If you’re wondering how to clean rusty tools, first, good on you for looking into how best to take good care of your garden tools! 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 clean rusty tools as well as how to keep your garden 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 tools can corrode.
Tools Can Spread Disease
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.
Wipe off garden tools to prevent the spread of disease from plant to plant.
Sand and Oil for Cleaning Tools
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 it up and down like churning butter, and you’ll clean the metal surface while keeping it preserved for the next time.
Oil or Wax Paste for Wooden Handles
We used to wipe down our wood handles with linseed oil but found wood floor wax paste is better and safer. Oily rags can combust for no good reason! 😲
Don’t Leave Tools Lying Around
Keeping tools clean and in good condition also means putting them away. Don’t leave 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 Tools Under Cover
Store your tools under cover, and if you have the space, organize them to hang on a wall or nest in a garden tool trolley or tool cart. 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. After cleaning in the sand/oil bucket and wiped down, it would be returned to its special place.
We hung our tools on a wall and used a marker to outline the shape of every tool so it was easy to put them back in the same place after each use.
We still have many of our tools, even after 30 years of good use.
Ongoing Maintenance is the Key
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 where it’s easy to forget. We have two garden locations and often travel between the properties with tools.
Overall, we do periodic clean-ups and treatments and try to keep our tools clean, dry, and sorted.
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.
With a little oil and some green pad scrubbing, my pruners are working just fine after 30+ years of use.
An Ounce of Prevention
The easiest way to keep tools in good shape is to clean as you go as we’ve indicated previously. But if you’ve been putting off cleaning your garden tools and aren’t sure where to start, we’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? If so, good news!…
Tools are simple to clean and have back in service in no time at all.
Annual Maintenance of Garden Tools
Just as we put our entire garden to rest at season’s end, so too do we put our garden tools to rest with cleaning, care and maintenance. How wonderful to pull out clean and well maintained tools when it’s time to plant again in the spring!
Even if you’ve been keeping your tools cleaned off after each use, an annual maintenance before putting them to rest for winter is a good idea. It’s much easier to take the plunge and cleaning everything in one go.
Afterwards, you’ll feel a great sense of satisfaction of a job well done. So why not gather up your hedge shears, secateurs, flower snips, spades, forks, and 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 if you haven’t done it, time to get ‘er done. After that, it’s simpler to just keep tools clean after each use.
Put your garden tools to rest, clean, well maintained and ready for the next season.
General Tool Cleaning Kit
How to clean rusty tools begins with the right tools for the job!
- Dish soap
- Wire wool
- Wire brush
- Soft cloths
- Protective eye goggles
- Motor oil or tool lubricant
- Sandpaper or sandpaper blocks
- Electric drill with wire brush attachment
- Tool oils, for cleaning, protecting and rust
We included the “bucket” because you might want to keep all of these cleaning supplies in a bucket labeled something like Tool Cleaning Kit. Then when it’s tool cleaning time you have everything you need in one place, including the soap you’ll need and the bucket for making a batch of soapy water.
Pruning equipment, such as garden scissors, loppers, pruners and secateurs (the British term for pruners), can get a build-up of sticky sap on the blades if not cleaned after each day’s use. Plant residue can clog the tool’s mechanisms and reduce efficiency, much like trying to cut with a dull knife.
Clean garden hand tools with wire wool and warm soapy water.
How to Clean Rusty Tools
Use a wire brush on really stubborn stains or where cleaning might cause an injury by having fingers too close to 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. A sponge covered sanding 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, like this 3-in-One tool oil.
Use 3-in-one oil for cleaning garden tools.
Lubrication prevents rust, cuts down on wear and tear, keeps the tool cleaner, and makes it work better. Keep an oil can or tin of 3 in 1 oil handy.
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, simple care of your tools will help them last a lifetime of seasons.
This trio of lubricant, protective and water resistance oils could be added to your tool cleaning kit bucket.
Lubricants will extend the life of your tools.
Mind the Cutting Edge
After cleaning it’s time to sharpen to keep all your blades sharp and ready to cut.
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 just a few passes with a “bastard file” can do.
Here’s Trishia Boudier sharing how she keeps her garden blades sharp and ready.
SUMMARY of Tool Care, Cleaning and Maintenance Methods
- Sand and oil for metal tools
- Oil or wax paste for wood handles
- Prevention –
- Clean after each use
- Put away and store properly
- Ongoing maintenance
- Annual maintenance –
- Rust Care –
- Sandpaper & buffing sponge
- Wire wool
- Wire brush
- 3-in-1 oils
- Electric drill with wire brush attachment
Remember, prevention is always best! But most tools will attract a little rust over time. Our next favorite method for how to clean rusty tools is the dremel drill with wire brush attachment. The drill power and brush make fast work of rust removal.
Here in this image, Coleman is sanding the rust off of a 5-in-1-tool using a wire brush attached to a drill.
Cleaning and Maintaining of Other Garden Tools
Don’t forget your hoses and attachments. Keep them clean, lubricate as needed, and store them neatly. Trust me, come spring, you will be so glad you did.
As with most tasks, whether it’s building, cooking, painting, or 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.
Okay, so let’s get gardening prepping and cleaning!
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