The Ace of Spades
Each time I pack the car prior for a metal detecting excursion, I run through a mental check list, this check list has been referenced many times and has many variations depending on what I am setting out to do. If I am recording media or reviewing an item of detecting tech then the list will change accordingly; cameras, wireless mics, gimble, drone, finds pouch, pin pointer and the list goes on. There is however one item of equipment that is always at the bottom of the list or tucked away in a dark and dusty corner of my mind, the item that I am referring to, is the humble but essential spade.
For many years I have used any spade that came easily to hand. Often, I would use whatever old digging implement I could find lurking deep in the garden shed and these rusted and dust covered tools were never given a second thought for after all, they were just a spade. In my mind a spade was a spade, a simple device to allow me to pry up the earth and with any luck reveal whatever treasure that was within the soil’s grasp. I had over the years decided that any spade would do, as long as it was of the short-handled variety, I can’t recall ever making a conscious decision to use only a short-handled spade, but somewhere at some point in time my subconscious made that choice on my behalf.
The spade that has served me valiantly for the last 4 or 5 years was a cheap small and light weight one that I had purchased from B&Q, the maker’s name escapes me. Many of my metal detecting colleagues and friends had mocked my less than perfect spade, others told me how their weary backs wouldn’t ever allow them to use such an inferior digging tool, but for me, I thought that it was good enough. When attending group events and rallies many people can be seen proudly wielding high-end, purpose-built spades, some of them looking more like a medieval weapon of war than a simple hole-digging tool, but as I carried on regardless with my cheap and simple spade I thought ‘each to their own’.
Earlier this year I was contacted by a chap called Alan Bumstead, Alan owns a company that produces custom made metal detecting spades. These stylish and sleek tools have a well-founded place within the world of metal detecting. Alan trades his wares under the company name of “Optimist Spades” and his now familiar brand logo can regularly be seen at events and group rallies, and it was at such an event that I first saw one of these impressive spades. When Alan asked if I would like to try out one of his latest, I was already aware of the type of product that he produces and their quality, so of course I said “yes”. Shortly after our conversation Alan had sent me an overwhelming list of options, there were a plethora of choices from different slings, spade shape, kick plates and of course he wanted to know what I would like him to engrave onto the spade. Having never been any good at making decisions when faced with multiple options, I decided to play it safe and leave all the decision making to Alan, hiding my indecision under the guise of allowing him to use his artistic flare.
A couple of weeks passed and while on a trip to the Joan Allen shop in Suffolk, I received a call informing me that my spades were ready for shipping. Knowing that I would be passing Alan’s home county of Norfolk on my return to Scotland, I decided that I would make a slight detour and collect the spades on my way north. A few days later I was standing on Alan’s doorstep. Having met briefly in the past we chatted and caught up before he invited me inside to see the spades. There, propped neatly against the wall were what I could only describe as two works of art, two masterpieces showcasing their creator’s craftmanship, I was quite taken aback. As I stood there talking and trying hard not to be too distracted by the spades, there was also something else demanding my attention. My new distraction was in the form of Alan’s lovely Staffordshire Terrier “Billy”, this big lean handsome dog was equally worthy of my attention and within seconds I was rolling around on the floor of Alan’s home fussing and petting my new friend. Acutely aware that I still had an 11-hour drive home ahead of me, I thanked Alan and gave Billy one last pat on the head before quickly placing the spades in the back of the van and setting off.
As I made the long drive north, I found myself wanting to inspect the spades more thoroughly, I wanted to look at them without any distractions and soak up their detail. For a moment, I contemplated pulling over and inspecting the spades that were lying neatly in the rear of the van, but I told myself to be patient and wait until the following morning when hopefully, I would finally arrive home. For the rest of that long drive to Scotland, my mind kept churning over the same question, as much as I tried, I couldn’t get the thought to leave me. What was concerning was this, “how do I review a spade?” Yes, I write articles about metal detecting related items and talk about them in my videos, but a spade is just a spade, isn’t it? A spade is just a tool with which you dig a hole, long, short, shiny or rusty they all do the same thing, and I would be lying if I told you that I wasn’t more than a little worried about how to make this review worth reading. The following morning as I unpacked the van, I stood in the sunshine and inspected every detail of the spades, Alan had seen fit to supply me with two spades, one slightly larger than the other with the size difference being born out of requests from customers for the option of larger spades. The craftmanship and skill were clear, the engraving which bore my group logo “Hidden History Hunters” looked so good that I thought it a travesty to actually use this masterpiece to dig holes with! Looking at the spades and then the blue sky, I decided that there was no better time than now to start the test.
