how to get your C-61/D-56 trenching contractors license in California

Trenching Contractor: C-61/D-56 License

Table of Contents

What is a C-61 / D-56 Trenching Contractor?

“A trenching contractor is a limited specialty contractor whose contracting business is trenching only for foundations, pipelines, conduit and related trenching work” –CSLB.GOV

The D-56 is the classification required in the state of California for all persons looking to contract for trenching services where the cost of labor and materials exceeds $500

A contractor in front of a trench drilling machine

C-61 Limited Specialty License

The C-61 Limited Specialty License is an umbrella term for all licenses that may fall under a more obscure category of construction work. They cover specific areas of construction and construction-related tasks.

Often if your skill set or business is limited to one particular portion of trade work, you could obtain a C-61 limited specialty license to contract over $500 for your services legally.

Typical duties of a Trenching Contractor

Trenching contractors provide a unique service utilized often within the public works sector, typically they engage in a wide variety of activities including:

Two trenching contractors digging a trench using a shovel

  • Excavation and trenching
  • Site speculation and geological testing
  • Operating heavy machinery including wheel trenchers, and irrigation trenchers
  • Using ditch witch machines, portable and micro trenches as well as basic hand trenching tools
  • Returning soil to its pre excavated state
  • Erosion control, grading and backfilling
  • Adhering to state and federal environmental regulations
  • Bidding, estimating and cost calculations
  • Maintaining personal and job site safety

Online Practice Exams and Study Guides

What is a subcontractor?

Trenching contractors are typically hired as part of larger construction projects.

A General Engineering Contractor that could completing a large project that calls for specialized trenching services. 

General Engineering Contractors oversee that the subcontractor has executed their duties in adherence to code and to the specific requests of a client.

For a more in-depth look at the General Engineering Contractor license check out this article.


Logo of the Contractors State License Board. illustration features a paint brush, hand saw and cement truck with the letters CSLB above in white

The Contractors State License Board (CSLB) is the governing body for all contractors in the state of California. Their sole responsibility is to protect the consumer public.

They ensure that anyone charging over $500 for construction services is qualified and registered with the state. The CSLB maintains a statewide task force that engages in sting operations to stop unlicensed construction activity.

Getting caught contracting without a license in California is punishable with fines up to $15,000 and 6 months in the county jail.

The CSLB issues the C-61/D-56 classification for trenching contractors in the state of California.

EPA Certification

When working in or around structures built before 1978, a trenching contractor may need to contain lead paint if it is present.

Knowing the correct procedures required by the Environmental Protection Agency is critical for tradesmen working in a commercial setting.

Lead paint can travel miles through air, rest on soil, and enter air ducts causing potentially fatal respiratory damage.

All tradesmen must be a source of information for their clients and community if they want referrals and repeat business.

For more information on adhering to EPA Standards when dealing with Lead Paint check out my article on lead safety.

Blue Print Reading Course

Four construction workers analyzing a blueprint on a table with several pencils and rulers laying on the table

Being able to read and understand blueprints is a core skill for anyone working in or around a construction site.

Identifying the area of a job site and potential structures that could affect the trenching process is critical. 

Construction blueprints communicate an array of information to builders but also for someone engaging in excavation or trenching.

Being comfortable with construction blueprints is an invaluable skill for all tradesmen, but especially for a trenching contractor who may be apart of a larger construction project. For a basic overview of Construction blueprints be sure to check out our Online Blue Print Reading course.

Requirements for the Trenching Contractor License

To get a trenching contractor license in California, you must prove a minimum of 4 years of journeyman level experience and pass a two-part state exam with the Contractor State License Board.

To qualify for an exam date you must meet the following requirements

  • Be at least 18 years of age
  • Have a valid Driver's License or USA Issued Identification
  • Have a Social Security or ITIN #
  • Not Currently be on probation or parole

You must also have:

  • 4 Years Journey Level Experience
  • A Qualifying Individual to sign off on your experience
  • A way to prove your experience if the state asks for documentation

What is a Journey level experience?

