Written by Terry Smith
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The best shovels rated on strength and quality for digging, moving material, and clearing
This article was last updated on December 5th, 2021 at 7:14 am
People sometimes confuse spades for shovels but they couldn’t be further apart in terms of how to use them effectively. Spades are designed to be used only for digging only, whereas shovels can be used for a dig (if the tapered kind), after the dig, generally for lifting, and moving material (I’m always using mine to move pea shingle). Some shovels in this review consist of a handle, shaft, and scoop – others just a continuous single piece of steel. I’ve mixed opinions on the shafts made from wood (as you’ll see when reading the article).
I’m warming to fibreglass shafts and handles but I’m conscious of what material you may lift, and what leverage is required (is it a lifter or a digger you need?)- there are a lot of different shovel sizes so you’ll definitely want to read my shovel buying guide before taking the plunge. A good measure of whether you need to read my buyers guide would be do you know what a No2 is? If not, you will learn something new for sure. Square builder shovels which is the focus of this review. Both totally square for moving sand, gravel, or dirt and the tapered type for a dig. As well as the different shapes we will look at the materials used too. So before we get going on the reviews, here’s a roundup of the best shovels:
Best shovels: editor picks for the best square shovels:
Best shovel overall: Spear & Jackson 2000AC MYD Steel Taper Shovel Good at a dig and moving material
Heavy duty commercial pick – what I take to work with me: Bulldog Steel Square Shovel or JCB both better than Spear & Jackson but more costly
Best shovel for sand and gravel (loose material): Silverline GT30 No. 2 Shovel – you can get away with a cheap option for moving loose material
Best digging shovel: Faithfull All Steel Shovel
Best for clearing: Spear & Jackson 2000AC MYD Steel Taper Shovel
Best small shovel for confined spaces: Roughneck ROU68006 Micro Shovel
Budget pick: Silverline GT30 No. 2 Shovel
Best shovel buying guide
What are you trying to achieve? That’s the first question. Are you digging a bit of moderately compacted soil? Shifting loose material perhaps? There’s loads of tools and each one better at it’s own job, as well as a few all rounders that can do all of those reasonably well. You’ve got tapered shovels, open shoulder shovels, shovels for clearing ground, digging trenches and so on. Let’s take a closer look:
In the reviews No2 is going to pop up almost always unless it’s a micro shovel designed for compact work like the Roughneck. The reason for this is the most common size shovel in the UK is 12 inches by 9 inches and it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. This is called a number 2. And there’s other variables, you can get much bigger but this is normally for snow shovels which carry light weight material, the weight on your back becomes too much beyond this size in my opinion.
You’ve really got two main shaft lengths. The most common is the 68cm and then you’ve got one around 98cm too. There’s benefits and negatives to both. The shorter shaft which is more common means you lean over further, simultaneously the longer shaft means you lean over less but on the lift put far more pressure on the lower back if swinging material about which is why practically none are sold for building and gardening. I’m 5ft 9 and and I find the shorter standard shaft absolutely ideal for digging, moving material, and clearing after making a mess. The JCB is probably the top pick for anyone around 6ft or up as the extra three inches they put on the standard shaft helps bridge the gap a bit.
There’s four main shaft materials:
- Tubular steel
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to workout the steel shaft, like the ones you find on the Spear & Jackson, JCB, and the Bulldog are far higher quality than the hardwood or plastic. The Fibreglass is a bit of a grey area though, in my mind it’s not quite as strong as the steel but much stronger than hardwood or plastic – I know because I’ve broke one before and as yet not managed to do so with the steel version. The great thing about the Fibreglass though is the weight. A quality tool like the Roughneck(appreciated it’s a micro) only weighs a bag of sugar. So if you’re trying to take weight off your back a fibreglass handle is a real bonus.
Pretty obviously hardwood and plastic are cheaper – they serve their purpose and they also reduce weight but it would be pretty unreasonable to consider these a lifetime tool
Digging or moving material – big difference
Huge difference. If you want something to move soil or sand then you want something with wide open shoulders. You can use something like the Silverline GT30 No. 2 Shovel for generally moving materials without much digging. On the other hand, if you really need to dig you want a tapered shovel. In this case without question you’ll want to take a look at the Faithfull All Steel Shovel. Yeah you can move material with it and knock up cement too but it’s definitely a digger.
There are some all rounders though. The Bulldog and JCB can be used for digging, lifting material, and clearing. You can also use the Spear & Jackson for most of those but I do worry about the joint between the shaft and the blade on it.
Difference between a shovel and spade
As we’ve alluded to above, a spade is a much better digger. If you’ve got compacted ground then this is by far more favourable, that or a garden fork if it’s stony too. Here’s a picture that clear as day shows you the difference, the spade is far more streamline for digging than the shovel designed for moving the material:
The shoulders and sides are not so rounded normally either. The straighter design allows for an easier dig.
