After 15 hours spent researching shovels and interviewing professional landscapers, and six hours digging through mulch, compost, and rock-filled wasteland at a community garden in New York City, we’re sure the best all-purpose garden shovel you can buy is the Bully Tools 82515. Relative to its competitors, the 4.375-pound tool is light, strong, efficient, comfortable, and inexpensive. A wealth of subtle design details—like a full-blade-width step that makes it comfortable to plunge the shovel into the soil, and a unique shock-absorbing, rot-proof wood-and-fiberglass handle—set it sharply apart from its competitors. These features and others add up to a versatile, well-balanced shovel that does everything right.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $31.
If you’re facing a truly punishing digging job, look to the Corona AS 90300. Built more like a backhoe than a shovel, the AS 90300 is aimed at professionals who need the ultimate in rugged durability: irrigators, orchardists, farm workers.
In my years working on a cattle ranch and farm, I picked up plenty of practical knowledge about and preferences in shovel design. I also did my share of digging while working for an arborist. These days, I help out a bit at a local community garden in Queens, New York. And I have a personal appreciation for a tough, classic digging tool—when it snows, I like to clear the sidewalk with a coal shovel.
For this round of research, I was looking for the best all-purpose shovel for a regular old yard. I started by talking to a couple of professional-landscaper friends about their preferred features and brands. I reached out to seven shovel manufacturers to get their take on the designs, features, and materials that make a great, versatile tool. And, of course, I did a deep dive on the web—at this point, I’ve looked into at least a hundred shovels. After doing one last day of (actual) digging, I found the shovel you need.
For every conceivable digging job, there’s a specialist shovel designed to do it perfectly: flat-bladed shovels for digging irrigation ditches, scoop-bladed “spoons” for pulling muck out of postholes, round-edged “caprock” shovels for breaking up stony soil, and more.
But most of us need something different: a general-purpose shovel than can do just about everything.
Each shovel maker offers a slightly different take on the No. 2 design, but they all share some common features. The blade is 10 to 12 inches long and 8 to 10 inches wide. It curves to a point, like a Gothic arch, to help cut into soil. It’s slightly concave, to help keep soil on the blade when it’s lifted. And it’s mounted at an angle to the handle—a measure known as lift. A lower lift makes digging easier and a higher lift makes scooping loose material easier, so shovel makers aim for a happy compromise.
You start dealing with a different class of tool when you step up from the $15-or-so, no-frills, wood-handled shovels carried in every hardware store, and instead look at the range of professional models we tested here. These pro tools are built more robustly than the generic shovels, with stronger handles and handle-blade connections. Their blades are made of heavier-gauge steel (generally 14-gauge, versus 16-gauge for consumer-grade shovels; lower numbers mean thicker metal). And the blades are heat-treated to make them more durable and less prone to cracking than standard shovel blades. Most of the shovels have what’s called a closed back, meaning a steel plate has been welded over the “pocket” on the underside of the blade where it meets the socket. That adds strength, keeps dirt from piling up, and protects wood handles from dampness and rot. Their handles are straight, as opposed to a D-handle design (which works best for a few kinds of specialty shovels).
Despite some common features, pro-grade shovels have their differences. All of the handles on our test shovels are extremely strong, but they’re made of wood, fiberglass, steel, or some combination thereof. Some of the blades are sharpened to a fine but delicate edge, like a knife; others have a sturdy edge that’s more like a chisel; and still others are left dull. Some have extra-wide steps on the back of the blade, while others keep a low profile. And there are wide differences in lift, weight, and ergonomics.
With literally hundreds of No. 2 round-point shovels on the market, job No. 1 was whittling down the possibilities to a manageable selection. I narrowed my focus to manufacturers that cater to professionals—landscapers, arborists, construction workers, and miners. Then I applied my research findings to come up with a small set of shovels that fit our criteria on details like handle type, gauge of steel, and amount of lift. This left me with about 15 initial candidates, all of which shared one basic feature (heavy-duty construction) but differed in myriad ways (materials, design, weight, and so forth). I had a complete cross-section of heavy-duty shoveldom, and a final round of interviews with the manufacturers helped eliminate some redundancies, leaving me with an even 10 shovels to put to the test.
