How To Dig a Hand Dug Well

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A Shovel, A Ladder, And A Talented Wife

During the three years that my wife and I homesteaded a 20 acre parcel of mountain property near Craig, Montana, we obviously needed water. Not having the kind of money it took to hire a well driller meant digging by hand. When you do that, it pays to know where to dig.

Enter Pamela.

My sweetheart is a tiny, disabled, five-foot redhead with a bunch of talents as remarkable as her ailments are problematic. One of those talents lets her see where water lies close to the surface. If you don’t have a psychic wife, you might need to use a dowsing rod made either from brass or from a green stick. In Pam’s case, the process is fascinating. By the numbers:

1. She relaxes her mind while gazing out over the land.

2. She sees an oldtime well, the kind with a stone wall and a windlass for hauling water up from the bottom, one bucketful at a time.

3. She approaches the vision with care, reaching out to touch the “stone”, becoming a little startled when she touches brush or grass instead of the rock she was seeing. The vision is that strong.

4. Either using her bare hand or taking off a shoe to use her bare foot, she feels the earth in that spot. Where the water is closest to the surface, the ground will feel colder to her.

5. She then tells me how deep she believes the water to be. I have never known her to miss by even half a foot.

Where we settled that year (1999) was–and is–a setting of stunning natural beauty. There are dangers, for sure, such as a plethora of diamondback rattlesnakes whenever the weather is warm enough. (The snake stories are worth another Hub, later on.)

But there is much, much more. A bald eagle pair nested a mere 100 yards from our cabin in the same tall, dead pine tree, year after year. Research in the Library at Great Falls said this would not happen, that eagles rotate nests from year to year. Not with us, they didn’t. We felt they enjoyed our company and chose to remain close. Sometimes they would hover over our cabin while Pam talked to them, and they talked back.

My wife, The Eagle Whisperer.

More about the setting in other Hubs…. So, it was time to dig. I loved doing it, loved every part of it. Even when the topsoil was gone and I had to pry rocks loose, it was fun to do. As a child of nine, I had dug a “cache” hole behind our ranch house, complete with sod-covered lid. I could climb down inside, pull the lid closed, and disappear. No one else in our family ever discovered my secret. Give me a shovel and turn me loose.

I made the hole perfectly round and precisely four feet across. As it got deeper, it became necessary–or at least highly advisable–to pay close attention to the vertical sides. Were they safe? Was anything getting ready to crumble? Occasionally, it did become necessary to widen the hole a little to prevent a likely cave-in. Was I concerned? Not in the least. I have been an underground miner. One of my favorite animals is the mole.

A Pail From Our Well Beats A Container From Town

The Pail We Used To Bring Up Well Water .

The Pail We Used To Bring Up Well Water .

Down To The Danger Point

Once the hole was deep enough to require a ladder, I had to make a couple of adjustments. A number of big cottonwood trees had been damaged by the wildfire that hit our place on August 3, 1999, and DNRC firefighting crews had cut them down and into large blocks of wood which still dotted the area.

Using our workhorse, a 1984 Chevy Citation hatchback (and our only reliable transportation), it required only a matter of minutes to haul two of the blocks, each about two feet long, over to the well-to-be. A trip to Helena had yielded an old piece of two-inch pipe, some 3/8″ rope, and a few odds and ends that were quickly fashioned into a hand crank for one end of the pipe.

With the heavy blocks standing on end, they served well enough as posts. The pipe crossed over the hole, resting on the blocks, and sticking out on either side. A dozen 20d nails, pounded partway into the wood on both sides of the pipe and then bent across the top, worked to capture the pipe. (Otherwise, obviously, it would have scooted right off the blocks the minute the crank began turning.

A five gallon plastic bucket was attached to one end of the rope by a metal snap, the other end being wound carefully around the pipe and tied off. Voila’! Instant windlass on a budget!

From then on, things moved a bit more slowly because there were more steps to getting each shovelful of dirt out of the hole. No longer could it simply be tossed aside or even up and out. Now the steps were:

1. Lower the bucket on the rope down into the hole until it hit bottom.

2. Climb down the ladder into the hole. NOTE: The ladder used for this was not from the store but was made of lumber–old lumber–by nailing 2 x 4 steps across two 2 x 4 side rails. The wood came from a demolished house and cost nothing. The nails did cost, being new from the hardware store.

3. Disconnect the rope from the bucket, fill the bucket with dirt and/or rocks, and reattach the rope.

4. Climb back out, crank the bucket to the top, swing it to the side, disconnect it, pick it up and dump it.

5. Reattach the rope and repeat the process.

Video Journal of a Recently Completed Hand Dug Well

When We Hit Water, The Rules Changed

A gold prospector finding the mother lode could be no more excited than we were when water began seeping into our deepening hole. Once the water was deeper than the bucket was tall, though, more adjustments were necessary:

1. The rope stayed attached at the bottom. Who wants to dig around with your bare hand in muddy water several feet deep to reattach a metal snap every time you have a load to crank out?

