Tool’s of the Trade: Shovels, Implements of Construction…and Maintenance

(I wrote this piece a few years ago. It was last printed in the Fall 2012 HPSO Bulletin.  It is updated here for my Blog.)

Cut from a piece of sheet metal the failure point is at the bottom of the 'arrow'

Cut from a piece of sheet metal the failure point is at the bottom of the ‘arrow’. Yes, I know this is a square point, but the are built using the same process.

I broke my shovel at home last week digging out a smaller-growing bamboo, Semiarundinaria yashadake ‘Kimmei’. It was at least ten years old, the shovel that is, and I broke it the way most people do, prying with it. I’m not nearly as hard on shovels as I used to be; I know their limits, but I was tired of this shovel. It was one of those thin-gauge “stamped” shovels that hardware stores sell these days to consumers, inexpensive and cheaply made; the kind of tool a person could buy many times over the course of their gardening life. I have broken several in the past jumping on them, with two booted feet, while trying to cut through heavy soil and roots, or like I did here, levering to hard before the object of my attention was adequately cut free of its earthly ties. Stamped shovels flex due to their thinness. Any flexion causes an inefficient transfer of energy when attempting to drive the blade against resistance. Think wasted energy and more effort. Stamped shovels have a soft fold where the smooth curve of its bowl bends into the vee that becomes the sleeve that then wraps around the shovel handle. This shaping of the blade adds some rigidity that the same material flat doesn’t possess. Any such bend in a piece of metal, however, becomes the weak point. This is where the metal breaks. Finding a quality replacement requires special ordering or buying through someone who serves the nursery or landscape trades.

Pony ‘OO’- my workhorse

Forged with an angle that works for chopping down and scooping out

Forged with an angle that works for chopping down and scooping out

I generally carry five different kinds of shovel on my truck.  My favorite shovel at work, at home now too, is an Ames (also known as a Jackson) Pony ‘OO’. I probably use it at least 60% of the time I’m digging, whether I’m looking for a broken irrigation line, planting, transplanting, dividing, or removing plant material. Ames calls this an irrigation shovel, I assume a carryover from the days when farmers used to walk the ditches removing and replacing chunks of sod to direct the water into their fields from ditches when flood irrigating (I actually did this as a kid in a pasture at one of my friend’s houses though neither one of us were very good at it having to make multiple cuts and drops to get the water where it needed to be). The blade and shank are forged, not stamped out of a piece of sheet metal. It is heated, drawn, and hammered into form, resulting in a much stronger tool, without the compromised and weakened fold. The ash handle is stout and resilient. (When selecting your specific shovel, check the direction of the grain relative to the blade; it should stand perpendicular to the blade. Wood is much stronger worked in this direction, taking more torsion and flex before failing.) It has good balance and heft, adding a liveness that fiberglass or metal handles don’t.

The blade is canted at a shallow angle away from the handle, allowing the user to comfortably scoop up soil without having to lower the handle too close to the ground; at the same time it is straight enough and rigid so that the user can use it to cut through roots by driving it down with both hands on the handle. The ‘OO’ indicates the width of the blade, about 7”, which is

Solid piece of steel.  You can see the 'sweep' for holding soil and the long forged neck that reinforces its connection w/ ash handle

Solid piece of steel. You can see the ‘sweep’ for holding soil and the long forged neck that reinforces its connection w/  its ash handle

relatively narrow, not a good choice if one is only interested in removing the most soil possible in a short period of time. The bowl, side to side, is deep, helping it firmly cradle its soil load while wielding it. The smallness saves wear and tear on your back and allows the user a degree of control that bigger shovels cannot. It also makes it appropriate for people of smaller stature. I’m 6’2”. The handle itself is relatively fat, which is a more comfortable to grip for me. You might want to try one before buying.

