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Digging and Tamping Tools

Part Six of an illustrated compendium of trail tools by Jim Schmid

-- download a printable version in Word: text and cover

Digging-Tamping Bar: A digging-tamping bar is about the same length as a rock bar but much lighter. It has a small blade at one end for loosening compacted or rocky soil and a flattened end for tamping. They work great for digging postholes and tamping the soil around a post once it is set. Some moving of rock can also be done using this bar, although it is not quite as rugged as a rock bar.

Safety tip: Not for use in moving large rock or logs.


Shovels: Shovels are available in various blade shapes and handle lengths. Fire shovels and round-point shovels are most common for trail work and are used to move loosened dirt, dig holes and trenches, and remove weeds. They can also be used for cleaning waterbars, culvert outlets, and diversion ditches. There are two kinds good for trail work. The long-handle shovel, best for digging holes, is generally 48 inches in length. The D-handle shovel, best for moving soil or digging in confined spaces, is generally 27 inches in length. Shovels can also be used to smooth trail tread. By bracing the shovel handle against the inside of your knee as you scrape the tread, you may be able to accomplish the work by using the strength of your legs rather than the muscles of your arms and back. The most common injuries when using a shovel are back injuries. Bending from the knees instead of the waist will help prevent injury.

Safety tip: Shovels shouldn't be used as a lever to pry rocks.


Post Hole Digger: Used for removing soil from holes for footings or posts the post hole digger has clam like scoops attached to long handles. Soil should be lifted from the hole with leg musclesÑnot back muscles. Use a digging bar to loosen compacted soil not the post hole digger. The post hole digger works best at removing loose soil. The scoops bend and break easily if used as a breaking tool.

Safety tip: Fingers can get pinched when the handles are closesÑleather gloves are recommended.

posthole digger

Pounding and Hammering Tools

Sledgehammer: A sledgehammer with a 6- to 8-pound head and a 3 foot-long handle is most useful for trail work. It can be used to crush rock into gravel (stone sledge) for trail repair, and for driving stakes or rebar (driving sledge) to secure waterbars and turnpikes. Because of differences in tempering, the stone and driving sledges are not interchangeable. Before swinging, you should make sure others are clear and you have a firm stance with feet spread to shoulder width and firmly planted. Even more than other striking tools, the sledge holds the potential for serious injury because of its greater, more awkward weight. Use only short controlled swings, never using all your might.

Safety tip: Because sledgehammers can cause stone chips to fly, anyone swinging the tool must wear ea hardhat, eye protection, long pants, and boots.


Single Jack Hammer: A single jack (3- to 4-pound head with short handle) hammer can be used with a star drill to punch holes in rock. The single jack can also be used to drive bridge spikes, and other uses that are too demanding for a regular claw-hammer, but do not require the heavy duty blows of a sledge.

Safety tip: Best to wear a hardhat and eye protection at all times.

jack hammer

Star Drill: Star drills are usually about a foot long and weigh a pound. They are used with single jack hammers to punch holes in rock or open a seam/crack.

Safety tip: Best to wear a hardhat and eye protection at all times. Also best to wear gloves.

star drill

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