Sharpening tools

How often do you sharpen your secateurs? Earlier this week I was with a group of gardeners who, when asked this question, quickly turned their eyes down towards their shoes like embarrassed students, caught without their completed homework.

As one of the main tools of our trade, we take it for granted that they will be dependably by our side whenever we enter the garden. Few of us give them the care they need to be able to work consistently and accurately. We would shudder at the idea of a surgeon performing surgery with a blunt scalpel. So, why do we have so few qualms at amputating parts from our plants with blunt blades? Rather than leaving a clean wound that heals quickly, cutting a plant with blunt secateurs crushes the stem, leaving fine fissures and a ragged edge, that takes longer to heal, with more potential for infection and dieback. 

Taking care of our tools should form a regular part of our routine in the garden and any cutting implement needs to be cleaned and sharpened on a regular basis. I have two pairs of Felco number 2 secateurs as my weapons of choice. One of the pairs is 15 years old, and the other is 13. Every winter, one of the pairs is sent off to the manufacturers for reconditioning. A few weeks later they return home with new bolts, springs blades and re-dipped handles looking as good as new. But if they are to last me a lifetime, they still need regular day-to-day maintenance. 

Secateurs can be used and abused so much it’s essential to clean all the dirt out of the moving parts. First, I give them a quick wipe down with something like WD-40. This will remove sap, dirt and water from the blades and leaving a lubricating film on the moving parts. The next step is to sharpen the blade. I start with a file to remove any nicks or burrs in the blade. Unlike a knife, bypass secateurs have a edge on just on side of the blade so it only needs to be done from one side. I then run over this surface with a diamond file. The finer texture of the abrasive surface will produce an even smoother surface and sharper edge. The final stage is to use the oilstone, stroking the blade across its oiled surface in a circular motion, until it takes on an almost mirror-like quality. 

I was given my oilstone by my Grandad. I remember as a child, every time we started a new project together, he would spend a few minutes ensuring that all the chisels were razor-sharp before we began the ‘real’ work. To my eager, younger self, it initially appeared to be time which would be better spent on the activity, but by ensuring that the blades were as sharp as possible meant that the job progressed much smoother much quicker and more precisely. The time we spend preparing for a job, is just as valuable as time spent on the job itself. The preparation is a mental activity in which we focus our mind (much like sharpening a blade) onto the the job in hand. The preparation is thinking time where we can calculate every possible problem, and it’s relevant solution, so that when we start it just becomes a matter of putting all of that thought in to action. 

Given that we use these tools, mental or physical, almost every day, we can easily overlook the importance of their care and the value of this preparation. Over the past year, I have made it part of my daily routine that, whenever I pick up a tool I check the blade, carefully hone it, ready for action, and try to restrain my eagerness to start for a few moments, so I can consider the best way to accomplish the task ahead of me.


Author: jlrobbins

I grow plants

7 thoughts on “Sharpening tools”

  1. Wonderful stuff, I’m very much enjoying your blog at the moment James! Couldn’t agree more with you here, spend an age sharpening my hand tools (though really my power tools are probably due a sharpen too!). Interested to see you send your Felcos off to be serviced; one of my favourite winter jobs is completely stripping these down, giving them a going over with wire wool, replacing springs and sharpening blades etc! And I rather like the worn red handles!


  2. I have Felco size 6 (I have small hands) and sharpen mine regularly. As well has being healthier for any plant you are pruning, sharp secateurs makes any pruning a much easier job on my body (I have a chronic illness so reducing energy waste v important). I’ve sent mine back for winter check up a few times, but I confess not in the last couple of years. Need to get another pair so I can follow your sensible annual routine.


    1. After 2 years they are starting to look a bit worn, but after their ‘Xmas holiday’ they return in showroom condition. I sometimes have to check them for the old battle scars to prove they are the same pair.


  3. As a “non-felco-er”, I remember a discussion with a “felco-er” a while back when I was praising Japanese secateurs and he was praising Felcos. When push came to shove, the 19-year-old Felcos of which he was so proud and praising amounted to a nut and bolt. I have wet stones, dry stones and grind stones. I also have five pairs of secateurs. One never touches anything other than a rose. And so it goes on. I have my rejuvenating operations for all garden tools. I wonder how many people sharpen their spades? Forget wire wool. I have Japanese rubber (I think they call it a Crean Mate) and camellia oil. Secateurs get a quickie every day. Bliss.


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