When a tool is not used properly and maintained regularly, a variety of problems can arise: rust; nicked and dulled cutting edges; and weathered, cracked, or broken handles. These can be both repaired and avoided.
Removing and Controlling Rust
Rust, a corrosive process that occurs in iron, is triggered by the presence of water. Therefore, if you keep tools dry and protected from moisture, even from humidity in the air, you won’t have rust problems. To prevent rust, keep a protective coat of oil on your tools at all times. While some rust is common on many garden tools and disappears with use, the major rust problems occur when tools are left to lie around outdoors.
To remove rust from small tools, such as trowels and pruners, use steel wool or sandpaper.
To remove rust from larger tools, such as shovels and picks, use a wire brush wheel on the end of a power drill. Put the tool in a vise and then clean it until you see only bright metal. If you don’t have a power drill, use a wire hand-brush, then scrub well with coarse sandpaper.
If rust is severe, coat the tool with a liquid rust remover (available at most hardware stores). Let it soak in overnight. The next day wipe it off, then use a wire brush and sandpaper to remove all traces of rust. When the tool is clean, wipe it down with an oily rag, or spray with penetrating oil.
Sharpening Nicked or Dulled Cutting Edges
A dulled tool will not cut smoothly. When you find yourself working hard to make a tool do what it was designed to do, it’s time to stop and sharpen it. Inspect cutting tools regularly for nicked edges; if you find any, sharpen them off. As part of the same periodic inspection, check all nuts and screws to see that they are tight.
Renewing Roughened and Aged Handles
When wood-handled tools are left out in the elements for a long time, they become dry, cracked, and rough. But don’t despair—the handle can be resurrected. If it is rough, scrape it with a knife or sharp edge, file it with a wood rasp, or sand it with coarse or medium sandpaper. Then wipe it down with a damp cloth to remove the fine sawdust from the wood pores.
Next, paint the handle with boiled linseed oil. This job is best done during a spell of dry weather because the drier the wood, the mere open the pores; the more open the pores, the better they will absorb the oil. Then place the handle in the sun for a day to let the oil penetrate. For added protection, apply a second coat of linseed oil two days later. Whether you apply one or two coats of oil, the next step is to wipe the handle with a rag that has been soaked in linseed oil. There should be no oil left on the surface, just a very light film. Repeat this process once a year.
Since the handles on new tools come with a light, protective coating of varnish that quickly becomes brittle, you might want to sand off this coating immediately and apply boiled linseed oil.
Repairing Cracked Handles
Handles on shovels, mattocks, and axes receive considerable strain in the course of general use, and sometimes they crack. For a very small crack (less than one-fourth the handle’s diameter), wrap the handle twice with black plastic electrician’s tape. Carry the wrapping 6 inches beyond each end of the crack. This will help stop the crack from widening. However, it won’t restore the handle’s original strength, so be careful not to put any undue strain on it after that.
If the crack is any deeper than one fourth the handle’s diameter, rivet the handle or replace it entirely. It is dangerous to tape deep cracks—the tape might not hold. For instructions on replacing handles, see Caring for Shovels, Rakes, and Forks.