How to Clean and Sharpen Garden Tools

This shovel could use a little TLC.

Properly maintained quality garden tools are a joy to use and can last for generations. And, like most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Regularly cleaning and oiling your garden tools will prevent rust, keep them sharper, and allow the handles to stay strong.

But if you’re like me, sometimes you’re not as diligent as you should be—putting your tools away dirty or leaving them outside in the weather. Then before you know it, they’re on the fast track to the trash bin.

Here’s how to get a shovel, or other garden tools, in shape and keep them that way.

Gather Your Weapons

To clean and maintain your tools, you’ll need the following:

  • Cleaning Supplies: Detergent, garden hose, sprayer, sponge, old rags or towels.
  • Cleaning Tools: Steel wool, scrub brush, wire brush, and a rotary wire brush attachment for your drill.
  • Sandpaper: (80 and 120 grit) Made to work on both wood and metal.
  • Sharpening Tools: A fine metal file and a sharpening stone to hone edges.
  • Lubricating Oil: Such as boiled linseed oil, tung oil, motor oil, lamp oil, or cooking oil. Boiled linseed and tung oil are probably the best choices, but you can use what you have on hand.
  • Safety Equipment: Wear gloves, eye protection, and a dust mask when working on tools.

Step 1: Clean Tools

Start by giving your tools a good scrubbing to remove any mud and grit from the blades and handles. Dry with old towels, then set them aside overnight so they dry completely to avoid trapping moisture.

Step 2: Remove Rust

Use steel wool or a wire brush to scrub away any rust that has accumulated on metal parts. A rotary wire brush attachment chucked in a drill can make the job easier. As a rule, you want to remove the rust with as little grinding and scraping of the steel as possible to keep tools from becoming thinner and weaker over time.

Step 3: Sand Tools

Smooth worn wooden handles with medium grit sandpaper to remove splinters and deteriorated finish. You can also use sandpaper to remove any remaining rust from surfaces and crevices and to lightly polish the metal. When finished, thoroughly wipe down the tools to remove any wood or metal sanding dust.

Step 4: Sharpen Tools

Use a metal file to lightly sharpen the edges of tools. Again, you don’t want to grind away too much of the metal, just use it to smooth out nicks, remove burrs, and give a nice clean edge. On some cutting tools (like hedge clippers and axes), you’ll need to follow up with a sharpening stone lubricated with oil for a finer edge.

Step 5: Oil Tools

Using a clean rag, apply lubricating oil to both the wooden handle and the metal blade. Rub the oil into the surface then wipe off any excess. The oil will help prevent rust and condition the wood to keep it from absorbing water and prevent cracking. After the handle has dried, apply a second coat of oil to the wood if needed. Tools with fiberglass or composite handles will only need a good cleaning.

Some gardeners prefer to sand wooden tool handles and reapply a coat of exterior finish such as spar varnish. If you do refinish your tool handles, make sure the wood is completely dry first. I prefer using oil simply because I’d rather do a quick wipe down, rather than taking the time to sand the wood, apply finish, and wait for it to dry, but it’s really a matter of preference.

That’s more like it! Now, to keep it that way.

Preventive Maintenance

Now that your gardening tools look like new, take the time to keep them that way! At the end of every gardening day, spend a few minutes to:

  • Rinse off mud and soil with a garden hose. Clinging wet soil is the main cause of rust on garden tools.
  • Scrub away stubborn soil with a scrub brush, and use paint thinner to remove sap and pitch.
  • Wipe tools dry with a rag or towel, or let them dry in the sun while you finish your chores.
  • Hang tools up rather than standing them on their edges.
  • Periodically wipe on a light coat of oil or spray surfaces with a penetrating oil. You can also put tools in a sand bucket to keep them clean and sharp.


  1. I used old lamp oil as I cleaned out my patio lamps and removed all the rust from old garden tools that I found at a yard sale. It worked great withour much elbow grease.

  2. Great article… I would, however, take issue with suggesting motor oil, for example, to protect yard tools from rust. Motor oil is a carcinogen, and has numerous chemical additives that make it incompatible with contact with garden soils, especially vegetable gardens.

    Cooking oils are always a safe alternative; and several companies, like UltraLube, now make food grade oils for home and industrial use that would also be safe for protecting garden tools.

  3. Leave them to dry in the sun? Do other people really finish their work and their cleaning while the sun is still out? 😉

  4. Nice article it is!! I use some oil and a smooth cloth to clean my tools. And also use polish paper for my wooden tools so that they become smooth. Is this a good method to clean gardening tools?

  5. Love to read this article !! Thanks a lot for another great information. This website has been my gateway to information 🙂

  6. Denny Lipford:your articel is great.but the sandpaper tools are not found everywhere. if you told me alternative tools for sandpaper?

    • Hi, Sabrin,
      Sandpaper is a must and we couldn’t recommend an alternative that could achieve comparable results for this purpose.
      But the good news is it’s available at your local home center, such as The Home Depot.
      Happy cleaning!

  7. One of my neighbors was visiting my house the other day and she told me that I have a beautiful yard, but that I could make some changes to use it to my full potential. I really appreciated the fact that she came and gave me some advice on how to clean and organize my yard better, and Ia m glad that I was able to read this article to learn that you can add oil to your gardening tools to avoid rust and absorb water. I will need to start looking for more landscape supplies that could help me work on my property and be able to beautify it even more.

  8. Thanks for posting such an informative article! I am restoring a rusty spade which belonged to my father. He owned an evergreen nursery in the late 1950s, and it is one of the only tools remaining. I tried a fair amount of sanding and steel wool/oil with little success. Tried a soak in vinegar for 24 hours, and really impressed with the result! Most of the rust rinsed right off. What do you think of this or baking soda paste for rust removal? Thanks again for your useful article!

    • Hi, Dennis!
      We’re always looking for homeowners to call into our radio show and ask questions directly to Danny and Joe. We’ve reviewed your question and shared it with our radio producer, Marc, for consideration.
      Need immediate help? Connect one-on-one with a home improvement pro immediately through JustAnswer, a Today’s Homeowner partner:
      Take care. 🙂


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