TLC for Hand Tools

Words: From the stone mason and automotive mechanic to the dentist, hair stylist, professional fisherman, carpenter and craftsman, high quality tools are essential for high quality results. And whether you have fish scales, mortar, grease, wood chips, dirt, dust or hair in or on your tools, they need routine cleaning and tender loving care (TLC) for long-term performance and function. The study of psychology goes in many different directions, including personal and professional habits. Of the many definitions of "habit", this one seems to be the closest to applying to hand tool maintenance:  a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance   [Merriam-Webster Dictionary] The first time you clean your tools might be clumsy, incomplete, even ineffective until it's done over and over for the desired result -- clean, well-maintained tools that perform correctly over a long period of time. You know the old adage: If you don't have time to do it right the first time, how will you find the time to do it over again? The habit of cleaning tools daily, monthly and periodically is important not only in terms of being prepared to go to work each day, but also for:
      • increasing longevity of the tool
      • keeping down tool expenses by buying the best you can afford and caring for each one properly
      • assuring performance for which the tool is intended
      • minimizing accidents and injury from dirt accumulation, loose handles or other preventable malfunctions
      • making a professional impression on the job.
Like the best time to plant a tree, the best time to get organized for tool cleaning is today. In an out of the way section of your garage, tool shed or basement, assemble a few useful cleaning supplies:
  • Bucket(s)
  • Rags
  • Soft, stiff and wire brushes
  • Steel wool, #00 or other
  • Cleansers, degreasers
  • Water [container if not running water]
  • WD-40, household oil
  • Murphy's Oil Soap or linseed oil
  • Concrete degreaser if needed
Most stone mason hand tools can simply be checked for dirt and mortar, washed, brushed and/or wiped well with a soft rag after every use. Products like Klein's Multi-purpose Cleaner-Degreaser are excellent for dissolving grime, then evaporating and leaving no residue on a tool. Additionally, it is non-corrosive, non-conductive and does not stain metal, plastic or wood. If you have not cleaned your tools regularly, you might need concrete dissolver for removing hardened deposits on shovels, cutting and shaping tools, trowels, mallets and mixing equipment. The active components of mild acid and foaming agents work to disrupt the bond that hardens concrete. Most concrete dissolvers are biodegradable, odor-free, non-corrosive, stable (foam does not run) and free from harmful vapors. For these, read directions carefully, wear protective gear, cover beneath the tool and try a small test spot first. Usually foam can sit about 30 minutes, then be wiped or brushed off, washed and cloth-dried or air-dried. With specially-developed, hard-working concrete and mortar dissolving products, there is no need to use harsh materials like muriatic acid to clean hand tools and equipment. Cleaning tools often is imperative. "Letting mortar harden on your hand tools can ruin them," states Jarod Jeffery, product manager for Marshalltown Company. Headquartered in Iowa with Marshalltown Tools based in Arkansas, this one-time small machine shop run by two brothers in the 1890s now boasts more than 5,000 tools for professionals and DIY-ers for work with asphalt, brick, concrete, drywall, EIFS, flooring, paint, plaster, stucco, tile and wallpaper. "Some masons will use a grinding wheel to clean hardened mortar off of a trowel, but this can compromise the integrity of the trowel," Jeffery continues. "Many masons have different routines when it comes to the specifics of cleaning hand tools after a job, but as long as they remove all of the mortar from their tools before it has a chance to harden the tools will remain in good shape.  This usually consists of cleaning off the trowel a couple times a day -- at lunch and at the end of the work day, for example -- depending on the job." David Conroy, stone mason and founder of Stone Age Masonry in Southwest Virginia concurs: "It's important to keep your trowel clean and the handle dry. Marshalltown makes a nice forged trowel. They forge the blade and handle tang out of one piece of metal, unlike cheaper imitations found at some box stores where they are welded together." In stone masonry you need a good supply of chisels, and after years 30 years of experience, Conroy buys carbide tipped chisels from Trow & Holden, based in Barre, Vermont. Interestingly, they have been in business, just like Marshalltown Company, since 1890, the same year Ellis Island was designated as an immigration station and Dave Foutz hit the first Dodger home run. "From forging and forming to heat treatment and finish grinding, all Trow and Holden tools are made on the same site in Barre where they have been manufactured for more than 125 years. All employees complete a four-year apprenticeship in tool making, and they like to say that their tools are 'made by artisans for artisans.'" [] "I do sharpen my chisels, but not to a fine point," Conroy adds. "I try to keep the edge or point about 1/8 inch wide so the tip doesn't break. During hot summer months, I tape up my chisels with sport tape so they don't get so hot from the sun, just the shank. That way when you pick up the chisel, you won't get burned."  A common problem with all struck tools is that of mushrooming. The struck end spreads out as a result of hammering, and a mushroomed chisel head can shatter on impact. Flying chips and slippage can occur. Edges can be razor sharp, and serious injuries are highly possible. Properly dress the mushroomed end of the chisel so the sides are chamfered at the top and the top is flat and at right angles to the sides. Also grind a 45-degree bevel on the end, as all cold chisels have this, and it will delay the next mushroom formation.


