The good news is you don't have to get rid of those crusty-but-trusty tools: You can restore them to their former glory with the following tried-and-true sharpening tactics.
First you must get rid of dirt, grime and rust on the surface of tools before you can do any sharpening. Steel wool works great for this step. If you don't have any on hand, try using a wadded piece of aluminum foil, a wire brush or a rotary tool with a wire-bristle attachment. Use a solvent to remove any lingering traces of rust.
Don't forget about safety gear. Sparks can fly when you're grinding metal, so wear eye and ear protection and flame-resistant clothing. Note that gloves are not recommended when using rotary tools or grinding wheels because they can get caught in the fast-moving parts.
Most single-bevel outdoor hand tools, such as classic and border shovels, trowels, spades, etc., can be sharpened with a flat bastard-cut mill file. (You can find this standard file at most hardware stores.)
Start by securing the tool to the work surface using clamps or a vise; the edge to be sharpened should be facing up. Press the file down and away from you along the digging edge in one steady motion. Use both hands on the file to help maintain a consistent angle (photo below). Pick up the file and continue sharpening in this same direction until a clean metal edge appears along the entire bevel. To prevent the file from clogging, dip it in water frequently. This will also help to cool and lubricate the tool you are sharpening. Gently sand off any burrs using medium-grit sandpaper.
The bevel on most diggers can be found along the back edge. To allow a longer filing motion, use scrap wood to prop up the tool you are sharpening.
For tools that work best with finely sharpened blades (pruners, shears, etc.), a honing stone or diamond sharpener will help you achieve more acute angles.
Shear sharpening by the numbers
Scour the blade surface.
Mark the beveled edges; follow the manufacturer's original angle, so the shears continue to work properly. The marks will disappear as you sharpen.
Disassemble the shears. Starting at a high point on the blade, press a honing stone down and away from you along the beveled edge. Continue in this motion until you've achieved the desired sharpness. Apply a few drops of mineral oil for lubrication and quicker results.
Rotary tools, electric-drill attachments and bench grinders are speedier alternatives for sharpening outdoor hand tools. However, if you choose to use any of these high-speed options, be careful to avoid overshaping or overheating, which can ultimately weaken metal tools.
Most rotary tools have accessories designed specifically for cleaning, shaping, sharpening and deburring metal. Be sure to select one that will give you the most control when working with each tool. Once you've selected the appropriate accessory, clamp the tool you are sharpening to a work surface, turn on the rotary tool and gently guide it along the bevel (photo below). When a clean metal edge appears and you're satisfied with its sharpness, remove the burrs and you're done. Follow this same process if you're sharpening with an electric-drill attachment.
Rotary-tool bits quickly grind metal edges sharp. Remember to hold the rotary tool steady as you sharpen to get a consistent bevel angle across the edge.
A high-speed grinding wheel (photo below) is useful for sharpening your most distressed outdoor hand tools, as it quickly reshapes dull and damaged edges. However, since it is stationary, it does require a little more skill to hold the tool you are sharpening at a consistent angle. Also, water must be applied frequently at the point of friction to avoid overheating.
When using a grinding wheel, the more pressure you apply, the faster you sharpen. Check your progress after each pass to avoid overshaping.
Whether you choose to hone your trusty outdoor tools using hand files, stones, rotary tools or high-speed grinders, you'll surely keep them looking (and working) sharp for many years to come.
Preserve and protect
After shaving years of wear and tear off of your favorite outdoor hand tools, keep them shipshape with these additional maintenance tips:
- Clean tools after each use.
- Lubricate all moving parts and beveled edges before storing.
- Sand wood handles smooth and apply one or two coats of weather-resistant finish; replace broken handles.
- Store your tools indoors and in a dry area.
What do you think about these tool-sharpening tips? Tell us in the forum, and then add a few tips of your own.