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How to sharpen your garden tools

Those of you who know me, know I have a bit of an obsession for sharpening tools and knives. I think things should be properly looked after, properly sharp so that they do the job they are meant to safetly and well. I suspect it’s from my background in luthieriship where I worked with such small measurements and such expensive materials that razor-sharp tools were a requirement.

Now, being honest, I don’t need that level of sharpness anymore, I don’t work with tools or tasks that require it, but I do appreciate what a difference sharp secateurs make in the garden and I also know that lots of people are put off sharpening their own tools because they think it’s complicated or difficult or that they will ruin their tools.

So my job today is to try to persuade you that YES YOU CAN sharpen your own garden tools. NO IT’S NOT difficult or complicated and YOU WON’T ruin them. (Party political broadcast by Eli 🙂 )

OK the first thing I am going to do is just give you some general background on what I’m talking about here. I am going to focus on our garden hand tools today and the level of sharpness we need to do the job. So to cut tender stems rather than crush them. I’m also focussing on what some folk refer to as “field sharpening” which basically means something you can do if and when it’s needed, simply and quickly. So I’m not going to get out an array of water stones, and I’m not going to take any tools apart.

I told you, this is about making sharpening your tools accessible to all of us.

So lets start by saying, go get two things for me. This blog will make much more sense if you have these while you read. Go get a sharp knife from your kitchen drawer and a pair of secateurs from your garden tool stuff. Go on, I’ll wait on you don’t worry.

OK ready? Let’s go then.

Right have a look at the knife blade, what shape is it?
What I am hoping you will see is that there is a small, shallow bevel on each side that makes the blade “pointed”.

it’s not easy to photograph a picture of a knife you are holding ….

Now go and look at your secateurs, notice anything different?

I’m hoping what you noticed is that the secateurs have only one beveled edge. Edge, that’s the word I am going to use now, because the edge, or knowing how to identify the edge on your tools is key to sharpening, because… you only sharpen the edge.

Wow Eli that’s not helpful at all… want to elaborate a bit?

:). Yeah ok, so the edge, and only sharpening the edge. Basically, it’s making that edge as fine as possible which makes it cut. So when we sharpen, all we are doing is taking minuscule pieces of metal off the edge to make it thin and even. So you may now be wondering well why does the knife have two edges and the secateurs have one? Good question blogging friend.

The reason for this is down to how the tool works, how it cuts. A knife is designed for slicing actions, so the two bevels making the super fine cutting edge is great for clean and easy movement in a slicing motion. The downside, however, is that to cut tougher materials or larger pieces, this slicing motion will take longer. To cut tougher materials with a knife, we tend to resort to chopping. Which is when you need a different tool, something heavier, like a cleaver.

Secateurs are designed to cut through slightly thicker materials, usually more rigid in texture and they do this in one movement by having two jaws, one which cuts and one which pushes the stem/twig etc towards the blade. So only needs one sharp edge to cut and makes a nice clean job of it.

Clear as mud? Good, then we’ll move on.

So, as I said, sharpening is the process of making that edge thin and even and now that you know what to look for, or now that you can identify the edge, the next thing I want you to look at is the angle of the bevel on both the knife and the secateurs. Notice if they are the same or different. This is the bit which usually scares people, so let me just tell you right now. There is no need to be scared. Even if we get this next bit completely wrong, it is absolutely fixable, in fact, the more often you have to fix it, the quicker you will become an expert!

Ok so how we are going to sharpen things is by taking our sharpening tool and lightly (no need to apply loads of force) dragging it along that edge, trying to match the angle of the bevel. Don’t over think it, let the edge and the tool guide you rather than you trying to force things.

Em… that’s it. Do that for a couple of minutes and you have just sharpened your secateurs. Honestly. That’s it. There is one wee last thing to do, run your thumb across the back of the blade you have just sharpened. Obviously don’t run it along the blade, run it across the blade at a 90-degree angle. Now, do you feel like there is a wee rough bit? That’s called burr. Basically, all those minuscule bits of metal you pushed aside to make your edge sharp, they have bent over to the other side. All we do is pass your sharpening tool over these (along the blade) but this time, not at an angle, just flat to the surface, and this will take the burr off.

Sharpening stones etc

I’m going to chat to you just a tiny bit about sharpening tools as in tools for sharpening. Basically because there are two types. When we do a type of sharpening (which is also called polishing) more typical to woodwork tools where you need a super, fine edge that’s razor-sharp, you are more likely to use something called a wet stone. There are different types of stones and they come in different grades. The grades are a bit like sandpaper and basically it is a measure of how rough the stone is and so how much metal it will remove in each pass.

We don’t need these for sharpening our garden tools. Instead, I recommend a quick sharpening tool or a pocket stone. The reason being, the quick tools are designed to sharpen quickly while you are out getting work done. They won’t give you a razor-sharp edge or polish it to a mirror, but it will make your tools sharp enough to prune and cut in the garden.

In the video above, you’ll see the little tool I use. This is from a company called Sharpal, although they are all so similar that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend one over another. But they all work on the same premise that they are small and convenient to carry with you and the sharpening part is tougher than the blade of your tools.

So now that yo’ve had your whirlwind tour of “field sharpening” your garden tools, I would recommend you watch the video above just to see it in action. Then, go get all your tools sharpened ready for the next garden job 🙂

Eli’s pocket sharpener: https://amzn.to/

Kate’s favourite multi sharpener for secateurs, shears, knives and more: https://amzn.to/3ul3IsL

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