Homebrew Carbon Fiber Shovel Shaft

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | May 9, 2012      

(Brought this post up front today due to making an oval adapted shaft for BCA shovels.)

I’m getting tired of shovel makers not using more composites. Thought I’d whip up a few custom shovel shafts and see how they work for spring and summer backcountry skiing. In the case of the full carbon shaft, weight savings is in my view significant. When adapting using aluminum tubing section, not so much. Check it all out.

BCA B-1 shovel blade with custom adapted carbon shaft, saves more than  2 ounces over stock.

BCA B-1 shovel blade with custom adapted carbon shaft (adaption due to oval shape of OEM shaft), saves more than 2 ounces over stock, shaft length same as OEM non-extend version. Significant? You be the judge. If done commercially, weight savings could easily be along the lines of 4 to 5 ounces, and quite a bit more for an extendable shaft. Using some sort of aluminum sleeve over the carbon could be the answer to potential wear problems at shovel/blade interface, but the alu would need to be thin so as not to cancel out the weight savings. By the way, these new BCA shovels are the thing -- custom shafts or not.

Carbon fiber avalanche shovel shaft, with carbon handle.

Carbon fiber avalanche shovel shaft, with carbon handle, on G3 shovel. In this case the weight savings was good due to not needing an adapter. But this shovel blade is a few ounces heavier so the savings got canceled out.

Home-made carbon fiber shovel shaft on G3 Guide shovel blade.

Home-made carbon fiber shovel shaft on G3 Guide shovel blade. This shaft was made with a PVC plumbing pipe T handle, which weighs a few ounces more than the carbon handle but costs 70 times less.

To begin, 1 inch carbon fiber tubing was acquired from one-of webstore. Took a while to find the right pick, and I’m not sure if this stuff is tubing or pipe. It measures .999 inch ID and 1.12 OD, which happens to fit perfectly in a G3 shovel, probably because the G3 shaft socket is bored out to 28.5 mm. The tubing was tested to destruction by wedging the shovel under my backyard deck, inserting tube in shovel socket, then yarding on the shaft until it broke with a pop as loud as my hunting rifle. This was then compared to a regular shaft tortured with the same NRA approved methodology. (Only the G3 Guide shovel could have held up to this abuse, by the way…)

Strength testing conclusion is the carbon fiber tube I chose is easily as strong as the aluminum shaft, and thus fine for an occasional-use backcountry skiing shovel, though one would have to keep a sharp eye on it for abrasions and gouges as it’s said the composite is more sensitive to such abuse than alu. (More, note that the G3 shovel blade is one of the strongest out there, nearly any other avalanche shovel blade I know of would have failed in this test before the shaft failed. That’s not saying avy shovel blades are not strong enough, most are, the point is this type of shovel shaft is plenty strong if made from strong enough composite.)

Conventional alu shovel shaft above would weight about 8 ounces at 20 inch length.

Conventional alu shovel shaft above would weigh about 8 ounces at 20 inch length. I didn't compare weight to the actual G3 brand shaft, as it's extendable and quite heavy in comparison. The weight savings of composite would be quite significant if used for an extendable shaft.

Available backpack interior height was measured, 20 inches available. Composite tube was then cut with abrasive wheel, button catch installed, and plug inserted in bottom end. Handle is schedule 40 PVC 3/4 inch T fitting, one leg of T bored out tight then press fit over tube after heating, fixation via PVC plumbing glue and a rivet to prevent rotation. Handle weighs nearly as much as the whole shaft, so speed holes added to reduce disappointment. Total project time for first iteration using PVC handle: two hours including hardware store run. G3 Guide shovel blade is heavy and a bit small (though it works well for certain applications), next project will be making this same style shaft for a BCA blade, this will be a tougher project due to BCA oval shaft shape. Or perhaps I can find another shovel blade that’s acceptable but has a round instead of oval shaft socket.

Carbon fiber paddle handle floats at 32 grams.

Carbon fiber paddle handle floats at 32 grams, is easily installed in carbon shaft using epoxy.

Part II: I ordered a carbon fiber white-water paddle handle from Zaveral Racing Equipment. The handle is beautifully made, foam core with internal strengthening strut, super light at 1.1 oz (32 grams), saving just under an ounce vs PVC handle — significant when we’re talking total project weights of around 5 ounces. For a good bond between handle and shaft, the handle tang was first enlarged by laying up a few layers of fiberglass mat and epoxy, molded inside a spare chunk of shaft material, using release layer made from plastic bag. With the handle tang nicely shaped, it was then glued it into the shovel shaft using epoxy. A tight fit with quite a bit of surface area insures a good bond. Total project time to install carbon handle: about 1 hour.

