How to Use a Post Hole Digger

workers digging hole for a fence

If you plan to install a fence, you’ll need to set the posts deep and straight, and that means you’d better know how to use a post hole digger. This handy tool makes the work simpler and quicker than a shovel. Here’s how to use one efficiently.

What Types of Post Hole Diggers

A post-hole digger consists of two handles joined near the base and a pair of shovel-like blades at the end. 

There are five main types of manual post-hole diggers to pick from:

  1. Traditional: The original digger consists of two steel blades facing each other, connected at the pivot point, and bolted in place.
  2. Scissor-action: Its handles cross to look like a pair of scissors and are bolted into place. It’s stronger than the traditional digger and better for harder, rocky soils.
  3. Universal: Known as the Boston digger, it has two hands of different sizes and shapes. One blade pierces the ground to dislodge the dirt, and the other collects the loose soil.
  4. Double-pivot: As its name suggests, it has two pivot points. Unlike other diggers, its blades push together to clamp the soil rather than pull it apart. As a result, it digs deeper and narrower holes than other diggers.
  5. Offset: Its handles are very close together but spread out in opposite directions at the top. Thus, it can dig deeper and narrower holes than other diggers with less force.

Tools You Need

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  • Gloves
  • A post hole digger
  • Measuring tape
  • Stakes
  • String
  • Tarp or wheelbarrow
  • Digging bar

Step 1: Mark the Locations of Each Hole

Use stakes and string to mark where each fence post will go.

  • Plant one stake on either side of the line you want to dig along. Tie your string to the stake.
  • The average spacing for posts is eight feet apart. Use your measuring tape, mark the spots for your holes eight feet apart. Drive stakes into the ground at those spots and pull your string tightly. Repeat for each spot for the length of the fence.
  • Pull the stakes out of the ground.

Step 2: Dig

person digging a post fence
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IMPORTANT: Call your local utility company at 811 before you start digging. They’ll mark your underground utility lines. Avoid digging in those locations because you can damage the lines or, worse, be injured.

Dig holes where the stakes were. You can make the work a little easier by wetting the soil to loosen it. 

  • Put on your gloves, grab the hole digger, and squeeze its handles together to open the blades.
  • Stand over the hole location and plunge the hole digger into the ground.
  • Pull outward on the handles to close the blades, grabbing a load of soil in the process. Rotate as you go to ensure you get a perfectly round hole.
  • Place the soil on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s away from the hole’s edges, as you don’t want to kick dirt back into the hole.
  • Keep digging until you reach the desired depth. 
  • Dig your hole to ⅓ to ½ of the above-ground height of the post. For example, if you have a six-foot-high post, dig the hole two to three feet deep.
  • The diameter of your hole should be three times the diameter of the post. A four-inch round post requires digging a hole one foot in diameter.
  • Repeat until all the holes have been dug.

Pro Tip: If there are any rocks underground, use a digging bar to pick them out. Some post-hole diggers can struggle in rocky soils, as the stones block the blades from penetrating the soil.

All About Augers

post hole auger in a lawn
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Augers (also known as earth augers or post-hole augers) are a more powerful alternative to post hole diggers. They use a rotating metal shaft with a blade at the end to dig through the ground, making it easier to bore a lot of holes. 

Augers are either gas-powered or battery-powered, which lets them penetrate rocky soil without needing a digging bar. They can also puncture holes in other surfaces (like ice) by switching out auger bits. Essentially, augers provide the benefits of a post-hole digger, and more, without the back-breaking labor.

Frequently Asked Questions

What if I come across a large root while digging?

Use a power tool, like a reciprocating saw, to cut through the root.

Can I use a shovel instead of a post hole digger?

Though a shovel’s sharp edges can penetrate the soil, it becomes harder to dig the lower you go. Post-hole diggers are better suited for digging fence posts for this reason.

How much does a post hole digger cost?

The average price for a post hole digger ranges from $40 to $108.

The Final Word

Though a post hole digger can be labor intensive, using one isn’t difficult at all. However, if you don’t feel like you can use one, reach out to a fence pro to get a quote in minutes.

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Stuart Kushner

Stuart Kushner is a writer and aspiring product designer based in New York City. When he isn’t doing either, Stuart enjoys heavy metal music, exercise, and trying new food and drinks.