How To Hand Dig a Post Hole in Tough Ground

My Pet Peeve

As a boy of twelve, I considered myself a reluctant expert on digging post holes. The memory is a bit faded these days, but it must have been so: One day at school in the sixth grade, we were assigned the task of writing an essay about a pet peeve. And mine was digging post holes.

This was on a rattlesnake-and-barbed wire ranch in western Montana’s Granite County. Granite did abound, along with river rocks and other obstacles to shovel and bar, but fencing allows for few excuses. Cows don’t care how much trouble humans may have had in sinking line posts to a depth of two feet (three feet for corner and gate posts). Quite frankly, neither does a father who has a son easily assigned to the task, or at least so it seemed. My own Dad never bothered to buy a PTO-driven auger for digging post holes until after his son had graduated from high school and left the family homestead for college.

Being such a know it all about post hole digging, then, I was fairly certain there could not be much else to learn. Thus, when Pam (my wife) and I recently moved to her old stomping grounds in southern Arizona and she warned me about caliche, I was really only listening with half an ear at best. That stuff, she swore up and down, was not ordinary dirt and, lacking explosives or diamond tipped power drill bits, could only be penetrated by repeatedly soaking it with water and exercising extreme patience.

Naturally, I preferred to focus on the often stunning desert landscape.

A Sky And Landscape Worth Contemplating

Looking Northwest From Our Property.

Looking Northwest From Our Property.

But, Survival Before Scenery….

At first it looked like no big deal. After all, our first necessary post hole was dug by the same backhoe operator who ran the water line from the shared well to our property line.

In the end, though, it seemed the right time to dig four three-foot holes in a six-foot-square pattern to house the skeleton of what will eventually serve as both a tall platform for a 500 gallon water storage tank and a roomy shower room directly below said tank. The first shovel full of dirt came up easily…and that was it. At a depth of a mere eight inches, the clay was cemented firmly together.

Hardpan Caliche Makes Itself Known

  The Shovel Yells For Help


The Shovel Yells For Help

The Tool List Gets Updated

Pam loves Wal-Mart and informed me that her technique in the past had been to run a garden hose purchased from her favorite store into a hole for hours on end, turn the water off just before going to bed, then tackle the digging again in the morning. Unwilling to go that far, and also lacking running water, I modified her technique, using a five gallon jug of water…but as she knew, water was indeed an essential factor in the “caliche equation”.

My old set of Montana digging tools, updated to accommodate Arizona caliche, now numbered a total of four items:

1. A standard Number Two shovel.

2. A long crowbar with a broad tip known as a spud bar.

3. A clamshell post hole digger. Fiskars has a better design, but the old style digger was what we had on hand.

4. A five gallon plastic bottle of water, refilled several times as needed.

Tools Of The Trade

From Top To Bottom: Water, Shovel, Spud Bar, Clamshell.

From Top To Bottom: Water, Shovel, Spud Bar, Clamshell.

Patience, Persistence, And Perspiration

Even this early in the season (late May), this part of Arizona near the Mexican border is toasty warm on most days. Penetrating the caliche, though, required more time than toil. Water was added, never more than about a gallon per hole at a time–nothing like Pam’s long running garden hose–but the average “soak down” time ran between one and two hours for each application.

Thirsty Post Hole Gets A Drink

 A Gallon Or So Does The Trick


A Gallon Or So Does The Trick

Water Filling Part Of A Hole

Let It Sit, Go Have Coffee

Let It Sit, Go Have Coffee

When To Start Digging Again

When to scoop the next batch of dirt from the post hole is actually not a critcal piece of timing; it’s really pretty forgiving. It could be started with a bit of water still showing, or it could wait for a number of hours–the freshly soaked soil takes a while to return to its bone dry cement like consistency. For my comfort zone, I usually went off and did something else, checking back occasionally until only mud showed at the bottom of the hole, and then went to work.

Mud (But No Standing Water) At Bottom

Hardpan/caliche Softened And Good To Go

Hardpan/caliche Softened And Good To Go

The Rest Is Up To The Digger

How the person doing the digging chooses to remove the soil may well be a matter of personal preference from this point downward. My own technique involves, first, using the spud bar. The bar is slammed down with the flat, broad end scraping at an angle against the sides of the hole, which helps the sides of the hole stay nice and vertical.

After each slam-down stroke, the top of the bar is used to lever the soil (using the upper side of the hole as the fulcrum)…thus loosening the soil and making a nice pile in the center of the hole which is ready for scooping.

The Spud Bar In Action

Soil At Hole Bottom Ready For Removal

Soil At Hole Bottom Ready For Removal

The Clamshell Does Its Thing

Clamshell post hole diggers tend to be almost fragile due to the small bolts that serve as their pivot point fulcrums. They are not made to withstand the rigors of prying up significant boulders like the spud bar, or even (to a lesser degree) the number two shovel. But when used the way they were designed to be used, they perform extraordinarily well. Give them a nice pile of loose dirt at the bottom of a hole, and they definitely Git ‘R’ Done. On the other hand, three feet is about as deep as they will dig unless you make a really wide hole–because the handles have to spread out for the clamshell to close (see photo below).