Then I got to work. On a cold Sunday in late March, I spent six hours at Smiling Hogshead Ranch, a community farm in Long Island City, Queens. Each shovel got three separate tests. First, I loaded and unloaded mulch from a wheelbarrow. The mulch was coarse, saturated with rain, and partially frozen—stern stuff. Then I turned over the farm’s compost pile—light work. Finally, I dug up and tilled the “devil’s strip,” the narrow, 3- by 100-foot sward between the sidewalk and the stretch of industrial road that borders Smiling Hogshead.
As I worked, I made careful note of each shovel’s particular features and overall feel in the hand. Details are below, but I drew one broad conclusion almost immediately: Three of my test models aren’t merely heavy-duty; they’re so massively overbuilt that they belong in their own category. The Corona AS 90300, Wolverine SL600, and W. W. Manufacturing LHV-PT-R (marketed as “the King of Spades”) are designed for professional tree-nursery work and seriously difficult excavation jobs, not everyday garden work. So I pulled these ultra-heavy-duty shovels aside and evaluated them separately.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $31.
The 82515’s superiority begins with the step—the folded-over back of the blade that you stand on when forcing the blade into the ground with your foot. Compare the Bully’s step to a pair of more typical versions. The model on the left has a crudely formed step: Its surface is uneven and its back edge is rounded. That makes it hard for your foot to get a clean initial grip, and easy for your foot to slip off once you apply force. By contrast, the step on the right is well formed, but it’s also small. Over time, it will create an uncomfortable pressure point on the ball of your foot. By contrast, the Bully, in the middle, has a crisp-edged, dead-flat step that extends the width of the blade. That means no slippage and a broad platform for the foot that spreads digging pressure comfortably over a wide area. It’s the best step among all the shovels I tested.
The Bully also has a superior blade. It is made of thick 14-gauge steel, like most of the shovels I tested. But unlike any others, the Bully’s blade is creased on either side of the blade-socket attachment (see this photo). In the same way that corrugation turns floppy paper into stiff cardboard, these creases increase the blade’s stiffness when you’re prying up rocks and roots. It’s a detail that makes an appreciable difference.
Side note on the gauge of the blade: It’s unlikely the 82515 will ever be unavailable (if it’s not at Amazon, try Home Depot). But if everyone is sold out, we recommend its nearest sibling, the Bully Tools 92515 ($40). It’s identical except that its blade is made of slightly thicker steel (12-gauge rather than 14-gauge). That adds a bit of strength—but also adds almost a pound of weight. For most users, the payoff won’t be worth the tradeoff. But the Bully Tools shovel design is so superior to everything else we tested that the 92515 is clearly the second-place candidate if the 82515 is sold out.
Just above the blade, you’ll see another feature not found on any other shovel: The Bully, on the right has a welded “I-beam” on the arch of the blade-socket transition. (This picture also shows the difference between the Bully’s crisply formed edge and the inferior, rounded step.) Like the creases, the I-beam adds stiffness and strength under heavy loads. Since the blade-socket arch is the Achilles’s heel of every shovel—it’s where prying stresses are concentrated—the I-beam adds welcome peace of mind. Pry as hard as you like.
And look at the Bully’s socket again, in the previous photograph (the one with three shovels pictured). It’s a seamless tube. Most sockets on shovels are formed from a sheet of steel that’s rolled into a cylinder, leaving a seam or gap that’s only rarely welded shut. (Of the relevant models tested, only the Corona SS 60020 was welded.) The seam is a potential source of discomfort; the Bully’s design eliminates that concern.
