Dear James: I am a recent widow. My husband promised the kids a deck, so I have to build it myself. I am petite, so his shovels, posthole digger, etc. are hard to handle. Are there smaller tools for women? — Karen W.
Dear Karen: With the proper selection of your tools and some good plans (almost all home center stores have excellent deck-building plans), you should be able to fulfill your husband’s promise to your kids. Preparing the ground and foundation base for the decking will be your greatest challenge.
As you found, most of the typical building and earth-moving tools are sized for a large man. Having an extra 50 pounds of beer belly may not look good, but it certainly helps a professional builder use typical shovels and posthole diggers. Sometimes, they even have trouble getting the shovel blade through hard clay soil.
With your petite size, you will be better off with both smaller and lighter shovels. A typical “man-sized” flat-blade shovel can have as much as 80 sq. inches of blade surface area. It requires a lot of strength and body weight just to overcome the friction with the soil, not to mention twisting and lifting the soil out of the hole.
Smaller spades, like a border spade, will have only about 50 sq. inches of blade area, and it will weigh about 20 percent less. Sure, you will have to spend more time digging the same sized hole, but at least you will be able to dig the hole and your lower back muscles will be grateful the next morning.
Once you have the correct tools, the key to completing your job is selecting the correct tool and using it properly. Always start digging any holes or trenches with a round-point shovel. Dig it to the basic depth and width that you need.
Switch to a flat spade to shape the sides and bottom of a trench. This requires more of a peeling motion than a straight digging motion. Finish up with a square-point shovel to remove the loose dirt from the trench. Using a shovel with a D-handle, instead of a straight handle, will give you better control.
For digging a small hole, or even a larger one if you have time and do not want to strain, consider using a trenching or duckbill shovel. This shovel design is very narrow, about 5 inches wide, fairly long and lightweight. Sears offers an excellent one with a fiberglass handle.
With your petite size, you will probably find it difficult to use a standard two-handle posthole digger. Even if you can use one, it is difficult to dig a deep hole without flaring out the top. Actually, the bottom should be flared out, not the top of the hole.
Ames, www.ames.com, has hundreds of shovels and spades available. They offer a floral spade, which is a cross between a round-point shovel and a spade. It is lightweight and good for cutting through the soil. They also offer a drain spade (duckbill shovel) with a very long blade. It also has a special comfort grip.
Spear & Jackson, www.spear-and-jackson.com, makes some excellent stainless-steel border shovels and spades. Stainless steel is extremely strong and never rusts. They also offer a high-quality epoxy-coated border spade. Stanley Tools, www.stanleytools.com, has a line of stainless-steel garden tools.
No matter what type of tools you buy, always rinse them off when done using them and store them indoors. Just the sun and moisture in the air over the course of a summer can degrade even the highest-quality wooden handles and grips. There is nothing more uncomfortable then getting a splinter from a rough handle.