Assuming you're just starting out on home maintenance, there are some basic and inexpensive tools you'll need to use and maintain.

Don't neglect

How often have we put away that shovel that was dirty or rusty or used gaffer tape to bind a split handle? The usual result of this neglect is that the garden tools we use rarely work as well as they should. The solution is simple: the time we waste struggling with a dull, patched-up and possibly dangerous tool would be better spent in regular maintenance.


Clean tools
  • At the very least, hose down your tools after each use. This keeps diseases, fungi, insect eggs and weed seeds from being unwittingly spread around the garden. Cleaning also extends the life of a tool by removing moisture-laden, rust-enhancing soil from steel surfaces.  For tools with a keen edge, a good cleaning keeps rust from eating this away.
  • With spades, rakes, hoes, trowels remove any heavy clay soil with a hard bristle brush. Then dry them before putting it away.
  • Tools with sharpened edges like axes, pruning shears and knives should be wiped down with a cotton cloth to remove any gums and saps from their blades. When working on pitch-producing plants like conifers, dampen the cloth with a  little paint thinner before wiping. In all cases, once dirt and residue are removed, dry the tool off.


Prevent rust
  • Even washed and dried, steel tool heads remain susceptible to rust when left in  the shed and exposed to oxygen. Usually, the higher the grade of steel the more vulnerable it is to rusting. Considering the high cost of quality gardening tools it makes sense to keep rusting to a minimum.
  • Motor oil is cheap and effective rust preventer. When applied to steel surfaces it prevents oxidisation. It's best to thin the oil by mixing about two litres of nondetergent 30W motor oil (any brand will do) with half a litre of kerosene or  lamp oil. Wipe it on with a clean cotton cloth.  Store the mixture away from heat sources and dispose of it as you would any motor oil.
  • However you apply the oil, keep the coating thin so it won't drip. You don't have to worry about this small amount of oil adversely affecting your soils.


Wire brush
  • You can remove light rust with 80-grit sandpaper but heavier rust might need a stiff wire brush. But if the rust has pitted the metal a more heavy-handed approach is needed. The best option is an electric drill with a wire-brush attachment.
  • Wear safety glasses because rust particles or the wire bristles can fly off at high speeds and in unpredictable directions.
  • Once you've finished, apply a coat of the oil / kero mixture to the newly exposed steel.


Some tools like shovels, axes, hoes, and trowels are best sharpened with a hand file, while other tools like pruning shears and knives call for a honing stone. Depending on how dull the edge is, some tools may need an appointment with a high-speed grinding stone.
  • The most basic sharpening tool is a 20cm mill file with a bastard cut available at hardware stores. The technique is to draw the cutting teeth in one direction over the edge being sharpened. For best results, hold the tool steady in a clamp or vise keeping the file at an angle from the plane of the tool's working surface as you push it along the edge you are sharpening. You'll need to use both hands so get a mill file that has a handle on one end. This makes it easier to work.
  • For pruning shears and knives, it's possible to get good results with any of the
    diamond, ceramic, or high-carbon steel honing devices that are on the market.You can also use an oil stone: simply slide the blade over the flat surface of the stone in one direction until you reach the desired sharpness.
  • How sharp is sharp enough? Shovels can be sharp enough to cut through minor roots. Pruning shears work best and avoid crushing damage to plants by being very sharp.
  • As a rule, follow the bevel already on the tool's blade. The angle of sharpness determines the length of the bevelled edge. Understanding this relationship is the key to successful sharpening.


  • Use this method on only the most battered tools, like lawn-mower blades and  axes. An electric bench grinder best because of the adjustable tool-rest platform.
  • Beware of overheating because this causes steel to lose its temper. This means the hardness becomes compromised and the tool cannot then hold a sharpened edge for very long.  As a guide against overheating, keep the metal cool enough to touch. You can immerse it in water from time to time.
  • Grind with caution. Always wear safety glasses. You can do some touch-up grinding with a small grinding wheel made to fit an electric drill.


  • Store your clean, oiled, and sharpened tools in a dry, sheltered place. And here's a good idea: try putting them in the same spot to save time looking for  them when it's time to work.
  • Hang them by their handles in a shed or garage wall to prevent damage to sharpened edges. A row of strong nails in a piece of four-by-two will do. You can drill holes through the handles of axes, shovels, hoes, rakes, and other long-handled tools.