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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Rent a posthole auger
Gas-powered augers can make deck footings or fence-post holes fast and easy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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