Journey level experience is gained working unsupervised full time for either a trenching company, General Engineering contractor, union, or directly under someone that holds the C-61/D-56 classification.

Some Journeyman-level tradesmen have also completed apprenticeship programs. A Journeyman level tradesman can perform all the duties associated with his or her trade.

The state will want to see 4 full-time years of experience within the last 10 years. The years do not need to be consecutive, but they do need to be 4 years in total.

Signature of a Qualifying Individual

The following people may be used as Qualifying Individuals to sign off on your experience when applying for the trenching contractor license:

  • Licensed General Engineering Contractor
  • C-61/D-56 License Holder
  • Fellow Employee (within the last 10 years)
  • Former Supervisor (within the last 10 years)
  • Business Associate
  • Fellow Journeyman
  • Union Representative

Filling out the Contractor License Application

Your Qualifying Individual will also need to provide a brief but detailed description of your knowledge and skillset.

The way this description is written will be critical to whether or not your application is accepted.

For example:

“Steve is a nice guy and very experienced” is not descriptive enough for the CSLB.

Your description will need to sound something more like:

“Steve has erected trenches for foundations, pipelines, and tunnels and has extensive experience operating various types of digging and trenching equipment including ditch witch machines, power trenchers, rock saws, and mini excavators” etc.

For a full list of the exact verbiage to increase the likelihood of your application being accepted.

Check out my article on filling out the CSLB application.

The description written by your qualifying individual will need to include the core skills required for the trenching contractor license.

Proving your work experience

Several construction workers standing in a trench installing a large pipeline

There is a possibility that the CSLB will ask you to submit documentation supporting your experience.

The CSLB gives you many ways to prove experience including:

Tax Returns, check stubs, receipts, invoices, and even contracts.

Anything you have that can prove you have either run or worked for a company that offers trenching services.

The state board receives thousands of applications every month. There is a good chance they won’t request further documentation of your experience.

However, if your application is chosen for review, you must be ready to submit something. Once your application has been accepted, you should receive your exam date within a matter of weeks.

Application Processing, Fees and Criminal History

The average application processing time is between 6-8 weeks.

Typically, you receive your exam date with another 3-4 weeks' notice before actually going to take the exam. 

This time frame can fluctuate based on many factors including time of year (processing time slows down during the holidays), Criminal History, request to prove further documentation of experienceMistakes on your application can also cause delays.

In total the entire process should take 90 days assuming none of the mentioned issues arise.

State Fees

The current state fees are:

1. $330 State Application Fee (one-time fee per application sent to the state board )

2. $200 License Activation Fee ( paid every two years )

You will also need to pay for live scan fingerprinting.

Construction Bonds 

Upon passing the exam, the state board requires you to have a Contractor Bond number

A construction bond is a security deposit issued by a surety company. Bonds are designed to protect the consumer public against contractor default.

They act as protection mechanisms for clients from unethical or illegal actions performed by contractors.

everything you need to understand about Construction bonds and california contractor licenses

Bonds also ensure that subcontractors get paid for their work. Furthermore, they ensure or that a contractor performs his duties as stated in a contract.

Construction bonds protect employees, suppliers, sub-contractors or clients against a contractor's failure to abide by an agreement. For a deeper look at bonding and fees, check out this article.

Can you get a Contractors License with a Felony in California?

Having a criminal record in no way stops you from getting a C-61/D-56 trenching contractor license. Thousands of tradesmen get licenses each year despite their criminal records.

Be honest on the application. Even if the felony or misdemeanor happened years ago and even if it was expunged.

BE 100% HONEST ON THE APPLICATION, because the CSLB sees everything when you do live scan fingerprinting.

The CSLB handles criminal records on a case-by-case basis. Remember, the state board's responsibility is to protect the public.

Fraud, Embezzlement and Forgery

In my experience, the CSLB are primarily concerned with criminal charges dealing with fraud, embezzlement, forgery, and financial-related crimes.