Results: Using PVC handle total weight is 5.4 ounce shaft versus conventional of same length weighing about 8 ounces, saving 2.6 ounces (74 grams). Using carbon paddle handle, total is 4.7 oz, saving 3.3 ounces (93.56 grams) over the 8 ounce conventional shaft. After the full-carbon shaft was constructed, another was made with an aluminum adapter for oval shaft BCA shovel blades; weight 5.3 ounces (resulting in a quite effective and strong shovel that weighs almost exactly one pound).

Conclusion: Overall nice. Composite handle necessary before weight saving is significant. Doing this one-off demo project was expensive, but mass producing this could conceivably result in cost well within the weight savings vs cost balance for many active backcountry skiers. Regarding the composite handle, a more budget friendly version could be constructed as a simple T handle using a cross piece of smaller carbon tube inserted into the larger shaft. Doing this for the one-of would necessitate ordering another longer stick of tubing, using the paddle handle was more fun and probably cost about the same.


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38 Responses to “Homebrew Carbon Fiber Shovel Shaft”

  1. David B April 30th, 2012 7:50 pm

    Lou, I think I’d rather the weight. I wouldn’t want my shovel the break if I was digging out a buddy.

    While you are on the carbon fibre front, did you ever get around to ski testing the DPS Wailers or other DPS Pure Carbon skis.

  2. See April 30th, 2012 9:34 pm

    I think the advantages of construction with composite materials are greater with more complicated shapes. And a digging tool that is carried around in a pack with ice axe, crampons etc. in an alpine environment is probably not the best candidate for material that is prone to cracking if not made so thick as to negate potential weight savings.

    But that looks really nice. Maybe a mitered shaft and carbon handle with a wrapped epoxy/carbon tow joint?

  3. See April 30th, 2012 9:43 pm

    Edit– “more complicated (or bigger) shapes.”

  4. Maciej April 30th, 2012 9:54 pm

    I dig the idea, but composites aren’t ideal for home modding. Properly designed carbon stuff is WAY stiffer, lighter, and more durable than comparable metal products almost every time. Unfortunately, carbon parts also almost always fail catastrophically. Having a shovel snap, possibly injuring the user AND hindering a rescue seems like a bad deal.

    That said, a carbon shaft with a co-molded handle and enough aramid (like Kevlar) to prevent the shaft from shattering would make a vastly lighter and better avy shovel. Even the shovel blade could possibly be made of carbon if it had a metal edge.

    The other problem is that building a shovel this way would not only involve intensive r&d, but also costly tooling and materials. My guesstimate is that such a wonder shovel would run at least $600-Ouch!!

    As an ex bike racer, I’m been stunned at how much a racing level bicycle costs today. While I love to see backcountry ski gear getting lighter and better, I’d hate to see a cost escalation on par with what’s happened to the cycling world.

  5. Maciej April 30th, 2012 9:56 pm

    Edit-“I’ve been stunned…”

  6. See April 30th, 2012 10:27 pm

    I would agree that carbon bikes are stiffer and lighter. Not sure about more durable.

  7. Maki May 1st, 2012 3:28 am

    Actually there are composite showels, priced around 100 Euro, dunno in dollars. But they’re mostly for rando-race, where you don’t really use them…

    Lou, you can probably make the shaft much more stronger without any real weight penalty filling it with self expanding rigid foam. It’s used in home building.

  8. Lou May 1st, 2012 3:40 am

    Maki, yeah, I have an Arva but the shaft walls are super thin so I’ve never trusted it. This one I was able to test. It’s quite strong. In terms of price points, the bicycle market simply shows there is room in that particular market for all price points, shopper’s choice. Personally, I think there are people out there who would spend more on a shovel, not sure about $600, however!

    On the other hand, the bicycle market is similar in that people are human powered, and weight is key. As backcountry skiers become ever more sophisticated, don’t be surprised if they start spending more and more money to save small amounts of weight.

