Q&A / 

Choosing and Using the Right Shovel

DEAR TIM: This past weekend I had to dig a trench and shovel gravel. It was very hard work and I struggled the entire time. My wife said I was using the wrong shovel for the job. I had a simple square-tipped shovel my dad gave me years ago. The sides are bent up slightly. The gravel I was shoveling was slightly angular and the size of pieces of medium to large shrimp if that helps you visualize what I was working with. I've got lots more digging to do and must discover an easier way. Patrick S., Omaha, NE

DEAR PATRICK: I'm really sorry you had such a difficult time. Digging dirt and moving gravel by hand is absolutely a tough job. To maximize progress and minimize work you must use the right tools. I have no less than five different shovels that I use for working in dirt and moving gravel.

I was really lucky many years ago to work with an older ditch digger. Yes, that craft was specialized back fifty or more years ago prior to the widespread use of mechanical digging machines you see today. I'm constantly amazed at the variety of backhoes and excavators, especially tiny ones that are more like oversized children's toys, that you can rent for an afternoon or a weekend. You may discover this is the way to tackle future digging tasks.

These shovels are shaped differently for a reason. Each one does a particular job very well. Photo Credit: Tim Carter

These shovels are shaped differently for a reason. Each one does a particular job very well. Photo Credit: Tim Carter

As crazy as this sounds, let's compare digging with eating. If you look at my German Shepherd's mouth and teeth you'll discover that Mother Nature outfitted her with an assortment of pointed tools. I'm not an expert on canine dentistry, but it doesn't take an Einstein to notice the giant pointed canine teeth are designed to puncture while nearby teeth are sharp and so they can cut. These teeth start to process the food, while teeth farther back are designed to crush and mash the food.

You can see similar metal teeth on mechanized digging equipment. These are meant to make the initial cut into soil to loosen it so the surface area of the main body of the bucket experiences less friction. It's all about friction when you dig anything. The less friction, the less work you have to do to move the shovel through the material.

If you want to cut into soil or dig into a pile of medium or coarse gravel, I suggest you use a round point shovel. This tool is shaped much like a spoon you'd have in your kitchen drawer. The tip of the shovel has a point and is shaped very similar to a broad or wide heart you'd see on a valentine card. The tip of the shovel produces minimum friction as it starts to cut into the material.

You had difficulty because you were trying to use a shovel that did not have a tip on its end. The entire edge of the shovel was trying to move it's way through the soil. Since you only have a fixed amount of force pushing the shovel, this force is spread out across the entire edge of the shovel. When you use a round-point shovel, the same force is concentrated on the tip.

When I dig ditches in a sandy or clay soil, the two shovels I use are a duck-billed shovel and a flat-tipped garden spade. The duck-billed shovel is named because it closely resembles the bill on a duck. The blade of the shovel is nearly twice as long as the blade on a typical shovel. The blade is also much narrower.

This shape means that there's less metal in contact with the soil. Less metal means less friction. While it's not an accurate analogy, pushing a duck-billed shovel into soil is much like pushing a hypodermic needle into skin. Imagine trying to puncture your skin with a flat screwdriver instead of a needle. You'd need much more force when using the screwdriver.

A small flat garden spade is a fantastic tool to trim the sides of a trench if you want to create smooth side walls and a flat trench bottom. These spades shave moist clay soils like a hot knife cuts into butter.

When shoveling gravel, I've discovered it's best to slide a round point shovel into the pile at about a 30-degree angle. Don't try to drive the shovel into the gravel straight on. That's tough on you and the shovel. Remember, it's all about friction.

The square-point shovel you were using is best suited to shovel dry or moist sand or any other powdered product. It's also great for shoveling fluffed mulch. However, if you try to push this shovel straight into a semi-compacted pile of mulch, you'll discover you don't get very far. Do the same thing with a round-point shovel and it bites right into the mulch.

Clean shovels work best. Don't try to dig with hardened clay on the shovel surface. This just creates more friction. Always clean shovels after you're finished with them. Oil the metal surface to prevent rust.

You'll discover, most of the time, that it's easier to dig moist soil instead of when it's dry. If you're experiencing a drought, try to water the area you plan to dig with a soaker hose.

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