How to sharpen your tools

Sharpening secateurs
Photo: Justin Russell


Confucius was on to something when he said “the mechanic who would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools”. A sharp tool is efficient and safe to use. The fact that it’s efficient is obvious – sharp tools cut more cleanly, take less time, and cause less damage to plant tissue – but the idea that sharpness equals safety can seem counterintuitive. Wouldn’t a razor-sharp grafting knife be more likely to slice off a gardener’s finger than a blunt knife?

Absolutely not. A sharp tool requires less force to make a cut, offering greater control and reducing the chances of slipping or overcutting. Just as a chef sharpens their knife before they start preparing for a lunch service, a gardener should at least sharpen important tools before every gardening session. If you find yourself hacking and sawing away at plant wood instead of cleanly snipping and slicing, stop what you’re doing, grab a sharpener and renew that tool’s cutting blade.

Sharpening how to’s

Small hand tools such as grafting knives, harvesting knives, secateurs and loppers are most easily sharpened with
a handheld diamond sharpener. Slide the diamond face across the bevelled blade of the hand tool until the desired sharpness is achieved. Make smooth strokes at a consistent angle to avoid rounding the bevel. Note that some blades have a single bevel on one side only, others have a bevel on both sides. This is a design feature, which implies that single- sided blades shouldn’t be converted to double sided and vice versa.

Larger tools such as spades, axes and hoes can be sharpened with either a bench grinder, hand held grinder or a metal file. Unless a blade is very dull or dented (in which case I use a grinder) my preferred tool for this job is a bastard file. The term “bastard” refers to the file’s cutting surface, which is between “coarse” or “second cut”. It offers a good balance, removing decent amounts of steel quickly, without leaving the finished surface too rough. When using electric grinders, be safe. Ensure the tools being sharpened are held securely with clamps or a vice and wear safety gear as necessary.

Pruning saws work much better sharp, but sharpening them is a tricky job. My advice: Ask at your local nursery or hardware store if they offer a sharpening service. Professional sharpening is relatively cheap and well worth it. 

For more on taking care of your tools for life, get Organic Gardener Issue 101, OUT NOW!

By: Justin Russell

First published: April 2018

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