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Saturday, October 31, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Ask the Builder: Using the right shovel makes the job easier

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 12, 2020

This is an assortment of a few of my time-tested shovels. Each one is used for a specific task.  (Tim Carter)
This is an assortment of a few of my time-tested shovels. Each one is used for a specific task. (Tim Carter)
By Tim Carter Tribune Content Agency

Q. Last week, I wasted all sorts of time and got frustrated trying to dig a simple hole in my yard. A neighbor looked over the fence and suggested I change shovels. I figured you’ve used lots of shovels in your career and might help me start a decent collection so I won’t be frustrated ever again. Tell me all about the shovels I’d see if I came over to your house or stopped by one of your job sites. How do you store them? – Barry K., Tulsa, Oklahoma.

A. I’d venture to say most people only have one or two shovels in their garages or sheds. Me, I’ve got about 10 different ones with a few duplicates.

A few weeks ago, I went on an adventure with my youngest daughter. She’s a potter and discovered I had a conversation a year ago with a local historian I met on a hike to the Ledges, a stunning overlook here in central New Hampshire.

I found out that an early homesteader whose old house foundation was on the hike had become a wealthy businessman. He discovered a large and deep continental glacial clay deposit and mined the clay, making countless bricks for all the locals to build their fireplaces and chimneys.

While hiking from my truck through the woods to the clay deposit, my daughter said, “Dad, why did you bring that odd-looking shovel?” I had in my hand a duckbill shovel.

It’s a long, narrow shovel with a small cutting tip. It allows me to dig fast because there’s less resistance. I also knew I was only interested in getting about three-quarters of a cubic foot of clay to test it to see if it’s great for a few small pottery items.

It was the perfect shovel to use for this project because there was a small, exposed vertical cut of the clay where I could scrape and cut a horizontal hole, harvesting clay that had not seen the light of day for 15,000 years. (Yes, my degree is in geology!)

The type of shovel you’ll use for a project depends on the material you’ll be digging, such as whether it’s densely packed or loose, as well as other factors such as the shape of the hole you’re creating.

For example, imagine the task that telegraph pole installers faced 170 years ago. They had to dig 12-inch diameter holes straight down about 5 feet deep. Think of how specialized those shovels had to be to create that perfect shaft. You can still see them if you’re able to watch a modern utility crew set a new pole.

Let’s start with perhaps the most basic shovel, the round-point shovel. This type can come with all sorts of handle options, including a short one with a D-handle. The tip of this shovel resembles what you see in a deck of cards when you look at the simplistic shape of the spade symbol. The tip of the shovel allows you to slice into dirt, through small roots and so forth with ease. Everyone should have at least one round-point shovel.

The next shovel I’d have is a square-point shovel. The industry usually calls these transfer shovels. They have a shallow pan profile, but the cutting edge is straight across and blunt. These are perfect for shoveling loose material like sand, gravel and grain. I’ve worn out quite a few of these shovels from handling tons of rounded pea gravel. You’ll never regret having one of these shovels.

If you plan to do trenching, you’ll want a duckbill shovel. You might find one called a drain spade. This shovel has a rounded tip that cuts into soil or clay, but the body of the shovel is almost two times longer than a normal shovel. It’s also narrower so you encounter less friction when making a deep cut. I’ve created thousands of feet of 16-inch deep trenches with these shovels. Be sure to get one with a D-handle for ease of use.

One of my favorite shovels is the garden spade. These have a very flat shape and a blunt edge. They are my tool of choice if digging in clay where I want to create a very square hole with smooth sides. You can shave moist clay with these shovels like you’d shave off wood using a sharp wood plane or chisel.

While it’s not a shovel, one innovative tool you can use to dig in certain situations is a pressure washer. You must wear goggles when doing this, but believe me, a pressure washer can cut through dense clay soil quite quickly. It’s a fantastic option to use should you need to tunnel under a sidewalk.

Another method to tunnel can be made with PVC pipe. Cut off an end at a 45-degree angle and tap the cut end into the soil, twist it and then pull it backward, removing the plug of soil inside the pipe. I recorded a video showing this method, and you can watch it on my website askthebuilder.com. Type “tunnel” in the search engine on the website, and the video will pop right up.

If you want your shovels to dig with ease each time you use them, you must clean and oil them after each use. Hardened clay on a shovel creates more resistance when digging. If you have an old 5-gallon bucket, fill it with sand and pour used motor oil into the sand until the sand is well saturated. Push the shovel into the sand, and it will get coated in seconds with oil that will prevent rust.

Subscribe to Carter’s free newsletter and listen to his new podcasts at askthebuilder.com.

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