How to Sharpen Garden Tools for Best Performance

, written by us flag

A sharp triangle hoe blade

One of the important things I learned from my father is to always keep a sharp edge on shovels, hoes, and other garden tools used for cutting. Indeed, working with a dull hoe amounts to pounding weeds rather than slicing through them, and a blunt spade will stop at roots and other obstructions, whereas a sharp one will cut right through them. Every gardener needs to know how to restore sharp edges, a procedure I repeat often during the peak weeding season of late spring.

As you can tell from the photographs here, I am not a tool perfectionist. My garden tools often stay out in the weather, and I’ve had most of them for 20 years. But I do keep my two mill files (used for sharpening) indoors, amidst my gardening gloves, because they rust easily. Also called flat files or draw files, mill files cost only a few dollars, and all hardware stores sell them.

A mill file rasps away metal in the same manner that sandpaper shaves down wood. Tiny shards of metal are released as the mill file tears them off. Always work outdoors and keep your work low, a safe distance from your face, to keep shards away from your eyes and breathing space.

Making a Sharp Bevelled Edge

The angle of a blade’s sharp edge is called a bevel. In general, your tool’s slicing action will be accompanied by a gentle upward lift if you make a deep bevel on the back side of the blade, and a narrower one on the front. This approach is fine for spades and most hoes, but stirrup hoes and others designed to be pushed and pulled horizontally need an even bevel, with all edges equal in the angle at which they come to a point.

Sharpening a stirrup hoe
Sharpening a stirrup hoe

Sitting down with a medium-grade mill file, I begin any sharpening job by roughing out gouges and dings caused by digging into rocks and ice. For this, it’s fine to saw back and forth with the file, because you’re shaping rather than sharpening. When the edge is smooth, I change my strokes so that they move outward at a diagonal angle, across the edge I’m sharpening. This practice is called "draw filing" because you draw the file outward and off the edge over and over again. It takes me about five minutes to restore a sharp edge to a neglected spade, but less than half that time to touch up a blade I’ve sharpened in recent weeks.

Sharpening a cobrahead weeder
Sharpening a cobrahead weeder

Most garden tools that came with a sharp edge should be re-sharpened at least once a year – or once a week when they’re being jammed into soil hundreds of times a day. With high-efficiency tools that shave down weeds like the Cobrahead (at right) and the diamond hoe (which has four cutting edges), sharpness makes such a huge difference that you might want to carry a small file in your back pocket during long weeding sessions.

Children’s gardening tools are dull for safety reasons, and sharp-edged garden tools should be stored where kids can’t reach them. Or, cut a piece of old garden hose the same length as the blade, slit it down the side, and pop it over the blade as a safety cover.

By Barbara Pleasant

< All Guides

Garden Planning Apps

If you need help designing your vegetable garden, try our Vegetable Garden Planner.
Garden Planning Apps and Software

Vegetable Garden Pest Warnings

Want to Receive Alerts When Pests are Heading Your Way?

If you've seen any pests or beneficial insects in your garden in the past few days please report them to The Big Bug Hunt and help create a warning system to alert you when bugs are heading your way.

Show Comments


"I'm afraid I come from the school of "if a hammer don't work, get a bigger hammmer 'til it does" and so the same applies for me sharpening my tools. I use a belt sander on the back of my spades to get a sharp edge with minimal effort and time. While it works for me, I don't necessarily recommend it for the faint-hearted!"
Kevin on Friday 13 May 2011
"Yes, Barbara's comments are very true. I have been sharpening my spade and secateurs particularly for years and it doesn't accelerate them wearing out. I tend to use an angle grinder every few years to give my spade a really good edge (without chunks missing), then "fine-tune" it with a file. The spade isn't a knife, so there's no need to make it a perfect job. Also, I carry a little sharpening stone which I use on my secateurs before cutting. It's amazing how much difference sharp tools will make !!"
Roger on Wednesday 18 May 2011
"Certainly, your plants will thank you for a cleaner cut with your sharp secs when you come to propagating. ;-)"
kevin on Wednesday 18 May 2011
"Ohhhhh, I have to sharpen all my tools. Its just something I tend to forget. Glad I read this article... sharpening is on my list for tomorrow, along with some planting!"
Barbara on Saturday 21 May 2011
"Thanks for this great article. Heading down to pick a draw file right now."
Vencie on Sunday 22 May 2011
"Good article.Investing in tools that can be sharpened is the best way. They come in handy for all seasons.."
Garden Tools on Saturday 25 June 2011
"Could anyone tell me where I can get a really sharp small size spade - I am quite elderly and could not possibly sharpen tools myself. I had quite a nice one from Spear Jackson (small size) but it was so blunt that I broke the handle trying to dig - thank you if you can suggest."
Nan Wilson on Wednesday 9 July 2014
"The picture that I see, from '10 ways to get ahead...' is someone ruining secateurs. Bevel the beveled side, never the flat side. Sharpen correctly or you make things worse. "
Hobart Crudd on Monday 12 October 2015

Add a Comment

Add your own thoughts on the subject of this article:
(If you have difficulty using this form, please use our Contact Form to send us your comment, along with the title of this article.)

(We won't display this on the website or use it for marketing)


(Please enter the code above to help prevent spam on this article)

By clicking 'Add Comment' you agree to our Terms and Conditions