In the March issue of Smallholder magazine Tim Jeffries of Darlac explains how to clean, sharpen and maintain your tools.


It is never a good idea to service a tool in the middle of a job as it inevitably takes you away from the task in hand.

Of course, we sometimes find that the tool is unable to do the job at hand which is why we recommend servicing your tools before you put them away so that they are ready for action next time you need them.


Does the tool need oiling? All tools with moving parts require some lubrication from time to time. This should primarily be applied to the moving joints but a good coat all over never does any harm and helps to protect from rust.

Is the tool sharp? A good sharp edge is essential and a diamond sharpener will give good results.

Is anything loose? Most tools with moving parts have nuts and bolts which hold things together and create tension between parts. This is critical with bypass cutters as their most common fault is incorrect tensioning.


The golden rule is ‘if it moves, oil it’. If it doesn’t, oil it anyway to stop rust gathering.

There are many brands available with either a directional spout for spot oiling or a spray for more general application.

Safety first – always take extra care, especially when your hand may be facing the cutting edge.


There is a common myth that sharpening is a skill that only engineers are capable of. This is a total misconception. If you follow a few simple rules, it really is just common sense.

The basic rules of sharpening


When unsure how to sharpen a particular implement, remember that the act of sharpening will take steel off the appliance. Therefore, ask the question ‘if I take steel from this part, how might it affect the working of the tool?’ You are aiming to sharpen the tool where it has previously been sharpened so look for the edges that were sharp when you bought it and sharpen these to roughly the angle that they already have. Remember, only sharpen the existing edges, don’t try to add edges to flat surfaces!


Examine the edge to ascertain how blunt or damaged it is. This will help to select the appropriate grade of abrasive necessary to sharpen the tool without spending too long doing it.


This pruning tool makes a nice clean cut using a curved blade that bypasses the counter blade in the same way as a pair of scissors. The cutting blade is sharpened on the outside edge and it bypasses the thicker counter blade.


This pruning tool’s blade comes down on a flat surface or anvil in a slicing action similar to a knife against a cutting board. These are usually, but not always, sharpened on both sides.

Bypass pruners and loppers

These generally only have one blade, the lower part being the counter blade which should never require sharpening.

The cut of the bypass tool is achieved by the blade precisely passing by the counter blade. It therefore follows that you should never sharpen the flat side of the blade. If steel is removed from here, the two parts will no longer meet precisely and the tool will fail to cut. You must only sharpen on the outside or bevelled side of the blade. Look at the tool to find the angle that it was originally ground at and mimic this. This angle will differ from tool to tool depending on the manufacturer and the type of implement.

Shears and scissors

Both are similar to bypass tools except that they generally have two blades, therefore it will be necessary to sharpen both. Remember, only sharpen on the outside (the bevelled edge). Never sharpen the inside (flat edge).

NB. A few scissors and shears also have a blade and counter blade like bypass pruners.


The only exception to the above is if you find it necessary to aggressively sharpen due to damaged blades. Aggressive sharpening will ultimately create a burr and it will therefore become necessary to clean the burr from the flat side of the blades. To do this, simply rest the sharpener flat against the flat side of the blade and stroke from the heel to the tip of the blade. Once should suffice.

Anvil pruners and loppers

Anvil pruners and loppers are generally ground on both sides so the blade will need sharpening on both sides.


Knives are also generally ground on both sides. This is easy to establish by examining the blade to see if one side is completely flat.

Normally it is only handed knives that are flat on one side i.e. a specific left or right handed knife. This occurs most commonly in budding or pruning knives.


Tensioning of all bypass action tools is critical and easy to do. Most tools are adjustable with an appropriate spanner and/ or screwdriver.

As a rule of thumb the pivot should be tightened slowly to the point where the tool ceases to function and then released back very slightly.

Some tools have more sophisticated tensioning bolts which have locking plates to avoid loosening with use.

All pivots will ultimately wear and for this reason they are a standard replaceable part on most tools.


Build up of sap can sometimes be a problem although the best tools often have a deep sap groove to minimise this.

Whilst most dirt can be cleaned with the proprietary oil used for lubrication, the greatest problems occur when cutting growth such as coniferous trees which have a particularly sticky sap and may require something more serious to clean with. Methylated spirit is good for this.


Sometimes we let things get a bit out of hand but it does not necessarily have to be the end of life for your tool.

Most garden hand tools are relatively easy to dismantle, requiring only one bolt or nut removing. Once separated it is much easier to deal with a build up of rust, sap and dirt.

Fine wire wool is definitely the best tool for this job. Rub vigorously over the rusted areas and clean back to bare metal, being ever mindful of the sharp edge.

You may not regain the original shine but as long as the pitting is smoothed away and the tool is back to its original profile this should be fine.

Pay particular attention to the flat areas of bypass tools where the two parts rub together to form a cut. Don’t remove too much metal from the flat edge as putting an angle here will damage the tool’s function.

Once properly cleaned and reassembled, tension correctly as previously mentioned and sharpen as required. Hopefully you now have your beloved tool back almost as good as new.


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