The connection between blade and socket is critical on any shovel. As you can see here, the Bully’s socket is neatly welded to the blade. This adds yet more robustness, and indicates quality construction. Last, the blade is ground to a chisel edge. A chisel edge cuts through soil but stands up to rocks and roots, since it’s neither acute like a knife edge (and therefore vulnerable to damage) nor flabby and rounded as on unsharpened models. You can add a chisel edge to any shovel with a metal file, and the Bully isn’t the only tested shovel that has one. But the fact that the Bully comes with one preformed is a nice thing, and still another sign of the attention to detail that went into its design.
Moving up from the blade, the Bully’s handle is unique among the shovels we tested. The handle is fiberglass on the outside, but has a solid wood core. That makes for a super-strong handle that combines the best of both materials: It pairs wood’s light weight with the rot resistance of fiberglass. But the biggest benefit becomes apparent when you start spearing the blade into hard soil or mulch. Solid fiberglass handles have an unpleasant tendency to whip or shudder on impact, resulting in sore hands; the Bully’s hybrid handle absorbs shock almost as well as solid wood. With the added strength, durability, and weight benefits, it’s hard to understand why more manufacturers haven’t adopted this approach. As for the handle-socket attachment, it’s both glued and riveted, so there’s not a hint of wiggle in it, and heavy prying causes very little flex.
Some final observations: At 4 pounds, 6 ounces, the Bully is the lightest of the heavy-duty shovels we tested. This had no evident effect on its strength or stiffness (in fact, it’s stiffer than solid-fiberglass handles) and made it noticeably less fatiguing to use, especially when transferring mulch and turning compost. Like all our general-purpose models, the Bully features a high lift—6 inches, to be exact1. It is perfectly balanced in the hands—many shovels are blade-heavy—which makes it particularly nimble. And it’s 100 percent American-made and comes with a lifetime warranty against manufacturer’s defects.
Amazon reviewers concur with our assessment: The Bully gets a nearly perfect five-star rating from 35 customer reviews. Comments like this one, from the owner of a tree nursery, are typical: “You will bend or break before this shovel will. Seriously, I’m having a shovel-gasm right now.” Some more customer testimonials: “This is the last brand I’ll ever buy“; “This is the highest quality shovel I have ever purchased or used“; “I recommend it to everyone as the ‘heirloom shovel’—you buy one in your lifetime and hand it down to your kids!” In short, you can purchase with confidence.
Two minor concerns to note. One: The Bully’s handle doesn’t swell at the fore and aft grips, as many shovel handles do. This did not bother me, and might even be an advantage for those with smaller hands (I am 6-foot-1 with typical hands for my height). But users with really large hands might find gripping the relatively narrow handle tiring. That’s nothing a wrap or two of athletic tape won’t solve, but it’s something to be aware of. Two: As with most shovels, the socket’s rivet-head stands proud of the handle. Again, this didn’t bother me—the rivet head nestled unnoticed in the gap between my fingers; I observed rather than felt it—but that may be because I’m a righty. A left-handed user might find the rivet head slightly uncomfortable, as it could press against or chafe the palm. The Bully is still superior to the other riveted models in the test, using a single rivet as opposed to a pair, and a small rivet at that. But if any Bully Tools’s engineers are reading this, I hope you’ll make the rivet lie flush in future iterations. Why risk causing any irritation at all?
At 8 pounds, it’s almost twice as heavy as the Bully, and its handle is a fat 1.5 inches in diameter—20 percent beefier than a standard handle. It’s made entirely of steel, with a steel handle welded to a steel blade (using an alloy described by Corona as “aerospace grade”; interpret that as you will). The blade is the the same No. 2 size and shape as the Bully’s, but it’s of a thicker 12-gauge steel (the Bully is 14-gauge), and it’s heat-treated for improved durability. As you can see from the pictures from our test, even the stickers Corona uses on it are tough—they refused to come off even after I scrubbed them with turpentine.
