soil next spring – even in small quantities.

Modern hand tools like these CobraHead weeders rarely have wooden handles.

Hoes and shovels work best when kept sharp. You can sharpen them on a bench grinder or with a rough file or a whetstone. I have a grinder with a stone wheel, but rarely use it – it’s too easy to take off too much metal. Before sharpening a tool, study the angle of the blade – hoes and shovels are only sharpened on one side (the inside) and all you need to do is mimic the original angle, drawing the stone or file over the blade in consistent, even strokes.

Now, as for hand tools, most have plastic handles that require no maintenance, and edges of steel so tough that sharpening is not required. But it makes sense to wipe off accumulated grime with a cloth and get any dirt off the blades before retiring them for winter.

Cleaning up my machines and tools is not very high on my list of fun things to do on a Saturday morning. But I recognize that doing so will extend their lives and, for wood-handled tools, add to my enjoyment of them next spring. So have at it. Your grandchildren may use some of your tools one day – if you keep them well maintained.

Henry lives and gardens in Cornish Flat, NH. Reach him at henry.homeyer@comcast.net. He is available to talk to your garden club or other group.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeHenry Homeyer's Notes from the Garden

About the Author: Henry Homeyer is a lifetime organic gardener living in Cornish Flat, N.H. He is the author of four gardening books including The Vermont Gardener's Companion. You may reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net or by snail mail at PO Box 364, Cornish Flat, N.H. 03746. Please include a SASE if you wish an answer to a question by mail.

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