Tampers: What To Know Before You Buy

Updated: Mar. 22, 2024

Have some sand, soil or gravel you need to compact? A tamper tool is what you need! Learn about the types of tamper tools and how to use them.

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Every serious DIYer understands the value of investing in the right tools for the job. Many self-styled DIYers struggle along for years with cobbled-together equipment and tools inadequate for the jobs they take on. This approach might work for a while, but ultimately it’s a recipe for frustration.

Investing in proper tools will ultimately increase efficiency. One important tool often overlooked is the tamper.

What Is a Tamper Tool?

Tampers are manually operated or power compaction tools. They increase the density and levelness of soil, gravel, sand and other materials by applying force to the material’s surface. This force can be delivered by hand or via a gas-burning engine.

Most tampers work by repeatedly striking the surface being compacted, flattening and packing it down to increase density. A few work by rolling a heavy weight over the surface.

Why would you want to compact material? Because uncompacted material settles, and settling isn’t good for many reasons. Most buildings need a flat, compact surface — a sturdy base — before their foundations can be poured or built. If the material isn’t compacted, it will settle, and the building could shift or crack.

On a smaller scale, patios and brick walkways also fare much better when the underlying sand has been flattened and compacted before construction.

Types of Tamper Tools

Although all tampers share a common purpose, how they achieve it varies greatly from one type to the next.

Long-Handled Manual Striking Tamper

The most common type of tamper tool around is the long-handled striking tamper. It’s as basic as tools get. With a heavy, flat steel head on the bottom, attached to a long vertical handle made of wood, fiberglass or metal, this tamper compacts your surface while giving you a great upper back and shoulder workout.

Here’s how it works: Grip the handle in both hands, then repeatedly strike the flat steel head against the material you’re compacting until it’s firm and flat.

Gas-Powered Walk-Behind Tamper

A much larger, more powerful and more expensive version of a manual tamper, the gas-powered walk-behind tamper features a powerful motor that delivers massive amounts of force to the surface being compacted. They’re a necessity if you have more than a few square feet of material to tamp down.

Unless you’re a professional foundation contractor, chances are you won’t need a gas-powered tamper very often. Save money when the need arises by renting one rather than buying.

Rolling tamper

If you don’t want the trouble and expense of a gas-burning machine, but aren’t keen on repeatedly ramming a long-handled tool against the ground, consider a rolling tamper. These feature a large, hollow metal cylinder attached to a long, angled handle.

They’re designed to be filled with sand or other heavy material, giving them enough weight to tamp down most surfaces. Rolling tampers remain easy to use because the cylinder rolls on its axles. Like gas-powered tampers, these can often be rented from a hardware store.

How To Choose the Best Tamper

When choosing a tamper, begin by asking yourself what you will use it for. If you plan on compacting lots of material often, consider a gas-powered model. Only have a little tamping to do for a small project? Go with a long-handled manual tamper. Don’t have much serious tamping to do, but not confident in your upper body strength? Choose a rolling tamper.

Regardless of the type of tamper you choose, check product reviews to make sure it performs well and will last as long as you need it to. Also, consider where you will store it.

How To Use a Tamper Tool

The basic principles of use are the same for all tampers.

  • Rake out the material before you start tamping, making it as flat and smooth as possible.
  • Add a little moisture to the material, especially if it’s sand, to help it compact better.
  • When using a manual tamper, be sure to strike with the flat bottom of the tool. Don’t let the tool tilt or you’ll end up striking with the edge, loosening the material instead of compacting it.
  • Make sure all areas are equally compacted before you finish tamping.
  • If levelness matters for your project, use a laser level to ensure the surface is as flat as possible.