On Dry Washers, Desert Gold, and Working Dry Ground (Part 7)

 (Old head frame from past mining in the desert.)

Let's continue on with a few dry washing tips and suggestions, but first excuse me while I give a shout out to "Captain Al" in Georgia. (Alan, I sent a reply to your kind e-mail but it was returned for some reason. Hit me up with another e-mail address if you can, OK?) Now let's get back to the task at hand.

5) A dry washer is your best bet for recovering desert gold or working dry placers: For many of you this admonition may seem redundant to the point of idiocy on my part. However, over the years I've seen a number of recirculating water rigs used by individual miners in desert or dry placers and although I'm not here to judge anyone's overall small-scale mining strategy, I always found this a bit odd and ultimately, impractical. Of course if you have access to unlimited water or don't mind hauling in water to the umpteenth degree, then go for it.

Despite the fact that recovery equipment using recirculating water may be more efficient at trapping gold, you'll soon find that very same recirculated water is going to dirty up on you in a heart beat and turn into a viscous, gooey sludge that is nearly impossible to use effectively unless you can refresh it frequently. Dry washers (whether "puffers," electrostatics, or?) are your best bet for working dry ground...again, providing the material you run is completely dry as well. Sure they are slightly less efficient in some respects, but the fact they help you save your water for drinking, cooking, and panning concentrates far outweighs any inherent disadvantage. That's my opinion on the matter, anyway.

6) Bring spare parts and tools along with your dry washer:  This suggestion applies to all mechanized or motorized gear that you employ in the field, but nowhere is it more important than working desert or dry ground placers. You small-scale miners working dry areas in southeastern California, western Arizona, southern Nevada, or New Mexico know exactly what I'm talking abut here. What could be worse than anticipating a good dry washing safari, bouncing over bone-rattling, washboard desert roads mile after mile, and then setting up your dry washer only to have the pulley belt fail the next day? Or a key Allen screw go missing. Or? And lo and behold, you forgot to bring any spares for that "puffer" of yours. Early on in my mining career I leaned this dry washing lesson the hard way and it has stuck with me over the years. Now this doesn't mean you have to carry a full NAPA parts store along with you, but you better have critical spares and the right tools or you'll eventually end up crying the blues with the coyotes at night in some remote desert location. Trust me on that one.

7) Keep that dry washer operating at an even pace: Although this is probably more specific to motorized units, any dry washer you use should be operated at a steady pace...not too fast nor too slow. The analogy here is much like operating a sluice box in a stream. If you get too fast a water flow (and/or too steep an angle) some of the good stuff is going to get washed out the other end. Conversely, if you run that box too flat or without the proper water flow, material is going to back up on you and clog the riffles. In general, this is much the same for dry washers. Get that motor running too fast and a "puffer" bellows pumping like some whirling dervish and you'll pop gold right out the other end into your tailings. Run that puppy too slow and your material will pack up too quickly in front of the riffles.

Each dry washer and motor is a bit different so determining the right running speed for your unit can take a little fine tuning, so be prepared to spend a few minutes getting things just right and running some test material through your unit to make sure all is well. Sometimes it's harder to get this run adjustment just right with a hand-crank, lanyard, or "slap" handle dry washer, simply because you can't get exactly the right speed, pressure, or pull each time. Add in the fact that you are stopping and starting and feeding material inconsistently and you may begin to see what I'm getting at here.

Funny Story

This brings me to a funny little story (or at least funny in my own mind and memory). About 30 years ago my dry washing pard and I were running our "puffers" at a spot in the Potholes District of southeastern California near the Colorado River, when an aspiring "newbie" showed up and proceeded to set up a Keene lanyard type dry washer a short distance away (Keene used to manufacture these lanyard type dry washers but I don't think they still do). To operate the bellows on one of these lanyard models, you feed some material into the hopper and then pull the lanyard (which had a small plastic handle on the pull end) to operate your bellows. Pull slower and the bellows pumps slower...pull it faster and the bellows pumps faster. You get the picture.

 (Desert gold is typically coarse with little wear from water.)

Anyhoo, this dude was yanking that lanyard like his life depended on it. I mean he was lucky he didn't pull the whole unit a kilter or over on its side...that's how hard he was going at that lanyard. My pard and I stood there for a bit and watched this guy with great amusement. And since both of us were war veterans (he from Korea and me from Vietnam) and had seen or experienced our share of naval gunfire and land-based artillery, this dude reminded us of the arty gun crews when the gunner yanked the lanyard to fire the cannon. Soon, my pard started yelling "Outgoing!" and on the next lanyard pull by the novice I'd yell "Incoming!" and vice verse. We were having a great old time at this poor dude's expense; hooting, laughing, and chuckling like madmen.

After we caught our breath, we walked over to talk to the dude and tell him it was all in good fun and asked how he was doing. He said, "I'm not really sure because it's my first time doing this." We gave him a few pointers and left...he was a good soul and had taken our ribbing with a fine measure of good nature. The next day we went over to check on him again and he showed us a vial about half full of really coarse Potholes gold! We'd only been getting the small stuff at that point and were duly impressed. After that, there were no more cries of "Incoming!" or "Outgoing!" We'd been humbled...

True story.

(c)  Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2013

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


  1. Great story Jim, funny how sometimes somebody does something all "wrong" and does better than the fella that does it "right"!! My Uncle Bill says "If it works, it's right". I have to ask though, is a hand operated dry washer as good as a motorized one, or just harder to use? I very much dislike motorized anything,especially if it is loud. One of the best things about the wild places, is that they are wild....and quiet! Gary

  2. Right you are Gary...this guy was all wrong but in the RIGHT place! To answer your query, motorized dry washers are more efficient so maybe a battery powered unit would work for you...they're pretty quiet. Otherwise, use a hand-crank version. Best, J.R.

  3. The tips about the tools and spare parts...is the "nugget" here. Lord knows I've been there done that. Great series JR...learned allot about new machinery and techniques...always a win! Thanks again!

  4. Yep that spare parts and tools thing is something that is often not though of. Best to be prepared for any eventuality when mining. Thanks for commenting. J.R.


Post a Comment