Sure, we’re all for calling a spade a spade, but do you know the difference between a spade and a shovel? Many people think they are the same thing. However, there are differences between the two. Picking the wrong tool for the job can cost you time and literal backaches, so it’s importnat to pick the correct tool for the job.
Shovels and spades have many similarities in both appearance and function. But it’s their differences that make them good at what they do. Read on to learn more about how they differ, as well as the various types of each.
Picking the correct tool for the job saves you time, money, and an aching back, so be sure to use a spade for a spade’s job and the correct type of shovel when a shovel is what you need.
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Spade Vs. Shovel Is Not Always Easy to Identify
The difference between a spade and a shovel is the shape and angle of the blade as well as the intended use of the tool. Spades are best for digging, while shovels excel at scooping or moving loads. For this reason, spades have flat or almost flat blades, while shovel blades are wider and more concave.
Spades and shovels look a lot alike, but there is a difference in the blade that can help you identify which is which. You can also differentiate between them based on the intention of use. While they can sometimes be used interchangeably, they both are designed for specialized functions.
Spades Are for Digging
Spades are meant for precision digging, slicing through soil and turf. The best blade for this is a narrow, straight blade. Most spades have an almost flat blade; there is practically no scoop at all. It is usually long and thin and comes straight down off the shaft without curving.
A spade may have a long or short handle. Spades frequently have a D shape on the end of the handle for better grip.
The tip of the blade may be:
Larger spades may have a flat ledge on the top edge of the blade so you can use your foot to press down on the spade.
These features make a space an excellent tool for:
- Cutting through grass or roots
- Turning soil
If you’re planning to dig a narrow trench or trim the edge of your garden bed, a spade is the tool for the job.
Because of its nearly flat blade, a spade is also useful for leveling soil. The narrow blade makes it useful in close quarters. In fact, if gardening is your game, you end up using a spade far more than a shovel. A spade is a gardener’s go-to tool.
Shovels Are for Moving and Lifting
A shovel is designed for moving loads of material from one place to another. The wide, curved blade gives it plenty of surface area to lift and hold a considerable volume of:
The blade of a shovel curves as it comes off the shaft. This shifts the blade’s tip forward, which gives it the ability to slide up under the mound of material to be moved.
This type of movement is nearly impossible to accomplish with a spade.
Shovels can be used for digging as well, when precision is not your goal. Because of the scoop in the blade, shovels dig wide holes. So, if you’re trying to uncover that septic tank, a shovel is your best bet because it moves more dirt at a time.
Usually, shovels have long, straight handles, but there are a few exceptions to this rule.
Shovels may have blades that are:
Both shovels and spades are essential garden tools. In the sections below, we’ll take a look at different types of spades and shovels so you can determine which meets your needs best. Some shovel and spade types go by several names, which is confusing. Whenever possible, I’ve linked to an image for the type of spade or shovel so you can see exactly what we’re talking about in case you know the tool by a different name.
Types of Spades
Spades come in all shapes and sizes and perform a variety of functions. A spade can be used for anything from breaking sod to scraping ice off pavement. Their signature “D” or “YD”- shaped handle ends make them easy to recognize. The spade’s exact shape and name tend to be based on what you are using them for.
Sometimes saying a spade has a “D” shaped handle is confusing. This does not mean the entire handle is just a D shape stuck onto the blade – it’s a pole with a D shape on the end. See the photo below:
Garden Spades Are For Gardening
Well, that much is obvious. But how does a garden spade differ from the other spades? The blade of a garden spade is larger and more concave than that of the other spades. It may have a pointed or a flat tip.
However, there are many variations of the garden spade, so you may need to be open-minded about what constitutes a garden spade. For example, some are spearheaded while others are rectangular. Some are narrow, and some are wide.
Each has its own particular use and unique features. Overall, these tools work best for slicing through sod and soil, so they are the perfect tool for working in a garden or flower bed.
If you need a workhorse garden spade, you can’t go wrong with Dewitt. I love their tools and own several because they’re built to last. The metal is hand forged in Holland and can hold an edge to help you slice through soil and weeds.
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Drain Spades Are For Transplanting
Drain spades are narrow, shallow-bladed tools that work well for digging small holes. You may hear this spade also called a bullet shovel.
These spades can dig trenches up to two feet deep and about six inches wide. Because of their small diameter, they are perfect for digging holes to transplant shrubs or flowers. They are also great at making straight rows for planting vegetables.
