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What are the Different Types of Trench Equipment?

Klaus Strasser
Klaus Strasser

A number of different tools can fall within the broad “trench equipment” category, but in general this sort of equipment is categorized by digging style and according to how much force is required to penetrate the earth. In many cases, standard tools like shovels and trowels are all that's needed, particularly for smaller trenches in gardens and yards. Bigger projects like construction foundations typically require dedicated equipment, often including such things as rockwheel, chain, and bucket-style trenchers. Not all tools are appropriate for all projects, which means that construction managers are usually wise to know their goals before investigating the many options.

Understanding Trenching Generally

Bucket wheel trenchers may be used to dig the trenches for pipelines.
Bucket wheel trenchers may be used to dig the trenches for pipelines.

Trenches are useful in many settings, but they aren’t always easy to dig or establish, at least at first. In its most basic sense, a trench is a groove or ditch in the ground that’s intended to serve some purpose. For instance, in irrigation, trenches hold water; in war zones, they shield people. Different tools can make the job easier by helping those in charge get consistent, thorough digs, even in difficult or thick soil.

The type of trencher needed for a specific project usually depends on the size of the trench that needs to be dug and the type of material that needs to be excavated. Heavy-duty trenching equipment isn’t always needed, but it can often help. Many manufacturers and contract supply companies provide this sort of equipment for lease or rental on a short-term basis, which makes it easier for even smaller companies to harness the power of professional equipment without the initial investment and upkeep of ownership.

Basic Trenchers

In most cases people can use ordinary gardening equipment to dig small trenches. A shovel is often the only thing needed to construct a simple irrigation ditch, for instance. People sometimes find that measuring the area to be trenched and setting out markers or other space designations can help get accurate results, but this isn’t usually required. The most important thing is that the earth is moved away and the resulting space is wide enough to accommodate whatever is being placed in it, from water to pipes and cabling.

Portable Machinery

Portable trenchers are some of the smallest dedicated trench-digging tools, and these are often ideal for lawn work and other small jobs. This type of trench equipment generally uses a boring system for digging and can be operated while walking. These machines can typically dig trenches that are up to about 30 inches (76.2 cm) deep and 2 to 6 inches (5.08 to 15.24 cm) wide. They are commonly used for excavating sprinkler, lighting, or water lines, and allow much greater precision than a shovel or other manual force — usually with a lot less effort.

Rockwheel Equipment

A more complicated tool known as a rockwheel trencher is often used to cut through rock or pavement. Its most definitive characteristic is usually its toothed metal wheel that functions as a digging implement. This wheel spins like one found on a circular saw. Rockwheels are mostly used to dig or cut soil in very hard ground. The teeth are typically made of tungsten or high-strength steel and they’re almost always removable, since the nature of the work often means they get worn down no matter how strong they are.

Chains and Buckets

Chain trenchers are another option for larger projects. These typically use a chain wrapped around a rounded, metal frame and boom, much like the design of a chainsaw. In some types of chain trenchers, the boom may be adjusted at fixed angles in order to make specific types of cuts. Many of these tools will also have a variable chain speed, which makes the possible applications of the machine more diverse.

The bucket wheel trencher is similar; it uses a digging wheel that is surrounded, on its perimeter, by buckets. The circular motion of the digging wheel allows the buckets to excavate dirt from the prospective trench. Some of the possible applications of bucket wheels include irrigation, footings, utilities, pipeline, cable, and drainage trenches.

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Discussion Comments


The most portable trencher ever developed is made by Terrasaw Industries in New Zealand and is an interchangeable attachment to a chainsaw such as Stihl, Matika or has a Husqvarna power head. Two depth sizes make it ideal for power cables or irrigation systems, very easy and quick to use. It is so small that it will fit into a car boot.


I have worked on a few road crews and the rockwheel trencher is probably the coolest piece of machinery I have ever seen.

That huge blade at the front makes it look like some gruesome invention out of a futuristic movie. You can imagine one having to fight other robots in some kind of arena.

They are cool to watch in action as well. You would not think it would be so easy to cut through rock and pavement but those rockwheels cut through just like a circular saw on a piece of particle board.

I always hoped to get to use one but I was mostly using a shovel and a broom. That's why I don't work on road crews anymore.


I was in WWII and we did a fair amount of trench digging using nothing but shovels. They would get together a team of 30 or 40 guys and tell them to dig a trench however long by however wide. Everybody would have at it and it usually got dug faster than you would expect. This is something I was definitely better at toward the end of my time over there. But let me tell you, I don't miss it for a second. That is the definition of back breaking labor.

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    • Bucket wheel trenchers may be used to dig the trenches for pipelines.
      By: fottoo
      Bucket wheel trenchers may be used to dig the trenches for pipelines.