Tuning Japanese Gardening Tools

Sharpening Secateurs and Japanese Gardening Tools

Any tool with more than one cutting edge can be intimidating to sharpen. Fear not! Where there is a will, there is a waterstone, and with these tips we'll have you touching up your secateurs (and snips, and hedge shears, and scissors) in no time.

Tip 1 - Mind the Flats
Secateurs consist of a blade and an anvil. The anvil's job is to hold a branch in place while the beautiful sharp blade slices across the fibres.
This interaction between the two is key - the back of the blade and the back of the anvil both need to slide over each other cleanly and easily.
It is essential to remember that sharpening is a subtractive process - the only way to make something sharper is to abrade steel away - and it can't be added back.

These surfaces are machined to a specific tolerance to "flat" at the factory, and it is important that they are left alone as much as possible. Work them only with your highest grit option, ideally when you know it's flat. A wooden strop is a good candidate for this (more details later).

If you need to remove chips from your cutting edge, it can only be done from the bevel side. No work should be done from the flat back side. Absolutely none. Every time a gardener gives their secateurs a heavily sharpened and beveled back, Mitch cries. And you don't want that, do you?

Tip 2 - Clean em up
Cleaning your tools after use gives them the longest life possible. We aren't all saints however, and there are plenty of times that tools get put away with water or sap on them.

Even when that happens, giving your secateurs a semi-regular clean is absolutely worth it to stop any potential problems getting worse over time. Some use WD40, some use hot soapy water, we like to use our Yanipika tool cleaner, or for particularly rusty patients, the Renaissance De-Corroder. See above in the video for a bit more on those.

Tip 3 - Stone the Crows
We really like sharpening with waterstones. They aren't the only way to go about this process, but they are efficient and give a great finish for their grit rating. The downside is that you have to leave them in a bucket of water for 5 minutes before you get started. Use the time to make a cup of tea. We should all drink more tea.
Finding the right angle is a process of trial and error. With the secateurs held firmly on the bench/tree stump/significant other in front of you, take a few passes with your stone, and have a look to see where it is scratching up the blade. It is definitely better to start with too low and angle that doesn't quite reach your cutting edge.

Once you have an understanding of where your stone is abrading the blade, and you know you aren't hitting the edge yet, walk the angle up in small increments until you absolutely bloody nail it. You will probably hear a slight difference in the sound of the stone, and there will be a slightly different feel to it. You beauty, good job.

Your action here is totally up to you. The angle is more important, as is the need to evenly sharpen the blade - spending too long in one area can cause a flat spot, which isn't ideal. You can use small circles, you can work back and forth, you can stand on your head and recite the alphabet backwards - you do you.

Tip 4 - Looking fiiiiine
Gardening tools usually miss out on the lovely fine grit waterstones we like to spoil our woodworking tools with, and most manufacturers don't make waterstones sized for garden tools in anything higher than #1000 grit. That's fine though. We are resourceful.

Waterstone grit breaks down as it is used. Since waterstones are solid blocks of this grit, when the top grit is broken down, it is washed away by the surrounding water to reveal fresh, aggressive grit beneath.

However, by slurrying up the surface of the waterstone with some sandpaper we can remove those abrasive grains and work them into a different substrate. We like to use a piece of scrap wood, as hard and flat as we can find without lifting anything up.

What this does is trap the abrasive in one spot and doesn't allow it to escape. This piece of timber can now be used as a strop, in the same way and at the same angle as the previous waterstones. The abrasives we have added to it break down into finer grains, and will therefore leave a finer finish on the tool.

It can be a good idea at this stage to lightly work the flat backs to remove any burrs. Keep the strop absolutely flat on the back of the blade - no angle should be introduced here whatsoever.

Strops in other areas of sharpening usually involve a soft piece of leather, however, the softness of the leather will round your edges, and this is particularly troublesome on the flat backs.

Alright, that's it for the moment. Breathe deeply, be brave, and remember to take a sip of tea now and then. If you have any questions about getting your gardening tools sharp, give us an email on (02) 9527 3870 or email info@japanesetools.com.au.

Happy gardening!