Because of their shallowness, they do not remove large amounts of dirt from the holes they dig. This can be a bit of a nuisance if you are digging a deep hole. Usually, you’ll have to stop digging long enough to scoop out the dirt. But if you’re only digging a foot deep or less, these spades are ideal.
- 16-Inch narrow steel blade digs deep holes into tight spaces and under plant roots
- Comfort step for secure footing
- D-grip provides leverage and control
Edger Spades Cut Clean Lines
Edger spades are not really a garden tool – they are a lawn tool. They are used primarily for edging sidewalks and concrete slabs.
The half moon edger works best for edging lawns. The slim blade can slip into the narrowest of cracks and cut weeds or grass that may be attempting to grow up in the crack. As a teen, edging the driveway with a crescent edger was one of my household chores. I hate them as a result and prefer to use an electric edger, but a simple edger is an effective tool to have in your arsenal that can edge places an electric edger can’t.
- Ideal for edging walkways and gardens
- Steel blade slices cleanly through dense turf
- Large foot platform makes it easy to maximize force with your body weight
A serrated edged blade lawn edger is especially excellent for those tough weeds in hard-to-reach places.
- Create Clean Borders Around Beds And Walkways
- Arched Blade Design
- Remove Sod With Ease
Root Spades Are Great For Tough Ground
These spades are the heavyweight champions of spades.
The root spade has a straight tapered blade that ends in an inverted “V” shape. This creates a notch in the middle of the blade that helps it straddle roots and big weeds, slicing through them with ease.
Some root spades have serrated edged blades, which make them even more efficient at cutting through roots. Plus, the serrations grip the root and rip it out, making its removal much more straightforward.
If you attempt to cultivate ground that has been occupied by trees, shrubs, or tough anual weeds for several years, you absolutely need a root spade.
- Serrated shovel designed for reducing stress on your hands and wrist
- Digging shovel with V-shaped cutting tip to easily rip roots and dirt
- Garden digging shovel with durable powder-coated carbon steel tip
Types of Shovels
Shovels are unique in design, with many variations in the size and shape of their scoops. Most shovels are job-specific and cannot be used interchangeably. While they may not be used in gardening as often as a spade, when they are needed, they perform with excellence.
The Digging Shovel Is a Homeowner Staple
We are most familiar with the digging shovel. This is the one you find in almost every tool shed. They feature the trademark wide, scooped blade that curves forward in front of the handle. The bottom of the blade is usually round and pointed or flat.
The top of the blade has two footpads to add pressure for a deeper cut. Usually, the handles are long and straight and may be made of wood or fiberglass. Fiberglass handles last longer than wooden handles.
You can see the rolled lip on my shovel in the photo below. Many gardening shoes, including several versions of the popular Muckster line, have a reinforced instep specifically for pushing down on shovels. Make sure to press down with the middle portion of your foot, not with your heel or toes.
This shovel is used for everything from transplanting trees to digging out large weeds. It is one of the most versatile tools for outdoor work.
You can see the classic digging shovel shape in the photo below:
- The Fiskars Pro D-handle Digging Shovel features an extruded aluminum handle and double-bolted connections for ultimate strength and durability
- Extended shank improves strength and has an optimized angle for digging and prying
- Heavy-gauge steel stands up to any task, while the head’s sharpened edge makes it easier to dig, chop and pry
Scooping Shovels Lift the Load
The scooping shovel, or transfer shovel, is most familiar in areas that get a lot of snow. They are the poster-child snow shovels.
However, they are sometimes used on farms for shoveling manure or compost. They feature a dustpan-type scoop. The sides of the shovel blade rise to contain the load.
These shovels are larger than the ordinary digging shovel because they are meant to lift the greatest volume possible in one scoop.
Snow shovels are very large, but not sturdy enough for most other scooping jobs. Make sure to get the correct transfer shovel for the job – don’t try to use your snow shovel for compost!
The scoop shovel is ideal for moving large loads quickly, but they require a lot of elbow room. They’re great for scooping up mulch, potting soil, and compost.
Trenching Shovels Handle Precision Work Well
Trenching shovels are excellent for digging shallow, straight ditches or rows. The blade on these shovels is much narrower than that of a digging shovel. If you want to put in an irrigation or drain pipe without renting a trencher, you need a trenching shovel!
