Summer is a great time to add a new deck to your outdoor living space. And large or small, attached to the house or standing alone, it’s a sure bet that before you starting cutting lumber and laying deck boards, you’ll need to do some excavating to get the site ready.

Summer is a great time to add a new deck to your outdoor living space. And large or small, attached to the house or standing alone, it’s a sure bet that before you starting cutting lumber and laying deck boards, you’ll need to do some excavating to get the site ready.

Underground locates: No matter how minor the excavation work may seem, the very first thing you need to do before digging is to locate your underground utilities — and it couldn’t be easier. No matter where in the country you are, all you need to do is call 811 and request a locate. Within just a couple of days, someone will be out to clearly mark the location of underground electrical cables, pipes, phone wires and other things lurking under the dirt. The service is free, the peace of mind is priceless — and if you don’t do it, you could be held liable for the cost of fixing anything you cut into!

Lay out your digging: To ensure accurate placement of your framing, and to keep from having to do any more digging than necessary, after the utilities have been located you will next want to get everything laid out according to your plans for the deck. Carefully measure each pier hole or footing trench, and mark its location on the ground with paint, stakes or strings. For a curved deck, you can use a garden hose to help make the layout of the curve easier.

How big is the excavation? Piers and footings need to be of a certain size in order to support the intended load being placed on them. If you have had a lumberyard or professional designer do your deck design, the sizes should be clearly indicated on the plans. If they aren’t, you should check with your local building department for information on how to calculate these important sizes, which will vary with load, deck height, soil conditions and other factors.

How deep do you need to go? Another very important consideration is the depth of the hole or trench. For smaller decks with little load on them, it may be sufficient to place precast piers on the ground, while other deck loads may require an excavation that extends below the depth of the frost line in your area. Once again, this should either be indicated on your plans, or is information you can get from the building department.

Weed control: For decks that are low to the ground, you may want to first excavate under the entire deck area in order to lower the grade and also remove vegetation that may later grow up through the deck boards. You may also want to put down a plastic vapor barrier in the deck area to help control both weeds and excess ground moisture.

Hand tools: Finally ready to dig? The tools required will depend on how deep you need to go, how much you need to excavate, what the soil conditions are in your area, and how much energy you have. For a simple deck excavation, basic hand tools may be enough. This typically would include a round-point shovel for digging, a square-point shovel and a rake for moving dirt and backfilling, a pick for tougher soil, and perhaps a post-hole digger for making round holes. Other hand tools that might be helpful would include a sod cutter for cutting out grass, a narrow trenching shovel for digging smaller trenches for wires or pipes, and a wheelbarrow for moving excess soil out of the way.

Power post-hole digger: If you have a lot of holes to dig, especially in hard or rocky soil, you may want to consider renting a power post-hole digger, and there are a couple of different types to choose from. For relatively loose soil, you might want to consider a two-person power auger. This consists of a gas motor mounted on a frame with handles on opposite sides and an auger blade below. One person stands on each side of the frame, while the motor basically drills the auger into the soil. For deeper holes or tougher soil — or if you just have lot of them to do — you might consider a tractor-mounted auger instead. And if all that still seems like too much work, there are companies that will come out and drill all the holes for you.

Tractors: You know you’ve been looking for a chance to rent a tractor, and this new deck may be just what you need. If you have a lot of soil to move, grade changes to make, or a lot of digging to do, there are tractors available in all sizes and styles to help you get the job done. The two basic types are the standard tractor, which is steered by a steering wheel, or the skid-steer tractor, which is steered by two handles that start and stop the wheels or tracks on one side or the other, and may be a better choice in confined areas. Your local rental yard will help you out with the proper choice, operating instructions, and even delivery to the job site.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at


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