Selecting and Using Tools: Shovels

Is it a spade or a shovel – what’s the difference?

Selecting and Using Tools: Shovels - Is it a spade or a shovel – what’s the difference? | Sacred HabitatsShovels and spades have been around a very long time and are used in various ways from gardening to landscaping – so long in fact that the design cannot be improved. You will see all kinds of “flashy” things added – wider shoulders, different handles, additional handles, curved shafts – but these really do not change their design.

A shovel is a tool with a handle and a broad scoop or blade for digging and moving material, such as dirt or snow. Handle lengths and blade lifts are important to balance and efficient shoveling. Low-lift blades and irrigating shovels are best for digging and turning soil while regular-lift shovels and scoops are for moving and throwing earth and other materials.

A spade is a sturdy digging tool having a thick handle and a heavy, flat blade that can be pressed into the ground with the foot.

Many people call a shovel a spade and vice versa. According to the dictionary, a spade, deriving from the Latin word spatha, is a long-handled tool with a flat blade that is pressed with the foot and used for digging, while a shovel is a long-handled tool with a broad scoop used in lifting and moving loose material. Ultimately you dig with a spade and you shift stuff with a shovel. And both can be used for both the purposes.

Lift, be it high or low, is the distance from the tip handle to the floor when the blade is held flat on the floor. For digging you want a low lift, i.e. the handle is closer to the floor so that all the force you put into the blade as it goes into the earth is as straight down as possible. For shoveling you want a high lift – further from the floor – so that you do not have to bend over as far reducing strain on your back.

Materials of blade construction

There are three main choices of materials for shovels blades. They are as follows:

  • Steel: Steel shovels very heavy but they are the most durable.
  • Aluminum: They are lighter and softer, though some aluminum shovels have steel-reinforced edges which add weight.
  • Plastic: They are lightweight, but abrade rapidly. Plastic shovel can bend repeatedly with no damage. They are available in a wide range of colors.

Shovel Buying Tips

I prefer steel blades for digging, aluminum blades for shoveling but when it comes to snow I will opt for plastic. I also prefer wood over other materials for the shaft and handle due to comfort, feel and the ability to react to what you cannot yet see and transmission of that back to my hands.

Quality features for all shovels and spades comprises heat-treated blade and strong ash handle. Length of the handle and blade lifts are important factors to consider for balancing and efficient shoveling. While low-lift blades and irrigating shovels are perfect for digging and turning soil, the regular-lift shovels and spades are ideal for moving and throwing earth and other materials.  Other factors to consider is the grip of the handle. The handle should be fixed securely to the blade so that there is no chance of removal of the blade while in use. The handle grip should be comfortable and firm.

Handle length is determined by what you are doing. Long handles allow you to be able to stand erect while working while shorter handles are better for tight spaces or where you need to be closer to what you are working on.

Another thing to consider when purchasing is how the blade attaches to the shaft. It should have a socket into which the blade is inserted. It should have a rivet – preferably two and a ring of metal that goes around the shaft and keeps the socket of the blade from splitting open.

Types of Spades/ Shovels

There are many types of spades and shovels and using the right one for the job will reduce fatigue and increase productivity and enjoyment of what you are doing.

  • Tapermouth spade: The tapermouth spade gets its name because the blade tapers slightly. That means it is narrower at the cutting edge than it is at the shoulder. It is supposes to be a handy all-round tool.
  • Squaremouth shovel: Also known as a “Widemouth”, it is used for shoveling and leveling, with its wide end. However, it is not suitable as a tapermouth for digging. This shovel is popular to shift large quantities of sand, very loose gravel or earth, silt etc.
  • Grafter spade: It is handy for digging-out fence posts, or working in tough, boulder clay. The shape is very narrow only 100mm or wide at the cutting edge, with a tapering blade.
  • Trenching Spade: Its a combination of a tapermouth shovel and a grafter shovel. It is useful for working in trenches. Its narrow profile makes it perfect for cutting through tough soils, and since it is wider than a grafter, it can also carry a good quantity of excavated material out of the way.
  • Roundmouth shovel: As the name suggests, they have a round shaped blade and ideal for shoveling sands and gravels into a mixer when making concrete.
  • Garden Spades: Used usually for the purpose of digging in the garden, Garden Spades have square-point blades about 7″ wide and 12″ long with a 28″ “D” handle. Some garden spades have a rolled shoulder on the top of the blade, so user can apply foot pressure in unusually hard or heavy soil.
  • Spading Forks: Spading forks are roll forged from a solid steel bar to produce four sharp tines that enter and turn the soil more easily than a solid blade.
  • Drain Spades: Also known as Tiling Spades, drain spades are used primarily for digging ditches for tile installations. Round-point blades are 5 1/2″ wide, 14″ to 16″ long and handle is 27″ long
  • Ditching Spades: Ditching Spades have square point blade 6 1/4″ to 6 1/2″ wide and 14″ to 18″ long, 27″ handle and foot pedal. Good for use in heavy soil or rocky surfaces.
  • Scoop: Scoops have deep blades for moving loose or bulky materials and should not be recommended for digging. Most have “D” handles although some are available with long handles.

Care and Maintenance

When you are done using the shovel you should take a few minutes to clean and inspect it for damage. If there is damage you should take steps to correct it.

  1. Wash it off and towel dry it if you have a towel handy or let it sit in the sun to dry.
  2. Look for damage to the shaft and handle, especially if it is wood. The shaft and handle should be smooth and free of nicks and gouges. Take care of these before they become too big by sanding it smooth.
  3. The blade should be clean and rust free with the cutting edge smooth. If it is a spade the cutting edge should be smooth and slightly sharp (it is a cutting tool). If the are nicks or the edge is rough, be it a spade or shovel, gently grind the nicks and roughness out.

Using a Spade

Spades are designed for digging and there are two general blade types – square edged and round pointed.

The square edged spade is better for slicing through roots, will make square edged trenches and is recommended for planting and transplanting plants.

The round pointed tool is better for general digging, especially in hard or rocky soil.

Since part of digging may require using the spade to pry the soil the best way to do this is to not sink the blade past the shoulder and pry against the back of the blade. If you are digging deeper than a blade length – do it in steps. (See my post on digging a trench.)

If you have to lift, lift with your legs and not your back to reduce back stress. This will feel weird at first but keep doing it and you will be able to do more with less fatigue.

Using a Shovel

Shovels are designed for moving material – like cleaning a hose stall, loading gravel into a wheelbarrow, etc.

Always lift with your legs – they are stronger than your back and less prone to injury.

The blade of a shovel is called a scoop. Size the scoop to the material you are moving. For light or dry material you can use a deep scoop. For heavier or wet material use a smaller scoop so you don’t over load your body.

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