Learning how to use a walk-behind trencher to make narrow, precise cuts in the earth will speed up projects and spare your back.
Digging by hand is no fun. That’s especially true when you’re doing landscaping tasks such as edging, or you’re digging a trench to bury cable, install irrigation piping or put in a pet fence. Once you learn how to use a walk-behind trencher, aka a landscape trencher or manual trencher, you can create narrow, relatively shallow trenches with less effort and more precision.
Since walk-behind trenchers are smaller and more maneuverable than ride-on trenchers, they’re popular for digging cuts in tight spaces. Read on to discover how to use these small trenchers and what tasks they can handle.
Before you dig
First and most important: Call 811, the “call before you dig” phone number, or visit your state’s “call before you dig” website at least a few business days before you dig. Why? To learn whether there are buried utilities in your dig area and have them marked with paint or flags so you don’t hit them. Hitting an underground utility line could lead to electric shock, an explosion, or damage or injury from the release of high-pressure water.
How to use a walk-behind trencher: The basics
Every trencher model is different. Read the operator’s manual to learn how to use your specific trencher model. The main steps are outlined in broad strokes below. Don’t forget to wear PPE. You’ll want work boots, safety glasses, gloves and a hard hat.
Inspect the machine. Make sure the guards and shields are in place, the chain is tight and the teeth are in good condition. Check the fluids, too.
Clear the path. You’ll be walking backwards when you operate the trencher and won’t be able to see what’s behind you, so this step is important. You don’t want to trip on a garden hose, tool or child’s toy. Running over obstacles could also damage the machine, as well as whatever object you run over. Remember to remove any landscaping fabric. Keep other people away from the immediate area.
Move the machine to the trench starting point. Start the machine by following the instructions in the manual. Set the drive position to forward, then move the trencher where you want it.
Change the drive position to reverse. Although machine is called a walk-behind trencher, it’s designed to dig earth with you pulling the machine toward you as you walk backwards. Think of it as the opposite of pushing a lawn mower.
Set the chain depth. Set the chain to the depth you want, then lower it to just above the ground. Activate the chain and lower it into the earth. Change the depth if necessary, then throttle up.
Walk backwards, pulling the trencher toward you. Keep both hands on the handles, and maintain situational awareness.
Tips for using a walk-behind trencher
Got the basics figured out? Here are a few more points to consider as you continue learning how to use a walk-behind trencher:
Choose the right size machine for the job. Walk-behind trenchers are more compact and maneuverable than ride-on trenchers, but if you’re renting a walk-behind trencher, you’ll still want to determine what size and horsepower you need for the trench you’re digging. A wider, deeper trench will require a larger machine.
Choose the right chain teeth and attachments. Rocky ground presents challenges. In cases of extremely rocky earth or sediment, using a trencher with the wrong teeth or attachments can damage the machine or get it stuck. Know the ground you’re digging in. If you’re not sure what teeth or attachments you need, ask your rental equipment provider.
If you get stuck in hard or muddy earth, reverse the chain or wheel. Follow the procedure recommended in the manual. Switching between forward and reverse, as you would with a car stuck in the mud, can often dislodge the attachment.
Soften hard earth. If the ground is giving you trouble as you attempt to dig, moisten the earth with a hose to make it easier for trencher to cut through.
More walk-behind trencher uses
A trencher can help with many jobs that are too sweat-inducing to carry out by hand and require holes that are narrower and shallower than those a ride-on trencher cuts. In addition to making cuts for landscaping or installing cable, piping or fences, a walk-behind trencher can be useful for the following tasks.
Cutting trenches in asphalt or concrete
With diamond-tipped blades and a wheel-shaped head, a small trencher can cut through hard materials such as asphalt. This leads the way to easier cable-laying, landscape modification and more. If you plan to cut asphalt with a rented trencher, ask the sales associate what attachments you’ll need to achieve your goal safely and efficiently.
Cutting and removing roots
A walk-behind trencher can chunk up roots, including ones that would be extremely difficult to deal with using hand tools. Because lawn trenchers slowly put a great deal of pressure on the surface beneath, they efficiently bust up shallow root systems, making them easier to get out of the ground.
Walk-behind trenchers are handy, versatile machines for tackling a variety of landscaping and jobsite tasks. Once you choose the right trencher machine and learn how to use it, you’ll be digging small trenches or making cuts in roots, concrete or asphalt with ease.