2. Digging under water required a shorter shovel. To lift a load of anything but water itself, the shovel needed to “lie flatter” while lifting, and a full length shovel handle made that awkward in the extreme. So a second, older, wooden handled shovel got a chop job–a handsaw job, actually–and the rest of the hole was dug using a shovel handle only two feet long (wrapped in duct tape).

3. Two other tools, used from the beginning in conjunction with the shovel, gained even greater importance when the digging was done blindly under muddy water. These were (a) a specialized crowbar called a “spud bar”, good for prying stubborn rocks loose, and (b) a clamshell posthole digger, great for picking up rocks under water and dropping them into the bucket.

The day came, though, when it was clear we had hit bedrock and could go no further without explosives or power drilling equipment. Since we had neither, but did have three feet, eight inches of water, we called it good.

The Short Handled Well-Bottoming Shovel

  Duct Tape Provides Traction For Underwater Work.


Duct Tape Provides Traction For Underwater Work.

Now For The Casing

Every well needs casing installed to prevent the sides from caving in completely. Of the materials available for the job, we settled on ribbed PVC culvert pipe. A pipe company in Great Falls had several sizes in stock, for one thing. One piece, two feet in diameter and twenty feet long, would do the trick nicely. They charged just over $200, and that included delivery.

First, the pipe was shortened by 4.5 feet, using a fine toothed handsaw. When the 15.5 remaining feet were dropped into the hole, two feet would remain above ground. This could then be capped to keep out critters and dirt while still being high enough to stay above normal snowfall levels.

Then it was time to get out the electric drill. We now owned a gas powered electric generator, which made it practical to punch 240 quarter-inch holes (equally spaced) all around what would become the bottom four feet of the pipe. This would allow water to pour in through the sides with ease, rather than relying on seepage from the bottom.

Our best friends on the mountain, the Mortenson family, came down for the Casing Event. While Pam and Wendy (Mrs. Mortenson) cheered us on, the men “got after it”. Our work crew consisted of two teenaged boys and two older men, which was helpful, because the casing needed to go down into the hole pretty much dead center–without scraping a dirt wall down with it.

The boys took turns steadying the top of the casing to keep it centered while the rest of us began gleefully dropping rounded river rocks between the outside of the pipe and the dirt walls. These rocks left many gaps between them, ensuring free flowing water as it came “in” after a rainstorm or snowmelt, and “out” during drought.

Once there were enough rocks piled around the pipe to hold it firmly in place, all four of us did the rock dropping thing, whooping and hollering like trail drovers hitting town after a cattle drive. The Mortensons were happy to offer their contributions of laughing good humor as well as C.I.M. (Casing Installation Muscle).

Of course, that could not last forever. We simply didn’t have enough rocks to do the job. So Sam (the younger son) and I made trips to the creek on several “rock raids”, loading that same Chevy Citation hatchback with several hundred pounds of well-friendly stones at a time.

When the rocks piled up near enough to the top, it was shovel time once again, finishing the fill job with dirt we tamped and packed firmly until the casing looked like it had simply grown out of the ground.

The final result? A solidly built, working well that had cost us exactly nothing but $200 for a piece of culvert pipe, $2 for a piece of windlass pipe, $7.50 for a bit of rope and a snap along with a batch of 20d nails, and enough exercise to get me into top physical condition. Well within our budget, and quite a financial bargain in an area where a driller typically charged around $20,000 for a commercially drilled well.

Caveat: Although our projects were completely successful, the processes I used were also frequently in violation of “best practices”. For example, I did not build a safety wall around the top (no children in the area)…did dig to the very bottom before lining…and did work alone.

2 thoughts on “How To Dig a Hand Dug Well

  1. that’s damn impressive for what im guessing is a 60+ yr old man..how long did you have to let the water “settle” before it cleared up enough to drink?

  2. Actually, I was still in my fifties when I dug this well (and another one the following year when this one ran dry). On the other hand, I was 66 when I built our current home single handed in southern Arizona. We call it the Border Fort (for a reason). The building should stand for centuries, given only a bit of normal maintenance.

    We let the well on this page settle overnight and the water was completely settled and clear the next morning. The second well, dug in much sandier and trickier soil (including a visiting rattlesnake that almost fell in on top of me while I was down in the hole one day), took a lot longer to settle–days–because of the extremely high “light sand” content.

    Now I’d best get off my tail and back outside while it’s still daylight. Got a battery bank box to finish building as part of a refurbishing job on our solar generator. 🙂

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