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What is the difference between a trencher and an excavator?

You might have used a trencher and an excavator, but do you know what the main differences are between them both? Here we look at the differences in performance and applications so you can make an informed decision as to which machine to use for your projects.

You can explore our full range of trenching solutions here.

What are the main differences between a trencher and an excavator?

A trencher essentially creates a trench that has a flat bottom and flat walls using an arm with a chain that has large teeth.

An excavator makes a ditch which is wider at the top than it is at the bottom. Excavators also have an arm but this has a bucket at the end of it (different attachments are also available, including augers, hydraulic breakers and shears).

Quality of work

In terms of the quality of the work produced by a trencher and an excavator, trenchers are more precise and create cleaner trenchers. This is because the teeth on the arms make the vertical walls even, even in rockier soil in which the teeth can pick up small rocks and keep the trench smooth.

Excavators make more jagged trenches with uneven walls and an uneven base because of the bucket used. Sometimes, buckets can over-excavate and a backfilling process is needed in order to refill the trench.

Efficiency and time

The difference between a trencher an excavator in terms of project efficiency is that trenchers tend to get the job done faster because of their high levels of precision. Trenchers can also get through different ground conditions quickly, including rocky soil, whereas excavator buckets can struggle with handling larger rocks in the ground.

Sizing and prices

There are a range of excavator sizes and types, and mini excavators are also an option. This means there is often an option for many applications and one to meet each budget, too.

Full sized trenchers can actually cost around three times that of a large excavator. However, trenchers can save on time and potentially be used for many more types of projects, so they often pay for themselves in the long run.

Are the applications for a trencher and an excavator the same?

The applications for a trencher and an excavator often overlap. Both types of machinery are used for earthworks projects, including road construction, railway construction and piping work.

However, because of the specific features of a trencher, such as the toothed metal wheels found on a wheel trencher or rock wheel, trenchers can be used for cutting pavement or through rocks and concrete.

Another type of trencher known as a ‘chain trencher’ can be used for creating drainage and for electrical or telecom wire installation. They feature a conveyor belt too which removes the excavated materials and keeps the area clear. Chain trenchers are also used for piping work where they dig out space for water and sewage piping.

Projects where you wouldn’t typically use a trencher and where an excavator would be preferred involve material handling. The excavator’s bucket can be used to heavy materials around and these excavators will have heavy counterweights for better stability. Excavators are also used for demolitions because of breaker attachments. There are also forestry applications for excavators with shearing attachments.

Should I use a trencher or an excavator?

Whether you should be using a trencher or an excavator depends on your initial investment budget and your intended applications. Excavators have traditionally been used for many projects where we tend to prefer trenchers nowadays (e.g. piping works), however there’s a reason why trenchers are preferred for certain applications: efficiency and quality of work. Ultimately, while trenchers are a greater initial financial investment, the cleaner quality of digging and the speed at which it’s done can justify the investment.

Why not take a look at the Pro Tips article on the advantages of trenching to learn more?

If you’re looking for more information on the differences between a trencher and an excavator and which would be best for your applications, you can contact our team of experts on 01933 274400 or email us at Alternatively, fill out an enquiry form with details of your request and we’ll get back to you. 

Vermeer Corporation delivers a real impact on the way important work gets done through the design, manufacture and support of high-quality industrial and agricultural equipment that helps connect people to the necessities of life, manage natural resources and feed and fuel communities. With a reputation for being built tough and built a better way, that equipment is backed by localized customer service and support provided by independent dealers around the world. To learn about Vermeer Corporation, products, the dealer network, financing options and careers, visit



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