This time as I went through my mental check list before setting off to some nearby fields, “spades” were most definitely at the top of my list. Pushing aside my concerns of how to review a spade I pulled up, donned my equipment and set off detecting. Another factor that has contributed to me never really wanting a larger customised spade is the weight, I had no real desire to carry a larger heavier spade when my small cheap little spade served me perfectly well. I needn’t have worried though, although seeming to be very strong and clearly longer than my own spade, the Optimist Spades latest design was lighter than I had expected and sat comfortably in my hand. In the horizontal rearward facing position in which I carry my spade it felt completely natural, not too heavy but solid enough to give me confidence in its construction and with my hand at roughly the centre point of the shaft it was perfectly balanced. I hadn’t wandered far across the stubble field before I received my first signal, in a flash I swung the spade down into a digging position, placed my right foot onto the handmade brass kick plates and plunged it into the ground. The customed shaped and hand sharpened cutting edge of the spade slide effortlessly in, the brass kick plates making for a comfortable and sturdy foot position and all of this combined made digging incredibly easy. As I levered the clod from the ground with my left hand I was struck by a thought, ‘why have I gone so long without a spade like this?’ The entire process of digging was revolutionised by using this spade, a spade designed and made for metal detecting by a metal detectorist, I was staggered by the difference. As I dug each hole, I found myself looking for harder and tougher ground to really test this new digging weapon, even in the hard and rocky ground the shape of the blade meant that it pushed past the rocks with ease and sliced through roots and vegetation like they weren’t there. I was thoroughly impressed!
Metal detecting can if you allow it, be a relatively expensive hobby, with some machines priced north of £1000 along with pin pointers and other accessories like finds pouches and outdoor clothing, the cost can soon mount up. So why would we then want to spend another £100 or so on a spade? Well for just that reason I hadn’t spent much money at all on a spade in the past, and if I’m honest I probably wouldn’t have at all had I not been sent this spade. That said, within only a few minutes of using my new favourite thing I instantly became an advocate for the extra spending, not only does this spade make digging much easier, also it reduces fatigue and in doing so allows you to detect for longer and importantly enjoy more time metal detecting. When you break down the cost of this spade it is surprising that it cost as little as it does, the hand engraving, custom slings and the handmade kick plates all take time and skill to manufacture. Then there is the spade’s shape and design to consider, each spade is cut to size and sharpened by hand, all this custom bespoke workmanship takes time and skill, so in reality it is surprising that it is priced as it is.
Two weeks after returning home to Scotland I was once again heading south, this time to Kent to attend the Joan Allen Heart of Kent Rally. Once again, I loaded the van with various metal detectors and camping equipment, my new spade was most definitely not going to be forgotten. Little did I know when I was actively looking for hard ground to test the spade, soon it was going to be put to the ultimate test. Kent like most of the UK had endured a long hot and incredibly dry summer, resulting in ground that was so hard that the farmers couldn’t even cultivate their fields for fear of damaging their machinery or setting light to the dry crops as their discing machines struck the all too abundant flint. It seemed that every rally and event around the UK were affected by the dry hard ground this year, the tough conditions not only tested the metal of the detectorist but also the metal of their spades. This year broken and bent spades were a common sight, social media was awash with photos of spades that had cried enough, so I was keen to see how my spade faired. Even with the razor-sharp cutting edge of the spade it was still tough going, but there wasn’t a single occasion where I couldn’t dig down to my target, the same couldn’t be said when I was digging in Suffolk only two weeks previously, that time I had my trusty old cheap spade with me, but I eventually had to admit defeat and give up as the ground was just too hard. The brass kick plates that are firmly fitted to the spade allow you to really drive the spade into the ground without fear of slipping or hurting your foot. they also serve as a form of protection for the sole of your boots or wellingtons, I, like many have had to condemn
more than one pair of boots to an early grave in the wheelie bin as a result of the soles been shredded by sharp spade tops. It is however with these kick plates that I found the first and only problem with my spade, and the fault lies with their position. The top of the spade is folded rearward towards the user, the kick plates are then fixed on to the top of these folds leaving an overhang of an inch or two, as a result they can and do snag on the edge of the hole if you are digging deeper than the blade’s length. This issue isn’t a showstopper by any means, but it is something that grabs your attention when digging deeper holes, an easy fix would potentially be to simply fold the spade top forward.
My spade took a summer of hard digging in its stride, I did wonder if the beautifully engraved logo would quickly wear off, but I needn’t have been concerned, several months in and lots of use have proved this spade to remain as fantastic as the day I received it. Rarely am I given the privilege of testing something that is so well thought out, designed and constructed in a way that takes you back to a period when Great Britain was at its finest industrial prowess. This spade offers a design that gives you a practical advantage when digging in every way, it is built to last and above all it looks blooming great! My concerns about writing a review on a spade were clearly unfounded, after using this spade for just a few moments it spoke for itself.
So, what about my original trusty old spade? It has obviously been replaced by a far superior model and as a result has become somewhat redundant. However, that spade holds a special place in my heart and will always have a place, it has helped dig up some truly amazing artefacts over the years and has been worn down much the same as an archaeologist’s trowel. More importantly, it is the spade that my late
old detecting friend “Digger Dog” dutifully carried each time we set out metal detecting together, and it still bears his teeth marks, so the old spade is safe and won’t ever be thrown out.
If you want to own what could possibly be the best spade around, or want a piece of art to hang on the wall of your man cave, then these are the spades for you.
Optimist Spades, the best of British!
Link below for Optimist spades