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Sharpening Your Shears

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By Rob Bergmueller 

Master Gardener℠ volunteer in Chatham County

With the weather warming, gardeners are getting more and more eager to get outside and begin gardening and winter clean up. Many of us put our tools away in the fall and haven’t thought about what their current conditions are until we pick them up and expect them to help us tackle an important job!

Let’s first look at your clippers and loppers. Are the blades on these tools clean, and well lubricated? If they are not clean you can clean the grime and dried plant residue using a little penetrating oil and a rag to assist removing the grime. From here you can continue the cleaning process using steel wool or a Scotch-Brite™ cleaning pad to clean the blades even more. Remember that when blades are clean they will cut through plant material even more effortlessly.

Dirty Blade

Dirty, dirty blade! Photo by Robert Bergmueller

Now we need to look at the blades themselves. If you have anvil type shears only one blade gets sharpened as it pushes down on the second blade and cuts through the vegetation. Bypass shears work like a pair of tailors shears where both blades are sharpened. To sharpen the blades on either the anvil shears or bypass clippers actually require the same procedures. Look at the edges of the cutting blades and by holding the edges to light, if you see any nicks in the blade they will be shiny and easily seen.

Left to right: two pairs of bypass shears, two pairs of anvil shears, and a pair of heavy loppers. Photo by Robert Bergmueller

Left to right: two pairs of bypass shears, two pairs of anvil shears, and a pair of heavy loppers. Photo by Robert Bergmueller

Your objective is to now rid the blades of any nicks and sharpen the blades at the same time. It is here where you need patience and avoid power tools. Bench grinders, handheld grinders, and electric hobby tools are no place for precise sharpening. As a matter of fact, with power tools, you can make things much worse. Grinders can overheat the steel and the blades will become soft. You’ve really damaged the steel when the steel turns blue.

Beveled edge

Beveled edge. Photo by Robert Bergmueller

The best way to sharpen the blades is to use a sharpening stone. Stones cut slowly and leave you in control. You need to sharpen the beveled edge. To make sure that you are maintaining the proper angle on the blade, you can use a black or dark blue marking pen and cover the cutting surface with the ink.

Nicked blade

Nicked blade. Photo by Robert Bergmueller

Now take your sharpening stone and slowly move the stone up and down the blade. With a little practice, you’ll see where you are holding the stone correctly because the ink has been removed, where the ink remains indicates that you have not held the stone consistently at the same angle. You can then coat the blade again or if you feel confident, continue rubbing the stone at the same angle. Machinists will use this same procedure using layout dye to ensure that metals are ground to a correct angle.

When you are satisfied with the job you’ve done, run your fingernail across the blade and you may feel a wire edge. Take the stone and run it down the back of the blade to remove the burr. You can now follow up with a finer stone back on the cutting edge to get the blade sharper. If you don’t have an assortment of stones, get some emery paper at the hardware store. Start with about a 400 grit paper and finish with about 1200 grit. Place the emery paper on a stick to keep the paper flat and rub the paper down the length of the blade. Something like a clean paint stirrer will provide the abrasive with some good support.

Finish the job by wiping the blades with a light oil and lubricate the screw joint as well. Tighten the screw if necessary so they move freely but don’t bind. Step away from the pliers Use wrenches so that you don’t burr up the screws and your tools will appear to have been professionally maintained. 

Continue reading for more information on pruning trees and shrubs.