Garden tools last for generations if properly cared for. I have many tools that belonged to my grandparents, so good tools can last much more than a lifetime if you treat them right. I've also picked up old tools for a song at garage sales and estate auctions. Who wants a pile of old rusty shovels and rakes? I do! Even the worst of them can be brought back to life. And, of course, I've had helpers leave tools outside in the elements and failed to notice until they had a rusty patina. It isn't all that hard or expensive to return them to their former glory. You just have to know what to do.
Rusty tools are a gardener's enemy
Sooner or later every gardener experiences rust on their tools. While most of the time, you simply buff it off with a bit of steel wool and a swipe of oil, every now and then you end up with a project. Clean, rust-free tools perform better and are easier to work with. Rusty shovels have a harder time cutting through soil and the rust also lessens the lifespan of those tools. Rusted pruning shears are hard to use and the results often do more harm than good to the plant. It is simply wise and frugal to keep your tools in tip top shape. Even how you store your tools affects their condition. Moisture, even in the air, will rust tools. So a shed that is drafty enough to expose your tools to various temperatures and humidities will affect the life of your investments. Storing them with their tips on the ground invites rust as well. Tools should be hung, with the business ends facing up and kept as dry as possible. My older relatives used an old rag with motor oil on it to wipe their tools down after cleaning, however I prefer vegetable oil, to avoid putting even a trace of petrochemicals in my soil. Tools should be cleaned after every use and all traces of dirt, sap and debris removed. Pruners should also be cleaned with alcohol to remove traces of fungus or disease before oiling.
Old tools are valuable, even neglected ones
You can safely and quickly remove rust from a steel tool without harming the environment. There are commercial, caustic rust removers that are harmful to humans and the environment. However, we are going to use vinegar and salt, which pose a threat to nothing. The shovel is decades old and is stamped 'Made in USA' and has been thoroughly mistreated for much of this time. I picked it up for $2 at a garage sale. A new tool of this quality would be in the excess of $50, so it is worth a shot to revive it. The rust has deeply pitted the metal, so it won't be a perfect restoration, however this old tool still has a lot of life left in it. The pliers are ancient as well, however they aren't pitted, so may look nicer in the end result.
Removing rust from tools
I used a shallow, disposable aluminum pan and poured it full with a gallon of 5% vinegar. There is a 6% washing vinegar that you can get at a hardware store, however I just used the garden variety (pun intended) supermarket stuff. I added a cup of regular table salt and stirred it well. The shovel was just covered when I laid it in the liquid. I dropped the pliers in as well and let it sit for 24 hours. After 24 hours, the vinegar was decidedly rust colored. I donned some rubber gloves and took a rough scratch pad and started scouring off the rust. Most of it came off, however, I decided to give it another shot. I took a fresh gallon of vinegar and prepared everything the same way and left it another 24 hours. Chances are, you'll only need one soaking as this shovel had been mistreated for years. After the second soak, the rest of the rust came right off with a simple scratch pad. I washed both tools well, dried them thoroughly and gave them a light coat of vegetable oil immediately. This prevents further rust.
Take care of your tools
As you can see, the metal is still pitted, however these are extreme examples. I wanted to show that even terribly neglected tools can be brought back to usefullness. If you clean and oil your tools every time you use them, this will never happen. Aftercare is just as important as properly using your tools as they were intended. Buy good tools and take care of them. They are an investment that should last more than a lifetime and if you happen across an old treasure that needs some loving care, you'll know exactly what to do.
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