Time to do some tool maintenance

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By Dennis Morgeson

If you are like me, you have on occasion left a hoe, rake, set of pruners or some other garden tool outside for a few days by accident only to find it rusted and in bad shape. Well, the same thing can happen to a tool over winter even if it is left indoors. Over time, cold, moist air will also cause tools to rust as if they were actually outside in the weather. So what should you do? Well, winterize them of course!

Winterizing garden tools is just as important as cleaning up the garden in the fall. Clean tools will be ready to use for winter pruning and spring gardening tasks when you need them. Save money by protecting your investment in hand tools, shovels, lawn mowers and tillers by winterizing them now.

The first step in winterizing tools is to clean them. Wash the soil off of tools including shovels, hand trowels, hoes and rakes. A stick or block of wood can be used to scrape off the soil. It is best to avoid soaking a tool in water for a long period of time because it is easy to forget about the tool and rust can develop on the metal parts pretty quickly.

Small spots of hard-to-remove soil and rust can be removed with steel wool or abrasive cleaners. Rinse after using a cleaner and dry the tools to avoid the development of rust.
Next, check the handles of the tools. Replace broken and cracked handles. Tighten loose screws and nuts and replace missing ones.

If wooden handles are rough, sand these areas until smooth. The handles may need painting or varnishing to protect the wood. Painting the handles with a bright color such as orange or red makes the tool easier to find in the garden or lawn, if you are forgetful like me.

Look closely at fiberglass handles for splintering. If necessary, wrap the handles with electrician’s tape.

Sharpen the metal blades of hoes, shovels and tiller tines. A sharp edge makes the job easier and faster.

Prevent rusting of the metal parts of tools by applying a coat of oil to them. Rub the metal parts with an oil-soaked towel or spray the parts with oil. Spray cans of oil are available. You can use sewing machine oil or even cooking oil if need be, but regular old motor oil is better.
Before putting the oil away, winterize your pruning tools such as hand pruners, loppers and pruning saws. Clean debris and sticky sap off the metal blades. Replace deeply-grooved and notched blades, then sharpen them. A sharp blade makes the pruning job faster and makes an even, smooth cut, which is better for the plant. Lightly oil the metal blades to keep them from rusting.

One way to store hand tools after winterizing them is to hang the tools on the wall or on a pegboard. Hanging the tools on the wall protects the blades of the tools to keep them sharp and makes them easier to find. You can trace an outline of the tool on the pegboard so everyone knows where the tool is stored. This also helps to keep an inventory of the tools.
Lawn mowers, tillers, and other power equipment should be cleaned.  The underside of the lawn mower deck is easy to forget. Often, you will find layers of caked grass clippings there. After cleaning, cover the deck with metal paint or oil.

Change the oil in power equipment to prevent engine sludge that can cause the internal engine parts and seals to deteriorate. Add fresh oil of the proper viscosity according to the owner’s manual.

Check the air filter. Now is a good time to change or clean the air filter if it was not done during the mowing season. A dirty air filter can restrict air flow into the engine and cause the engine to run rich.

Check the spark plug to be sure it’s not fouled and is properly gapped. Disconnecting the spark plug for the winter is also suggested.  

Gasoline should not be left in the fuel tanks of mowers, tillers, weed trimmers and other power engines at the end of the season because residues can form that might plug the small fuel jets in the carburetor. There are two approaches to remedy this situation. One is to drain out the fuel. The second option is to use a gas stabilizer. You can do this yourself or have a professional do it as part of an annual service.

After you drain the fuel, start and run the engine to remove gasoline from the fuel lines and carburetor. Then, let the engine cool, take the spark plug out of the cylinder and put about one tablespoon of oil into the cylinder. With the spark plug wire off, pull the starter cord or use the starter to turn the engine over several times to distribute this oil over the cylinder and piston’s internal surfaces.

If you use a gas stabilizer, it’s not necessary to drain the tank or get fuel out of the carburetor. A gas stabilizer will keep gas fresh up to two years when added to the gas can right after you buy the fuel.  However, you do need to let the engine operate several minutes to be sure the fresh gas gets into the carburetor.

Sharpen the blades of mowers. Replace blades with deep nicks. A dull lawn mower blade increases fuel consumption and wear on the engine, belts and bearings. Also, a dull mower blade tears off the grass leaf, which increases the susceptibility of the grass to diseases. If you have any questions on this or any other horticulture topic, give me a call at the Washington County Extension Office at 859-336-7741.