I also use this for weeding, loosening the soil around tap-rooted plants like dandelions, dock, and pin oak volunteers. Its size permits me to wield it with one hand, low on the handle, driving it into the ground if the soil isn’t too compacted. I will also use it like a large garden trowel, wielding it in much the same way in soil I’ve worked up and amended: stab and pull, then plunk in your gallon perennial, etc. (This can be ordered online through your “Best” hardware store and picked up there for no freight charge. Model # 1258200. Price $52.99)

King of Spades – my new number two

Aircraft alloy steel, 13" deep blade, welded blade to handle w/ tread pad

Aircraft alloy steel, 13″ deep blade, welded blade to handle w/ tread pad. Breaks up soil more deeply than roto-tilling when plunged fully into the ground and levered back a task some use a broad-fork to do.

The “King of Spades” is a professional-grade tool. Made of aircraft alloy steel, blade and handle, this is a work horse. I have put my full weight into this and it remains absolutely rigid with no discernible flex. The blade holds an edge. It is the steel that gives it these qualities.  Because of this hardness it is not stamped into this shape.  Rather, it is cut and welded.  There is a ‘tang’ at the top of blade, between the two treads, that extends slightly up inside the handle. The tool is built in nearly a straight line so that it transfers all of your force to the cutting edge when you drive it into the ground while gripping the handle. I quartered a Miscanthus sinensis var. condensatus ‘Cosmopolitan’ with a base at least three feet in diameter relatively easily and levered each piece free without having to worry it loose a little bit at a time as I worked around it. Miscanthus roots are high in silica and typically I would use an axe or polaski to chop through it. The whole process took maybe a quarter of the time it would otherwise have. This makes any removal or heavy job easier and saves time. I now view this spade as essential for digging/dividing medium and larger growing ornamental grasses. For 15 years I was responsible for the full acre of such grasses at the south end of Waterfront Park.

Blade set at a nearly flat angle to handle

Blade set at a nearly flat angle to handle allowing a more efficient transfer of force when driving it into the ground.

(Special note: This type of shovel is designed to tolerate prying, but keep in mind that if you are prying out nearly immoveable objects like buried concrete or boulders, use a rock bar, that’s what they’re designed for. Bending or breaking a $50–$100 shovel or spade is not worth it!) This won’t replace a backhoe, obviously, but it will surprise you. The same company’s line includes spades with extended 15” long blades with square, rounded or diamond shaped leading edges and optional padded treads to protect your foot while romping on them. They come in either D-handled or long- handled versions that deliver much more leverage for prying.  Being tall, I like the longer, 54″ straight handles.  If need be I can always choke up on it to get in closer.  You will never break one of these handles (okay, I know, never say never.  I’ve had trucks and tractors back over tools and 5,000 lbs + can wreck alot of things.) nor can you get slivers like you can from worn or abused fiberglass handles. (They are available online at Agriculture Solutions ranging in price from $81.99 to $118.99. I bought mine at the Bamboo Garden.)

Balling Shovel

By frequency of use, the one I choose next is what we call a “balling”shovel, used in the nursery fields when balling and burlaping trees and shrubs or transplanting in the landscape. The manufacture, Ames, calls this their Pony Caprock Irrigation Shovel. (Model # 1272800, available from: Agriculture Solutions for $62.49. Do-it, Best’s online catalog, did not list this one. If you have a connection at OBC Northwest in Canby they carry this as a Jackson Pony B & B, flat dish, clip point shovel.  OBC is a supplier for the Nursery industry and carries many quality tools.) Don’t ask me what Caprock means. I have no idea. If your local garden center or hardware store carries Ames, they may be able to special order one for you. The blade is aligned almost straight with the handle, what they refer to as low sweep, allowing most of the force to be effectively transferred to the blade when driving the handle into the ground. This is a cutting tool, not a digging tool, something you realize as soon as you start scooping the loosened soil away from the plant or object you are attempting to preserve. This shovel has no step or tread. The top of the blade is thin, making jumping on or kicking it while wearing sneakers a bad idea, but it does make it possible to drive the blade beneath a root ball to shape it and cut roots without a step dragging against and possibly breaking the ball. The blade is relatively wide and the leading edge is cut in a smooth arc. It has a shallow, even bowl or curve from one side to the other, making it easier to slice a uniform circle around a plant (An irregular-shaped ball is much more likely to fall apart when moving, further damaging the root system.) This shovel allows for even more precision than the Pony 00 when cutting.

