With the garden season picking up momentum quickly, it’s still a good time to take care of some tool maintenance. I might have been better off doing this a few months ago, when things were a bit quieter, but sometimes the perfect time to do something is just about right now. So onward we go.
I found a good video from Wranglerstar that covers how to care for wooden tool handles. It’s a bit long winded (the tool handle info ends around the 12 min mark), but I think you might enjoy it, and I learned something new!
That is to use fine steel wool (00, 000 or 0000) after the linseed has dried to burnish (polish) your handle. This creates a smooth finish, and by the looks of Wranglerstar’s hatchet, seems to really seal the wood up nicely. I will be burnishing from here on out.
Below the video is the write up of the process (I’ve added another step that the video doesn’t mention). The process is so simple that it might be faster to simply read the steps and bypass the video. Either way, enjoy.
1. If your handle is rough or starting to check, or if the varnish that came with it is starting to peel off, sand it smooth by hand or with an orbital sander. I generally use a medium grit paper, say 160, but if the handle is particularly rough it will be faster to start with a coarser grit. If your handle is dirty you may want to clean it with a stiff brush before sanding.
2. Apply boiled linseed oil (see note at bottom of post). Many thin coats left to dry between applications works much better than one thick coat. So apply sparingly with a rag. Give it some time to dry. Then come back for another round. How many coats you apply depends on how much oil your handle drinks up.
3. Burnish your now oiled handle with fine steel wool. Burnishing looks like sanding with steel wool instead of sandpaper.
4. I like to use a small squeeze bottle to squirt some oil down into the eye of the tool. This rehydrates the wooden wedge if one is present and helps prevent loose tool heads caused by shrinking wood.
I have had success with particularly dry handles and loose tool heads by soaking the tool head (upside down) in an inch or so of linseed oil. This can take some time to fully penetrate, think weeks, but is an easy passive solution. The next tactic would be to add a metal wedge to tighten things up.
It often takes me a bit of discipline to get around to tending to my tool handles, but I’m always glad when I do. The tools look prettier, feel nicer, and I think, make my gardening that much better. Happy gardening, Matt.
Some Thoughts on Linseed Oil: In the course of writing this little article I learned that the “boiled linseed oil” sold in most hardware stores is not actually boiled, but modified to act as if it were boiled by the addition of petroleum solvents and heavy metal driers. Yikes.
Raw linseed oil takes a long time to dry and doesn’t polymerize (or harden) to protect whatever it has been applied to. Boiled linseed (whether actually boiled or chemically modified) dries quickly and forms a nice protective barrier, what we want for finishing our tool handles.
I will probably keep using the regular oiled “boiled” stuff until I run out, but I don’t think I’ll be letting my son do any more handle oiling (he likes doing it) until I get something cleaner. Tried and True makes a linseed oil finish that is made the old fashion way, with heat, and contains no heavy metals or solvents of any kind. It is food safe so it can be used on cutting boards as well.
As you might expect, there is a price difference, but not a huge one: quarts of Tried and True range from $17 to $30, while the not-really-boiled linseed costs around $10. Considering my own health and that of my family, I’m willing to pay extra.