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How to use a shovel for digging

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This is a brief section on the stages involved in digging a hole. This is a brief section on the stages involved in digging a hole.

The guidelines in our section: How do you use a shovel for shovelling? can also be followed.

Don’t forget that once you have dug the hole, you will have to shift the soil that was unearthed!

  Wonkee Donkee says "So how do I dig a black hole?'

Prepare for digging

Some simple warm-up exercises to get the blood circulating

Step 1 – Warm up

Remember to warm up your muscles.

Wear loose clothing and appropriate footwear and you’re ready to begin.

Please refer to our section: How do you use a shovel for shovelling? for further information on warm-up exercises and clothing.

Remove any fallen leaves or weeds with a fork and loosen heavy soil with a pick.

Step 2 – Prepare area for digging

Remove any fallen leaves or weeds with a fork and loosen heavy soil with a pick.

Mark out the area to be excavated if you require a large hole or a long trench for a vegetable patch.

Step 3 – Determine the outline of your hole

Mark out the area to be excavated if you require a large hole or a long trench for a vegetable patch.

If you prefer your plants in a row, don’t trust your eye — use string. Measure the location of the centre of each hole, mark them with wooden stakes and tie a string tightly between each stake.

The volume of soil may be more than you think – the deeper you dig, the larger the pile!

Step 4 – Plan ahead

Work out where you will put the loosened earth and whether you need to refill the hole.

The volume of soil may be more than you think – the deeper you dig, the larger the pile! Contemplate keeping quality, fertile types of soil.

Shovels come in various shapes and sizes

Step 5 – Consider the type of shovel you use

Remember from our section on blade design: a blade with a rounded or tapered cutting edge is designed for digging while a blade with a square edge is designed for scooping and shifting.

Consult our Buying guide for a quick summary on the best shovels for very precise digging such as trenches or for use in heavy, clay-like soil.

 

It’s time to dig the dirt

Digging is the most effective if you dig straight down.

Step 1 – Grip handle with both hands

Hold the blade vertically above the soil and let gravity guide you.

Digging is most effective if you dig straight down.

Remember to use a low lift blade.

The blade and shaft of a shovel designed for digging should be in a straight a line as possible.

Step 2 – Look at angle of blade

Cast your mind back to our section: Is the angle of the blade important? and recall how the blade and shaft of a shovel designed for digging should be in a straight a line as possible.

That is, with no or minimal angle between the two i.e. low lift.

If your blade is at more of an angle to the shaft, you may need to tip the handle forward slightly to keep the blade upright.

This may feel awkward in your hands so, if you can, use a low lift blade.

Digging technique - place foot on tread, check posture

Step 3 – Stand straight and add weight by putting your foot on the shovel

Some shovels have a tread on the blade or a rolled shoulder which helps you to get a firm footing.

Push the blade straight down with your foot and aim to keep the pit wall straight and smooth.

Break up rocky soil with a garden fork.  If you encounter a boulder or any hard clumps of earth, try to dig under it to prise it out.

 
Digging technique - keep knees slightly bent

Step 4 – Bend knees and lift soil

Bend your knees and hold the shovel with one hand on the handle grip and the other halfway down the shaft.

Placing the blade underneath the soil, lever the shaft to balance the weight of the loaded shovel in both hands and lift. As you lift, straighten your knees gradually.

 
Always lift with your legs – they are stronger than your back and less prone to injury.
Digging technique - keep load close to body

Step 5 – Put soil to one side

As you clear away the soil, keep the loaded shovel close to your body. Holding a shovelful of soil with your arms outstretched puts too much weight on your spine.

If you need to refill the hole later, dump the dirt on a sheet of tarpaulin or in a wheelbarrow.  This keeps it off the grass and makes it easier to put back in when you’re ready.

  Wonkee Donkee says "If you have to leave the hole unattended, cover with sheets of plywood to prevent someone from getting hurt."
Digging technique - turn body in direction of throw Avoid throwing soil over your shoulder, as this requires a twisting motion that puts strain on your back.

Turn your body and feet to face the accumulating pile and tip the blade sideways to discard.

Remember to pace yourself, maintain good posture and keep hydrated.

Bear in mind the excellent advice given in our 'Safe, efficient shovelling' section

Bear in mind…

…that there is some excellent advice in our section: How do you use a shovel for shovelling?