The simple and basic earth-moving tool has evolved over the years into a variety of specialized shapes, each with its own best use.

Pointed and Medium-Point Shovels

These general-purpose, medium-weight (3 1/4 to 4 1/2 -pound) shovels are the first choice of many gardeners. They have long, straight handles and flat or rolled footrests. Both the sharp and the medium points are good for cutting through hard soil or roots. If the shovel has a moderate cant, it can be used equally well to dig soil or to move it.

Round-Nose Shovel

This shovel is somewhat broader than the common pointed shovel, which makes it excellent for moving loose soil or sand. The blade should have considerable cant in relation to the handle so that you can scoop up soil or other material without having to stoop down excessively. This shovel is popular with gardeners who have irrigation ditches in their gardens—its broad face and rounded nose make it easy to form and clean the ditches.

Trenching Shovel

The blade on this shovel (about 9 inches long and from 4 to 6 inches wide) is about half the size of the blade on a standard shovel. A specialty shovel, it is used primarily for working in narrow border gardens or for digging narrow ditches, such as for underground sprinkler pipes. Its small size makes it convenient for the elderly or the very young to use. And if you happen to live near the coast, you can use it for digging clams.

A version of the trenching shovel has a pronounced curve to the blade, used for slicing and scooping the bottom of a trench, but making it useless for cutting into the soil.

Square-Nose Shovel

The square-nose shovel has a square end, a flat (rather than rounded) face, and sides that angle upward to hold material in. It is excellent for moving large amounts of loose material, such as earth, sand, gravel, or sawdust, or for mixing materials on a hard surface. Because it is used primarily for scooping, it has a fairly high blade-to-handle cant to reduce the amount of stooping required. This type of shovel is available with either a long, straight handle or a shorter D-handle.

Square-nose shovels are often used by people who do occasional work with concrete, since their flat bottom and square nose make it convenient for mixing concrete, whether in a wheelbarrow or on the ground.

Scoop (Snow) Shovel

The scoop shovel is twice the size of a square-nose shovel. It is designed to let you quickly handle large amounts of light material, such as grain, sawdust, or snow. Other shovels are made from steel, but the scoop shovel is usually made from an aluminum alloy, which makes it light. Therefore, it is not strong enough to use for tough digging or moving chores. It can, however, be used to move sacks or heavy rocks; just skid the loaded shovel along the ground.