Every homesteader has need of a post hole digger at some point, but not all post hole diggers are created equal. There are many ways to dig a post hole, but the best choice for you will likely depend on a few factors. How deep do you need this post? What’s the terrain like? What’s the soil composition like? How many posts do you need to sink and can you handle the physical demand of the tool? Ask yourself these questions and let them guide you when you set out to purchase a post hole digger, but first, let me give you some ideas.
Manual Post Hole Digger
Manual post hole diggers were invented shortly after God invented dirt, as far as I can tell. We’ve all seen these contraptions with their steel clam shell design and long wooden handles, and I’m sure they’ve been mistaken for some sort of torture device at some point. Many who have used one of these post hole diggers will likely tell you that they are, showing you the blisters to prove it.
The theory is simple enough; open the jaws, put the blade into the ground, close jaw, pull out dirt and repeat. Simple to understand, but not always simple to do. If you have limited upper body strength, a bad ticker or a short temper, this device will likely not work well for you. This style of post hole digger also will not work well in regions that have lots of rocks in the soil, like the New England states.
For those of you who have soft or even sandy soils largely devoid of granite potatoes, then this style of post hole digger may be just fine for you. The price is right, being the cheapest post hole digger tool you can find and if you have one or two shallow holes to dig it just might be your best bet. Just make sure you don’t dig a hole too shallow because that and other common homestead fencing mistakes can make your life miserable.
Gasoline powered, twin operator post hole digger augers make digging holes much faster and easier than doing it by hand. For those of us who have soft dirt with little rock, these tools can be just what the doctor ordered. For those of us who live in rock-strewn country, using one might end with orders from your doctor.
If your gas powered auger catches between rocks, it might take you for a ride, so be careful when operating one. I seldom suggest that anyone buy one of these post hole diggers, not just because they can be dangerous, but also because they require a second set of hands, upping the labor cost and inconvenience. These tools cost a lot for what they are and many of them get used so infrequently that the carburetors gum up or the fuel lines degenerate before the next occasion. Unless you and your best friend plan on digging holes every other weekend, these are really not a great option.
If you do find yourself in need of one for a temporary job, then rent one. It makes far more sense to borrow one from the local power shop than it does for you to buy one. If you do buy one, make sure you use fuel stabilizer, or even better, buy “tool fuel” instead of pump gasoline. Run your tool out of gas before storing it too, since varnished fuel will clog your carburetor and the new pump gas will eat your fuel lines or seals.
PTO Powered Auger
Now we’re talking! PTO (power take off), or hydraulically driven post hole diggers are usually the best way to sink posts, especially if you have a lot of holes to dig. If you have a tractor with a PTO I encourage you to buy a used post hole digger for your three-point-hitch. These units are little more than a frame, a gear box, PTO shaft and a big screw, so there’s not much to fail. If you can’t find one for a deal on Craigslist.org (which is a great place to find common farm implements for cheap), shop around and find a reasonably priced unit. We don’t use our post hole digger often, but the few times we have was enough to justify the cost.
If you are lucky enough to own a skid steer, I envy you. Hydraulic post hole digger attachments are readily available for rent or purchase for most skid steers and even though they are more expensive and slightly more complicated, they do a fantastic job. Running a post hole digger on a skid steer is much more comfortable and far easier to use than one mounted on the back of a tractor because the auger is right in front of you, instead of directly behind you. If you have the option, the skid steer approach is much easier on your neck.
The machine powered auger may be the way to go, but it has its drawbacks. The expense of buying the skid steer or tractor makes it a prohibitively expensive way to dig holes. If you already have the machine then it’s a simple add-on that will make your machine more versatile, and usually well worth the expense. Machine powered augers work well in clay and even rocky soil, just be prepared to replace a few shear pins along the way. Also, consider the terrain you’re working in since steep grades and low hanging branches make life difficult when navigating a tractor or skid steer to the next dig.
Sometimes you just need to pull out the big guns. Especially in New England, even PTO powered post hole diggers might not do the trick. In really rocky soils, a backhoe may be your only course of action. Many times I’ve had to throw in the towel and use my backhoe to pluck some “big bones” out of the ground so I could sink my post where I wanted it. It wasn’t pretty, but you better believe the hole got dug. A word of caution; digging holes with a backhoe can be more fun than you think. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself digging a pond with a backhoe before you know it!
Backhoe attachments are expensive, even if you have the tractor where you can hook it. Backhoes are an effective way to bury a post, but they’re not a fast way to do it either, since backfilling a big gaping hole takes time. Consider this a last resort, but when faced with a monster rock lurking under the surface, it can be a satisfying way to sink a post.
Pick Your Poison
No single post hole digger will fit every person, situation or budget, but take these into consideration before you lay down your hard-earned cash and buy yourself one. If you can borrow or rent one of these diggers you may come out ahead of the game, especially if you don’t plan on using it often.
Do you have a favorite post hole digger? How often do you use yours? Join us in the comments below or start the conversation!
Originally published in the May/June 2017 issue of Countryside and regularly vetted for accuracy. Subscribe for more great stories like this!