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.

There are four types of hand tools used for trenching. They are the Drainage Spade, the Trench Shovels, the Bottom Digger, and the Trenching Hoe. We will explore all four below, and we can supply you with all of these tools.     Free Shipping on orders over $49 to the continental USA only.

EasyDigging.com is a retailer of the HISCO line of shovels and spades. These are professional grade tools, made in the USA, for the construction, utility, and landscaping industry. They feature very strong, reinforced fiberglass handles and thick steel blades. We are now making these available to everyone because we all deserve great tools. They are a little more expensive at first, but just one of these shovels will easily withstand the kind of use and abuse that will destroy half a dozen inexpensive wooden hardware store shovels.



Drainage Spades : - also called Sharp Shooter shovels, or Tile spades. The drainage spade is made for digging shallow rough trenches up to about 12" deep and 5" wide.

The narrow round point is great for penetrating sod, hard soil, and dirt with rocks. The long length of the blade makes it easy to dig shallow trenches for drainage and utility lines. The long handled version is more popular with construction and landscaping crews, while the short handled version is more popular with homeowners and plumbers.

using a Sharp Shooter shovel to dig a long trench

Note that it creates a trench with a rough rounded bottom. This is OK for laying flexible utility lines like sprinkler tubing and low voltage wiring. It is also OK for shallow drainage pipes used to move downspout water away from your house, and for the common black corrugated drainage pipe. But for deeper trenches that require a smooth flat bottom, you should use a Trench Shovel or a Trenching Hoe. (both are explained further below)


Buy HISCO HISS14L shovel

Long Drainage Spade

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  • Overall Length = 59"
  • Blade Width = 6"
  • Weight = 4.7 pounds
  • 14 gauge steel head
  • Reinforced metal collar
  • HISCO HISS14L

Professional grade tall Drain Spade.

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Short Drainage Spade

D-grip Fiberglass handle

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  • Overall Length = 42"
  • Blade Width = 6"
  • Weight = 3.5 pounds
  • 14 gauge steel head
  • Reinforced metal collar
  • HISCO HISS14D

Pro grade D-Grip Tile Spade.

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Trenching Shovels : - these come in two flavors: Trench Digging Shovels and Clean Out Shovels. They are used for very different tasks, though each one can cross over and be used for the other task occasionally.

Clean out shovels are used to remove the loose soil (also called crumbs or spoil) that is left in the bottom of any trench that was cut with a power trencher. This is done to provide a level solid surface for drainage or water pipes to rest on. A good clean out shovel has a higher handle angle to reduce bending while reaching the bottom of the trench, and a head design that can lift a good amount of soil up and out without spillage. There are two types: the shovel style (shown below) and the Bottom Digger. The advantage of the Bottom Digger is that uses a pull & lift action to collect and remove loose soil from the bottom of the trench. This makes it much faster, more ergonomic, and less likely to cause back injuries. These type of tools can also be used to slice or dig away some high spots in the trench bottom, but they are not intended to actually dig the trench. That's the job of the next tool...

Trench digging shovels used for digging narrow flat-bottomed trenches. They are also called step-trench shovels because the upturned back surface lets you push down (step on) the shovel with the toe of your boot while it is in the trench. Though it lacks the boxed sides of a clean out shovel, it can be used occasionally for removing a little loose soil from the bottom of a trench. Trenching shovels are commonly used for digging up to 18" deep. For deeper trenches, you can use a Trenching Hoe (see below), a power trencher, or just make the trench wide enough to allow a long handled spade to be used.


Trenching Shovels : - these come in two flavors: Trench Digging Shovels and Clean Out Shovels. They are used for very different tasks, though each one can cross over and be used for the other task occasionally.


Clean out shovels are used to remove the loose soil (also called crumbs or spoil) that is left in the bottom of any trench that was cut with a power trencher. This is done to provide a level solid surface for drainage or water pipes to rest on. A good clean out shovel has a higher handle angle to reduce bending while reaching the bottom of the trench, and a head design that can lift a good amount of soil up and out without spillage. There are two types: the shovel style (shown below) and the Bottom Digger. The advantage of the Bottom Digger is that uses a pull & lift action to collect and remove loose soil from the bottom of the trench. This makes it much faster, more ergonomic, and less likely to cause back injuries. These type of tools can also be used to slice or dig away some high spots in the trench bottom, but they are not intended to actually dig the trench. That's the job of the next tool...

