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How to select a shovel or a spade

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Many people mistakenly assume shovels and spades are the same. The differences between the two groups of tools and their uses are often misunderstood.


Selecting the right tool can help you get a job done easily and efficiently, reducing the chances of any injuries.


Here is our guide to understanding the differences between shovels and spades and choosing the right one for your needs.


Common uses of shovels


Shovels are great at moving dry materials, like sand, gravel, or soil, from a pile into a wheelbarrow. They are also used for mixing dry and wet materials, like making batches of concrete. Other uses include smoothing, levelling, and distributing dry or wet materials, like spreading wet concrete when laying a slab.


Specialised shovels, like a post-hole or trenching shovel, can also help with digging.A trenching shovel is ideal for creating drainsA trenching shovel is ideal for creating drains


Common uses of spades


Spades are typically used for digging holes when gardening. Many people also use them for trimming lawn edges away from garden beds or breaking up soul when creating new gardens.


Other uses include cultivating soil in garden beds prior to planting, lifting and dividing perennial plants or digging straight-sided trenches and holes.


Differences in blade size and shape


The main thing to remember is that a shovel’s main function is to move materials whereas a spade is primarily for digging. Both have distinct features that are designed for these purposes.


For instance, blades play a huge role in determining whether you should work with a shovel or a spade.


When it comes to shovels:


  • Blades may have square or round mouths. 


  • Blade size may vary dramatically. A large square-mouth shovel may be 300mm in width, while a trenching shovel may be less than 100mm. 


  • Blades will always be dished or have raised edges to allow loads to be easily picked up and moved. 


  • Blades may or may not contain treads on top. A square-mouthed shovel will have no treads. A specialty shovel, like a narrow trenching shovel, may have treads but these are intended to retain the material they carry.  


  • The blade will be at a slight angle to the shaft to reduce stooping. This indicated they are designed more for horizontal use, including forward thrusting when scooping up material. 


When it comes to spades:


  • There isn’t as much variation in blade size or shape. Blades are generally square-mouthed. Exceptions include those on digging spades, which have a distinct point.


  • Most blades are around 200mm wide.


  • Blades are generally flat and are heavy, in order to resist bending and the damage that may occur whilst digging. Blade edge is often tapered to help with digging. 


  • Treads are generally found on top of blades. Treads on top of blades indicate they are designed for diggingTreads on top of blades indicate they are designed for digging


  • The blade is generally in a straight line with the handle as spades are typically designed for thrusting downwards in a more vertical motion. 


How to select a shovel or spade


There are a few factors to consider when selecting the right tool. These include:


  • Personal comfort. Here’s where you need to perform you own ergonomic assessment and see what works. Take the tool from the shelf and hold it as you would when working. Can you hold it and stand comfortably? Do the grip and shaft feel comfortable in your hand? Is the handle a length that allows you to stand straight when needed? How is the weight? 


  • Your needs. Consider how you plan to put your new tool to use. Do you mainly need it to establish garden beds with some occasional planting? Then a light-duty spade will be the best choice. Do you have clay soil and plan to do lots of digging? Then consider trade-grade and long-handled. Will you be moving a lot of materials? Then grab a shifting shovel. Do you have multiple needs? Cross-over tools like a long-handled post-hole shovel can be the ideal choice. 


  • Budget. A quality digging tool can last for years or decades if maintained well. You will find tools from budget level through to trade-grade. Don’t just look at the price tag, look at the warranty. That’s the best indicator of quality. 


Consider shaft type and handle length


Both spades and shovels are available in variety of shafts and handles. The shaft can be made from many materials, including tubular metal, traditional hardwoods, fibreglass, or polypropylene. Choose the material you are most comfortable with.


 A short handle is preferable where you don’t need a great degree of reach or throw. For instance, when shovelling soil from a pile into a wheelbarrow, when spading the edges of a garden bed or when mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow.  


A long handle is the best choice when digging deeper post holes, clearing drains or moving a pile of material from one point to another such as soil from a driveway to a garden bed. They are ideal when you need longer reach or throw.


A long-handled tool also gives you greater leverage, requiring less effort in situations like digging in heavy soil or moving larger plants.  


Your choice may also come down to personal preference. Taller people, for example, often find long-handled tools are easier to work with. 


Need more help?

The Bunnings Workshop community is here to assist if you need a hand with selecting a new shovel or a spade, or with using and maintaining one. Just hit the Start a discussion button and let us know what you need.


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