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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Keeping Sharp

I've read in a couple of places that if you keep your garden tools sharp, specifically your shovels and your hoes, they'll do a better job for you and you can let the tool do the work, instead of you doing the work.

Since I needed to work on cleaning up my raspberry beds today, I took some time to put an edge on my shovel and hoe.  I got the hoe done pretty quick before I realized that maybe you'd like to see what I'm talking about.

So here is my shovel before I sharpened it.  Pretty dull.

I started with my flat bastard file, but it was taking too long, so I switched to my Nicholson Four In Hand.  This file has a flat file and a flat rasp on one side, and a convex file and a convex rasp on the other.  Because it's fairly small, only eight inches long, it's a good file for sticking in a pocket and taking out with you to file on your tools as you dull them with working the soil.

I used the flat file side, which looks like this:

When you're filing a tool (and this works on hatchets as well, something else I need to sharpen for next fire season), you want to steady the tool so that it doesn't move, and file the edge, holding the file at a forty-five degree to the edge of the tool, and pushing the file away from yourself.  Be consistent about pushing the file on a flat plane; don't rock the file so that it rounds the edge, because you'll never get an edge.

I found on both tools, that leaving the slight serrations that pushing the file in a left direction rather than a right direction left the edge somewhat sharper, so I left it that way.  It didn't have to be fancy, because I was cutting raspberry roots and the soil was going to dull it again anyway.

This is me checking the edge.  When you check the edge, do it as you do a knife; go across the edge, rather than along the edge.

And here's the shovel, all nice and sharp.  Both the hoe and the shovel were a pleasure to work with this afternoon.  I'll definitely be keeping the edge on them going forward.


Christian said...

Sweet technique. I mindlessly stab my shovel into the dirt and rocks, cursing the dirt and rocks instead of myself for not working with properly cared for equipment.

Paula said...

I usually do too, Christian, but I could feel the difference an edge on my shovel made. I expect that where I'll really feel it is cutting through turf. At any rate, I've sharpened hatchets and knives before, but this was the first time sharpening a shovel, and it's definitely worth the time and effort.

Jennifer Montero said...

You might like this technique which I learned at agric college, to keep your tools rust-free and sharp: take an old bucket or recycled plastic container and half fill it with sand. Next time you do an oil change on your car, tip some of the old oil into the bucket of sand so you basically have a bucket of oily sand.

After you wash, or sharpen tool, or when you put them away at the end of the day, plunge them a couple of times in the oily sand. It coats your tools, preventing rust and helps to keep that hard-earned edge.

I knew you'd appreciate the thriftyness and recycling aspect!

Paula said...

Thanks Jennifer. I'd heard of that technique, actually, but I didn't know that it would help keep the edge.

I am honestly not so sure that digging in soil with a shovel that has used crank case oil on it is such a good idea though, and as much as I like the idea of reusing it somehow, I'm not sure that it can be with impunity. I'm thinking just regular, clean mineral oil might be a better idea. I remember as a kid, my dad had us kids paint our back fence with used crank case oil, which did do a good job of preserving it- it's still in great shape over forty years later- but I cringe now when I think of the run off from that fence. But I think oiling your tools is a good idea. Steve Solomon recommends coconut oil for the wooden handles as well.

Rae said...

Great post! I make LJ sharpen the tools for me. :) Sure does help to have a sharp shovel when trying to cut through clay and roots!

Jennifer Montero said...

Paula - I never thought about the impurities. Mineral oil is a much better idea. I will take my old sump oil to the recyclers from now on, and use clean stuff. But it is a great way of prolonging the life of your tools.

John said...

Great tip! I spend time sharpening my axe, hatchet and machete, but I'm embarrassed to think about how dull my shovels probably are, being good candidates for our most used tools lately.

My only tip, particularly when it comes to digging up a thick carpet of grass roots, is a big, heavy pick axe. Using a pick axe to rip up the turf makes digging much quicker and easier on the back. I should probably sharpen that thing, too....

Paula said...

Thanks Rae.

Paula said...

Great tip on the pick axe, John. You remind me that the very first garden I put in back when I was in junior high school, I first dug up with a pick axe (the soil was solid clay, although in retrospect it isn't nearly as bad as the stuff I have now). I managed to miss on one of my swings and hit myself squarely in the shin with the pointy end. It hurt like hell, but the ol' shin bone stopped the pick, and it only looked like a shaving nick. The next day at school I showed my wound to a buddy of mine and explained what I did and she said,

"You shave with a pick axe!?"