Trench digging shovels used for digging narrow flat-bottomed trenches. They are also called step-trench shovels because the upturned back surface lets you push down (step on) the shovel with the toe of your boot while it is in the trench. Though it lacks the boxed sides of a clean out shovel, it can be used occasionally for removing a little loose soil from the bottom of a trench. Trenching shovels are commonly used for digging up to 18" deep. For deeper trenches, you can use a Trenching Hoe (see below), a power trencher, or just make the trench wide enough to allow a long handled spade to be used.

Buy HISCO HITACOL4-4 clean out shovel

Clean out Shovel

strong Fiberglass handle

*can also do a little digging

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  • Overall Length = 59"
  • Blade Width = 3-3/4"
  • Handle Angle = 35°
  • Weight = 5 pounds
  • 16 gauge steel head
  • Reinforced metal collar
  • HISCO HITACOL4-4

Boxed sides lift more soil per scoop!

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Drawing of Bottom Digger cleaning a trench.

Bottom Digger

with 60" steel handle

Faster and easier than a shovel

$88.00

 

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  • Overall Length = 62"
  • Bucket Width = 3-1/4"
  • Handle Angle = 45°
  • Weight = 7 pounds
  • 16 gauge steel head
  • Combo flat & toothed blade

Faster cleanout + less back injuries!

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Buy HISCO HIST4-4 trenching shovel

Trenching Shovel

strong Fiberglass handle

*can also do a little clean out

$53.95

 

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  • Overall Length = 59"
  • Blade Width = 3-3/4""
  • Handle Angle = 30°
  • Weight = 4.5 pounds
  • 14 gauge steel head
  • Reinforced metal collar
  • HISCO HIST4-4

Built for digging trenches.

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Trenching Hoes : - also called a Grub Hoe in the US, or an Azada in Europe. The trenching hoe is made for digging flat-bottomed trenches up to about 24" deep and 5" to 10" wide.

The method of using a trenching hoe is best described using the pictures below. It is the same action that a power trencher uses, just in a slower "one-bite-at-a-time" fashion. A power or chain trencher cuts an angled ramp in the soil, then constantly abrades it and drags the loose soil up and out. Trenching with a grub hoe is tha same action, just replace the word "abrades" with "chops".

 

Trenching Hoe

 

How to trench with a grub hoe
Trenching Hoe

 

How to trench with a grub hoe


Six inch Grub Hoe

6" Grub Hoe

6" Grub Hoe

with 60 inch handle

$35.95

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The 6" grub hoe is our BEST selling all-around digging tool. This tough 3 lb forged steel tool has the right design and weight to quickly and easily cut through sod, hard soil, and small roots.

Complete with a 5 foot long Ash handle.
Lengths can vary from 58.25" to 60.25"

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Four inch Grub Hoe

4" Grub Hoe

4" Grub Hoe

with 60 inch handle

$35.95

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The 4" grub hoe shares the fast efficient design of the larger tool, but in a narrower 2 lb version. This tool is perfect for narrow trenching of lawn sprinkler and wiring lines.

Complete with a 5 foot long Ash handle.
Lengths can vary from 58.25" to 60.25"

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Hand Trenching Tips

A very common question is "How do I dig a 36" deep trench?". It's a good question. Of the manual trench digging tools listed above, the deepest working one is only intended for up to 24". But in the northern areas of the country it is necessary to put water pipes down 30" or 36" deep to prevent freezing.

The answer is that you dig TWO trenches. The first one is dug wide and about 18" deep. You need to dig it wide enough that you can easily stand, bend, and work in it. If you are slim and trim, you might get by with only digging it about 20" wide. But if you wear big boots, you will need to go for a 24" or 28" width to have enough space.

The second trench is dug narrow, only 4" to 6" wide, and deep enough to get below the frost line. Note that in the sketches below that all the loose soil is piled on just one side of the trench. Doing this makes it much easier to work in the trench later when you are installing pipes, or dumping in wheelbarrows full of gravel for a French Drain.

Digging a deep trench - Step 1

 

Digging a deep trench - Step 2

 

Other useful 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

Please share your drainage ideas or tips in the Comments below...

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Page last modified on 2017-08-17