Guide to Trenching and Trenchers

Author: Greg Baka

The Easy Digging Trenching Guide includes:

  • Hand trenching tools and shovels and tips
  • Walk-behind trenchers
  • Trencher attachments for skid steer loaders
  • Ride-on trencher & trench digger suppliers
  • Bed edger trencher used for landscape work
  • Wire trencher used for dog fence applications

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 SharpShooter Shovel (or Drainage Spade), a couple different types of Trenching Shovels, the new Bottom Digger clean-out scoop, and the surprising Trenching Hoe (also called a Grub Hoe). We will explore all four below, and we can supply you with all of these tools. is a retailer of the hand tools shown below, including 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 everyone deserves 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 Spade

....also called a Sharp Shooter shovel, or aTile spade. The drainage spade is made for digging shallow rough trenches up to about 12 inches deep and 5 inches wide.

HISCO drain spade with long and short handles using a Sharp Shooter shovel to dig a long trench

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. Here at we do sell both versions, with professional strength fiberglass handles and thick steel blades.

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)

  Trenching Hoe

....also called a Grub Hoe. The trenching hoe is made for digging flat-bottomed trenches up to about 24 inches deep and 5 inches or more wide.

How to trench with a grub hoe
Click image to see full size.

The method of using a trenching hoe is best described using these pictures. 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 the same action, just replace the word "abrades" with "chops".

We do sell both 4 and 6 inch wide models, with heavy-duty heads and long handles.

  Trenching Shovels

....these come in two flavors: Trench Digging Shovels and Clean Out Shovels. They are used for very different tasks, which we will describe below.

Trench Digging Shovels are used for digging narrow flat-bottomed trenches 4 inches wide, and up to 18 inches deep. 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. Their handles have high lift angles, which helps when raising soil up out of the trench, but also make them a little awkward to use. For digging deeper trenches, see the "Manual Trenching Tips" section below.

We do sell the fiberglass-handled model from HISCO USA, which is designed and built for professional use.

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 very high handle angle to reduce bending while reaching the bottom of the trench, and a head with side walls to lift a good amount of soil up and out without spillage. There are two types: the shovel style (shown here), and the scoop style (see Bottom Digger below).

We do sell the fiberglass-handled model from HISCO USA, which is designed and built for professional use. These tools are not for digging, just for removing loose soil.

The patented Bottom Digger clean-out tool is also used to remove the loose soil that is left in the bottom of any trench after being made with a powered trencher. What makes it different is that it 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 than a shovel type clean-out tool.

This tool is often described as a "little backhoe bucket on a stick". Be sure to watch The Race video below to see the remarkable advantages of the Bottom Digger.

We manufacture and sell this tool. You can buy the complete tool with a 5 foot handle, or just the bucket portion and then add you own 1.5" square metal or wooden handle.

  Manual 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.

Digging a deep trench - Step 1

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 to work.

For digging this initial wide trench, you will need to choose either a spade or a shovel, and choose a short or long handle. For guidance on making those choices, please read our Shovels and Spades page.


Digging a deep trench - Step 2

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.

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.

  • If you soil contains roots or rocks, add our special long-handled pick or mattock to your tool collection.

  • 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 Yard Drainage Guide

  Walk-behind Trenchers :

Walk-behind trenchers are useful for creating narrow, medium depth trenches 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 usually set up for a 6 inch wide trench, though 4" and 8" may also be found.

Walk-behind trencher digging trench

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.

  Special-purpose small trenchers :

Bed edger trencher

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


Wire trencher kit for Honda tiller

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.


  Large Trenchers :

Trencher attachments for skid steer loaders

Bobcat trencher or trench digger

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.


Ride-on Trenchers:

Parsons trenchers or trench digger

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

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 transportation 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.

  Locating good used trenchers :

Ballantine trenching chain

Finding a good used trencher takes knowledge, luck, and more luck. First, learn what commonly fails and wears out on a trencher. Second, insist on a test run before you purchase the trencher. Be sure to read this article called Checking Used Trenchers.

Trencher chains are expensive! They wear out in TWO ways - worn down cutter teeth are usually obvious, but chain stretch isn't. Here is an article that can teach you about different chain types, and show you how to spot worn trencher chain before you buy your used machine.

Seriously consider hiring a trencher mechanic or rental yard mechanic to inspect any used trencher BEFORE you commit to the purchase.

Sources of used trenchers include and Equipment Locator

  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.