Breathing New Life Into an Old Shovel

The derelict shovel next to some axe handles I recently rejuvinated.

When we bought our house over 10 years ago, I didn’t notice it right away. In the backyard, just a few steps outside the door was a clump of 3 tree trunks and in the space in the middle was stashed a shovel. It seemed odd, like the previous owner may have forgotten it there, but it’s use (I think) eventually became clear. The previous owner was had a dog too and I think he used it for yard cleanup.

Since then, I’ve used it for the same, but also as a general purpose shovel. The shovel has been stuck in that space, in between the trees, outside and exposed to the elements, 365 days a year, for over 10 years. It’s been frozen in by snow and rained on, and yet the other day it occurred to me just how solid it was. In rough shape, for sure, but the handle still felt sure your hand and amazingly the shovel head was still firmly attached – not the slightest wobble or sign of loosening. This was where I got all retrogrouchy and said, “they just don’t make things like they used to.”

There’s no distinguishing marks on the shovel, so I have no idea of it’s origin. I don’t know what kind of wood the handle is (bombproof – apparently) and the head has no tell tale markings other that a ‘HEAT-TREATED STEEL’ stamp. The tool weirdo in me would like to know who made it and where it came from.

A few months back, I refurbished a few old axes I had. The handles were drying out and the heads were rusted and dull. I did the best I could to clean them up and put a decent edge on them with what I had, basically a file, sandpaper and steel wool. I decided to give this shovel a go.

Before and After: Shovel handle originally, and after several sandings and an application of linseed oil.

I started by washing the whole thing and scrubbing with a brush to remove the surface dirt. There was still a lot of stuff hardened on. I worked first on the shovel head removing what rust I could with steel wool and sand paper. Then I hit the handle with several sandings, going with a finer grit each time. The handle was very dry and cracked, and starting to split in some spots. I opted to not try any sort of ‘filling’ of the cracks and just leave them be. I thought the sanding dust would fill them some and then get sealed in a bit during the last step when I hit the wood with linseed oil. I finished the whole process by coating the head and the handle with a few coats of linseed oil, sanding the handle lightly between coats.

In-Process – Here I’d already started to hit the shovel head with steel wool and one pass of sanding on the handle.

What I was consistently amazed by was the method that the head was attached to the handle. It appears to be some sort of pass-through metal rod that was then welded on both sides – it hasn’t budged or loosened a bit over the years – amazing when you think the wood has probably expanded and contracted with the elements over time. I’ve seen ‘modern day’ shovels with screws and bolts and other attachment methods that have all come loose in short order. I actually have another shovel I bought with a fiberglass handle that the head is coming loose on.

Before and After: shovel head. This was as good as I could get it with mere elbow grease. I saw some videos on YouTube of guys using grinders and other power tools to basically strip the metal back to a mirror-like finish. I don’t have a grinder and frankly I like a little bit of patina, so I’m ok with how this turned out. I could have worked indefinitely at it with steel wool and maybe some naval jelly, but I just wanted to get the thing back in rotation.

Overall, I’m really happy with how it turned out. I have a bunch of other wood-handled garden tools I plan to refurbish one at a time. When you sand the handles and clean them up, then add the linseed oil, they really feel great in the hand.

Before and After: Top of shovel handle. I probably could have sanded more and gotten rid of more of the blackened, seasoned wood grain, but at some point I would have taken considerable dimension out of the handle so decided to leave it.

I like the notion that by treating these tools as what they are – a valuable and helpful object to have around – and taking care of them accordingly, not only am I ensuring they’re safe and ready to perform for years to come, but I’m also combating the sort of ‘disposable’ mindset that I find is prevalent these days – one that even I had fallen victim to. Particularly with things like garden tools, I’d started to think of them as ‘one-offs’ – items to be bought and used until broken and discarded – and more often than not it seems they only last a season or two, I think in part due to cost-cutting assembly methods and materials. I like the idea that I’m going to have these things around awhile to develop character. Is it possible to have an emotional attachment to a shovel?

Before and After: Back out to it’s spot in the tree to be of service hopefully for years to come. I won’t wait as long next time to give it some TLC.

2 replies on “Breathing New Life Into an Old Shovel”

  1. I would have you bring your talents down to Maine, but the movers lost all of my outdoor tools. Surprisingly, I seem to get along pretty well without them.

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