Unearthing the Ideal Shovel

By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 13, 2006

The British had their fine spades, a different one for every task. The Dutch had an array of clever hoes. But Americans had shovels -- great shovels, with the steel shank and blade made from one solid piece. Handles were cut from straight ash saplings. The bottom part, where it entered the shank and absorbed the most force, was the dense wood closest to the root. That end was also steam-bent, so it extended all the way into the curved shank, for strength. There was a structural integrity to the entire tool, from handle to head. Now, only a few specialty businesses steam-bend handles, and you're not likely to find a shovel made with one.

It might seem like a fine point, but fine points make the difference between the good tools and the merely adequate. Tiny variations in design make manual work easier, but with manual work in decline, the art of toolmaking has declined, too. It's a vicious circle: The harder tools are to work with, the less we want to use them, and the market shrivels.

We may think the shovel we use is perfectly okay, but show us a better one and heaven help the gardener who borrows it and doesn't bring it back. The bond between a gardener and her tool is the result of the right tool for the gardener and the right tool for the job.

To begin with, let's call a spade a spade -- and a shovel a shovel. Spades may be long-handled or short, square at the bottom or curved, but they are always fairly flat. Usually there's a two- or three-inch rise between the end of the blade and the ground when you lay it down. Driven by the power of your foot on the "step" of the blade, a spade digs, slices through the soil, severs roots, edges beds, strips sod, sculpts a life-support system of soil and root for a transplanted shrub. It will move soil, too, but a shovel does this better.

A shovel is "shoved" into a pile of earth (or gravel, compost, mulch). When I excavate a large hole or trench, I use both -- the spade to free up the soil, the shovel to remove it. I'll use a round-point shovel, one with a good arc to the shank, so that the blade has a five- or six-inch lift. It gets into the corners of a hole or a wheelbarrow, and allows me to scoop with the side of the blade. Usually I'll choose one with a deep, scoopy blade that I can thrust into a pile of matted earth or heavy gravel and shake, letting the material fall into the shovel. For scattering compost on the lawn in fall, I like a shallower blade, better for flinging accurately. For most jobs, a shovel with a long handle is best (I stoop less), but when I'm working with dense materials, a short D-handled shovel with a heavy blade gives me more push. From habit, I know exactly how hard I can force a familiar shovel when it is nudging loose a stone.

Last year, on impulse, I bought a shovel with a bright yellow fiberglass handle. It was suspiciously lightweight and the angle was too shallow, but it cost only $9.97. It wasn't all that popular on the farm, but someone borrowed it once and it came right back to me with the handle broken. Lesson learned. On the other hand, tools that are too sturdy can be just as bad as flimsy ones. We once were given a very heavy, expensive, blacksmith-forged English spade. According to the label, it was a "lifetime tool." "Weighs a ton," was our opinion. Our neighbor agreed. "It would last a lifetime at my place," he said, "because I would never take it out of the shed."

Can you still buy a good shovel? The print catalogue from A.M. Leonard (800-543-8955, http://www.amleo.com/ ) is a good place to start, more complete than their online list. It has some scary-looking sawtooth shovels with jagged teeth, and a shovel with holes in it to make it lighter and let water ooze through when you're shoveling mud.

There's even one made entirely of tubular steel. (Take that, rocks!) They also sell a number of good basic shovels with closed backs -- much better than the open "hollowback" versions in which mud collects. But if you're looking for a shovel with precisely the right weight, blade shape, shank type and handle length for you, the possibilities are no longer endless. You can only visit the 755 different models on display at the shovel museum at Stonehill Industrial History Center ( http://www.stonehill.edu/archives/sihc ) in Easton, Mass., and dream. Recently I saw a Web posting by the Archaeology Division of the Nebraska State Historical Society, begging for a specific type of extinct shovel with a very curved shank and a flat blade, to skim the soil for artifacts. They offered a bounty for used ones, and asked readers to search auctions, garage sales and used tool sales for these treasures.

My husband took the yellow shovel into our local hardware store and asked if they had a replacement handle that would fit it. The man said, "No, we don't sell handles. Cheaper to buy a new shovel for ten bucks." We may be hitting some of those old tool sales this summer.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company