Marin Master Gardeners
University of California
Marin Master Gardeners

Fondness for Old Friends

tools
Winter is a good time to give tools a more thorough cleanup. Properly maintained, good quality tools can last for decades, but if allowed to rust they can become unusable almost overnight. Additionally, there’s something nostalgic about collecting antique gardening tools. While the avid collector may prefer to preserve the aging appearance of gardening tools, many gardeners would simply rather maintain their appearance and functionality.

Removing rust from gardening tools not only improves their appearance, but also protects them from further corrosion and deterioration. Chemical rust removers can be harsh on antique gardening tools, leaving them stripped of their natural patina. Natural methods of removing rust can be just as effective, yet more gentle on antiques and safer to use around pets and children.  

White Vinegar
Ordinary household vinegar is a very safe, mildly-acidic solution for removing rust from antique gardening tools. Simply place the tool in a plastic container, and then fill the container with straight vinegar until the tool is completely submerged. Let the tool soak in the vinegar for 24 hours to allow the acid to permeate and loosen the rust. The tool might appear dark, but that dark residue will come off once you scrub it with a non-metal brush under running water. Remember to thoroughly dry the tool to prevent corrosion from setting in again.

Salt & Lime
Just lay the rusty gardening tool on some old newspapers, then sprinkle regular table salt over the rusted areas. Salt acts as a mild abrasive, while lime has acidic properties. Squeeze the lime liberally over the salt-covered rust, and then allow the salty solution set for about three hours. Finally, scrub this salty mixture off the gardening tool using the remaining lime rind or a non-metal scrubbing pad. Rinse the tool under running water and then dry the tool thoroughly with a towel.

Molasses
Surprisingly, molasses works great at removing stubborn rust from metal. Mix one part molasses to 12 parts water (tap water works fine) in a plastic bucket. Fully submerge the gardening tool in the molasses mixture, and then check it every day. You'll probably notice most the rust has dissolved after just 24 hours, but if it some rust remains, simply keep the tool in the solution until you are satisfied with the rust removal. It might take up to a week before all the rust dissolves from tool.

Cola
Although bad for your health, cola is a good choice for removing rust from metal. Coke and Pepsi, are especially effective rust removers. They contain phosphoric acid, which is known to dissolve iron oxide from rusted metal objects. Just fill a plastic container with enough cola to fully submerge the rusted gardening tool into and let the tool soak for 24 hours. Check the tool after a day and attempt to wipe off the rust using a non-metal scrubbing pad or brush. If the rust comes off easily, then continue scrubbing the tool until all rust is fully removed. Otherwise, continue soaking the tool in the cola until the rust is loose enough to scrub completely off.

Finishing & Storing
If the handle is wooden, give it a quick sanding and a light coat of linseed oil. To give a final clean the metal parts, scrape off any residual rust or dirt with a wire brush; use steel wool and a little oil to remove small amounts of rust. If the rust is super stubborn, you may be able to order a replacement blade. If not, it is time to buy a new tool or use a rust-removal solution.

In most cases, it is not hard to sharpen blades yourself. Hoes should be sharpened each time they are used. Fasten the hoe in a vice, and using a sturdy file, grind a 20-degree angle on the beveled side of the blade. Sharpening a new hoe is hard, slow work, but once it has been sharpened, a few strokes with a file should be enough to renew the edge.

Shovels and spades can be sharpened the same way, although they don't need to be as sharp. Pruning saws can also be sharpened with a vice and file, but their small, opposing teeth require slower, more careful work.

Hand pruners, loppers, and shears benefit from sharpening after each use. These hand tools can be treated much like knives and sharpened with a whetstone, or you can use a small bastard file, especially if there are any nicks in the blade.

If your shovel or hoe has a broken handle, the hardest part of replacing it is removing the rivet that holds the handle in place. Removing the rivet may require a Dremel, grinder, or hacksaw, which may be beyond the tool arsenal of many small-scale gardeners. If you have the proper tools, replacement is fairly straightforward. Once all the wood is removed from the shovel, drill a hole in the new handle, and simply screw or rivet (riveting is better) the new handle in place.

When your tools are clean, sharp, and well-oiled, you can store them in any dry spot for the winter. A useful trick year-round is to store tools in sand that has had vegetable oil added to. The sand removes rust and the oil prevents new rust from forming. Use a 5-gallon bucket to store shovels, and a smaller container for pruners.

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