Handles come in a variety of materials and shapes, many of them ergonomically designed for both comfort and performance. Much of handle choice is personal preference. Check scraper, trowel and all tool handles daily for splinters, cracks and any breakage or loose attachment that can negatively impact a firm grip, cause injury or damage the tool during use. "I like wood handle hammers because they take a lot of the vibration out of the work," explains Conroy. "You need to keep some moisture in the handle or the head will get loose. Sometimes I let the hammer head soak in a little water overnight." Many masons routinely rub oil into wood handles to keep the wood moisturized and reduce the opportunity for cracks and splinters to develop. Almost any oil will do, with linseed oil and Murphy's Oil Soap among the favorites. Olive oil, Danish oil, decking oil and commercial wood oil are all effective. Rough wood handles can be lightly sanded across the grain, then finished by sanding with the grain and applying oil. In the early 1990s, MARSHALLTOWN revolutionized the hand tool industry by incorporating a soft-grip handle on a construction tool. The firm obtained several patents and registered the DuraSoft® brand name.  All of its DuraSoft® handles feature a unique black plastic core and a brick red, soft-grip material that is easily recognized by tradesmen. These brick red handles are found on hundreds of tools, including trowels, tuck pointers, jointers and sled runners, hawks, taping knives, joint and putty knives, edgers, groovers, floats and darbies, chisels, rasps, tapers, utility knives, sanders, squeegees, texture guns, seam rollers, saws and scrapers.  

Storage and Accessories

Toolboxes and the way tools are handled and stored can contribute to the life and usefulness of every mason's tool. Many hand tools are damaged accidentally when dropped from heights and/or run over by a truck. Others are broken, chipped or bent by carelessly being tossed into a tool box or the back of a truck. Safe and practical storage is as important as cleaning for hand tool longevity and performance. Toolbox qualities include:
  • Rugged material
  • Rust-resistant hinges and latches
  • Good handles
  • Ability to lock
  • Pockets or slots
  • Removable tray or tote
  • Detachable shoulder strap
  • Wheels for easy movement
  • Waterproof bottom
There are a lot of toolboxes on the market from a lot of manufacturers and the Milwaukee 13" Jobsite Work Box is often rated among the best. It is portable and organizes tools vertically in individual slots, making it easy to move and simple to pull out the tool you need. The bonus here is that with the lid closed, it doubles as a seat for lunch, rest or discussion. One of the latest and greatest in tool storage also comes from Milwaukee Tool and just hit the marketplace in September. The PACKOUTTM Modular Storage System claims to be the most versatile and durable modular storage system in the industry. A new attachment system allows boxes, organizers and totes of different sizes and configurations to stack and lock together. The base is a rolling toolbox with 9-inch all-terrain wheels which can support up to 250 pounds. Depending on the job and number of tools the mason is carrying, a canvas or leather tool bag or multi-compartment tool belt may suffice. Whatever your preferred toolbox, bag or belt, each one needs to be thoroughly cleaned every six months to preserve the material and life of the storage unit as well as the tools inside. "High quality hand tools keep paying for  themselves year after year," Conroy relates. "In this day and age, some companies try to imitate the real thing, but with well-cared for, quality tools, nothing can outlast real stone masonry done by a professional."  
Words: Joanne M. Anderson Photos: Masonry Magazine, Milwaukee Tool
Joanne M. Anderson is a freelance writer and magazine editor with more than 1,000 articles and blogs in print. She especially enjoys home improvement and building topics.
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