If your conviction does not fall under these categories most likely, you will have no issues when applying for the C-61/D-56 trenching contractor license.

Be prepared to submit any court documents or prove rehabilitation at the state’s request. California requires you to divulge all criminal charges when applying for a state license even if they have been expunged.

Recommended Resources

What is on the Contractor License Exam?

Contractor licenses are broken down into four categories:

1) A-General Engineering

2) B-General Building

3) C-Specialty classes

4) C-61 / D-Limited Specialty classes

Each category of license except the D-Limited Specialty license class requires that you pass a TRADE exam. C-61 Classification licenses do not have trade portions.

You must only pass a LAW exam. The exam is:

  • 115 Questions on Contractor LAW
  • 3 Hours to complete
  • Multiple choice, taken on a computer
  • Closed Book

The Law Examination is divided into eight major sections:

1. Business Organization (10%)

  •  Company organization
  •  Project organization

2. Business Finances (15%)

  • Cash management
  • Budget and planning
  • Taxes
  • Financial reporting

3. Employment Requirements (12%)

  • Employment regulations
  • Evaluation and record-keeping
  • Payroll

4. Bonds, Insurance, and Liens (10%)

  • Bonds
  • Workers’ compensation insurance
  • Liens and other remedies
  • Other insurance

5. Contract Requirements and Execution (23%)

  • Bidding
  • Cost control
  • Contracts
  • Payments

6. Licensing Requirements (8%)

  • Business license
  • Contractor’s license
  • Activity regulation

7. Safety (15%)

  • Training and reporting requirements
  • General safety
  • Hazardous/unknown materials

8. Public Works (7%)

  • Prevailing wage requirements
  • Bonding requirements
  • Insurance requirements

For more information about what is on the California Contractor LAW Exam, be sure to check out our blog post covering everything you need to know.

CSLB Test Locations

You will take the Contractor LAW exam on a computer at a state testing facility.

Currently, the CSLB testing locations are in Berkeley, Fresno, Norwalk, Oxnard, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, and San Jose. The CSLB will assign you a testing center based on your location.

The test is not available online. The CSLB allows you to bring a pre-approved translator with you. The CSLB will grant you 18 months after your application is accepted to pass the examination.

You must wait three weeks before retaking the state exam ($60 per retake).

Contractor License Study Guides and Practice Tests

A pencil and calculator laying on top of a piece of graph paper. Trenching contractors looking to get licensed must prepare for the california contractor license exam

Getting your trenching contractor license is a smooth process if you have the right information. Understanding the difference between how it is everyday on the job versus what the state expects of you is critical.

I have been told by many contractors with decades of experience that they were not expecting the questions they saw. It can be confusing to see unfamiliar terms used to describe tools or job site practices.

The Contractor LAW exam covers a number of different topics. Questions are presented to you as if you are running a large-scale remodeling business with multiple employees. 

Being prepared and knowing what to study is the most important thing you can do in ensuring your success on the contractor license exam.

Looking at some practice tests along with explanations for as little as 10 minutes a day is a small investment to make, but will increase your likelihood of success.

Construction Apprenticeships

Several heavy excavation machines out in a field excavating and clearing. Apprenticeships are an excellent way to begin a career in construction and ultimately put you on the right path to get the Trenching contractor license

If you don’t have the 4 years required journeyman level experience to obtain the C-61/D-56 trenching contractor license, not to worry.

Your journey begins here. 

The construction industry offers an unlimited income opportunity.

Whether you are brand new or may have worked for a company offering trenching services in the past, there are books, certification classes, and courses are available in most cities and online to get you up to speed. 

Usually, someone looking to get into the trade would find an apprenticeship. 

Getting hired by a trenching contractor would be your next step.

After gaining the necessary 4 years of journeyman level experience, you would then be able to apply for the C-61/D-56 license.

For information on courses in your area or books to get you on the right path click here.