Of Shovels, Spades, and Scoops

of shovels, spades, and scoops

Of Shovels, Spades, and Scoops.

A lost topic among some gardeners is tools.  I spent a career as a firefighter, and along the way, I also spent some time in a woodshop building cabinets, doing trim work and other jobs requiring the use of tools.  I learned several important lessons from all of those endeavors.  One thing I learned quickly is that quality tools make any job easier.  The harder the job, the more you will appreciate a good quality tool.  It is much better to spend your time dealing with the job than dealing with issues with cheap and poorly made tools.  The second thing I learned was that cheap tools are more expensive in the long run than quality tools.  They don’t last as long, they often raise frustration levels, and they can be dangerous.


The last thing I learned was to know and understand your tools. Tools are designed and built with a purpose. They are created to do a job and if you try to use them outside those purposes or for a job to which they are not designed you are, more than likely, going to be disappointed in the outcomes.

Most gardeners have in their arsenal of garden tools at least one shovel.  I have several of different sizes, shapes, and configurations.  All are designed to dig or move material.  I have come to realize that not everyone knows the difference in the way the shovels are configured and what jobs they are intended to do.  Hence, this article.  Know you shovel would have been a good title.

Of Shovels, Spades, and Scoops

The implements that are generically known as shovels actually fall into three categories.  Shovels are intended for digging in the soil and is usually characterized by a broad blade with either a straight or curved front edge, raises or curved sides and a handle. 

of shovels, spades, and scoops - wooden handle digging shovel

Shovels can have short handles, long handles or even a D-Ring handle.  Handles are made of wood or fiberglass.  Being a traditionalist, I prefer wood handles.  There are several reasons for this.  Number one, I think they feel better when I hold them.  Wood handles do require a bit more care.  They need to be sanded and varnished occasionally.  Fiberglass handles are strong but, if they are left outside the fiberglass begins to decay, and they make the sharpest little splinters you can imagine which embed themselves into your skin. 

Treat them Right

Speaking of leaving tools outside.   It is best if you don’t.  I know, most of us have a place we stack our most used garden tools along a fence or the side of the shop.  You shouldn’t.  Weather and sun will quickly degrade wooden and fiberglass handles.  Rust will take its toll.  If you invest in quality tools, treat them as such, and find a protected place to store them.  Now back to shovels

Shovels are made from a variety of materials with steel and aluminum being the most common.  I avoid aluminum shovels.  They aren’t as stiff as steel shovels, and they don’t hold an edge like steel.  Even choosing a steel shovel can be tricky.  Many of the cheaper models are build using mild steel that bends and will no hold an edge.  Quality tools will use harder steel that doesn’t have as much flex and which you can dress the cutting edge to make using the shovel easier.

Parts and Terminologies

shovel kick plate

The top of the shovel is called a kick plate.  The kick plate is where you put your foot when you are digging.  Cheap shovels have no formed edge which can be murder on the soles of your feet if you dig very much.  Quality tools will have a rolled or formed kick plate to make repeated use of the shovel more comfortable on your feet.  A tip for you today.  You really should wear good shoes or boots when digging to protect your feet.  Flip flops are NOT good things to wear when using sharp digging instruments.

The working edge of the shovel is known as the blade and with good reason.  It doesn’t just cut through the soil.  It is meant to cut through roots and other material as the shovel is worked.  Just like any blade, it needs attention to work properly.  Dings and nicks need to be addressed and the leading edge of the blade should be sharpened slightly.  We aren’t talking about a shaving sharp edge here, but a nice consistent edge with a bit of taper is enough.

To be round or straight

typical blade shapes

The blade will be either rounded or straight.  Flat shovels can be used to cut into the ground but are more commonly used to transfer loose material from one place to another.  They are handy to remove soil from an area that has been tilled or loosened in another fashion or to move compost, mulch or other prepared material from piles to wheelbarrows or vice versa. 

Round or pointed blade edges are the real workhorses in a garden where we sometimes need to dig down into compacted or root-infested subsoils.  A quality round nose shovel with a good edge makes such jobs much easier and pleasant.  If you ever get the chance, use a cheap poorly made shovel in a bed where there are lots of roots and then switch to a quality tool with a properly maintained edge and you will be amazed at the difference.

When is a spade a spade?

Garden Spade

Sometimes you will hear the term spade used in interchangeably with a shovel.  Technically, the two are different.  Spades are typified by short handles, sometimes with a D-ring at the top and a narrower blade than a true shovel.  The blade is also much flatter than a true shovel.  Spades are used for finer work than shovels such as edging, defining and straightening a trench, and working in smaller areas where a larger shovel blade is awkward.

A Shovel by another name

There are also many other specialized types of shovels and spades.  Trench shovels have a narrow blade with no shoulders and a flat leading edge.  These are used to clean out and prepare narrow trenches before laying irrigation or other piping. 

shovel sharpshooter

A shovel that I have known for years as a sharpshooter is a specialized digging shovel.  It usually has a short handle with a D-Ring at the top and a narrow blade that is longer than most regular shovels.  It is designed for digging trenches, but has many other uses around the garden, especially when moving plants.

To Scoop or not to scoop?

Another specialized kind of shovel is a scoop.   Scoops are designed not for digging but for moving large volumes of loose materials quickly.  The most well-known form of a scoop is the snow shovel.  Snow shovels feature a wide light blade that is flat across its surface to move large quantities of snow with each movement.  Grain scoops are wide deep shovels with heavily rounded sides.  Scoops have a role in the garden as well.  Mne gets used more as a handy trash scoop than anything else.

Shovels, spades, and scoops are versatile and much-used tools in the garden and landscape.  Like any tool, they should be maintained and cared for properly.  Quality tools used appropriately and maintained regularly will last for many years.  Having a selection of quality tools will make your gardening and landscaping easier and more enjoyable.  There are places to economize in the garden but your most-used garden tools are not one of them