On Dry Washers, Desert Gold, and Working Dry Ground (Part 6)

 (There could be gold in those hills.)

This series of posts is stretching out longer than I originally anticipated, so maybe some of you could let me know via the poll questions in the upper left sidebar what your preference is in that regard. That out of the way, let's move on to some dry washing tips and suggestions.

1) Make sure the material you run is completely dry: As you already know, the fundamental nature of dry washing and working dry placer areas require that the gold-bearing material you run be completely dry. Dry as a bone, preferably. Dry washing is never as efficient a means of recovering placer gold as a water-based recovery system, no matter what that system is. I know a few of you dry washing hard cases might want to debate this point but I'm basing this statement on my own experience running a "puffer" on dry ground and the general consensus provided by the bulk of the small-scale mining literature out there. Granted, an electrostatic unit can improve your fine gold recovery in dry placers, but gold and water are a potent mix that's hard to beat.

Mining Equipment

2) Here's a very simple test to determine if your material is dry enough to run: Grab a handful of the material you want to run through your dry washer and squeeze it tightly while making a fist. Squeeze it hard for a few seconds and then open your hand. If the material is powdery and no clumping is visible then you're good to go. However, if any clumping is apparent when you open your hand that means the material is damp to some degree or other. The general rule goes something like this: small clumps mean the material is just slightly damp (even if the material looks dry). As clumping goes up in size, you can pretty well determine that more moisture is present. Do not try and run material that is even slightly damp through a dry washer because, in essence, you're pissing into the wind and will lose gold.

3) Ensure you dry washer set up is stable: Most dry washers are not very stable of and by themselves because they need to be portable and are often constructed of wood or light-weight metals. Add in the fact that they typically sit high off the ground (compared to most small-scale mining gear) and you start to get the picture. Add a power source like a motor and pulley belts as in the case of motorized "puffers" and things can go awry in a hurry if that unit (and/or the motor) isn't "tied down" somehow. In my "newbie" days when I first set out to dry wash I failed to address this issue properly and watched open mouthed as my dry washer started dancing a crazy jig across the desert floor until the pulley belt flew off!

 (This is a beautifully made little "puffer."

I know this isn't rocket science but many dry washing novices are so eager to get out there and get that desert gold they don't even think of this simple issue until it hits them in the face (literally or figuratively). I was one of those boneheads. How you brace or "anchor" your dry washer set up is up to you and there is more than one way to skin a cat in this regard. My simple solution was to pile heavy rocks around the "puffer's" legs as well as underneath my motor stand. I know that's caveman style, but hey...it worked!

4) Consider building (or buying) a custom-made sampling dry washer: You all know by know what a fanatic I am when it comes to sampling BEFORE you start running small-scale mining equipment. Until you get adept at it, setting up a dry washer can try your patience at times and it can take a lot of fidgeting and adjusting to get things just right. You don't want to be going through this process again and again and again with your regular unit (and a motor) while you try to get a line on where the gold is in a new area. So I suggest you consider building or acquiring a smaller hand-crank or slap handle dry washer version that's meant only for sampling. These little beauties can save you a lot of time and hassle because of their portability and ease of set up.

(Here's a schematic of a simple, hand-crank "puffer"...build a scaled-down version and you've got your "sampler." Image courtesy WesternMiningHistory.com)

I know, I know...some of you out there are muttering to yourselves "Well hell's bells, I'll just do some dry panning." Good luck on that one, my friends. Dry panning ain't worth a poop most of the time (and that's coming from someone who's pretty good at it)...especially when what you're trying to find is some color in the form of fines or small flakes. With that little sampling machine, on the other hand, you can try a number of spots pretty quickly, bag up and note the location of the acquired concentrates, then carry those samples back to your camp site in a 5-gallon bucket where you can pan them at your leisure using the water and panning tub you brought along just for that purpose. (You did bring along water and a panning tub, right?)

There's more to come, so stay tuned.

(c)  Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2013

Questions? E-mail me at jr872vt90@yahoo.com


  1. Jim, personally, I find this very interesting. Mostly because I know very little about it, and I'm learning something new. I might never use this, but the more you know about anything, the better off you are in the end. You can always adapt ideas to suit your needs. Sitting here, I'm thinking "I wonder if you could use fireplace bellows to blow dirt out of a pan for quick, lightweight sampling. Not sure it would work.....but maybe it would. No, I don't think you can explain something too well, or have too many posts. If nobody asked questions, then maybe it is not interesting enough. I think dry washers are somewhat rare for most folks and the questions asked seem to prove that they are interested in finding out more. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think so. Thanks again for all you do here. Gary

    1. Glad you're learning something new Gary. Knowledge is important whether you ever use it...as miners, we should always be learning...myself included. I think the consensus thus far on post numbers is that folks don't care as long as they get what they need or learn something new. We 'll see after all the votes are in. Thanks for being a staunch supporter. J.R.

  2. JIm....the eloquence of your descriptive pen is "amazing"!! The image in my head says it all....you and that "dancing" dry washer. Thru my "chuckle"...I learn .....YOUR lesson! Thanks for that! Quite effective I would say. Stay safe out there!

  3. I don't know about eloquence my friend, but it can be quite a sight when you don't secure a motorized dry washer before firing it up! Thanks for commenting, J.R.


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