Dig­ging Holes

Smart tips for a dumb job

The Family Handyman - - CONTENTS - By Gary Wentz

It may seem sim­ple, but here are tips to do it faster and eas­ier.

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.

1. CALL BE­FORE YOU DIG

Cut­ting into a buried util­ity line can kill or cost youÑyes, you’re re­spon­si­ble for dam­age to un­der­ground lines on your prop­erty. 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.

2. SHARPEN YOUR 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.

3. TRENCH WITH A MATTOCK

A mattock is de­signed for dig­ging nar­row trench­esÑjust 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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).

7. RENT A POST­HOLE AUGER—OR NOT

Gas-pow­ered augers can make deck foot­ings or fence-post holes fast and easy, but only in some types of soil. In hard clay, an auger is slower than a spade. In rocky soil, you’ll have to stop oc­ca­sion­ally to pull out rocks with a clamshell dig­ger. Be­cause of these frus­tra­tions, some deck and fence con­trac­tors don’t bother with power augers and sim­ply hand-dig ev­ery hole.

8. GET A TILE SHOVEL

The long, nar­row blade is great for trench­ing. It also works well for break­ing up tough soil and en­larg­ing post­holes. Prices start at about $20 at home cen­ters.

9. GET TOUGH ON TOUGH SOIL

A long, heavy dig­ging bar is the ul­ti­mate tool for loos­en­ing rock-hard soil and dis­lodg­ing rocks. A 5-ft. ver­sion costs about $50 at home cen­ters. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. MARK THE DEPTH

A tape mea­sure isn’t the tool for check­ing depthÑ 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.

13. IM­PRO­VISED SHOVEL

A tile shovel is the best tool for flar­ing out the base of foot­ing holes. But if you don’t have one handy, re­move the bolt from your clamshell-style post­hole dig­ger and use half of the dig­ger as a tile shovel.

14. MARK WITH A HOSE AND PAINT

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

15. 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.

Mark ex­ca­va­tion site with white paint Elec­tri­cal line

Sod folded back Chop­ping blade Knock block Tape

Power sod cut­ter

Half of clamshell dig­ger

Clamshell dig­ger

Auger

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