5 Controls To Master Excavator Operation

Using an excavator can be one of the most productive and efficient choices to help your project along the way. Whether its for any digging, trenching, demolition, maintenance or landscaping projects, an excavator will allow you to complete the task easier and ultimately quicker. However, if you have never used a digger before, or are still new to operating one, then you should focus on the 5 controls to master excavator operation, found in this resource.

If you intend to use an excavator commercially, we recommend that you undergo an NPORS-certified excavation training course to ensure you get the training you need to remain compliant with HSE standards. Most construction sites require these certifications and are expected to be produced by operators. Nevertheless, as with most new systems to learn, you will only get better by doing it yourself.

It is very common that after a period of a few hours of continuous operation, all operators can start to feel far more confident in operating an excavator. Throughout this resource, we will cover several areas which will allow you to safely control an excavator and the areas you should focus on to master excavator operation. Let’s jump right to it!

The types of controls to master excavator operation (ISO/SAE)

One of the most complex areas of excavator control is understanding the types that are available on the market. International Standards Organisation (ISO) & Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) are the most recognised types of controls within excavator operation.

Together, let’s have a look at both types of controls and how they differ from one another.


ISO are the standard of controls established by the International Organization for Standardization and are the most prevalent worldwide. This operating pattern will be the most common in UK hire machinery.

Left-Hand joystick: Responsible for controlling the turns made by the vehicle while maintaining a fixed posture in the traction system, as well as the movements of the arm.

-Action to the left = Turn on its axis to the left. -Action to the right = Turn on its axis to the right. -Action forward = Arm extension. -Backward action = Retraction of the arm.

Right-Hand Joystick: Takes care of the service bucket and boom movements.

-Left action = Loading or closing the service bucket. -Right action = Unloading or opening of the service bucket. -Action forward = Lowering the boom. -Backward action = Elevation of the boom.

ISO Operating pattern for excavator
ISO Operating Pattern


Quick & Easy ISO Pattern


These are the controls that are standard to the Society of Automotive Engineering for vehicle construction. SAE controls are commonly found in construction machinery in the US. Nevertheless, it is useful to understand these operating controls in case you come across them when hiring an excavator.

Left-Hand Joystick: Responsible for making the turns in the vehicle and the boom.

-Action to the left = Turn on its axis to the left. -Action to the right = Turn on its axis to the right. -Action forward = Lowering the boom. -Action backward = Raise of the boom.

Right Hand Joystick: Its movements control the opening and closing of the service bucket, as well as the lifting and lowering movements of the arm.

 -Left action = Loading or closing the service bucket. -Right action = Unloading or opening of the service bucket. -Action forward = Extension or opening of the excavator’s arm. -Action backward = Retraction or closing of the excavator’s arm.

SAE Operating pattern for excavator
SAE Operating Pattern

When hiring an excavator, understanding whether the machine operates via ISO or SAE controls is essential. If you are familiar with using a particular control pattern, then it is worth sticking to it to maximise your productivity. Nevertheless, the most well-known excavator manufacturers allow operators to switch between ISO & SAE operation controls at a switch of a button.

5 Controls to Master Excavator Operation

Now that we have distinguished the difference between the two different joystick controls, let’s now look at the 5 main controls to master excavator operation. Focusing on the following areas will allow you to complete tasks in a timelier manner, leading to the less overall cost of machine hire. A win, win all around.

Left Joystick Control

As most machines found in the UK operate via ISO controls, it is more beneficial for us to focus our attention on the controls in this setting. The left joystick provides the operator with the ability to turn the machine in its fixed upright position. Moving the joystick forward will cause the machine’s boom to move away from the cabin. Alternatively, moving the joystick towards you will cause the boom to move more upright and closer to the machine’s cabin. When trying to master using the left joystick, there are two main factors you need to focus on. Swinging the machine and using the movement of the boom in tandem with the right joystick.

It is important that when swinging the machine, you are safe and able to do so. It is essential to always have a clear line of site between where you are loading and unloading from. Therefore, it is best practice to load from the right and swing to the left wherever possible. Obstructions in the excavator’s cabin such as display panels and even the engine bonnets of larger diggers will restrict operators’ view. Developing safe habits is essential.

Right Joystick Control

Your right joystick is essential to operating the bucket and dipper of the excavator. Mastering the balance between using your left joystick to operate the boom and the right joystick for the dipper, takes some practice. Not forgetting to merge both movements with the addition of the excavator bucket at the same time can be tricky.

Pushing the right-hand joystick away from you lengthens the dipper, whereas pulling the joystick closer to you will shorten its reach. Using this motion together with the opening and curling of the machine’s bucket on the same joystick (left closing – right opening) allows you to load and unload the bucket. This will take some practice to get yourself accustomed to these controls.