The Corona has 2 inches less lift than a standard shovel (4 inches versus 6), meaning the handle lies closer to vertical when digging straight down, as you do when excavating trees or fence posts or digging trenches—the kind of jobs it’s often used for. And that, in turn, means less leaning over for you, and less chance the handle will pinch your hands against a tree trunk or post.
Last, the Corona comes with a padded steel handle and a bolted-on rubber footstep, which its competitors lack. These little features make a big difference in user comfort, and they should be standard at the prices these premium tools command.
All three ultra-heavy-duty shovels performed impressively when I was digging up the devil’s strip. Their thick, sharpened blades and incredible prying strength cut through the hard soil and loosened buried rocks with noticeably greater ease. Build quality was equal among the three, too—clean welds, neat edges, and smooth paint jobs. But the small details listed above set the Corona apart.
The drawbacks on a tool like the Corona also apply to ultra-heavy-duty shovels in general. Again, you almost certainly do not need one. And frankly, you don’t want one unless you need it. Like root canals and second mortgages, ultra-heavy-duty shovels are tools of unpleasant circumstance. They weigh too much to be practical for many everyday jobs—loading and unloading wheelbarrows, for example, is enough of a chore without adding 3 or 4 extra pounds to each scoop. Their oversize, all-steel construction is immensely strong, but also transmits every every shock and impact directly into your hands and shoulders.
Last, these shovels simply cost more than makes sense for most jobs.
Our winning picks, the Bully Tools 82515 and Corona AS 90300, are at the far right of the group shot. (A bit of pure luck: As you can see from their unblemished blades, the shovels hadn’t yet been tested when the picture was taken.)
From left: the Razor-Back 2593600 ($25) is the company’s flagship heavy-duty shovel. It’s extremely robust, with its trademarked extended SuperSocket, and the traditional wood handle is comfortable and shock-absorbing. But the seam at the back of the socket (at least on our test unit) was splayed open and not flush to the handle, resulting in a pair of sharp-edged ridges that dug into my hand. And the two rivets that attach the socket to the handle are large and exposed—as with the Bully Tools 82515, not really a problem for righties, but potentially uncomfortable for lefties. The socket, where your lower hand grips the shovel, is also notably thick—a sensible design decision given that the shovel is aimed at the male-dominated construction trade, but a liability for most women and for smaller men.
The Corona SS 60020 ($55) gets high marks for build quality: The seam of its socket is neatly welded shut and ground smooth (making it very strong and also comfortable to hold), and its twin rivets are low-profile—comfortable whichever hand you use. It has a robust coating to deter rust, and its steps are crisply formed. But they are narrower than the Bully 82515’s, and the solid fiberglass handle, while ergonomically shaped and confidence-inspiring in its strength, also suffers from fiberglass’s tendency to transmit shock to the user’s hands.
The Wolverine SL600 ($105), an ultra-heavy-duty model, is almost comically burly and is also beautifully made. It lost out to the ultra-heavy-duty Corona for the minor reasons given above—no padded grip or rubber step—and because its 6-inch lift, compared with the Corona’s 4 inches, makes vertical digging a bit more cumbersome.
The Wolverine FL500 ($35) is another terrifically constructed shovel; its closed back is the most neatly formed of all the models tested, its rivets are unobtrusive, and the socket seam, though not welded shut, is flush to the handle. Its shortcomings match the Corona SS 60020’s: a crisp but relatively small step and a shuddering fiberglass handle.
