Helpful Tips

How to Use Post Hole Digger Properly

man working on his yard with a post hole digger

Digging up your yard to install a new fence can be hard, time-consuming, backbreaking work. Without the best post hole digger and the right technique, you’re looking at a project that will take you weeks or months to complete. While it is possible to dig a fence post hole with a shovel, if you want to save a lot of time and effort, a manual or electric post hole digger is a must.

Learning how to use a post hole digger will allow you to dig deeper, yet narrower holes, easily, using the tough digger’s jaws and a little muscle.

In this guide, I’ll cover the basic steps to follow for both manual and electric models and how to dig post holes quickly and efficiently, so you can have your fence installed in no time.

How to Use Post Hole Digger Properly-Manual

best post hole digger

A digger is a common tool many homeowners and pros use to dig fence posts. With the right technique, you can install an entire fence in a matter of days. Before you begin digging posts, keep in mind that digging in moist soil is significantly easier than trying to dig in dry sandy soil, solid soil, or clay-like soil.

Dampen the Soil

Before you tackle this job with your digger, the first step is dampening the soil. You can soften the soil by hosing down the ground with water and allowing the dirt to soak up the moisture.

Get a Good Grasp

Once the ground has softened, you can get to work.

Begin by grasping the digger’s handles securely. You’ll want to place your hands level on each side of the tool.

Dig Post Holes

digging a post hole

Next, you’ll lift the digger upwards, with your hands raised above your head. Drive the post hole digger blades downwards using enough force for the blades to pierce the soil. To avoid the shock of impact caused by solid soil, roots, and rocks, let go of the handles before they hit the soil.

You may need to repeat this step two or three times to get a straight outline and clean edge for your hole.

The Importance of Moist Soil

Grasp the handles again, firmly clamping the soil by bringing the digger’s jaws together, and remove the soil from the hole.

Removing the Soil

Now, you’ll need to carefully remove dirt from the bottom of the hole. The post hole digger’s jaws should be kept closed around the soil, so you can remove it from the hole by lifting the tool up and out.

You may have to stop your digging if you come across large rocks, solid earth, or roots. Use a shovel to slowly dig and use a recip saw for tough roots. You will also need to remove any large rocks manually. Throw the rocks in a nearby location, off the grass, so you don’t accidentally add them when you’re backfilling.

Deposit soil to one side of the hole by opening the blades of the digger. You should place this soil close to the digging area so you can save the time and effort that comes with backfilling. Set aside large clumps of earth in a separate pile and do not add them back to the hole when you’re backfilling.

Repeat the Process

Repeat the steps I mentioned above until you’ve reached the required width and depth needed to hold a post securely.

Electric Post Hole Digger/Auger

mechanical post hole digger

An electric digger is an essential tool for heavy clay soils. When you use a  digger, the point is to make your job easier and faster. Clay soil can be very difficult to work with, even with a manual fence post digger.

Operating an electric post hole digger, or auger requires both hearing and eye protection, in addition to sturdy work boots and some gloves.

Of course, the biggest hazard for this project is underground gas and power lines. To avoid severing a utility line speak to the utility company to have the underground lines marked before you start digging.

In most cases, the utility company will show up within 24 hours to mark the lines with string or spray paint, so you can safely avoid them.


Mark each area before you use a post hole digger, so you can get started right away early in the morning. Pay close attention to all of the locations marked for utility lines and be sure to mark the exact center of each hole using some wooden stakes. Once you start boring it’s almost impossible to reposition or move the digger. Because of this, you must start in the right spot.

If your project requires digging wider than what the auger can drill, or you need to reposition the hole slightly, you can use hand tools to easily carve away the sides and create a clean edge.

Hard Packed Soil Solution

If you have soft soil, this job should be pretty simple. If the soil is particularly hard, mark all the post sites and dig a shallow pit on each of these sites. Next, you’ll use your garden hose to continuously fill these pits with water for a few hours until the water has penetrated the ground three feet, which is the normal depth a post hole is dug to. If you have already begun digging with the auger and you come across hard ground, stop what you’re doing and move on to the next hole while your friend or family member fills the hole with water and allows it to soak. You can come back to that spot after you have dug the others and the water has had enough time to soften up the ground.

Using the Electric Post Hole Digger

man working with an electric post hole digger

Because of the post hole digger’s raw power, you and a friend should brace your left sides near the left handles to get your bodies into the act and prepare for plenty of torque. If the post hole digger suddenly jams up while you’re digging, you should release the throttle to stop the digger’s rotation, or you can engage the engine kill switch to shut it off. Avoid digging too deep without clearing the dirt out of the hole. If you dig deeper than a foot, the digger will be very heavy to lift, or it may become stuck.

Clearing a Hole

There are a couple of ways you can clear a hole. The first option is to shut off the post hole digger and remove all the loose soil from the hole bottom. Next, you’ll deposit the soil in a pile near the hole, to keep the area clean and make backfilling easier. It will also prevent the dirt from scattering all over your lawn.

The other option is digging  down two to four inches, then throttling back to slow down the rotation, pulling the post hole digger free to spin off the soil. Then you can drop it back down deep into the hole to pull up more dirt. This option is more physically demanding but much faster. However, dirt will fly everywhere which can make it harder to gather for backfill. This option is a good choice if you’re backfilling with concrete or gravel, or you’re not concerned about the mess.

Conserve Power

If you’re moving the power tool more than three feet to the next hole, make sure you switch the engine off then restart it again with the tool resting until you reach the next hole. When you’re not using the post hole digger, shut it off and leave it in the last hole you dug, never lay it on its side. The tool’s piston and cylinder may become full of fluid and the air cleaner could end up soaked with oil which will prevent the engine from firing up.

Deeper Holes with an Extension Rod

man using a manual post hole digger

If you need use an extension rod, dig all of the holes first with an unextended auger. Never begin a hole with the extension rod in place. It is much more difficult to hoist a four-foot-long post hole digger that is filled with earth. Measure the hole’s depth. After it has been dug to 36 inches, attach the rod, digging the remaining depths all at once. You’ll find it much easier to simply dig the remaining depth by hand instead of using an extension rod.

More Tips

  • Some fence installers will fill the holes using fine gravel, and pack dirt firmly around the outer edge of a post. Others will deposit soil back in the initial hole, once the post has been installed. This can depend on soil consistency.
  • If you have clay soil filling the holes with a few inches of fine gravel may be a better option and can ensure sturdy posts. Clay soil can be very difficult to work with and pack. Sandy soil can also be problematic since it can shift and it’s difficult to pack tightly.
  • If you plan on backfilling post holes using soil, make sure you remove more clumps of dirt and small roots. Roots or a large clump of dirt can cause the posts to shift.

Final Thoughts

Whether you have an electric post hole digger or a manual model, learning how to use your new post hole digger correctly can help you get the job done in a fraction of the time it would take using just a shovel. A post hole digger will allow you to tackle this type of major project yourself, so you can save some serious cash while enjoying that satisfying feeling of accomplishment.