There are a couple of key safety factors to observe during the use of the right joystick. First and foremost is where you are digging. Has the area been surveyed? Have you checked that there are no underground cables or pipes that could be damaged during work? How deep are you excavating? Second, is to keep your excavated load low as low to the ground as possible. Lifting unsecured excavated loads can be dangerous and can cause injury. If this is a requirement, say, for example, to load into a dumper truck another machine for transporting, you should ensure the area is closed off to other workers.

Foot pedals/ Drive leavers

Excavators are commonly operated on either metal or rubber tracks. There are controlled from the cabin by the foot pedals and leavers. Allowing you to control the machine with either your hands or your feet. The majority of this is personal preference, however, it is preferred to make smaller adjustments with the leavers rather than the feet. 

To turn an excavator on the spot you only need to press one lever or peddle. This causes the machine to pivot around the none moving track, resulting in a turn. The right peddle/lever drives the right track, and the left operates the left. Be sure that your machine is pointing in the forward direction otherwise your controls could muddle the wrong way. The harder you press or push the relative leavers the faster the machine will travel.

To help you master the use of the foot pedals or drive leavers, you should practice manoeuvring the machine in different situations. This will help you discover the most comfortable and safest way to get around a project. Always be aware of which direction the cabin of the excavator is facing to avoid any incorrect movements that could be costly.

The biggest safety factor of any type of large moving machinery is the speed at which the machine moves. Whilst tracking an excavator, you need to be able to have a clear sight of the potential hazards around you. Including other workers on site. Ensure you always keep a safe working distance away and that everyone is wearing the correct PPE and is visible.


The use of an excavator throttle can be more complicated than first thought. Indeed, most people will generally get into an excavator, hit the revs through the roof, and crack on with the work. Well, in some cases this may seem like the quickest and most efficient way to use an excavator. The truth of mastering an excavator’s throttle requires a bit more thought.

Ideally, we all want to make our projects as financially friendly as possible. This then would include the use of fuel. It is important to note that you could save yourself even more by correctly operating the machine.

  • Tracking 50% Throttle
  • Grading 60% Throttle
  • General Digging 80% Throttle
  • Heavy Lifting 100% Throttle

Most large excavators will have digging throttle settings built into their internal operating systems. Make sure you are aware of how to access these, especially on new machinery. With the production of higher fuel-efficiency equipment arriving on the market, you should be sure to make every part count.

The higher the throttle is the quicker the hydraulics and machine will move overall. It is important to remain safe whilst operating an excavator at full throttle, therefore, always wear your seatbelt.

Dozer Use

One of the most underrated components of an excavator is a dozer blade. However, holds the foundations for mastering the use of an excavator entirely. Dozers are designed for two specific tasks. Firstly, is to be able to grade or backfill quickly, which in turn, saves you a huge amount of time. Secondly, and more importantly, is to act as a stabilizer for the excavator in multiple situations of use.

On small machines up to 3 tonnes, when excavating, you should always position the dozer blade downward, behind you, enough into the ground to counterbalance the machine as you dig. This will prevent the machine from tipping when working.

When travelling across your site, you should position the dozer blade behind you slightly off the ground. This then provides you with an indicator if you need to counterbalance the machines by reaching the machine’s boom forward when travelling uphill.  

Finally, if you are loading the machine onto a trailer for transportation, you should adopt a similar position but high enough to avoid damaging trailer rams.

By adopting these positions when operating an excavator, you can remain safe and drastically reduce the chance of an accident occurring. Mastering dozer use should be one of the first areas you should concentrate on when familiarising yourselves with the controls of the machine.

Digging techniques to master

If you want to get serious about using an excavator, then there are two digging techniques that you should look to master.

Digging level

Digging levels in layers allows you to work efficiently and carefully. Mark out a straight line on level ground and position your excavator tracks on either side, keeping them parallel to the marking.  Engage your dozer blade behind you, reach out with the machine’s boom and start excavating in layers. Trying to keep the machine’s bucket parallel with every deeper pass. When trenching like this you should have attached the correct trenching bucket, to assist with excavation.


When grading always use your dozer blade as much as possible. Otherwise, you will need to connect the grading bucket attachment. This long-bladed bucket will allow you to pull and push the earth towards you. The flat bottom edge of this bucket can also be used to tamp down areas that may require compression to reach to correct level of consistency. Small grading projects can be easily judged by eye or marked out by stakes. However larger projects should require the assistance of a laser level.

Mini Digger Walkthrough & Operation

How to operate controls in a mini digger

Where to hire an excavator fit for commercial construction?

Choosing a supplier to hire an excavator from can be a tiresome task. However, our extensive high-performance fleet at WHC Hire takes all stress out of getting the job done. For over 25 years we have supplied equipment to civil engineers, utilities, landscapers and home DIYers across the UK. With a wealth of experience within the industry, we pride ourselves on hand-selecting only the finest equipment to ensure the highest productivity and safety levels for our customers. Speak to one of our team today to discuss your excavator requirements, or click here to view our large range of excavators available.

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