  9. Lou May 1st, 2012 3:50 am

    I should have made it clear in the post that the carbon shaft I made is easily as strong as the G3 shaft. The G3 shaft bent when I tested it, the carbon failed catastrophically, both took huge force and are plenty strong. Composite is more sensitive to wear, that’s the main thing. Lots of folks are biased against composites, sometimes with good reason, but most of that is based on poor engineering or bad manufacturing (just as can happen with aluminum). Pretty soon you may be flying in a commercial jet that’s primarily made of composites, better get over the bias or prepare for airtravel anxiety (grin). Lou

  10. P May 1st, 2012 9:01 am

    Nice little project! If you wanted to make a carbon grip for the shovel, that is quite easy. You can use one of the standard ways that people make their own carbon bike frame joints.

    Choose some carbon tubing (the same or a different diameter) for the handle. Then use one of the online tools for printing out a pattern to then cut (dremmel) the curve to mate the two cylinders (at whatever angle you choose). Tack the two carbon cylinders together with the correct epoxy. Ideally you would lay some carbon glass down over the joint if you want, but it isn’t necessary. Then you essentially lash the joint together (as you would with sticks) with carbon ‘string’ dipped in epoxy. Let that dry, and then sand it down to a gorgeous shimmery finish. Voila – an extremely strong, light joint. Many homebrew or small-production bike tubing joints are done that way (lots of info online). The more complex method, requiring some more equipment would be to use a vacuum method.

  11. Tom Gos May 1st, 2012 11:27 am

    Lou, seems pretty cool. I think some people make too big a deal about nicks and scratches in carbon fiber products. Yes, carbon is more “delicate” in this regard, but heck, they make mountain bikes out of the stuff! How often does a mountain bike tube get whacked by a flying stone? Nearly every time it’s ridden. Even road bikes are subjected to stone strikes and crashes. I do think you should add what the cost of the carbon tube was so that we can evaluate the always important cost to weight savings ratio.

    And given that a carbon bicycle frame can be manufuactured for a cost of perhaps several hundred dollars I find it hard to imagine that a carbon shovel would have to cost in excess of $600.

  12. Sedgesprite May 1st, 2012 12:30 pm
  13. Lou May 1st, 2012 1:13 pm

    Perfect, I’ll order a couple and add to blog post above when they arrive. I hope they’re not too heavy…

  14. Lou May 1st, 2012 1:30 pm

    Tom, I can’t find the invoice as I got the tubing for hobby projects a couple years ago. Pretty sure I got if from Dragon Plate, http://dragonplate.com/ecart/categories.asp?cID=79

    Looks like the chunk I used is worth about $60, $0.81 per gram for the weight savings (grin). But that’s with the heavy handle.

    FYI, Dragon Plate is where we got the carbon fiber sheet we used for our Denali stoveboards a few years ago.

  15. Lou May 1st, 2012 1:32 pm

    So, we can have bicycle frames, kayak paddles and commercial passenger jets made from carbon fiber, but it won’t work for a shovel handle?

  16. Lou May 1st, 2012 1:39 pm

    In case any of you are wondering what it would cost to have a full carbon shovel, check out this paddle, it’s pretty close to being a shovel, $250… http://www.zre.com/catalog/dragonz202aspecboatpaddlewacarbontgrip-p-180.html?osCsid=tagymhik

    The grip is more along the lines of what I was planning for my DIY shovel, but I’d need to order a whole other stick of tube for that, so I’ll try the pre-made handles first.

  17. Tom Gos May 1st, 2012 2:55 pm

    In the cycling world $0.81/gram is regarded as a pretty good deal. The rule of thumb is that generally, when you really start getting down to it, you can plan on spending a buck a gram to take weight off of a road racing bicycle.

  18. See May 1st, 2012 3:38 pm

    I’m writing this while taking a break from doing an epoxy composite (in this case fiberglass) repair on a wooden boat. I’d be using carbon but it’s against the rules.

    I hope I didn’t come off as carbon phobic. Far from it.

    As you observed, to achieve really light weight, you end up with a “single use” shovel. There is probably a niche currently unfilled in the marketplace for something in between say an Arva and a Voile xlm or a g3 spadetech. But getting it right may be pretty tricky. For example, I suspect using holes and spring pins to make an extendable shaft would require fairly thick walled tubes to avoid failure at the holes.

    Actually, I just had an idea for a way around that. I may have to try making a carbon shovel myself.

    Thanks again for the great and thought provoking site.