For over twenty-five years I’ve used it to carve out the root-balls of trees and shrubs I needed to transplant, most of those years spent working primarily on my knees trying to preserve my lower back. As you might imagine, this required that I generate a lot of force, twisting my body and whipping my arms around to drive the shovel down and cut the roots (and guess what, over time I damaged my upper back and neck instead of my lumbar. Actually it probably spread the damage around.  As a home gardener as long as you maintain decent core strength and flexibility it should be a long time before this becomes a problem for you.)

Three things to remember when digging a ball: always cut away from the ball, never pry against it; keep your edge sharp to minimize torn roots, which heal slower; and, no matter how you do this, something on you will eventually wear out, so don’t overdo it. Pace yourself. It also wouldn’t hurt to have someone show you how to do this effectively. There is a technique, and both sizing the ball and choosing the appropriate season are major factors in success or failure. Even though you aren’t out in the fields doing production work, cutting a round uniform ball makes it easier to wrap and tie. True some deciduous woody plants don’t seem to mind being bare-rooted while dormant, but alot of them do, e.g., Magnolias, Pines and most other conifers.  You will also find that it is often not worth to attempt to move larger material especially if said plants are relatively quick growers.  A broken root-ball damages roots. It’s too much work to go at it sloppily and doom your effort.

I will also use this shovel to recut or cut new bed edges from the turf, a skill that requires both a good eye and technique to maintain the proper ‘tension’ in the line that is your bed’s edge.  I hate half moon edgers and find them awkward to use.  It is also very handy for when when I need to dig a hole with vertical side such as post holes. (It also makes a decent, though heavy headed spear, for tossing, though not recommended especially when the public, children or pets are around. )

The Stamped Digging Shovel – much maligned, but still has a place

I also carry a plain old hardware store digging shovel, one stamped from sheet metal, as I cautioned against above. I use this almost exclusively to move or remove a lot of loose soil. Their blades tend to be canted at more of an angle, making it easier to scoop material out from a hole. The deeper the hole, the bigger a deal this is. I also use them when I’m rough grading a bed and simply need to move material, whether I’m just pitching it or moving it to a wheel barrow or truck bed.

Square Point Shovel for clean-up etc.

Used for scraping and scooping up loose material.

Used for scraping and scooping up loose material.

The fifth shovel in my array is a common square point. These are stamped out of a sheet and are flat on the bottom with shallow upturned sides. Because these are not used for cutting or prying, being stamped is not a draw back. Save your money for other things. These are perfect for scraping or scooping up loose material such as soil, sand, gravel, or organic mulch from a uniform hard surface like a sidewalk. The blade will slide along smoothly, reducing the amount of cleanup with a broom when you’re done. I also use these to undercut sod when I have a relatively small amount to remove. This requires holding the handle at a height that keeps the blade in the same plane as the sod, which means low. This will require that the user, firmly gripping the end of the handle with both hands against his/her hip, uses the hip to drive it forward. Not fun! But effective.

Shovels for occasional use

Sometimes an aluminum D-handled scoop is just what the doctor ordered. When I’m spreading mulch and it hasn’t rained too much, an aluminum scoop slides along the bed of your truck or trailer, the sidewalk, or street, taking a big bite. If it has rained, this might be too much. Use a manure fork if you have to drive it into the material itself. The random interlocking fibers of any mulch will defeat anyone’s efforts using a scoop or a square point. They can also be helpful for scooping up gloppy wet leaves in the fall/winter from smooth, hard surfaces. Remember, any shovel stamped out of sheet metal stock was never engineered for heavy digging, chopping, or prying.