The Fiskars 96685935J ($30) is a curious case. Mother Earth News gave it its first Tools for Wiser Living award in 2004, and Fiskars quotes them as calling it the “World’s Best Shovel” right on the label. So I had high expectations coming into the test. It is certainly a very well-built tool. It’s made entirely of steel, and the welds and painted finish are flawless. And Fiskars stands behind it unconditionally: They’ll replace it for free if it ever breaks. But in my test, I found some of its touted strengths to be liabilities. The all-steel construction is heavy for a general-purpose shovel: Mine weighed 94 ounces—almost 6 pounds. It’s very strong, but Fiskars creates that strength bizarrely, by running the handle-blade connection almost halfway down the blade. That means the handle gets in the way when shoving the blade into the ground and takes up valuable real estate when transferring loose material. The handle is ergonomically shaped: In cross-section it resembles an egg, with the narrow end facing the ground. It felt very comfortable at first, but under repeated loads the relatively narrow underside created a pressure point on the first joint of my fingers. And the extremely generous step—full-width and more than an inch across at its widest—meant that my foot could be placed at only a perfect perpendicular to the handle. It’s a subtle thing, but when digging you often want to be able to tilt your foot fore or aft to direct the blade in a certain way, and the Fiskars design makes doing so awkward or even impossible. Finally, there’s that black paint. It’s visually striking, but even on a cold early-spring day in Queens, the sun warmed the handle noticeably. As a few Amazon reviewers have noted, on bright summer days the handle can become a menace: “Being black it gets so hot to touch that you better leave it in the shade.” “Leave it out in the sun and you better have gloves, it gets HOT!”
The Razor-Back 45020 ($40) is one of two solid-shank shovels tested. A solid shank is exactly what it sounds like: a solid-steel bar instead of the more common hollow socket. It’s exceedingly strong. It’s also very heavy, and tilts the balance of a shovel toward the blade end. Unless your digging requires an inordinate amount of prying (as it might if your soil is full of rocks or roots), you don’t need the added strength, and the added weight becomes a liability when you’re transferring material. Additionally, the 45020’s rivets are mounted with the heads to the left, the opposite of most shovel designs. They pressed against my palm—not hard enough to cause pain, but enough that I noticed. (Of course, lefties might appreciate this quirk.)
Nupla specializes in supplying tools to the construction, irrigation, and mining trades. The company’s SSR2L-E ($55), with the yellow handle, was the other solid-shank model tested, and the same caveat about weight-versus-strength applies. It’s a tool you’ll appreciate if your garden is a former quarry. Otherwise, it’s a heavier shovel than you want or need.
Finally, there’s W. W. Manufacturing’s LHV-PT-R ($80), “the King of Spades.” Refined over the course of decades, it enjoys an enviable reputation among professional gardeners, orchardists, and nursery workers, and understandably so. It’s light for an all-steel shovel at 5.75 pounds, its keenly sharpened edge slices through soil and roots, and it has a five-year guarantee even under the abusive working conditions it generally faces. The materials and construction are top-notch. But it’s a specialist tool. That keen edge is more easily dulled by rocks than the other ultra-heavy-duty models. And though lightweight for its type, it’s still too heavy for general use, and its 4-inch lift is designed chiefly for digging, not transferring loose material. Highly recommended for specialists; not the best choice for backyard generalists.
The Bully’s blade is powder-coated—all our test models are sealed in some way—but coatings wear off and steel rusts, especially when wet. A little surface rust isn’t a problem; in fact, it acts as a protective layer atop the solid metal underneath. So during the growing season, just wipe loose dirt off the blade before hanging the shovel in your shed—dirt traps moisture and encourages deep rust. And before you hang the shovel up for winter, wipe it with a little WD-40 or motor or mineral oil to keep deep rust from forming in the long damp. If you have some nicks along the edge or just want to sharpen it up a big, a steel blade edge can be touched up with a smooth metal file.
From design to construction to functionality, the Bully Tools 82515 is the best shovel you can buy. With an ideal blend of design details—things that are unique to this shovel and other things you’d expect any great shovel to have—it’ll make all your digging jobs more comfortable and less laborious, and it’ll give you a lifetime of service. The Corona AS 90300 is the shovel to turn to for exceptionally challenging jobs. If you’re lucky, you’ll never need it; if you’re unlucky, you’ll be glad to have it.
Originally published: May 26, 2015
I need a cup of coffee.