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How to Clean Rusty Tools

How to Make Your Garden Tools Last for Years

Your tools will last for years with a little TLC. Over the years and seasons, we’ve come to appreciate that having the right tool for the job can sure make life easier. Also, taking care of those tools to keep them performing at their best makes a world of difference. In this article, we’ll look at how to keep your tools in their best shape for years to come by routine cleaning, oiling, and sharpening.


Keeping Tools Clean

We finish the planting and as a final act, we toss our trowel into a bucket, wheelbarrow, or maybe just jam it in the dirt and then head back to the house. It’s all too easy to forget. That trowel and other hand tools with metal parts will see better days if they’re kept clean and dry.

Rust never sleeps.

Even aluminum and stainless steel corrode. An uncleaned pair of pruners or loppers might easily spread disease as you prune from plant to plant. So after you’re done, wipe off the blades of your trowels, shovels, pruners and loppers with a clean rag as you go along.

We’ve done the old trick of filling a 5 gallon bucket with builder’s sand and mixing in a splash of used motor oil.  To clean the tool, just bury it into the sand/oil, mix up and down like churning butter, and you’ll clean the metal surface while keeping it preserved for the next time. We used to wipe down our wood handles with linseed oil but found wood floor wax paste is a bit safer (oily rags can combust for no good reason!).

Keeping clean also means not leaving implements in the dirt, laying around outside, or sitting in the wheelbarrow that gets rained in and puts the rust on overdrive. (Can you tell I’ve been after my son..? ;-))

Store your tools under cover, and if you have the space, organize them to hang on a wall or nest in a tool trolley. When we had a crew of landscape workers, it was important to know where the tools were and that they all came back from the jobs. We put hangers on a wall and used a marker to outline the shape of every tool. So after cleaning in the sand/oil bucket, it would be returned to its special place. After 30 years, we still have many of these tools.

We put hangers on a wall and used a marker to outline the shape of every tool.

By the way, we too have slipped now and then, leaving our shovels and rakes out in the elements, or leaning against the fence post. The most common leave behind location is the bed of our truck. Easy to forget. Yet, we do the occasional clean-ups and treatments and try to keep our tools clean, dry, and sorted.

The Price Difference Between Pruners

Back to pruners for a minute, my wife asked me why there’s such a price difference between the less expensive but popular brand of pruners (secateurs) and a brand like Felco. My personal preference, having owned numerous brands is based on quality.

I’ve had my Felcro Pruners for well over 30 years.

I have two pairs of the standard Felco #2 pruners. I’ve had both for well over 30 years and they are still working fine. I could, if needed, do a complete makeover on the oldest one with a new spring, blade and lower “jaw”, but with a little oil and some green pad scrubbing it just keeps working fine. Meanwhile, the “less expensive” models lose their springiness, get bent, get uncomfortable in the hand, and seem to gather rust more quickly.

The Swiss have been designing and manufacturing Felco pruners and other products since 1945, and they do it right. They’re sturdy yet slim and streamlined and they’re built to last, complete with a lifetime limited warranty.1)

I have a holster that fits on my belt and in my pocket, and when working around plants, they’re a steady companion.

On the next page we’ll cover garden tool care with a helpful article that further explains cleaning up and actually restoring your favorite garden utensils, from

Garden Tool Care


Have you been putting off cleaning your garden tools or are you just not sure where to start? Here I’ll show you some simple methods on how to get equipment looking and feeling almost like new again!

Perhaps you’ve got a well-used pair of secateurs that need rejuvenating or even a whole range of tools that need a face-lift? Either way, tools are simple to clean and have back in service in no time at all. And it’s much easier to take the plunge and clean everything in one go, leaving you with a great sense of satisfaction of a job well done. So why not gather up your hedge shears, secateurs, flower snips, spades, forks, pruning equipment, lay them out and take a methodical approach as you work your way through the pile.

Before storing tools after a busy growing season is a perfect time for a mass cleaning of all garden tools. The next best time is now! So you if you haven’t done it, time to get ‘er done. After that, it’s simpler to just clean tools as you use them.

Tool Cleaning Kit – Items you’ll want in yours:

Use wire wool and warm soapy water to clean hand-tools. Pruning equipment, such as secateurs (the British term for pruners),3) can get a build-up of sticky sap on the blades that can also clog up the mechanisms, reducing their efficiency.

Use a wire brush on really stubborn stains or where cleaning might cause an injury by having fingers too close to the blades. Wearing a tough pair of gloves also provides extra protection. Dry secateurs thoroughly using a soft cloth or old towel.

Remove rust or stubborn marks by using an abrasive paper or sanding sponge. sponge-covered block might be more expensive than emery or sand paper, but it’s easier to grip and is more pliable.

Finally, spray with a quality oil to lubricate, protecting blades and mechanisms from rust. Engine oil is a popular choice, but also look for sprays designed specifically for tools.4)

Quite Right Slick!

Lubrication prevents rust, cuts down on wear and tear, keeps the tool cleaner, and makes it work better. Keep an oil can or little tin of 3 in 1 oil handy. Or try water-resistant WD-40. There’s special penetrating oil spray for pruners,  loppers, and similar type tools made by Felco. They also make a grease for the same purpose.

Lubricants will extend the life of your tools.

Whatever you choose, these lubricants will definitely extend the life (and utility) of your gardening “helpers”. In these days of disposables and cheaper to replace than fix items, a tool can still be cared for and last a lifetime of seasons.

After cleaning it’s time to sharpen, so head over to page 3 for a video with tips for keeping all your blades sharp and ready to cut.

Mind the Cutting Edge

The saying that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp one can be adapted to our cutters and even our digging tools. Obviously a pair of sharp pruners makes cleaner cuts that heal better and faster. Curved blade sharpeners are quite handy. A sharpened garden spade has the same effect if you’re transplanting or even digging plain dirt. It’s surprising what a few passes with a “bastard file” can do.

Here’s Trishia Boudier sharing how she keeps her garden blades sharp and ready.

And don’t forget your hoses and attachments. Keep them clean, lubricate as needed, and store them neatly.

As with many tasks like building, cooking, painting, and gardening, preparation is important. Just as important is the after-task clean-up and maintenance that keep your handy implements looking good and working as they should for the next time. As with life, you get out of them what you put into (caring for) them.

Let’s get gardening!

Coleman Alderson

G. Coleman Alderson is an entrepreneur, land manager, investor, gardener, and author of the novel, Mountain Whispers: Days Without Sun. Coleman holds an MS from Penn State where his thesis centered on horticulture, park planning, design, and maintenance. He’s a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and a licensed building contractor for 27 years. “But nothing surpasses my 40 years of lessons from the field and garden. And in the garden, as in life, it’s always interesting because those lessons never end!” Coleman Alderson

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