1. Bulldog 5SM2AM All Steel Square Shovel
Let me tell you about Bulldog. Good old British made – or at least mine was way back when. They have been making the highest quality shovels for a long old time. I’ve been using one personally for the best part of fifteen years. The old lifelong tool thing really exists. They can take an absolute hammering on a building site, The number of times I’ve abused mine, not cleaned cement off it, had to smash it with a hammer to get rid of concrete, and used it to lever things far too heavy is literally countless. They can take a good hammering for sure – here’s an old Bulldog and what yours will look like in twenty years:
Still going strong, I’ll go and bet thats got another fifty years in it. Fast forward to now, I don’t think you’ve got that old quality anymore, but you’ve definitely a lifetime tool and of all the manufacturers this is the one I take to work with me – the only shovel that gives this a run for it’s money is the JCB.
The Bulldog 5SM2AM All Steel Square Shovel is heavy duty, well made – shaft very nicely welded to the no2 (standard size) blade. This is the ideal jack of all trades shovel for moving material, clearing ground, knocking up sand cement or concrete, and yeah, I would dig with this – not if I had a better tapered design though, but it’ll put up with it. At 2 and a half kilos it’s pretty heavy duty – and they’ve managed to shave a few hundred grams off the weight leaving it feeling very nicely balanced.
The weakness, like on mine, is the handle though, that’ll be the first to go. This can come loose and will probably even need replacing down the line – but as you can see the shaft and blade are still tip top all those years on.
- Great for clearing and general moving of material
- Lifetime tool, no question on that
- Sensible price for the quality
- Handle will go long before the shaft and blade
2. Spear & Jackson 2000AC MYD Steel Taper Shovel
Spear & Jackson’s 2000AC MYD shovel is both square mouthed and tapered – this is pretty much your ideal builder’s shovel – you’ll be hard pressed to find one much better for general digging and moving of material at this money though isn’t as robust as the Bulldog Steel Square Shovel or JCB. The shaft is welded to the blade and there’s no issue with levering on this – this shovel will work as long as you can 😀 The wooden Y shaped D handle feels good in the hand – no complaints there. It’s a No2 so about 12 * 9 – your most typical size and as an able bodied bloke I have no problem with a full blade of dirt this size. It’s a metre long overall, ideal if you’re average height like me.
To keep the shovel rust free it has been epoxy coated and this also helps to prevent soil from sticking to it – does it work? I’d say no because dirt sticks to almost any shovel when it’s soggy enough. While, at over 2.5 kilograms you’re thinking this is well on the heavy side – I have to say the balance is great so you don’t feel that weight too much. Though if I was just moving sand and gravel all day I’d go for a wooden shaft version just to keep things light. You don’t need the weight if it’s light work like that.
Like I say though, digging footings though, this is a quality choice and if you want a sensible all rounder this is it. It’s not perfect by any means, I’ve seen some with a dodgy weld on the shaft to the blade. That’s kind of important considering this is a proper digging / footing and trenching shovel. Very few are known to have broken but it’s still an issue on some and worth mentioning. The great thing is, if you buy Spear & Jackson and it breaks, the warranty is actually honoured, so not all bad.
- Nice subtle taper for a dig but still a decent material mover
- Y-Dee handle gives you a nice grip
- Well priced for what it is
- Concerns over some of the welds from shaft to blade
3. JCB - Professional Solid Forged Shovel - No 2 Taper Mouth
The JCB – Professional Solid Forged Shovel – No 2 Taper Mouth is pretty much the ideal all rounder on a building site – good for ground clearing, ideal for knocking up a mix, and strong enough if you do need to dig some reasonably compacted material. I wouldn’t be in a rush to dig with it though it will get you out of trouble.
What you’ll notice about this when picking it up for the first time (if you’ve held plenty of shovels before) is this is pretty much inline with the other quality shovels you’ll lift. It feels around 3kg. If it’s heavier than that they’ve done an amazing job on the balance but I suspect the weights are in range with the quality Bulldog and probably a bit heavier still. Like the bulldog the shaft and blade will last a lifetime – the handle will fault first. This is what happens with all quality shovels, speaking from nearly thirty years of experience owning them.
You can dig with this no problem, levering on the shaft and blade joint will not be a problem, it’s welded solid. In fact of all the shovels in this review, if I had to do some serious leverage I would get this, probably even ahead of my favoured Bulldog. This is another example of a very nice standard sized builder shovel. I prefer the Bulldog but I can see why this is a top seller.
- Best all round shovel but pipped by Spear and Jackson on price for home use
- Quality construction, a definite lifetime tool
- Good for clearing and knocking up cement.
- Spear and Jackson not quite as good but lightly better value.
This is a decent No2 budget shovel with a wooden handle. Don’t worry, not the kind that’ll splinter you, it’s nice and smooth. You only need to look at the outward taper and raised shoulders to realise this is design to grab big full shovels or sand and cement, or dirt. You won’t want to be digging with this, it’s the wrong tool.
