Pro Tips For Digging Holes

Digging is bonehead simple. But as with any other job, a little know-how lets you do it smarter and faster and with less strain.

Digging a marked-out hole | Construction Pro Tips

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Call before you dig

Cutting into a buried utility line can kill or cost you. To avoid that risk, call 811 three or four days before you dig. It’s a good idea, though usually not mandatory, to mark the area you plan to excavate with white spray paint before utility lines get marked.

Sharpening a shovel with an angle grinder | Construction Pro Tips

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Sharpen a shovel

A sharp edge makes all the difference when you’re slicing through hard soil or roots. A file will do the job, but a grinder equipped with a metal-grinding disc is the fastest way to sharpen. A knife-sharp angle will dull instantly, so grind a blunter edge, about 45 degrees or so.

A mattock covered in dirt and clumps of grass | Construction Pro Tips

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Trench with a mattock

A mattock is designed for digging narrow trenches — just right for running cable or pipe. Swing it like an ax to cut into hard soil, and then lift out the dirt with the wide blade. The chopping blade slices through roots. Wrap tape around the shaft to gauge the depth of your trench.

Digging a trench with the sod rolled back | Construction Pro Tips

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Fold back the sod

When you’re digging a trench, slice the sod along one side of the trench’s path and fold it over. Then, after refilling the trench, you can just flip it back into place.

Digging a hole with a post-hole digger | Construction Pro Tips

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Knock off sticky soil

Soil clinging to your posthole digger makes progress almost impossible. To knock off the sticky stuff, keep a “knock block” within reach and slam your digger against it. It can be a stone, a brick or a face-down shovel.

Marking out lines of a hole with a painting machine | Construction Pro Tips

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Save the sod

Digging a hole is an opportunity to harvest some sod and patch up bad areas of your lawn. With a square spade, you can neatly slice up small pieces of sod, but it’s slow going. For larger areas, rent a manual kick-type sod cutter. For major sod harvesting, rent a power sod cutter (about $80 for a half day).

Two men using an automatic digger | Construction Pro Tips

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Rent a posthole auger

Gas-powered augers can make deck footings or fence-post holes fast and easy.

A tile shovel | Construction Pro Tips

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Tile shovels are handy

The long, narrow blade is great for trenching. It also works well for breaking up tough soil and enlarging postholes. Buy one on Amazon here.

A heavy earth breaker | Construction Pro Tips

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Get tough on tough soil

A long, heavy digging bar is the ultimate tool for loosening rock-hard soil and dislodging rocks. A 68-in. digging bar costs about $40. That may seem like a crazy cost for a simple steel bar, but you won’t regret it when you’re in tough digging conditions.

Placing dirt onto cardboard that covers the grass | Construction Pro Tips

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Cover your grass

To avoid raking soil out of the grass later, pile soil on cardboard or plywood. They work well because you can scoop dirt off them when refilling the hole. Tarps are fine too, but they’re easily punctured by a shovel.

Digging postholes with a clamshell digger | Construction Pro Tips

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Dig postholes with a clamshell digger

A clamshell digger ($20 and up) is best for most jobs. Just plunge it into the ground, spread the handles and pull out the dirt. As your hole gets deeper, you have to enlarge the top of the hole so you can spread the handles.

A marked out and measured clam-shell digger | Construction Pro Tips

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Mark the depth

A tape measure isn’t the tool for checking depth — it will get filled with dirt and wrecked. Instead, mark depths on your shovel or posthole digger. That way, you can measure as you dig.

Using a hose to create area for marking | Construction Pro Tips

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Mark with a hose and paint

Lay out the footprint of your hole or trench with a rope or garden hose. When you’ve got the layout right, mark it with spray paint.

An auger-style digger cutting into soft earth | Construction Pro Tips

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Beware of auger-type diggers

Just twist the handle and an auger-style digger drills a perfect posthole. Unlike a clamshell digger, it doesn’t require you to enlarge the hole. But there’s a catch: Augers work well only in soil that’s soft, rock-free and not too sticky. In most soils, a clamshell digger is a better choice. Augers cost $50 or more on Amazon.
Next, check out our story on replacing a concrete stoop.

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