How to Use a Tamper Tool

Tamper tool with other tools
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Tampers are the tool you never knew you needed, but once you have it, you'll be asking yourself how you ever lived without it. Sometimes referred to as a compactor, a tamper is a tool with a handle similar to a shovel's and a heavy, square base that is used for packing and leveling materials like dirt, sand, and rock.

Tampers are ideal for leveling dirt and mulch after planting shrubs and small trees, leveling and packing paver base before installing a paver walkway or patio, or even smoothing out gravel after heavy rainfall. With a few helpful tips, you can efficiently and effectively use this tool on your next outdoor project.

What Is a Tamper?

A tamper is a tool with a long handle and a heavy, square base used for leveling and firmly packing materials such as dirt, clay, sand, and gravel.

Tamper vs. Digging Bar

Though both tools are often referred to as tampers, there are big differences between tampers and digging bars. A tamper, as previously mentioned, features a long shovel-like handle and a heavy, square base. It's perfect for packing and leveling dirt, sand, and rock, as well as many other materials.

A digging bar is a long steel bar most often used for setting fence posts, deck supports, or similar materials. On one end of a digging bar, there is a small tamper used for packing in the dirt around a post-like structure. Its smaller size makes it perfect for fitting in holes around posts, but not as useful for packing or leveling dirt in other situations.

Tamper
  • Shovel-like handle

  • Great for packing and leveling areas both large and small

  • Large, square tamping base

Digging Bar
  • Long, solid steel handle

  • Great for packing dirt around posts

  • Small, round tamping base

Safety Considerations

Tampers may be simple, but they can be dangerous if used improperly. The heavy steel base can cause significant injury if it strikes a leg or foot, so proper work attire such as thick pants, work boots, and gloves should always be worn during use.

Additionally, it's recommended that you wear eye protection whenever using a tool to strike a material. If you feel that you are losing control of the tool due to exhaustion, it's best to take a break and pick up where you left off once rested.

How to Use a Tamper Tool

  1. How to Position Yourself

    Position yourself centered above the surface you plan to tamp. Spread your legs to just beyond shoulder width, as this will place your feet out of harm's way.

    Warning

    When using a tamper, always wear work boots. Steel-toed boots will offer extra protection.

  2. How to Hold the Tamper

    Hold the tamper at the top with both hands firmly grasping the grip, centering the base between your feet.

  3. Tamp the Ground

    Raise and drop the tamper on the ground with a swift, firm motion. Adjust your body and the tool to pack the desired area, being sure to maintain a level base as you go. This will prevent the edges and corners from digging in and undoing your work.

    Tip

    Use your back and shoulders, along with the weight of the tamper, to provide the force needed to pack and level the surface. If you rely solely on your arms, you will quickly tire out.

  4. Work One Layer at a Time

    The best practice when using a tamper is to work with one layer of material at a time. For example, if tamping dirt, only tamp an inch or two at a time before shoveling in more dirt. It's very difficult to compact thick layers of materials in a quality manner, resulting in a poorly packed surface.

  5. Allow Soil to Dry If Wet

    Tamping wet soil or clay is not an effective way to compact it. Oftentimes, this will only lead to the material sticking to the tamper. To prep wet dirt for tamping, rake it out as much as possible and give it ample time to dry.

Buying vs. Renting

Many home improvement stores offer hand tampers as rentals, but the cost of this tool doesn't justify this. Because of the wide range of uses, a tamper is a tool most homeowners will use again and again after purchasing. So, unless you are absolutely certain you will never use the tool again, it's likely one worth buying.

Keeping Tampers in Good Condition

The main task associated with keeping a tamper in good shape is simply cleaning it off after use. Depending on the specific material used for your tamper's base, storing it dirty or wet may lead to rust and deterioration. So, it's always recommended that you clean and dry it after use.

When to Replace a Tamper

If properly used and cleaned before storage, odds are a tamper's base will last forever. However, the handle, depending on the quality and specific material used, will likely wear out over time. In this case, many tampers can have a replacement handle added, while others cannot due to their construction. If your specific tamper isn't made to accept a replacement, a bad handle is a sign to buy a new tamper.