It could be argued that a gardener is only as good as their tools – having the right tool for the job makes working in the garden less of an effort and infinitely more enjoyable.
While some tools are specific to certain types of gardening and not necessary for everyone, a good pair of shears are an essential tool for any avid gardener, regardless of their choice of project. And whether you use hedge shears to shape trees and bushes or smaller secateurs to prune your plants or cut flowers, if you want to keep them at their best then you’ll need to sharpen them periodically.
A pruning tool that is well maintained will cut more effortlessly through branches and stems, leaving a cleaner cut which in turn reduces the risk of introducing plant diseases. As a side-note: in order to further minimize the risk of plant diseases, always clean and sterilize your pruning tools between uses.
Typically, all pruning tools – whether they are shears, secateurs or loppers – are all sharpened the same way. Though you may be tempted to simply toss away an inexpensive pruner and replace it, it’s possible to make it as good as new with just a few moments of work; and if you’ve invested in a more costly, high-quality tool, a quick sharpening now and then will have your tools at their best.
Before beginning to sharpen your shears, you’ll first want to don the proper safety gear.
You’ll need to protect your hands from the pruning shears while you clean and sharpen them. A pair of protective gloves will prevent any nicks or scratches that may occur. It’s best to choose a pair of heavy-duty gardener’s gloves, preferably ones made of thick leather.
It’s also important to protect your eyes while working; shards of metal or rust could severely injure your eyes during the cleaning and sharpening process. It’s best to wear a pair of safety glasses – goggles are preferable, as they also prevent small particles from landing in or around your eyes while safety glasses typically leave a gap that smaller bits of debris could pass through.
Some people will also cover their mouth and nose with a filtration mask while removing rust, but this precaution isn’t necessary when working in a well-ventilated area.
Remember that cleaning and sharpening gardening tools can be dangerous and you should take care not to cut yourself. If you should accidentally cut yourself while working, it’s best to seek help immediately; minor cuts or scrapes can be handled at home but larger injuries may need medical attention.
The first step to sharpening your pruning tools is to be sure they are completely clean. Any soil or other material on the blade could damage it during sharpening.
Warm, soapy water will do the trick – simply fill the sink or a container with warm water and about two teaspoons of dish soap. Using a stiff brush dipped into the soap water, scrub both sides of each blade carefully. Once you’ve scrubbed away all the debris from the shears, rinse them well with clear water until they are completely free of soap residue.
Use a thick towel or rag to dry the blades; gently wipe first the top blade then the bottom blade with the towel, taking care not to cut yourself as you work.
After washing and drying your shears, examine each blade carefully for any signs of rust. It’s quite common for rust to appear on pruning tools, but you must completely remove the rust before sharpening your shears.
Use a piece of medium-coarse steel wool to gently buff away the rust. After removing all the rust, you should rinse the blades yet again and dry them thoroughly with a thick rag or towel.
There are several ways to sharpen tools: you could use a grindstone, an angle grinder, or even a bench grinder. But usually all you need to sharpen a pair of shears is a medium or coarse diamond hand file; a whetstone or sharpening stone would also work file. These are less expensive sharpening tools, and they will generally give you greater control over the process than a fast-spinning wheel that throws out sparks.
Whatever pruning tool you’re sharpening, it will be easier – and safer – to work if you secure the tool with a bench vise, if possible, before beginning. Open the shears as wide as possible, making sure that the beveled edge of the cutting blade is facing you. Then secure the pruning tool in the bench vise.
How to sharpen garden shears
Hold the tool firmly in position then pass the sharpener over the edge of the blade at the small angle as the bevel; you will need to maintain this angle as you sharpen the blades.
Using a single, smooth stroke, draw the sharpening tool along the contour of the blade, from the base to the tip, moving away from your body. You should apply a moderate level of pressure. After a couple stokes with the file, check the edge. It should be uniformly shiny. If it’s not, then you may not be holding the file at the right angle; correct the angle as needed and begin again.
Only sharpen the cutting blade itself, working the file or stone in the same direction as the bevel. While larger shears are easy to sharpen using this method, smaller blades may need to be worked in a circular motion.
Continue filing in smooth, single strokes until a sharp edge forms on the shear blades. As it typically takes about five strokes or, at most, between ten and twenty passes of the file or stone to complete the sharpening, you can finish each blade in just a few minutes.
If you’re sharpening bypass or anvil-style pruning tools, you’ll only need to sharpen the beveled cutting blade – which means that you’ve already finished! For any other type of shears, you’ll need to repeat these steps after securing the opposite blade in the bench vise.
If you’d like to ensure a very fine edge on your hedge clippers, you can follow up with a sharpening stone that is lubricated with a bit of oil.
Remove the burr
Raising a burr is an essential part of any sharpening ritual. But what is a burr? And if it’s so important to create one while sharpening, why should you remove it?
Simply put, a burr is a small fold of metal on the opposite side of the blade from the one you are sharpening. Raising a burr lets you know that you have ground the edge thin enough so that there is a single plane of the bevel all the way to the edge. If a burr is not formed during the sharpening process then you haven’t fully sharpened the edge of the blade – which means that your blade will not be as sharp as it could be.
So once you’ve finished sharpening the blades of your pruning tools, you’ll also want to remove any burrs that have accrued on the reverse sides of the blades. This is done by turning the shears over and using a few strokes of the file or sharpening stone to remove the burrs. Be careful not to use too much pressure or you will simply create a new burr on the original edge!
Finishing the job
While you have the pruning tool in hand – or firmly anchored in your bench vise, there are a couple of finishing steps that you should take care of to help keep your tools at their absolute best.
Maintenance and repair
Now is a good time to examine the shears closely for signs of wear and tear. Take a few moments to check over the moving parts and to tighten up any loose bolts you may find; you can also determine whether you’ll need to order replacement parts – perhaps new blades, springs, or even new handles for a high-quality but well-loved pair of pruners that are too valuable to simply discard.
You’ll want to finish the sharpening process by applying a lubricant to your pruning tool; this will help prevent rust from forming. Once you’ve finished the sharpening and maintenance, you’ll need to dip a soft cloth into the tool lubricant of your choice – linseed oil works very well – and gently wipe the cloth over the blades of the pruning tool.
Don’t forget to apply additional lubricant throughout the year, particularly after heavy use of the shears – whether or not they need sharpening at the time.
While this technique is ideal for sharpening your cutting tools – shears, loppers, hand hooks or secateurs – it can also be used for any lawn or garden tools in your shed or garage that have a blade or a cutting edge. The same method will work for a garden hoe, a shovel, or even your lawn mower blades.
The techniques shown here can be used for any lawn or garden tool in your garage or shed that has a blade or cutting edge.