My Smith Hawken spade forged from a single piece of steel, 'softer' than that used in the King of Spades, bent about 5" up from the tip and is forever weakened. I don't use it much anymore.

My Smith Hawken spade forged from a single piece of steel, ‘softer’ than that used in the King of Spades, bent about 5″ up from the tip and is forever weakened. I don’t use it much anymore.

Thirty-five years ago I bought a D-handled garden spade made by Bulldog Tools from Smith and Hawken, back in the days when most of what they sold was tools. I used it to double dig a 50’ x 80’ garden of raised beds. I used it hard and never broke it. The metal blade failed though, bending once, which ever since has caused the blade to flex in a way unintended by its makers without putting it under even remotely high stress. I’ve soured on D-handled spades in general, too short for me. A few years ago a co-worker brought in from home a D-handled, double strap spade he had bought years earlier, from Smith Hawken again. It appeared to be all but indestructible, but was also significantly heavier. He called it a grafter’s spade. There is still at least one manufacturer making these today.

Bamboo Slammer

If your chores include digging and dividing bamboos you need to consider a Bamboo Shovel known alternatively as a Slammer. This is a straight-handled spade with a driver. A Slammer can be used to effectively power through the hardened rhizomes of bamboo. Its operation is similar to a post driver, with a weighted end or ‘hammer’ driven down repeatedly into the heavy steel sleeve or lower shaft, delivering its force to the spade end.  Wear hearing protection when using this tool.  Steel on steel will keep your ears ringing long after you’re finished not to mention the permanent damage you are probably doing to your hearing.  This is manufactured by WW Manufacturing exclusively for Mid-Atlantic Bamboo Co. The Slammer is available online at Mid-Atlantic Bamboo. At $175, it is not cheap.

Disassembled to show the solid hammer that slides up and down inside the shaft.

Disassembled to show the solid ‘hammer’ that slides up and down inside the shaft.

Blade and shaft are in perfect alignment for best transference of power to cut.

Blade and shaft are in perfect alignment for best transference of power to cut.

Slammer in the closed position. You can see the pin clipped in place.  It slides through the outer sleeve and the inner shaft keeping both pieces together.

Slammer in the closed position. You can see the pin clipped in place.

Any other spade used for this purpose is practically worthless in comparison.  Be aware that this is a cutting tool not a digging tool.  The handle construction makes it heavy to use and if you choose to pry with it and slightly bend it, the sliding ‘hammer’, or ram, won’t slide freely and you will have ruined the tool.  Use a heavy spade, like the King of Spades, for prying and digging bamboo.  If you’re in a hurry rent a powered trencher or a trac-hoe.

The Slammer is an effective but draining tool to use.  While cutting across a broad mass of rhizome a similar force is required to extract the blade from where you’ve driven it, requiring rocking side to side while pulling up.  This is especially true when cutting through clumping type bamboo like Fargesia and Chusquea with their compactly growing rhizomes.  Trying this with a conventional shovel will get you nowhere while you pogo up and down.

Portland’s own Bamboo Garden also sells a slammer, manufactured locally of heavier construction, it weighs 20lbs., but is of like concept.  Keep in mind that mass X velocity equals force.  So assuming that the speed that you can impart to the hammer is going to be similar for either tool, this one will deliver more force.  I have not used this particular tool, but it is the one they use at their nursery.  One could be yours for $295.  Check out their website.

