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Give your gardening tasks an edge by sharpening your tools

“Henry might be cute, but he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.”

— M. Elizabeth Martin, "Let Me Translate for Ya, Sugar: Simplified Southern-speak," 2009

You don’t have to be from the South to understand that Henry’s intelligence is being called into question here. But you don’t have to be a genius to have the sharpest tools in the shed, and that’s a good thing because it’s important for gardeners to have smart tools.

By smart, I mean neat, tidy and well groomed. One of these fall days would be a suitable occasion to spend time in the tool shed tidying up such bladed implements as hand pruners, loppers, shears, shovels, hoes and garden forks.

Here are some general guidelines from the OSU Extension Service that I’ve found helpful. For more specific information, see “Care and Maintenance of Garden Tools” and “Sharpening Garden Tools” at http://extension.oregonstate.edu/. There are four basic steps to proper upkeep: cleaning, adjusting, sharpening and storing.

To clean tools, first use a brush to clean off the dirt, follow up with a damp rag and then dry thoroughly. If any sticky residue remains on the tool, scrape gently with a razor blade or paint scraper, and then clean with mineral spirits or foaming bathroom cleaner. Use a wire brush or fine-grit sandpaper to remove any rust on the tool. Once the tool is clean, use a soft rag to wipe all metal surfaces with a light application of machine oil, such as 3-in-1 oil. If the tool has wooden handles, these should be sanded smooth, if necessary, and then lightly coated with linseed or mineral oil.

Sometimes my pruners or other two-bladed tools won’t make a smooth cut, not because the blades aren’t sharp but because the blades are out of alignment. Check the tool for loose parts, and then close the handles and note whether there is a space between the blades. Turn the blades horizontally and examine them at eye level to see if they are bent. You’ll need to disassemble the tool to make adjustments, and I’ve found it’s helpful to take pictures of where all the parts are supposed to go first. The blades are aligned when they open and close smoothly without wobbling.

Gardening tools made from soft steel can be sharpened with a file — 6 inches for smaller blades and 8-10 inches for larger blades. First be sure the file is clean, and before sharpening secure the tool in a vise. Wear safety glasses to protect your eyes from metal shavings. Sharpen the blade at a 20- to 25-degree angle, stroking the file with even pressure parallel to the blade down its entire length. Apply pressure only on the forward stroke.

For hard metal blades, such as on shovels and high-quality hand-cutting tools, finish sharpening with a medium to fine diamond sharpening stone. For most tools, only one side of the blade needs to be sharpened (grass shears, picks and axes are exceptions).

Now that your tools are clean, aligned and sharp, store them in a dry location, making sure that wooden handles do not make contact with soil or concrete. Hanging tools on a pegboard makes them easily accessible.

Albert Einstein wrote, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” Perhaps rather than finding ways to call a person stupid, we should broaden our perceptions of intelligence. After all, even if we aren’t the sharpest tool in the shed, we can always be the wheelbarrow!

Rhonda Nowak is a Jackson County Master Gardener and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.