They have a small “lip” on each side of the blade that helps to make the walls of the trench smooth. Usually, the bottom edge of the blade comes to a “V” point in the middle. This feature gives the blade maximum cutting power.
You can see the V shape on my trenching shovel in the photo below. I opted for a fiberglass blade since it’s durable and I need to dig thick, hard clay. Many trenching shovels feature a rolled lip to help you push it into the soil with your foot, but you don’t dig straight down with a trenching shovel. Instead, you scoop it forward at a shallow angle to remove soil.
- An ideal tool for a variety of digging applications
- V-angled head for effective penetration into a variety of different soils
- 1-inch sides to pick up and retain more dirt with each shovel stroke
Spades and Shovels Share Construction Materials
Spades and shovels are usually made from the same type of materials. The material chosen for construction affects not only the price but also the tool’s strength and durability. Different materials age at various rates and all materials are adversely affected by exposure to the elements.
Iron Blades Are Strong, But Short-Lived
Iron blades will get the work done for sure, but they are heavy to handle. You’ll wear out quickly from using an iron shovel.
Iron is also subject to rust if exposed to the elements. This weakens the blade until it begins to crumble into pieces.
Needless to say, you won’t get much work done with a crumbling blade.
Carbon Steel Blades Last the Longest
It’s a toss-up between iron and carbon steel when it comes to strength, but carbon steel wins the ribbon hands down for the longest-lasting blade.
These blades just keep on going. They are significantly lighter weight than iron, and they handle exposure to the elements much better.
You aren’t likely to notice much rust on a carbon steel blade. Their strength and durability make them an excellent choice for your digging needs.
Aluminum Handles the Light Loads
Aluminum is the lightest of all the materials, making it attractive to gardeners who are not as strong as they might wish. As well, aluminum never rusts, so it could probably last a lifetime. The problem is that aluminum cannot stand up to heavy-duty work.
For light gardening, such as tending flower beds, an aluminum shovel might be ideal. However, if you’re going to be doing heavy digging or lifting loads of heavy materials, aluminum can’t handle it.
You’re likely to find your shovel or spade crumpled in your hands if too much is expected of an aluminum blade.
Wooden Handles Are Most Common
Wood is the least expensive source for shovel and spade handles, so it’s understandably the most common type of handle.
Some people prefer wooden handles, which is okay as long as they understand the care that a wooden handle requires. Wooden handles need to be sanded periodically to reduce the chance of splinters. They also must be kept out of the weather since rain will rot them.
Wooden handles are prone to break under a load as they get older. This is because the wood dries out over time and becomes less dense.
The good news is that wood handles on higher-end tools are usually replaceable. Sledge hammers and axes, for example, are frequently designed to have replaceable handles.
Fiberglass Handles Last A Long Time
Fiberglass handles are more robust and longer-lasting than wooden handles. You aren’t likely to break a fiberglass handle. However, if you leave it out in the weather, the fiberglass will begin to break down and may leave tiny, sharp splinters in your hands.
Fiberglass is supposedly a tad heavier than wood for handles, but it depends on the type of wood and size of the handle. I personally think my newer, fiberglass handled shovel is lighter than my older, wood handled shovels. But that could be because my shovels with wood handles are literally family heirlooms and are very old with much denser wood than what you find on shovels these days.
If cared for properly, a fiberglass handle will last many, many years.
Metal Handles Are Impractical
At first glance, it may seem like a metal handle would be the strongest and most durable handle. But the truth is, metal handles are the most impractical of all.
First, the handle is not solid. Metal handles on shovels are usually hollow tubes. So, that means that it isn’t as strong as you might think.
Second, metal rusts. And a rusty metal handle is no better than a rotten wooden handle, especially under pressure.
If you choose a metal handled tool, you’ll need to be very meticulous about giving it the care it requires if you want it to last.
Do You Need A Spade Or A Shovel?
Your selection of spade or shovel will depend on the job you’re doing. While some jobs can be done by either tool, others are best done by the tool built for that job. To choose which tool you need, always remember: Dig with a spade; scoop and transfer with a shovel.
Natasha Garcia-Lopez is an avoid home-gardener and proud owner of 88 acres of land in rural West Virginia. She was a member of the Association for Living History Farms and Agricultural Museums for many years and is currently enrolled in the Oregon State University Master Gardner Short Course program so she can better assist you with your gardening questions.She holds a certificate in natural skincare from the School of Natural Skincare.