Second-hand shops can yield tools for keen gardeners to treasure, writes Meg Liptrot.

You could say I'm a bit of a fanatic when it comes to garden tools. I can't drive past a second-hand shop on road trips without leaping out of the car to fossick among the rusty rakes and worn-down hoes.

My partner will confirm that I once insisted on bringing a 1m rusty and blunt scythe blade, found in a garage sale in Clyde, home on an Air New Zealand flight. It's not terribly useful for someone of my height, so it takes pride of place on my office wall.

Other finds include a perfect composting fork with painted string binding and super-pointy tines, a vintage English wooden-handled spade and fork set - I love the shape of the handles, which are like the ones in the Beatrix Potter toolshed - and several large garden sieves of varying gauge for screening potting mix and compost or winnowing seed.

I eventually found a perfectly intact English scythe complete with serpentine timber handle, at Just Plane Interesting in Oratia. I have had a chance to give it a go - we held a scything workshop with permaculturalist Wolfgang Hiepe at a community orchard in Glen Eden. The orchard is managed by Project Twin Streams Glen Eden, where they are trialling grass-cutting using human power only.


A sharp blade powers through grass like a hot knife through butter, and scything is a satisfying, meditative activity. It also makes quick work of a job that would be noisy and fiddly with a trimmer. Here the German scythe was used - it is lighter again, and easier to handle. The soft steel requires peening, a process in which the cutting edge is fined by gentle hammering to keep it thin, and a pouch with a sharpening stone should be slung around your waist for a quick sharpen as you go.

Vintage tool finds are not just sentimentally attractive. The tools are usually made of sterner stuff than mass-produced tools found these days. The steel is often harder and will last longer. They take to sharpening better, and the handles are often good-quality ash.

Once they are sharpened, the rust can be buffed off and, with a little oil, they're good to go.

There are plenty of great new tools and tool companies out there, too. The secret with tools is to buy quality that will last. Working in the garden is a pleasure when using tools that do their job well. A case in point is my wooden-handled Japanese Okatsune hedge-clippers. I have been through several hedge-clippers, and this pair is by far my favourite. They are nice and light and the Japanese carbon-steel blades keep themselves sharp.

To keep the shears gliding smoothly, particularly after cutting sappy plants that can glug up the blades with resin, I give them a light spray with CRC and wipe them.

It was a coup to get the tool company Sneeboer to an Ellerslie Flower Show years ago. This Dutch company, which celebrates its centenary next year, makes hand-forged specialised garden tools, using traditional designs or concepts sent in by customers.

It fits in with my sustainability mantra to support family-owned businesses and specialist craftspeople. You can appreciate the quality and the tools will last a lifetime, so I don't feel so bad spending the money.

From Sneeboer, I have more toolkit curios: an extra-long, narrow planting trowel, an asparagus cutter/dandelion remover, and a spade with a V-shaped blade for dividing clumping roots.

I picked up my love of tools by having a specialist bricklayer and DIY king for a father. Our garage was built by my great-grandfather and was full of all sorts of treasures.

After Dad retired, I was given a Kleensak full of tools for my birthday. It was filled with special items, the most precious being a string-line with hand-forged line pins, given to him in England by his grandfather, who was a stonemason (and likely to have made it himself). I plan to care for these tools as well as they did.

Tool time
* Getting your tools sharpened and oiled ready for spring is a pleasant rainy-day task in winter.

* To remove rust, buff using a power drill with a wire brush attachment, then wipe with a light oil (used cooking oil is ideal).

* Spades need to be sharp to do their job well. Those bought from a hardware shop or found second-hand are best sharpened before use (it's not necessary for stainless-steel ones).

* Use a grindstone or an all-purpose file to sharpen large tools. Sharpen evenly on the back side then file off the burr.

* Give wooden handles a wipe with 50/50 raw linseed oil and kerosene (Dad's recipe) to keep them in good condition, and avoid leaving them in the rain. Don't think you can leave plastic-handled tools out in the rain either; the join between the spade and the handle rusts.

* After use, rinse off the soil, then wipe the steel part of your tools with a rag dampened with light oil.

Where to go:
* Eureka Enterprises: importer of excellent Japanese tools, including the Niwashi and Garden Shark.

* Wolfgarten: get one handle, then select interchangeable parts. Their hoes are a must-have weeding tool. (Now available at garden centres).

* Silex tools (formerly Allendale): Suppliers of mail-order professional tools. Great loppers and secateurs.

* Gardening Aids: for good tools (including excellent Japanese Silky pruning saws) and great advice.

* Koanga Gardens: Suppliers of quality wooden-handled tools made by Clarington Forge.

* On the wish list: Sneeboer. Jolly Scythers for scything tools, and Middle Earth Tools for bronze earth-friendly tools (from here).