A Visual Guide to Shovels

Since the beginning of time, man has been working in the dirt. From the earliest cave-types, we have been digging holes. Our structures, houses too maybe only a manipulation of our landscape – the earth. Our tools have been central to these achievements, the least of which – the humble shovel.

My recent visit to the headquarters of the AMES Tools has inspired me to take a closer look at these, the most basic of tools. With AMES help, today > a Guide to Shovels :: Anatomy, Uses, Types. (Best Selling Shovels from Ames on Amazon.)

While AMES offers a full arsenal of striking (axes, sledgehammers), pushing & pulling (rakes, hoes), as well as snow removal tools, plus wheelbarrows, carts and variety other outdoor lifestyle products and hand tools, the company itself was built, you guessed it, on the simple shovel. (AMES Company History.)

Leadership Brands

With this company representing something like 90% of all non-powered lawn and gardening equipment (across their many brands – AMES, True TemperUnionJackson, RAZOR-BACK and more), I figure looking at this company’s offerings alone would be a pretty decent representation of the state of shoveling as a whole. Many construction disciplines (asphalt, concrete, brick laying, roofing) along with landscaping use shovels, but my focus for this article will remain centered around … working in the dirt.

What’s the Difference Between a Shovel and a Spade? 

Words. According to Jim MaffeiDirector Of Marketing and New Product Development at AMES, “‘Spade’ is often used by folks who have a sense of tradition … your gardening enthusiast. In the industry, ‘Shovel’ will be used to refer to tools with a concave blade, providing a greater ability to move material, while ‘Spade’ will be used for tools with a flatter blade, those in turn that move less material.”

That said, it’s probably fair to say that all spades are shovels, but not all shovels are spades.

The Anatomy of a Shovel

Starting at the top and working down, a shovel will typically have these common components:

Anatomy of a Shovel

* Grip

Well, a place to put your hand. All fiberglass-handled products will have a grip as to eliminate the possibility of splintering. On some shovels, and typically shorter-handled tools, you’ll find a D-handle (turned sideways – forms the letter ‘D’). D-handles are often more space-efficient and a good value especially with what I’ll call “tuning work.”  The D-handle is often found on border and/or drain spades.

* Handle

Fiberglass or wood. Wood handles are typically Ash (while striking tools often get a Hickory handle). Buying Tip – Look for wood handles with a grain that is aligned and runs perpendicular to the blade. Short-Handled Shovels often come with a D-shaped grip (as noted above). Long-Handled Shovels are often, well, longer and taller.

* Collar

This is the point at which the handle transitions to the blade. Here you’ll typically find some means of fastening – a nail or a screw, while a rivet is preferable and is often used on higher-end shovels.

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* Step

At the top of the blade, you’ll find a place to put your foot. AMES has developed a patented turn here. On AMES lines, this is called the “Comfort-Step”; on RAZOR-BACK lines – the “Power-Step.” This cleat gives more surface area for addressing the shovel and helps hold material on blades. AMES’ Product Development says their new step feature may in some cases compensate for poor footwear choices. Notice a step is not present on scoops nor are they found on hand or other specialty tools.

AMES Comfort-Step

AMES Comfort-Step

* Blade

Almost invariably made of stamped steel, aluminum or poly. Scoops come in a #10, #12 and #14 blades with #12 being the most popular. Round-point shovels come in a #2 sizing, but are also categorized as #1, #0 and #00. For AMES, blade sizes are the same across any one line. Some options here for steel-bladed shovels may include tempered (for increased strength) and/or forged steel. These are not finishes per se and as I understand it, there is some variation in how exactly items are forged.

On the back side of the blade, and just down from the collar, you’ll find a the roll referred to as the frog – a long-used blacksmithing term.

* Tip – aka the Point and basically the shape of it. Different types of tips are applied to different types of shovels and ultimately, aid in allowing the shovel to achieve its intended purpose.

Tips for Digging a Hole

After you half-laughingly brush this off… and admit it – it’s not like we ever got instruction on it. Your dad probably handed you a shovel and just said “Dig!” Mine did.

So I asked Jim about it, “What is the proper technique for digging a hole?” ( … and resisting the desire to insert a presidential digging photo here.)

Using a Border Spade

Maffei says, “Of course start with common sense factors – wearing appropriate clothing and appropriate footwear, being conscious of the time of day and heat, staying hydrated, and taking a fair share of breaks.”  He continues, “Bending at the knees is much easier on the body then using one’s back. When scooping material, try keeping the blade close to your body, near your center of gravity. Many often find a pogo stick action effective. Essentially jumping down on the step, and using the body’s full weight, in addressing the soil as you dig.”

Using a Transfer Shovel

He finishes by saying, “Above all, and most important – select the right tool for the specific job.”

Types of Shovels

With AMES’ help, here is a look at the most common types of shovels as grouped by their application.

* Digging

Round Point Shovel 

RAZOR-BACK Super Socket

RAZOR-BACK Super Socket Round Point Shovel

* Transferring Material

Square Point Shovel 

RAZOR-BACK Square Point Shovel

RAZOR-BACK Square Point Shovel

Scoop (Eastern & Western)

True American Poly Scoop

True American Poly Western Scoop

* Trenching

Drain Spade (aka Sharp Shooters)

AMES Drain Spade

AMES Drain Spade

Ditching Shovel/Trenching Shovel

RAZOR-BACK Trenching Shovel

RAZOR-BACK Trenching Shovel

Clean Out Shovel 

RAZOR-BACK Clean Out Shovel

RAZOR-BACK Clean Out Shovel

* Gardening

Border Spade

AMES Border Spade

AMES Border Spade

Garden/Floral/Transplant Spade

AMES Floral Garden Spade

AMES Floral Garden Spade

Hand Trowel

AMES Hand Trowel

AMES Hand Trowel

* Speciality

Snow Shovel – (Best Selling Snow Shovels from Ames and True Temper on Amazon)

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Caprock/Irrigation Shovel

Post Spade

Farming Shovels (Rice Shovel)

Roofing Shovel

Small Tips for Using & Maintaining Your Shovels

A few small tips I gleaned from my time spent with the AMES folks:

Protecting your steel blade tools – Historically, we’ve stored shovels in a bucket of oil-mixed sand. Today, we might reach for, say, WD-40 for storage between uses. “In my eyes, though,” as Maffei points out, “a thin layer of rust actually acts as a decent protectant.” (Check my Guide to Home Maintenance Oils and Lubricants for more.)

Priming your snow shovels – There are many home remedies for minimizing the sticking of snow to your snow shovel: WD40, Teflon Spray, PAM. But the single best tip the team offers – get the shovel out early, let it sit out in the cold and, essentially, prime.


For more on selecting the right shovel for a given job, here’s a good article from Gizmodo  The 8 Types of Shovels Everyone Should Know.

That’s it. Thanks out to Jim Maffei and AMES for their help with putting this article together. More on them, including all the brands falling under their umbrella, here.

For plenty more helpful tips: Guides from Building Moxie and Building Moxie Does Landscaping.

Happy Shoveling. ~jb