Three points about shovels: 

1. Any shovel used for digging or cutting roots performs better and more cleanly if the leading edge is kept sharp. I check mine regularly. They are sharpened on the dished side only. I prefer to use a 10” mill bastard file. The name has nothing to do with the file’s parentage or your father’s place of employment; rather, it refers to the coarseness or aggressiveness of its teeth (bastard being relatively coarse). A 10″ file will have a more aggressive cut than a shorter file.  This will quickly give a shovel a good edge. ‘Mill’ references the flat tapering overall shape of the file.  The double cuts are available but is not necessary.  They allow you to draw the file across the edge from either direction and still cut. Hold your file at a consistent without drawing the sharpened surface too wide and thin, or it will dent and dull rapidly. The file should cut as you slide it from the edge toward the handle. Be careful not to slice your hand as you slide the file. It is very helpful to grip the shank of the shovel blade in a bench vise to keep it from moving around on you otherwise lay the shovel on its ‘back’ on a raised flat surface, like your porch floor, with the cutting end pointed out in space.  Pin the handle down with your knee and work toward the edge with the file.  If the file ‘chatters’ as you slide it the shovel needs to be held more firmly. Don’t grip a wooden or fiberglass handle, if that’s what you have, in the vise; it will mar and perhaps damage the handle. I prefer not to use a grinding wheel as it can remove material too quickly and requires greater skill to get a uniform edge. A grinding wheel can leave you with a wavy edge of varying angle while overheating the metal and damaging the temper, making it more brittle. On the other hand with skill, they can save you a lot time if your edge has been badly damaged. The curve of the wheel and of the shovel blade, as well as the length of the handle make the problem of control problematic when using a bench grinder.

WD-40, 10" File and a wire brush...the essentials

WD-40, 10″ File and a wire brush…the essentials

2. Keep the surfaces, back and front, clean and smooth, free of rust or dried-on clay, cement, etc. All imperfections will result in additional friction, requiring more of your effort to penetrate the soil. The same imperfections will also provide points of purchase where your soil will more likely stick, creating more friction and drag as well as adding its weight to your efforts. Clean your shovels after use. If you or your loved one uses your favorite digging shovel to mix concrete, be very sure to clean it off before it sets or it will be all but permanent, ruining the shovel. A wire brush will remove accumulated rust and dry clay but won’t touch dried cement. An angle grinder with a wire brush attachment would be heavenly.  I give mine a shot of WD-40 from time to time after cleaning. Store your shovels out of the weather to protect the handles and to reduce the likelihood of rusting. An occasional light sanding and application of linseed oil will help preserve the handles.  Some places I’ve worked keep a half barrel or a metal garbage can inside filled with sand ‘moistened’ with a little 30 weight motor oil.  Each shovel, once cleaned, is plunged into the oiled sand before being returned to the rack.

3.These are edge tools. Like a chef’s knives or a cabinet maker’s chisels, these perform best when well crafted out of quality materials. I protect these as much as possible from the heavy-footed un-informed who will not appreciate their quality, purposes, and weaknesses.  Bashing a sharp shovel into rocky soil is hard on it quickly denting the edge.  Use a pick, mattock or rock bar to break up such ‘soil’ and scoop out the loose material. Better shovels may cost three times or more what you would pay for a cheap, stamped-out consumer shovel.  Remember, by the time you hear even the slightest ‘cracking’ sound from the handle, it is too late.  When doing removals or transplanting dig around the plant completely, even undercutting, before you pry with a wood handled shovel or spade.

Using the proper tool can make all of the difference. People tend to view shoveling as backbreaking, laborious, add your own perjorative, work. Because of this they seem to assume that the choice of tool makes little difference. Bad is bad. My experience shows me that the proper tool, combined with good technique and the care that respects the weaknesses of the tool, as well as your own, can make a large difference in our experience of using it, the effort expended, and the result. There are still jobs for which I won’t hesitate to call in a backhoe or the assistance of co-workers. Wielding a shovel or spade is much like using any other traditional hand tool; it requires attention and skill. Some might even call it an art.


by Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

Collected in his 1966 volume, Death of a Naturalist.

“The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,

Just like his old man.”



2 thoughts on “Tool’s of the Trade: Shovels, Implements of Construction…and Maintenance

  1. Steve Eckler

    Years ago now, I worked for Union Tools building shovels. Also years ago I heard the correct name for the curved portion of a shovel handle, the socket where the wooden handle is forced into the actual shovel blade. What is the correct name for this curve?



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