How to Dig a Fence Post Hole by Hand

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Burying a post for our duck run after hand digging a 2.5' deep hole.
Burying a post for our duck run

How to dig post holes by hand. This is an easy task if you’re not digging a lot of holes or don’t have the money or access to a powered auger.

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I wanted to do a quick blog post about digging holes by hand. We’ve been doing a lot of this to install posts as we occasionally redo fencing, or, as in this case, installed six posts for our DIY chicken run.

While I’m not a professional hole digger, I’ve done quite a few of them at this point without the benefit of a powered hole digger. If you have any issues with arthritis or struggle working with heavy items, this isn’t really a great project for you. It’s not ideal if you have a LOT of post holes to dig either.

How to Dig Post Holes by Hand

Digging post holes by hand is possible and affordable, but it requires a lot of sweat equity. You need to be prepared to put in some hard work, muscle, and time.

Supplies

I’ve heard that some types of tree trunks (like black walnut), however, are sturdy options to prevent rotting without the use of chemicals. They are probably cost prohibitive though unless you cut your own posts.

This is an interesting video I watched on this:

Call Before You Dig

Call Ms. Utility (I think it’s 811 in the United States) to have them mark electrical and other underground wiring BEFORE YOU DIG. This is a MAJOR safety issue so please don’t skip this step.

You may also want to check with your county building guidelines to see if they require you to have a particular depth or width of your hole.

Post Hole Size

You need to make sure to dig the correct size hole for your particular post. The general fence hole depth wisdom is to dig your post hole to a depth of about 1/3 the height of the fence ABOVE GROUND. I would probably not go less than 2′, however. If you don’t want to dig fence posts 2’+, I’d recommend a portable fence option.

Here’s a general guide:

Fence Height

4′

6′

8′

Post Hole Depth

2′

2′

2.67′

Total Post Length

6′

8′

12′

The bottom of the fence should be below the frost line for your area as well. That’s 30″ for Maryland which is 2.5′ deep. We usually try to make our post holes around 2.5-3′. This means that EVEN WITH a 6′ fence, we still need the hole to be 2.5’+ deep… and a longer than 8′ post.

If you add 6″ to the bottom of your hole depth, you can add gravel to the bottom to provide better drainage and prevent the wood from rotting as quickly.

The WIDTH of the hole you dig will be dependent on your post width and if you plan to add concrete. I had difficulty finding a good source on hole width, but the concrete companies tell you to dig the hole 3x the size of the post. That may make sense if you plan to add concrete, but I can’t help but think that’s a lot of concrete and a lottttt of hole. It probably makes more sense for decks and heavy duty structures.

Personally, I dig the hole only slightly bigger than the post because I want as much compacted soil around my post as possible. Also it’s less work.

Breaking up Rock

Breaking up rock in the soil is our biggest challenge here, as it was at our old house (which was down the street from the local quarry). When I’m digging larger holes, I love pulling out large rocks for landscaping our property.

For post holes, however, it’s better to keep your hole less wide so pulling out the rock isn’t possible. Your only alternative is to break up the rock when you dig and then pull the rock particles up with your hole digger.

To break up the rock, we use a San Angelo bar that has a sharp point on one end and a flat sharp end on the other. Don’t hit your feet (I have nightmares about this)… steel toed boots would probably be a great idea when using this.

The bar is very heavy which helps provide more weight to break up the rock- so you don’t have to rely exclusively on your own physical power.

This sharp pole is called a San Angelo bar and breaks up rock in the soil.

When you run into a rock with your normal hole digger, you swap out for the bar. Drive the pointed end of the bar into the ground. We usually swap ends of the bar, alternating between the point and the longer sharp edge. Usually a few strikes does the trick.

Digging the Hole

Post hole diggers are weird to use because your natural inclination is to pull the handles closed to dig. It works the opposite, however.

Drive your pole digger into the ground in the closed handle position.

Closed handles on post digger as you shove it into the hole.
Closed handles on post digger.

Pull your handles open and take the digger out of the ground, piling the removed stone and dirt to the side.

Open handles on the post digger before removing soil from post hole.
Open handles squeezes the dirt so you can remove it from the hole.

Repeat until your hole is the depth you need. You need to ensure that the entire hole is the correct depth- not just the very center.

Here’s a video of me digging with an explanation of how to use the tools:

I won’t get into the details of adding the post as everyone seems to have a different opinion in terms of whether to add concrete or not. I DO NOT add concrete because it doesn’t prevent rotting and I don’t want to dig it back up someday.

Alternatives to Hand Digging Post Holes

If you can’t manage this by hand, you will want to consider a powered option. You have a few alternatives to hand digging. I don’t know a lot about the options as I’m at the beginning stages of researching my options for installing fence posts for horses, but I can give you a starting point.

In my opinion, a lot of the powered hand augers are still going to be a decent amount of physical power on your part. At some point, you need to bite the bullet and pay someone to do the work if you’re physically not able. It’s okay to not DIY everything! Hospital visits, massages, chiropractor visits, and pain killers are all expensive! Also- please someone remind me of this next time I try to take on too much. LOL.

Powered hole digging options

We’re still trying to decide what to rent or buy to put up horse fencing in the next few months (hopefully). Any opinions? Leave a comment! I like to save money and I also like to get things done so I’m tempted to just go dig them by hand. I keep telling myself “it’s really not THAT many posts.” LOL!

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How to dig a post hole by hand: an important task to learn how to do properly if you do a lot of work outdoors for your home.

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