  19. Matt May 1st, 2012 3:59 pm

    Does Werner sell their carbon canoe paddle t-grips without the rest of the paddle? I bet it’s lighter than your PVC T

  20. ACP Composites May 1st, 2012 5:37 pm

    It is great to see how carbon fiber tubing is being used. We offer a variety of carbon fiber tubing options and can manufacture custom products and sizes.
    Our store: http://www.acpsales.com/OnlineStore.php
    Our services: http://www.acpsales.com/home.html

    Visit us!
    ACP Composites

  21. AK Jack May 1st, 2012 10:41 pm

    Lou, GREAT shovel handle. Thanks for the post!! Ignore the naysayers and keep it up!

  22. Rob May 3rd, 2012 6:05 pm

    Did a crevasse rescue course this winter and the guide was using his Arva carbon handle shovel and broke the handle digging a pit for belay. He said that was the first (and apparently the last) time he used that particular shovel.

  23. Lou May 3rd, 2012 6:25 pm

    Rob, exactly, I have an Arva here and the walls of the tubing handle are quite thin, the tubing I used for my DIY is plenty strong. Lou

  24. Kelly May 7th, 2012 12:59 pm

    I’ve used carbon fiber ski poles (Easton carbon fiber) for over 10 years and Easton carbon fiber handle bars and seat post on my mountain bike for almost that same period of time. They have worked flawlessly for me. Once in awhile I fill in the nicks on the lower ski pole shaft (from ski edges) with epoxy and sand/polish it and it does the trick. Light (mostly cosmetic) nicks and abrasions can be ‘repaired’ with epoxy. I love the stuff and would gladly buy one of Lou’s shovel handles (or make one! ~;’).
    I also have the new K2 backside carbon ski poles – fantastic design and after the first year they still look like new.

  25. chris blatter aka silvertonslim May 7th, 2012 3:56 pm

    The picture does not look like an avey shovel to me; I use that size shovel to scoop ice into my cocktail glass. I’ve dug lots and still use my 1988 RAMER shovel; sure its been welded a few times and is not light like carbonfiber but I carry / use it 50 days each winter for 20+ years. And when I go to Alaska I still get laughed at ’cause those boyz use grain shovels….there it is, a grain shovel with carbonfiber handle…jump on it Lou!

  26. Lou May 7th, 2012 4:51 pm

    Chris, you haven’t been reading your WildSnow back issues! On Denali this shovel was incredibly useful, we combined with several other sizes within the group. It was constantly used for hacking harder snow in and around the cook tent. We had a steel spade around camp as well, but that was sometimes heavy and clunky. Yes, as an avy rescue shovel it’s on the small side, but part of the reason it looks small is due to the photograph angle, and also the way it’s shaped. In actual square inches, the smaller of BCA’s new models (B-1) has nearly the exact same surface area. Again, not saying that’s always ideal, but you can actually dig quite fast with this size, especially in a group if using strategic shoveling techniques.

    And yeah, carbon shafts could be used for any shovel. I do wonder if in constant use aluminum would be of equal weight, due to the need for thicker carbon that can stand up better to nicks and cuts. If a manufacturer wanted to pursue this, durability testing would actually be quite easy.

    Like any backcountry gear, the choice of shovel can have multiple solutions.

    And I have to ask, who mixes your drinks? I guess the rumors I’ve heard about bars in Silverton preparing martinis in old powder kegs is true?

  27. Ed May 7th, 2012 5:23 pm

    There were a few carbon shovels out there last winter – I bought one from Snowsafe.uk’s website (although I don’t see it there now) – it was made by ABS I believe (have photo available if you want it by email Lou). It is vapour light! I spent the winter using it to dig snow pits here ‘n there and it survived fine (mind the snow was lighter than spring slab avi debris would be!). Shovel blade has a metal lip built in for durability.
    There’s others out there too:
    and talked about at:
    I too think carbon shovels would be a great thing to develop further.
    Also perhaps a “combo shovel blade/ shovel handle/ probe/ ski crampon/ boot crampon add-on bag thingy” for the front of many of the alpine 35 l packs I’ve seen out there, leaving the inside for softer stuff, including down gear that doesn’t end up punctured and looking like a goose died a violent death inside the bag (story here).

