We all know that digging fence post holes by hand is not the easiest way – whenever possible use a tractor mounted auger or a portable power auger. But some jobs are too small to justify the equipment rental or don’t allow access for the larger equipment. In these situations you have three choices: shovel and digging bar, a clamshell style post hole digger, and a post hole auger.
Shovel and Digging Bar
Using a drain spade or trenching shovel you should be able to dig a hole 2 – 3 feet in depth and still maintain a hole diameter of 12 inches or less, using the digging bar to get past small rocks and loosen hard soil. Look for a narrow blade on the shovel with a strong handle that is stiff with some flex – we prefer fiberglass handles for their durability. For fencing, the best digging bar will have a chisel tip on one end for dislodging stones and cutting tree roots, with a tamper head on the other end for setting the fence post.
Using a shovel and digging bar is the choice that will be the most work and produce the largest hole that is very difficult to keep uniform – use as a last resort only when necessary.
Clamshell Post Hole Digger
Say the words ‘post hole digger’ and this is the tool most people will picture in their mind. After going deeper than about 18 inches, the clamshell digger is more efficient to remove the loose soil from the bottom of a post hole and with practice most people can dig a uniform hole with vertical sides.
When purchasing your clamshell post hole digger look for a model that is small and lightweight – the heavy gauge model with the large fiberglass handles may look good in the store but you will quickly get exhausted using it. Clamshell post hole diggers are limited to holes 3 – 4 feet deep, going much deeper requires enlarging the top of the holes to make room for the handles to separate to remove the loose dirt. The Fiskars model linked below has innovative offset handles let you dig postholes up to 12 inch deeper than traditional models and protect your knuckles while you dig. Pre-sharpened to cut through the ground easier, the unit’s blades are welded directly to the shaft for additional strength, and the entire tool is powder-coated to prevent rust.
When digging in sticky clay soil, dunk the digger in a bucket of water to keep the soil from sticking to the blades and give the digger a good knock on the back of a shovel to remove clumps of dirt. In hardpan soil or clay use a digging bar to loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole and then using the clamshell to clear the loose dirt from the hole.
Post Hole Auger
The manual post hole augers were popular years ago, and for good reason – a quality post hole auger is one of the easiest and fastest way to dig a perfect fence post hole. The auger ‘drills’ through the soil without the forceful motion required of clamshell style diggers or digging bars. Advances in the design and blade components provide a much improved experience – even kids and senior citizens can use.
Most augers are adjustable to dig holes 6~8 inches in diameter, more than sufficient for most fence posts. The design of many augers allows for deeper holes by adding extensions of threaded pipe – holes of greater than 14 feet can be achieved if needed – there are even users reporting they used a post hole auger to dig shallow wells!
The auger blade will cut through small tree roots and hardpan, periodically sharpening the auger blades will return it to like-new condition for easier use. As with other diggers, the auger will not go through rocks – these are best handled with a digging bar. Keep a large screwdriver on hand to dislodge any rocks that become lodged in the auger itself.
All of the benefits make the post hole auger our tool of choice when digging post holes by hand, we have only encountered one situation where the auger failed – digging a hole in close proximity to a building or other obstruction that prevents the handle from turning a full revolution.
What is difficulties have you encountered when digging fence post holes by hand? Leave a comment below and let us know!