How to Dig a Hole: Pro Tips

Updated: Jun. 02, 2023

The easiest and most accurate way to dig postholes

how to dig a holeFamily Handyman
Dig postholes faster and easier and position them more accurately using this step-by-step guide. It includes many labor-saving tips.

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How to Dig a Hole Overview: Dig accurately and use the proper tools

The big 4 posthole tools

If you have more than a couple of postholes to dig, don’t stop at a shovel and a clamshell digger. You’ll treasure two more tools just as much. Pick up a tile spade. The long, narrow blade will get you places no other shovel can. Also get a tamper-end digging bar.

So, big shot, you think you know how to dig postholes, eh? Sure you do—anyone can dig a hole. But how hard do you want to work, and how often do the holes end up in the wrong spot and you have to start over? Here are a few tips to get perfectly placed holes—with a little less sweat on your part.

Step 1: String your line and pound the stakes

Drive stakes

Drive stakes to mark the center of each posthole, using a 2-lb. hammer.

Post-marking tip

Push a small nail through your string line to mark post centers.

String a line marking the outside edges of the posts. Mark the post centers on the line by untwisting the string and pushing a nail through the strands. You can fine-tune the nail position just by sliding it to the exact location. Then pound stakes to mark the center of the holes. If you’re using 4×4 posts, that will be just under 2 in. from the string.

Step 2: Carve out a soil divot with a spade

Center the hole

Dig around the stake to center the hole.

Set the string aside so you don’t wreck it while digging. And don’t just start digging away; drill yourself a pilot hole first. Carve out a round plug to outline the posthole. That’ll get you started in exactly the right spot. Throw the dirt onto a tarp to protect your lawn.

Step 3: Loosen earth with a tile shovel

Slice through the topsoil

A special tile shovel slices through roots and turf and gets the hole started more easily.

Unless you have very soft soil, you’ll work way too hard digging with just a clamshell digger. Loosen the soil and carve away at the sides with the tile spade. It’ll easily slice through small roots.

Step 4: Use your clamshell digger

Clamshell digger

A clamshell digger removes loose soil quickly.

Here’s how to use a post hole digger: Plunge the open clamshell digger blades into the loosened soil and grab a load of fill.

Step 5: Use a reciprocating saw on large roots

Saw through large roots with power digging tools

A recip saw will reach down the hole and cut those tough roots, especially with a long blade.

Don’t kill yourself chiseling out roots. Just use a recip saw with a long, coarse blade and poke it right into the soil at the ends of the root and cut it off.

Step 6: Dislodge rocks with a digging bar

Use a steel bar for rocks

Knock rocks loose with a steel bar and lift them out with the clamshell digger.

Pick out rocks from the hole sides with your digging bar. Let them fall into the hole and pluck them out with your clamshell digger.

Step 7: Tamp the soil with the other end

Tamp the hole bottom

Pack the bottom of the hole to compress any loose soil.

Use the tamper end of the digging bar to compact the soil before setting posts or pouring concrete. That prevents any settling.

Step 8: Mark the post edge locations

Center the post

Measure the post spacing again and mark the stringline.

Restring the line, pull the nails and mark the exact post edge locations on the line with a permanent marker.

Step 9: Cover holes with plywood

Hole cover

If leaving the site, cover the holes for safety.

If you’re walking away from the postholes for a while, cover them with plywood. It just might save a broken leg and/or keep the sides from caving in during a storm.

Step 10: Set the posts

Position the posts

Position and plumb the posts carefully before backfilling or adding concrete.

Place the posts with one side brushing against the string and the edge even with your mark. Then hold the post plumb while you fill the hole. Pack the soil with the tamper end of the digging bar every foot or so.

Tip 1: Dig by hand unless…

Power Digging Tools: Rent a power auger

Power augers can speed up digging in rock- and root-free soils.

Power augers require a trip to the rental store and a brawny friend. And they’re worthless in clay or rocky soil. The truth is, unless you have lots of holes to dig in sand, it’s often easier to dig by hand.

Tip 2: Use water and the back of your shovel

Digging in clay

Lubricate the digger with water and rap it against a shovel to knock off sticky clay.

If you’re digging in sticky clay soil, dip your clamshell digger in a bucket of water so the soil won’t stick. Knock off clumps on the back of the shovel. Spread a tarp to keep dirt off your grass.

Tip 3: Small is beautiful

Opt for easy digging

A small digger is usually easier to use than a large one.

Unless you’re a body builder, avoid those giant, heavy-gauge, fiberglass-handled clamshell diggers. You’ll just get exhausted; you’re better off with a smaller, lightweight digger. Try these 15 tips for digging holes, too.

Required Tools for this How to Dig a Hole Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Hammer
  • Level
  • Marker
  • Posthole digger
  • Reciprocating saw
  • Tape measure
  • Tile spade
You’ll also need a digging bar, shovel, stringline, and leather gloves

Required Materials for this How to Dig a Hole Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • Plastic tarp
  • Small nails
  • Wooden stakes