  28. Lou May 7th, 2012 5:35 pm

    Thanks for the overview Ed, like I implied in intro, I’d like to see shovel makers using more composites. I’d add that the existing stuff just doesn’t seem up to par. For example, the Arva is definitely weak and intended mostly for show though it would possibly work for one rescue. I have one and have tested, the blade I have is different from picture but the shaft appears to be the same, if so it’s weak, too thin and made with a type of carbon construction that’s less strong than more expensive methods. The others you mention don’t look or sound that great (other than the one you’re using, but sounds like not made anymore?), but perhaps they’re worth a test. The blade used for project above is about as small as I’d ever want, sounds like one of those shovels you mention is even smaller… Lou

  29. Maciej May 7th, 2012 8:56 pm

    The handle looks great Lou!! I suspect the point of failure now would be where the shaft slides into the tube on the blade. Repeated assembly and disassembly and use would inevitably score the carbon there causing stress risers.

    Talking bikes again, the clamping points on carbon seatposts and handlebars are almost always the points of failure for that reason. For example, pros are more likely to have a carbon seatpost snap since they travel with their bikes a lot and have to repeatedly insert and remove their seatposts.

    That said, I find your handle solution to be elegant and creative. If you can come up with an equally elegant solution for the shaft-handle interface, I think you’ll have proven your idea practical and (reasonably) cost effective.

  30. John Gloor May 7th, 2012 11:09 pm

    This is an eye opening test video by Santa Cruz with their aluminum and carbon frames. I was pretty impressed with the carbon frames. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xreZdUBqpJs

  31. Lou May 8th, 2012 5:20 am

    Maciej, first solution is to lightly taper and polish the inside edge of the blade socket where the shaft inserts. Second solution is to laminate a small chunk of thin alu tubing onto the carbon shaft, where it inserts in shovel blade socket. Third solution is to do some abuse testing before worrying about applying solutions one and two, as some of this carbon is quite strong even when nicked and abraded. Also, one should note that aluminum shovel shafts are not exactly abuse proof either. When testing to compare strength of carbon the other day, the alu shaft I tested bent quite easily and seemed slightly weaker than the carbon shaft (though it felt plenty strong enough to do avalanche rescue digging and snow pits).

  32. Lou May 8th, 2012 5:47 am

    Gloor, that video is perfect. From what I’ve learned, a variety of materials will work fine for an avalanche rescue shovel shaft. The key is how the shaft is constructed. Obviously, carbon will work fine if it’s done right. I have some titanium tubing here as well. Potential to be lighter and stronger than alu shafts, but tough to get it right by buying stock materials. The carbon tubing seems to make much more sense. Lou

  33. Ed May 8th, 2012 7:53 am

    Thanks Lou – there is a link to the one I’ve been using. I’d be interested in comments.
    It seemed that with this shovel and a carbon probe set I was able to shed ~ half a pound over my old rig. I’d like to see avi transceivers/ shovels/ probes (what I’ll call the fixed weight gear we all have to carry) reduced as much as possible, while still maintaining usability/ durability of course. Again, I think I’d look to Europe and the Rando crowd (the gear and boot fitting – Amanda – in Cham this year was nothing short of exceptional!).

  34. Lou May 8th, 2012 8:36 am

    Ed, that shovel looks like it might be fun to give my backyard lift the deck test to. I’ll see if I can acquire one for the deed. Lou

  35. Maciej May 9th, 2012 7:15 pm

    Lou, it looks like you have a valid, solid proof of concept here. If you keep this up, you’ll be designing stuff instead of writing your (excellent) blog. Color me impressed!!

  36. Lou May 9th, 2012 7:43 pm

    It’s always a hoot to see what happens when I get a few hours in my shop! I’d imagine someone at a company such as BCA or G3 is working on this as we speak. All it takes is using larger diameter tube with thick enough walls, then it’s incredibly strong. Wouldn’t be that tough to design and make the blade, but expensive to figure out a homebrew method so I’ll probably not go there. As mentioned above, other carbon shovels are on the market, but I think they should be quite a bit better before I’ll recommend. There are also some other concepts out there on the web, if you google for a while you’ll find ’em. Lou

  37. Toby May 10th, 2012 5:28 am

    I have Grivel Race Carbon light ice axe. It weights the same or even less than some regular shovel shafts. I’m planning to build an adapter to BCA shovel blade. And voila ! a shovel-ice-axe combo always in my pack without remarkable weight penalty.

    Grivel carbon ice axe shaft has some sort of ‘fail safe’ structure. Carbon fiber is wrapped around a thin aluminum tube.

  38. Lou May 10th, 2012 7:07 am

    Toby, excellent!

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