Guide to Trenching and Trenchers

The Easy Digging Trenching Guide includes:


Hand trenching tools and shovels and tips

Homeowners often do manual or shovel trenching because the short run of trench they need for their project does not justify a rental trencher. But even professional trenching crews get out the hand tools when they need to trench in area where their trencher will not fit, or to clean out the loose soil from the bottom of the trench.

Any spade or digging shovel will do fine for the first foot of trench depth, but after that you will avoid much frustration and backache by using special hand trenching tools and shovels to stand straighter and stay at ground level while digging out the trench.

First let's talk about Trenching Shovels. These are really clean-out shovels which are designed to scoop the loose soil out of the bottom of a narrow trench. They are usually used after a powered trencher has cut the trench, but can be used to scoop out soil that has been broken loose with a digging bar, pickaxe, or trenching hoe. They are not a good option for digging because the narrow width does not allow you to get your foot on the shovel to push it into the ground. Look at the pictures to the right or below, imagine trying to stomp on one of those shovels while it is in a 2 foot deep trench - it just doesn't work. But they are great for cleaning out the loose soil from the bottom of a deep narrow trench! For quality trenching and clean-out shovels I recommend looking at: Structron's fiberglass Trenching Shovel and the Zac trenching shovels

Trenching Shovels

First let's talk about Trenching Shovels. These are really clean-out shovels which are designed to scoop the loose soil out of the bottom of a narrow trench. They are usually used after a powered trencher has cut the trench, but can be used to scoop out soil that has been broken loose with a digging bar, pickaxe, or trenching hoe. They are not a good option for digging because the narrow width does not allow you to get your foot on the shovel to push it into the ground. Look at the pictures to the right or below, imagine trying to stomp on one of those shovels while it is in a 2 foot deep trench - it just doesn't work. But they are great for cleaning out the loose soil from the bottom of a deep narrow trench! For quality trenching and clean-out shovels I recommend looking at: Structron's fiberglass Trenching Shovel and the Zac trenching shovels

 

Trenching Shovels
Trenching Shovels

A more efficient digging tool is a Trenching Hoe, which is commonly called a grub hoe.

Trenching Hoe

 

A grub hoe is called a trenching hoe when it is used for trenching. To use a trenching hoe you stand above the end of the trench to chop soil loose and then drag it up the ramped end of the trench - just like the chain does in a power trencher.
See the diagram below

The secret is know how deep you want your trench to be, and to create your ramp down to that depth. After that you occasionally check the trench depth as you pulverize, drag the soil up, and keep recreating your trench.

How to trench with a grub hoe

Hand Trenching Tips

  • Plan the location of the soil pile. You will need to access the trench to install pipe or to add gravel. So make sure the pile is not in the way.

  • Trenching is necessary for lawn irrigation and for providing water or electric utilities to the far corners of your property. This link gives further information for trenching in shallow utility lines.

  • For safe methods of digging a trench near trees, please read this article to avoid damage to the trees.

  • When running pipe under a sidewalk, a water-assisted tunneler or the Sidewalk Sleever will make it easy.

  • For more information on trenching for drainage installation or a French Drain system be sure to review our Lawn and Garden Drainage Guide.

Walk-behind trenchers

Walk-behind trenchers are useful for creating narrow, medium depth trenchs in areas with reasonable elbow room. They will usually dig up to 3 feet deep, though some may go up to 4 feet. They are usally set up for a 6 inch wide trench, though 4" and 8" may also be found.

The name is a little misleading, since you do not really "walk behind" these small trenchers. The operator stands at the front of the machine, where the controls are. The digging chain is at the rear. But the operator does walk backwards as the trenching is done. The backwards walking (pulling) movement is so slow that to a passer-by it probably appears that the operator is "walking behind" the machine.

Since they are often used by DIY'ers, accidents do occur with them. Be sure to check for buried utility lines before using one.

This Listing of Walk-Behind Trenchers gives info on most of the small trenchers currently available in America.

Walk-behind trencher digging trench

Since they are often used by DIY'ers, accidents do occur with them. Be sure to check for buried utility lines before using one.

This Listing of Walk-Behind Trenchers gives info on most of the small trenchers currently available in America.


Special purpose small trenchers

Bed edger trencher: Creates clean shallow trenching for landscaping borders like brick, plastic and concrete edging. Two nice bed edgers are the Trench'N Edge and the E-Z Trench Bedscaper

Bed edger trencher

 

Wire trencher: Installs electric dog fences and landscape lighting. The buried wire is placed using with a powered wire trencher like the DMR Wire Trencher or the E-Z Trench wire trencher. The DIY'er with a small yard may want to try this hand wire trencher.

Wire trencher kit for Honda tiller

Large Trenchers

Trencher attachments for skid steer loaders:

Full featured trenchers accessories are available for skid steer loaders, also called skid loaders or skidsteers. Common brands are the Bobcat and John Deere trencher attachments.

All attachments of this type will reach down 3 feet deep, and many will go to 4 feet. Some rental yards may have 10" or 12" wide chains available which are perfect for people installing French drain systems.

Although these are available at most machinery rental yards, it takes quite a bit of practice just to learn how to safely drive and operate a skid steer. And adding a large trencher attachment to the front makes it much more difficult. If you do not have experience with this type of equipment, please consider hiring someone to operate it for you. That extra cost may be much cheaper than the damage you could do to a home or a bystander with this powerful machine.

Bobcat trencher or trench digger

 

Ride-on Trenchers:

The ride-on trencher and trench digger is as large as we go here. This article on getting more from your trencher provides great tips for increasing the productivity of your professional ride-on trencher or trench digger.

A variety or ride-on trenchers and trench diggers are produced by Vermeer and Ditch Witch and Maxon

Machinery rental yards usually have one or two of these units, but often will only rent them to professionals due to the cost and the weight transportion issues. But if they do have one of the smaller units available (about the size of a small farm tractor) then do consider renting it instead of a skid steer. The reason is that they are much easier to learn how to drive and operate.

Parsons trenchers or trench digger

Locating good used trenchers

Finding a good used trencher takes knowledge, luck, and more luck. First learn what commonly fails and wears out on a trencher. Insist on a test run before you purchase the trencher. Seriously consider hiring a trencher or rental yard mechanic to inspect it before you commit to the purchase.

Trencher chains are expensive! They wear out in TWO ways - worn down cutter teeth are usually obvious, but chain stretch isn't. The following linked article can help you learn how to spot worn trencher chain before you buy your used trencher.

Sources of used trenchers include MachineryTrader.com and Equipment Locator

Ballantine trenching chain
Ballantine trenching chain

Trenching Safety

A trencher is dangerous, and a trench can quickly become a very long grave. Trenching safety is critical

Please read this Trencher Safe Use Guide and the OSHA Trenching Safety Rules

Take the free online Trenching Safety Awareness Class if you do big trenching projects.


Visit our popular Home Drainage Guide and our "Just Tooling Around" blog

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