This Clamshell Can’t Go Much Deeper

Mommy! I Need More Room!

Mommy! I Need More Room!

And…Repeat The Cycle

When the easily scooped dirt has been removed from the hole with the clamshell, a second application of the spud bar may well produce as nice a pile (and as much additional hole depth) as the first try accomplished. But when the spud bar is clearly once again hitting nothing but hardpan, hey, time to pour some more water down the hole and go play a few games of computer solitaire. Or something.

Eventually, our four post holes reached their allotted depth of 36 inches (one at a time, of course), and the diggin’ was done. This part of the project was actually spread over a span of three days, which allowed plenty of time for the water soaking part, but it could have easily enough been accomplished in two days or possibly even one day. That might have been better, as the tiny blister (see bottom photo) produced by my failure to locate my good leather work gloves could have (maybe) been large enough to get a hint of sympathy from my wife.

Yup, Thirty-Six Inches, All Right!

The Tape Makes It Official

The Tape Makes It Official

Aha! The Hole Thing Is Done!

The Shovel Rests Its Case

The Shovel Rests Its Case

So, Bragging Or Complaining?

Whaddya Mean, The Blister Is Too Small To See?

Whaddya Mean, The Blister Is Too Small To See?

Bottom Line, Always Bottom Line

It’s not that my Pammie lacks sympathy. It’s that she likes showers. So, it’s good that the holes are dug, but now (she’d like to know), when am I going to come up with the posts to stick in those holes…and the siding…and bracing…and platform lumber for the water tank…and the tank…and….

Okay, sweetheart. I got the point. Will get right on it

4 thoughts on “How To Hand Dig a Post Hole in Tough Ground

  1. I had to dig a few holes manually when I moved to a more rural place in Idaho with my folks eight years ago. Eventually we rented a gas auger, which I hated because I thought the noise level was disproportionate to its efficiency. Since then I’ve dug a few more for various projects and am in the process of re-doing three posts (I’m scratching my head wondering what possessed us to pour concrete in only halfway). When the land was covered with cheat-grass and tumbleweeds I think we tried soaking, but the spud bars did most of the work. One’s long and heavy with a chisel point on one end and a regular point on the other. The other is a shorter chisel-point with a broad top for a sledge. Occasionally my brothers and I had to force our way through the hardpan using a full-length sledgehammer. I like the old wood-handled clamshell digger better than the larger fiberglass one, and I can usually coax dirt out of a narrow three-foot hole thanks to the clay-rich dirt. The Fiskars design looks fascinating, but if it ain’t broke… The one tool I’m thinking of adding is a lighter chisel bar which I can make by threading a wooden pole into a short pipe and cutting the end of the pipe at an angle.

  2. Sounds like you earned your hole digging spurs prey much the same way I did, Leonid. I’m cheating now, though. Bought a backhoe last year. It doesn’t dig a single post hole properly, of course, but I’ve gotten to the point that if I need even two holes in sequence, it’s time to backhoe a slit trench. Big sloppy opening in the Earth, but a lot quicker and easier that elbow grease.

    Naturally, that’s only for posts supporting a structure like a shed or water tower, not for a fence line. If I ever get around to running a serious fence line again, I’m going to seriously look at the gasoline powered post pounders.

  3. I’m working on a hole that needs to be in the neighborhood of 7 1/2 feet deep so I can put in a ground rod for grounding my ham equipment. In my experience clam shell post hole diggers are not optimal. You should try a Seymour type. See one here:
    https://www.amazon.com/Seymour-21306-Hardwood-Handle-Diameter/dp/B00002N8OK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1500135317&sr=8-1&keywords=seymour+auger
    They don’t jar your joints and you can turn them slowly as you need to and then lift the dirt out.
    I’m curious about your wife. Not really any of my business but was she from Tucson and did she have a brother who went by “Dutch”? I’ve lost track of Dutch a long time ago but would like to know how he and his sister are doing.
    chris.buyer@gmail.com if you can help.

  4. Chris, good luck to you if you’re able to make a Seymour type work. I can state unequivocally that no way could I do so; the Seymour “turn screw” type of blade would either rip my arms from their sockets trying to get enough torque to twist it deeper or it would just sit on top and spin fruitlessly after a few inches of depth. Admittedly, nearly all of my post hole digging has been in either caliche (blended limestone, basically) clay soil set hard like brick (in Arizona) or down through rocks-a-plenty (in places like Granite County, Montana).

    No, Pam is not from Tucson, nor does she have a brother who went by Dutch. She was born in California, raised some of the time in California and some of the time in Oregon, lived in Maryland for a while, and spent a lot of years in the Sierra Vista, Arizona, area during her prime-of-life years.

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