Why would you buy this shovel over a more expensive full steel version? That’s an easy answer, let’s assume you’re a home gardener / DIYer and won’t be using it everyday. This will give you the performance without the price. It won’t break on a full refurb either. Having a wooden handle will knock a whole bag of sugar off each lift as well. Given the choice between this and the budget Draper, I’d pick this. I don’t see where the extra money is going.
It’s your typical full size no thrills builder shovel.
- Decent price for what you get, best budget for sure
- Blade has raised shoulders for a full grab
- Good enough blade quality for use at home.
- Given the price everything is pretty reasonable on this
The Faithfull All Steel Shovel is an out and out digger and the usual No2 so full sized. Don’t think of buying this for just moving material. While it can, there’s no point – there better shovels to use for that like the Spear & Jackson in this price range. This one though is a great digger – assuming you haven’t got stony ground this is great on trenches and footings. The balance is good but obviously theres the weight of a steel shaft. I wouldn’t
This is a long term quality tool. If you lever hard into big rocks, you might be able to bend the shaft, assuming you’re more than strong, otherwise for the rest of us average blokes this tool will hold up to what stick we can give it, I suppose if I jumped on it to loosing a huge rock, I’d bend it, but who’s going to purposefully do that!
The bad points though – this definitely is not non stick. Dirt will grab on pretty easy. Interestingly someone who’s had this much longer mentioned the shovel improves once you get rid of the paint. That makes sense since the paint has more friction than a smooth surface. Overall for digging it’s a top pick for sure.
- Brilliant digger
- Reasonable money
- High quality and built to last
- Not for clearing or moving material – there’s better
6. Silverline 868763 Square Mouth Shovel
The Silverline Square Mouth Shovel varies from most picks as it has a plastic handle – the massive advantage is the light weight, the downside is this is strictly for moving material. I wouldn’t even begin to think about digging with this or it’ll end in heart break 😀 With a standard shaft (70cm just under) this is ideal for me – I’m 5ft 9 if you haven’t read the whole review. They also sell this with a 1m shaft which is kind of ok if you don’t want to lean over but then as you lift puts the centre of gravity further away and so far more strain on your body. There’s definitely a trade off to be had there.
This again is your typical standard size builder shovel (no2) so about a foot by nine inches. The wider open shoulders make it good for sand and soil. Gravel works well too. All in all a good mover of material and probably what I’d buy if I wanted a snow shovel that actually had some strength given how light weight it is and you can get the longer shaft which would make a big difference to someone with a bad back. It’s a bit of an issue though – a metal blade on snow isn’t the best but if you want it to last then it’s a sensible enough balance
- Light weight ideal as a snow shovel and stronger too
- Good for moving material given the weight
- No good for heavy work
7. Roughneck ROU68006 Micro Shovel
This handy little micro shovel from Roughneck is a decent bridge between an out and out little drain spade and a shovel. However I am going to have to start with the negatives. Their demo pictures you see when following my link are totally off for this – they should be tagged how to ruin your back. The whole point of this is to use a set of knee pads or a garden kneeler if you prefer to get down lower, take the weight off your feet and make it easier on your back.
And then, this is a handy little tool for digging in confined spaces or on land that’s raised around you. Leaning over like that is the route to a shocking back problem but I have to say it’s the only downside, after that it’s my favourite shovel for confined spaces. When you follow the link you’ll find the curved version which will dig better and this can then you can dig square and lift the material – they go great together.
The shaft is the first of the fibreglass in my reviews and how it makes a difference. This thing barely weighs a bag of sugar. Overall if you want a micro shovel that’s real quality then this is a good bet it is remarkably strong and well made.
- Very nice in confined spaces
- Light weight because of the fibreglass shaft
- Long long guarantee
- Faultless used properly.
8. Draper 10904 Square Mouth Builders Shovel with Hardwood Shaft
Draper is a tool brand known for offering decent tools at sensible mid range prices. The Draper offers you strong, long lasting quality for a bargain price. This is about 106cm long – ignore the listing that’s wrong and confusing – I should know, I use one! The square mouth builder’s shovel is made up of a Y-Dee handle which has proven pretty reliable so far and a hardwood shaft and very rarely have I known one of these to fail but obviously not as strong as a steel shaft. The thing is this is a good 70% cheaper than an all steel shovel though so pretty sensible value but I can’t recommend it over the Silverline GT30 No. 2 Shovel on price.
If your plan is relatively light work like shifting sand or gravel, and knocking up concrete in the mixer you won’t struggle at all – remember though, this is not one of the longer shovels, in my mind it’s ideal for digging into a pile of sand – I’m 5ft 9 and it feels good.
I wouldn’t be buying this with the expectation of digging and levering though – that’s out of the question with this unit. It’s a good material grabber, no way would I lever too hard with it – I feel it would give way. A good unit for general moving of material on site though, no question and a total bargain.
- Decent quality for a low price
- Y-Dee handle is comfortable and allows you a good grip
- Pretty sensible on the weight.
- Hardwood shaft is durable enough for moving material, not digging.
- Pressed steel blade measuring 240mm x 340mm
- Wouldn’t dig with this