Winter Tool Care

By Elaine Mills with Mary Resnick and Anne Reed, Extension Master Gardeners

Winter tool Care - sharpening.

Did you know shovels benefit from sharpening?

Gardeners usually think of winter as a time for taking stock of the year’s successes and failures and then planning for the upcoming growing season. One important task they should consider before designing new beds or perusing seed catalogs is preparing their gardening tools for off-season storage. Tools that are well cared for will last longer, take less effort to use, cause less damage to plants, and help to prevent the spread of diseases.

Tool care steps include cleaning and sanitizing, sharpening, repairing, conditioning, and storing. Supplies to assemble before starting are:

  • Small wire brush, steel wool, or sandpaper
  • Toothbrush
  • Non-toxic cleaner (such as Simple Green), isopropyl alcohol, or disinfectant wipes
  • Container for soaking
  • Sharpening devices such as 8-10 inch flat mill file or whetstone
  • Machine oil such as WD-40 or 3-in-One oil  (rust inhibitor)
  • Boiled linseed oil or tung oil
  • Rags or paper towels
  • Screwdriver and Allen wrench for disassembly and reassembly
  • Vice or clamps
  • Safety glasses and heavy work gloves


Clean any gardening tool that has touched either dirt or a plant. Use water and a stiff brush to remove dirt and any plant matter or other debris. Remove sap residue with a cleaner like Murphy Oil Soap and rust with a wire brush, steel wool, or sandpaper. A toothbrush is perfect for reaching into small spaces or cleaning plastic handles. For tools with moving parts, such as pruners, disassemble  before cleaning.

TIP: Take  photographs beforehand to assist with reassembly.


Sanitize pruners, loppers, or saws  to minimize the spread of disease-causing pathogens in the landscape. Isopropyl alcohol can be used as a dip or a wipe on cutting surfaces. Alternatively, tools can be soaked for 10 to 30 minutes in a container with a non-toxic household disinfectant and then rinsed and dried. Master Gardener Anne Reed suggests having a dedicated bottle of cleaning solution which can be reused.

TIP: Chlorine bleach is no longer recommended for sanitizing as it is corrosive, causes harmful fumes, and can be difficult to dispose of safely.


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Check cleaned cutting tools, as well as hoes and shovels, for sharpness. Implements that need sharpening can be clamped in a vise to hold them securely. Matching the angle of the sharpening tool with a tool’s beveled edge, push down in long sweeping strokes. The reverse sides of cutting blades don’t need to be sharpened, but metal burrs can be removed with a quick pass of a file. Shiny metal indicates  sharpness.

TIP: Pruners are sharp when they can cut paper.


Winter tool Care - repairing.

This hose could use some repair!

Reassemble  tools and using a drop of machine oil on moving parts, adjust the tightness of bolts on shears and loppers so they  operate freely. Wipe with a rag to remove excess oil. Take time to tighten loose screws and nuts on wooden handles of rakes, hoes, and shovels to make certain they are firmly attached. Replace any that are not firmly attached.

TIP: This is also a good time to repair leaks in any hoses.



Winter tool Care - Conditioning.

Winter tool care – Conditioning.

A few final care tasks can be undertaken before storing tools. Wooden handles should be sanded smooth. Then they can be wiped with a rag and linseed or tung oil to prevent splitting or cracking

TIP: Don’t forget to apply a rust inhibitor to any surfaces where you saw rust earlier.


Make sure all cleaned tools are dry before storing them. While soaker hoses can remain outside, other hoses should be drained and brought inside to prevent freezing and cracking. Drain rain barrels and, ideally, store them inside. If they must remain outside, turn them upside down to prevent water accumulation.

TIP: Store terra cotta pots indoors.

A few safety reminders:

  • Wear protective glasses and heavy duty gloves
  • Use a vise or clamps to secure tools being sharpened
  • Follow directions on products
  • Do not pile linseed soaked rags as they can spontaneously combust
  • Dispose of waste properly

Congratulations! Now your gardening tools will be ready for use in the New Year.

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