Learn How to Restore Garden Tool Handles

Give your garden tools a little TLC with simple steps to make them shine like new.
Restoring Hand Tools

Restoring Hand Tools

A simple maintenance routine for the handles of garden tools can help you save money over time.

Photo by: Photo by Mark Wolfe

Photo by Mark Wolfe

A simple maintenance routine for the handles of garden tools can help you save money over time.

A good hand tool is a pleasure to work with. It will help you get the job done quickly and efficiently. The metal holds it’s edge well, requiring only the occasional touch up with a hone, file or stone. It is well-balanced for many hours of work with little fatigue. A tool such as this pays dividends for the minimal care required to extend its useful life and increase user comfort. One of the most beneficial treatments for a tool of this quality is to maintain or restore its handle. 

Over time, with frequent use, a wood handle receives plenty of stress. This once-living tissue further dries out and becomes more brittle with age. Continued stress as the handle becomes more brittle will lead to damage, possibly breakage, maybe even an injury to the user. Regular conditioning of the wood will minimize this risk and make the handle feel more comfortable in your hand. The process is simple and the supplies are minimal.

Initially, most wood tool handles these days come with a coat of varnish. Although it’s not particularly comfortable for bare hands and increases the likelihood of blisters on tender skin, varnish is cheap and serviceable—until it begins to breakdown. Once the varnish begins to degrade, indicated by splits and cracks in the finish and the graying of the wood, it’s time for the first treatment. You will need 100-grit sandpaper (a random-orbit sander can make quick work of this part of the job), boiled linseed oil, a couple of rags and a pair of gloves.

Use the sandpaper to remove all traces of the varnish. If you are using a power sander, keep it moving and avoid making flat spots. The varnish, which used to keep the wood fresh underneath and seal the moisture out, has now started to work against you by allowing moisture to get into the wood in some areas and locking it into other areas. Your new finish will feel much better on the hands and be better for the wood. Once the sanding is complete, use a damp rag to remove any remaining sanding residue. Let the handle dry completely. Finally, use another rag to liberally apply boiled linseed oil to the handle. Let it absorb into the wood and wipe off any excess with a clean rag. Dispose of oil-soaked rags as indicated on the container label. From this point on, you can use 120-grit sandpaper to open the pores on the handle and apply boiled linseed oil annually to ensure long life.

There are other times when we inherit tools that have not been cared for properly. The handles of these tools are quite rough and splintery. If the handle is sound with no cracks, follow the instructions above, although a heavier grit paper may be in order. If a handle is cracked or broken, don’t throw it away! Handles are replaceable, but a good tool-head often is not. Do not limit this treatment to shovels and rakes. Hammers, post-hole diggers, even wheelbarrows will benefit from a little TLC on occasion.

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