Humans have been digging in the earth since the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution some 12,000 years ago. While the earliest agriculturalists had to make do with shovels crudely fashioned from animal bones — shoulder blades were a popular choice — later material advances (namely stone, wood and metal) led to the development of modern shovel designs and their specialised heads are purpose-built, like spades for digging in solid soil and shovels for moving loose material like coal or grain.
This specialisation was in part a consequence of the tool's widespread use in industry — steel mills, graineries, construction and mines — as well as its universal use in agriculture where manual labour was required to move large amounts of loose material. In fact, shovelling stuff was big business through the late 19th century when steam-powered industrial excavators became economically feasible. So much so that Frederick Winslow Taylor developed and championed the "science of shovelling" during the two decades between the 1890 and 1910.
After the detailed analysis of the labour's required movements, he advocated the industry invest in shovels with scoops specialised for each material — an investment, he argued, that would be repaid through increased worker productivity. While his ideas were not immediately recognised by the industrial upper crust, his crusade for better shovelling helped spurn new shovel designs as well as develop the work for which he is most famous, The Principles of Scientific Management.
Today, shovels and spades come in a myriad of shapes, sizes and functions. Here are a few of the most common types you'll find in your local home improvement store and what they're used for:
Digging shovels are designed for doing just that. They feature a slightly curved scoop with upturned edges and either a pointed (centre) or flat (left) tip. Pointed tips are generally used for digging and planting in soft, tilled soil while the sharp flat tips of square points are utilised more for heavy-duty hard-packed soils that demand more force to penetrate. Square-point shovels can also perform many of the same functions as garden spades (right) — lawn edging, transplanting small bushes and trees, cutting sod and small roots, dividing perennials and trenching. Look for shovels with steel scoops as they're more durable than aluminium alternatives. Their handles are available in wood, composite or metal.
Trenching shovels are designed for, you guessed it, digging and clearing trenches. They feature a sharp, pointed tip and squared sides to produce clean trench walls and minimise disruption of the surrounding soil. They're indespensable for laying irrigation pipes, digging a compost trench and removing deeply rooted plants.
Drain spades are very narrow with slightly curved sides and a rounded tip, which makes them ideal for precise spot work like adding flowers to established beds, clearing existing trenches and transplanting small shrubs.
Broad and wide-flared with a flat tip, scoop shovels are terrible at digging but fantastic at moving loose materials like coal or stone (left), snow (centre) and grain (right). Those with steel scoops tend to be a bit heavier than aluminium versions but are less likely to twist or warp over time.
Scrapers are equally adept at clearing ice and debris from roofs and driveways alike, as well as making short work of shingles when replacing the roof itself. These are also very handy for eliminating weeds and can be used as lawn edgers in a pinch.
Edgers are a highly specialized offshoot of shovel and bear little resemblance to their predecessors. These tools use a half-moon blade to slice through shallow turf like hot pizza. As the name implies, use these to clean up borders, driveways and kerbs as well as separate perennials, ground cover and shrubbery.
Post Hole Diggers
Come for the holes, stay for the workout. Post hole diggers are essentially two shovels connected by a hinge. They're used to penetrate loose, preferably tilled, soil (after using a pick axe, spade, or autotiller to break up the surface) and cleanly excavate columns of dirt for the sinking of fence posts, bulbs or patio supports. Just make sure your back and shoulders are up to the task.
Trowels and Soil Scoops
You're not always going to require a full bag of soil per project, nor are you going to need a full-size shovel. For repotting, spot reseeding, and other minor gardening tasks, a trowel or soil scoop is indispensable. These hand tools lack the long handles and brad blades of typical digging shovels, instead opting for a pointed and curled scoop to dig out holes for seedlings and new transplants.
Got an indespensible digger you don't see here? Let us know in the comments below.
Top picture: Konstantin Sutyagin/Shutterstock