Humans have been digging in the Earth since the dawn of the Neolithic
Revolution, some 12,000 years ago. While the earliest agriculturalists had to
make do with shovels crudely fashioned from animal bones—shoulder blades were a
popular choice—later material advances (namely stone, wood, and metal) led to
the development of modern shovel designs and their specialized heads are
purpose-built, like spades for digging in solid soil and shovels for moving
loose material like coal or grain.
This specialization was, in part, a consequence of the tool's widespread use
in industry—steel mills, graineries, construction, and mines—as well as its
universal use in agriculture where manual labor was required to move large
amounts of loose material. In fact, shoveling stuff was big business through the
late 19th century when steam-powered industrial excavators became economically
feasible. So much so that Frederick Winslow Taylor developed and championed the
"science of shoveling" during the two decades between the 1890 and 1910. After
the detailed analysis of the labor's required movements, he advocated the
industry invest in shovels with scoops specialized for each material—an
investment, he argued, that would be repaid through increased worker
productivity. While his ideas were not immediately recognized by the industrial
upper crust, his crusade for better shoveling helped spurn new shovel designs as
well as develop the work for which he is most famous, The Principles of
Today, shovels and spades come in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and functions.
Here are a few of the most common types you'll find in your local home
improvement store and what they're used for:
Digging shovels are designed for doing just that. They feature a slightly
curved scoop with upturned edges and either a pointed (center) or flat (left)
tip. Pointed tips are generally used for digging and planting in soft, tilled
soil while the sharp flat tips of square points are utilized more for heavy-duty
hard-packed soils that demand more force to penetrate. Square point shovels can
also perform many of the same functions as garden spades (right)—lawn edging,
transplanting small bushes and trees, cutting sod and small roots, dividing
perennials, and trenching. Look for shovels with steel scoops as they're more
durable than aluminum alternatives. Their handles are available in wood,
composite, or metal.
Trenching shovels are designed for, you guessed it, digging and clearing
trenches. They feature a sharp, pointed tip and squared sides to produce clean
trench walls and minimize disruption of the surrounding soil. They're
indespensable for laying irrigation pipes, digging a compost trench, and
removing deeply-rooted plants.
Drain spades are very narrow with slightly curved sides and a rounded tip,
which makes them ideal for precise spot work like adding flowers to established
beds, clearing existing trenches, and transplanting small shrubs.
Broad and wide-flared with a flat tip, scoop shovels are terrible at digging
but fantastic at moving loose materials like coal or stone (left), snow
(center), and grain (right). Those with steel scoops tend to be a bit heavier
than aluminum versions but are less likely to twist or warp over time.