The eternal Canadian quest for the perfect snow shovel: Don Pittis

Seeking advice from Canadians on the perfect snow shovel — before the next Snowmageddon.

Snow is a multibillion-dollar business, so why can't we find the right tool?

Snow shovels always look good at a hardware store, just like new cars on a dealer's lot. But you never really know how good a shovel is until you've put it through its paces. (Don Pittis/CBC)

As I write, poor old Newfoundland is about to be walloped by its first big snowfall of the season.  Of course, at this time of year in Canada, there's almost always someone somewhere digging out from a blizzard. 

Last week, Windsor, Ont., claimed a record snowfall, and travellers around the Great Lakes were being warned to expect another blast of snowy weather. Montreal was forced to crank up what is certainly one of the world's most astonishing and efficient snow-removal operations.

​In Canada, snow and the trouble it causes make for a multibillion-dollar business. So, I asked myself as I did my own battle with the white stuff last week, why can't I find the perfect snow shovel? I am not alone.

'There's usually something wrong'

Eric Spearing of Toronto is as close to a professional snow shoveller as there is in this country. Part of his job is to clean up the fiddly parts of urban parks where mechanical plows just won't work.

Has he ever had a perfect snow shovel? Nope.

"There's usually something wrong with it," says Spearing. "This one's too soft. It could be wider."
Professional snow shoveller Eric Spearing has yet to find the perfect tool. (Don Pittis/CBC)

And while their sales may be dwarfed by the billions of dollars spent on giant snow-removal equipment across the country, that quest for the perfect snow shovel is itself a big business in Canada.

"We sell about 100 shovels a year," says Joe Valenza, who runs a small independent hardware store in Toronto's west end. "We're not Home Depot! They sell 100 in a weekend."

Finding out how many snow shovels Canadians buy each year is not an easy task. Statistics Canada area specialists plowed through their records and could only find one reference to snow shovels, as a component of the consumer price index under "other household equipment."

Secret sales figures

Stores I contacted, including Canadian Tire, a candidate for one of Canada's biggest movers of snow movers, said the information on their shovel sales is a business secret.

Home Hardware was a little more forthcoming.

The Canadian chain was willing to reveal that their snow shovel sales amounted to "hundreds of thousands" a year and that their best seller — a surprise to me — was made in Canada, not imported from China.
At this season in Canada there is always someone digging out somewhere. (Dario Ayala/Reuters)

In what seems like a miracle of keeping domestic jobs at home that U.S. President Donald Trump would likely kill for, the chain's top-selling collection of shovels is made in Dundalk, Ont. The hardwood handles are from local trees, and even the plastic parts are moulded in a local factory.

Home Hardware's best seller goes for about $25, but a sample from a hardware near my house shows more sophisticated devices with ergonomic handles or the big scoops that you slide across the snow like a toboggan going for a lot more. The price tag on a bright yellow scooper was about $40 before taxes.

Everyone has at least 1

A look at Home Hardware's market share and a whole lot of estimating point to shovel sales conservatively at well over $1 million a year.

Considering that almost everyone who needs a snow shovel already owns one, why are sales so high?

I put the question to Dan Moulton, who runs Home Hardware locations in Hanover and Minden, towns in Ontario's snow belt in the prevailing winds off the Great Lakes.

"No, I think everyone in Minden has multiple snow shovels," chuckles Moulton. "In towns that are in the snow belt like that, you need different types of snow shovels to get the job done."

While he says everyone is likely looking for a better shovel, the question is, better for what?
A search revealed eight snow shovels in the author's household collection, a demonstration of one Canadian's forlorn hope of finding the perfect tool. (Don Pittis/CBC)

The trouble is that no matter how good your shovel is, there's always a better one for a different purpose.

"Depending on the type of snowfall and how heavy the snow is, you might need a heavier-duty one with with fibreglass handle versus a wooden handle, or you might need an aluminum square-mouth shovel to dig out the end of your driveway after the plow comes by," says Moulton.

He says snow doesn't stick as much to an aluminum shovel.

Whether or not the Inuit really have 52 words for snow as an anthropologist once claimed, there is no question that Canadians have far more than 52 types of snow shovel.

8 shovels, none perfect

A search of my household turned up eight, each with its imperfection.

A wide red one with a curved blade that looks like a section of a cylinder has great coverage if the snow isn't too heavy, but it seems some always dribbles off the outside edges. 

The all-plastic one from Rona has side edges to prevent dribbling and a bent ergonomic handle. It was one of my favourites until it began to develop a big bite out of the front from scraping along the sidewalk.

The replacement with a metal edge from the hardware at the corner solves that problem, but so far the edge is so sharp it stops abruptly at every surface imperfection, risking internal damage from where the handle rests on my tummy.

Duct tape on an old favourite

An old favourite with a wonky handle is patched with duct tape. There's one with a second handle half-way down the shaft that doesn't work as well for me as it did for the smiling guy on TV. There were two in the car, one still wrapped in plastic in the winter emergency bag.

But none of them is perfect.

I'm still looking for the perfect snow shovel, and covetously eye better-looking models. Of course, as any real Canadian knows, you never really know a snow shovel till you've used it long enough that you can't take it back to the store. Besides, my collection is already embarrassingly large.

Surely across this great snowy land someone has found the perfect snow shovel.

Contribute suggestions or other shovel tales to the comments below. You can also post photos using the Twitter hashtag #cbcshovelquest

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.