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How to Dig a Trench by Hand in 7 Efficient Steps

Digging a trench by hand quickly and easily requires the right trenching tools. A trenching shovel, pick mattock, and hoe will make the job fast and simple. Once you have the tools on hand, make certain your planned trench won’t interfere with any underground utilities. Then, mark the trench path and begin excavation. Use a trenching shovel for the bulk of the work and employ a pick mattock for tough areas. Finally, drag the loose dirt out of the trench with the hoe and verify that the trench dimensions and slope are correct for your purposes.

How to dig a trench by hand

7 Steps for Hand-Digging a Trench

Ditching a trench by hand can seem like a daunting task, but with the right tools and process, it can be accomplished quickly and easily. Digging by hand avoids the costs of renting a power trencher, and it’s not as hard as it looks. Avoid backbreaking labor and make digging even a deep trench easy with these essential tips for trench digging by hand.

Assemble Your Tools

The right tools are everything when it comes to digging a trench. Trying to break ground with the wrong equipment can double your workload and make the job seem impossible. Before you begin, gather these essentials.

  • Marking paint
  • Trenching shovel
  • Pick mattock
  • Garden hoe or grubbing hoe
  • Measuring tape

With these tools and a sturdy pair of work gloves, you can make quick work of your trench project. You’ll end the day blister-free, and with a new trench drain in place.

Call Before You Dig

Before you dig up any area of your yard, make sure your trench won’t interfere with underground water, power, or gas utilities. If you are in the United States or Canada, use the Call-811 website or phone number to notify utility providers of your planned project. They will come to your property free of charge and mark any underground utilities in your yard.

  • Notify Call 811 a few days before you begin digging.
  • Call 811 is a free service that will come to your property and mark utility lines.
  • This helps prevent damage to underground utilities, which may be hazardous and costly for you.

Because it’s free, Call-811 is a money-saver. It’s much better to know where utilities are than to accidentally destroy your gas line with a shovel.

Mark Your Trench Path

Use this marking paint to mark the path of your trench. By giving yourself a clear line to follow, you can create a straight, uniform trench. You can also create a trench with custom curves and bends. Without a clear marking, it will be more difficult to dig a trench that follows your desired path.

  • Mark your trench path clearly with paint or chalk.
  • Plan your trench dimensions. Will it be a narrow trench or a wide trench? How deep will it be?
  • For drainage trenches, plan to excavate a trench 18 inches deep by 9 inches wide (45 by 23 cm).
  • For electrical lines, dig a trench at least 6 inches deep by 4 inches wide (15 by 10 cm).

Now is a good time to plan the dimensions of your trench. Drainage trenches that will contain a pipe should be 18 inches deep and must slope downhill to carry water. A buried electrical line needs to be set at least 6 inches below the surface.

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09/19/2021 12:01 am GMT

Start with the Trenching Shovel

Once your trench path is marked, begin your excavations using this trenching shovel. Its triangle point is designed to easily pierce deeply into the soil. You can complete a trench line much faster with this shovel than with a typical spade or round-nosed shooter shovel. It can even make quick work of hard clay soil. Use this to perform the initial trench excavation.

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09/19/2021 12:02 am GMT

Use the Pick Mattock to Clear Obstructions

Have you encountered roots, rocky soil, or rough ground? It’s time to wield your pick mattock. The pick side is great for lodging underneath rocks and levering them out of soil, while the mattock side chops through tree roots with ease. The mattock not only powers through earth where a shovel may struggle, it’s also great for shaping and widening deeper trenches.

Clear the Trench with a Hoe

Use a hoe when digging a trench by hand

After using the shovel and pick mattock for excavation and soil loosening, you will be left with a trench that still contains a lot of loose soil. Rather than the backbreaking labor of scooping this dirt out with a shovel, save time and energy by dragging loose soil out of the trench with a hoe.

A hoe is a great tool for moving loose dirt, as well as shaping the trench further to meet your desired depth and width. You can use it to shape trench walls and achieve the right trench depth.

Check for Desired Dimensions and Slope

Now that your trench has been dug and cleared, go back over it carefully. Use your measuring tape to check several points along the path and ensure they meet your desired width and depth. If your trench will be used for drainage, make sure it slopes downhill smoothly, without any flat or high sections.

Use your pick mattock and hoe to correct any imperfections and prepare your trench. Once this is complete, your trench is ready for use. You can move forward by installing a drain pipe, laying electrical wire, or any other purpose you have planned.

What is the Fastest Way to Dig a Trench by Hand?

A specially designed trenching shovel is the quickest tool for the job if you are digging a trench by hand. These shovels have sharp tips and long heads. This allows you to easily excavate to the right width and depth with a single scoop. Round-nosed shovels and spades are not designed for trenching. A trenching shovel can cut your shoveling work in half.

  • Water the soil for 1 hour the day before excavation.
  • Use a trenching shovel to quickly excavate the trench.
  • Use a pick mattock to dig up rocks and break through tough soil.

Moist soil is easier to dig than hard-baked earth. If your soil is dry, it will slow down your work. To make the job easier on yourself, set your sprinklers to water the area where the trench will be dug. Water the ground for 1 hour the day before you dig the trench. This will speed up your work.

How Long Does it Take to Dig a Trench by Hand?

Allow 1 hour of work for every 10 feet (3 meters) of the trench. Although this number can fluctuate based on trench depth, soil consistency, and how many obstructions you encounter, 10 feet per hour is a good baseline. If you’re digging 100 feet (30 meters) of a trench, plan for the job to take the entire day. A trench longer than 100 feet may take multiple days of work.

How Do You Dig a Drainage Ditch by Hand?

When digging a trench by hand, it’s essential to follow these steps:

  • Gather the trenching tools you need: trenching shovel, pick mattock, and hoe.
  • Contact Call 811 before digging, to have underground utilities on your property marked.
  • Mark your trench path to make it easy to follow.
  • Begin by excavating the trench with a trenching shovel.
  • Use a pick mattock to remove rocks, chop roots, and breakthrough tough ground.
  • Pull loosened dirt out of the trench with a hoe.
  • Check the trench depth, width, and slope to make sure it is uniform. Reshape the trench as necessary.

With these tips and simple tools, you can easily dig a trench for drainage or any other purpose quickly, all without using costly machines. In most backyards, a trenching project can be completed in a single day.

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