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I've got some old tools (shovels and pitchforks) that were my grandparents. The metal parts look like they were painted (a lot has worn off), I want to sharpen them and fix them up following the advice in Rodales Garden Encyclopedia - sand and reseal the handles and all (they're already in OK shape, but I want to keep them for my kids).

But, I'm just wondering if it's a good idea to repaint the bare metal because I think it would make them dull (not to mention leech into the soil).

How could I make them look good either way?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

My guess is that painting the metal would not hold up well. Shovels and Pitchforks in use basically will run up against things which cause the paint to chip off fairly quickly. I would just try to clean the rust off. A wire brush or a wire brush wheel would probably work well to clean them up.

As far as the handles, you may want to consider just replacing the handles. Most of the shovels and pitchforks I have seen laying around my grandparents house had a bolt that was used to hold the handle to the metal. I can remember helping my grandpa replace these handles pretty regularly as we broke them over the years.

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Yeah, I feel bad doing it, but he probably replaced them occasionally and would think it pretty silly of me to hold on to them forever. However, I'm not sure the quality of the wood is so good anymore, although that is a totally different question. – Peter Turner Jun 8 '11 at 20:06
I know, the older handles always looked cooler to me. They would kinda dry up and just get a neat look to them. The downside was the handles always gave me more blisters. Can't have it all, but you might want to just leave the handles alone, and as they break replace them. – Jacob Schoen Jun 8 '11 at 20:08

I'm assuming you want to keep using these tools, and not just clean them up for display. I'd avoid painting them, at least with anything you'd pick up at the local Home Depot. There are, of course, ways of applying paint to metal that are more durable (think of they guys who are painting and repainting cars using professional spray gear), but that's probably not worth the effort here. The best way I've found is just to make sure you clean them up and store them in a place that allows them to dry out and stay dry. I know people who use the oil and sand technique for over-wintering, but I've never had the nerve or space to have a large bucket of sand in my shed. I do sometimes use a little mineral oil and a rag, which probably works almost as well when you're storing tools for a few wet, winter months.

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I wouldn't paint, it will scrape off quickly.

Standard advice on preventing rust that I've heard is to take a 5 gallon bucket, fill it with sand, and put a quart of oil in it. When you're done with a tool, shove it in the bucket to give it a coating and it won't rust.

I don't like the idea of petroleum on my food-garden tools, so I'd substitute some kind of veg oil, even at the risk of it becoming rancid over time.

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Good advice, I do do the bucket thing and I don't think that paint would survive that. (I use motor oil though. 1 quart has lasted me 3 years, so probably not affecting food, but who knows) – Peter Turner Jun 8 '11 at 20:46
The oil in sand recommendation is really for over-winter storage, where the tool is not going to be used for a long period of time. I don't know if I'd consider substituting vegetable oil. – rsgoheen Jun 8 '11 at 20:48

Sure, if you want. Hit them with some rust primer every so often.

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Use wax paper to clean the metal parts. Then you can put furniture paste wax on them to prevent rust.

The handles, if they're not too far gone, can be renewed with boiled linseed oil.

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