Monday, November 23, 2015

A Better Mousetrap? (Part 1)

 (A better mousetrap?)

In my last post I made mention of the "better mousetrap" idea when talking about current developments in small-scale gold mining equipment. In this series of posts I want to take this idea a step further by doing a comparison of two types of sluice boxes, the standard single water flow type and the newer, dual water flow type. Please note that I have no axe to grind here regarding any specific company or type of box, nor am I being compensated for the opinions expressed herein. That said, let's get down to business.

The Writing's on the Wall

You've heard me say a number of times here in Bedrock Dreams that every small-scale miner should have a sluice box in his or her arsenal of gold recovery weapons. I continue to stand by that statement. The importance of a sluice box in small-scale gold recovery operations should not be underestimated, particularly when seen in today's context of ever-increasing pressure placed on small-scale gold miners by anti-mining interests and associated restrictive legislation. The best example of the latter two issues is the temporary (or even permanent) halting of suction dredging in some areas of the western United States (California, Idaho, and Oregon, for example). Additional pressure is also surfacing to stop or severely restrict the use of all types of motorized mining gear in gold-bearing streams, including highbankers in the previously mentioned states. Other western or southwestern states may follow suit in the not-too-distant future. Like it or not, I believe that the writing's on the wall in this particular context.

Technological Improvements

What does this mean in the greatest sense? Many things, most of which I don't care to go into simply because my anger and frustration as a small-scale miner will surface and taint what I have to say here. Suffice it to say that because of what's happening, the humble sluice box is likely to become the main means for processing gold-bearing material in rivers and streams here in the western U.S. We've come full circle my friends. Historically, the simple sluice box was an important technological improvement over the gold pan and rocker box (miner's "cradle"). In the mid-19th Century an adept miner could process around one cubic yard of gold-bearing material a day by busting his or her hump in unrelenting digging, shoveling, scooping, stooping, bending, and swirling a metal gold pan. Then miners from many of the southeastern states (Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama) entered the early gold fields of the West bringing with them the rocker box, a crude but effective piece of mining equipment that allowed them to process two or three times the amount of gold-bearing material than they could process by panning alone. The rocker box was soon replaced by an even more efficient gold grabber, the sluice and its extended version, the Long Tom. The old timers soon found that they could process about five to seven times the amount of gold-bearing material using a sluice box and that piece of small-scale mining equipment remained the king of the hill for decades until the combustion engine/motor was introduced. In the 20th Century we saw the advent of motorized suction dredges, highbankers (motorized sluices), and even motorized dry washers. The former two pieces of equipment soon took dominance over the basic sluice box because of their increased efficiency and gold-recovery characteristics. By the 1980s when I was spending my summers dredging in the Northern Motherlode, the standard sluice box had faded into the shadows and was often viewed as archaic and outmoded in terms of getting the gold. Now here is where we close that circle I mentioned earlier. The green cultists and the politicians whose pockets they line are taking us back to our roots as small-scale gold miners.

 (Compared to the gold pan, the rocker box or "miner's cradle" allowed miners to process two-three times the amount of gold-bearing material.)

The Fundamental Element

In some respects I think there is a silver lining to this dark cloud. You see, I believe at times that we became far to dependent on the technology of motorized gear and its relative ease of operation, and started to lose some of the unique perspective and individual skills that got us into mining in the first place. That may sound crazy to some of you, but so be it. A good example of what I'm talking about can be seen on reality T.V. where certain self-proclaimed miners are considered such because they run commercial heavy equipment on proven gold ground in one of the richest placer zones in North America, the Yukon's Klondike. I hazard a guess that if I took some of these "miners" to stream gold ground they had never seen or been pointed to and asked them to find and recover placer gold using basic techniques employing simple gear, they'd probably draw a blank. I remember seeing some of these folks on T.V. some years ago giving things a go in Alaska and was horrified at their inability to wield a simple gold pan correctly, let alone prospect or sample in the same manner. Granted, they've learned something over the intervening years and I give them credit for that. But do you see what I'm getting at here? If not, all I can say in my defense is that I'm a traditionalist, a small-scale miner through and through who came to gold prospecting and mining out of a sincere desire to learn and follow in the footsteps of the old timers, not to be king of the hill in some mad race to accumulate the most troy ounces. I know that many commercial miners would laugh at this sort of simple mindedness on my part, but what they do and what I do has little in common, truth be told. I never got into small-scale mining to strike it rich or be the top dog. It's always been a labor of love for me, don't you know? Finally, let me come full circle once again. What's the fundamental element that's involved even in commercial gold recovery as seen on the boob tube? A wash plant with...yep, you guessed it. A sluice box system. Ditto for every piece of motorized mining recovery gear out there, small-scale or commercial. Never underestimate the humble sluice box, brothers and sisters...

 (The sluice box was a vast improvement over the rocker.)

The Task at Hand

Now we come back to the task at hand. A comparative discussion of two types of sluice boxes currently on the market. For the sake of clear comparison I've chosen my own single water flow Keene Engineering portable sluice box (35 years old now, by the way) with header tray and the newer Bazooka "Fluid Bed" sluice box that employs a dual water flow system. Which is better in terms of overall set up, operation, and gold recovery? You'll have to wait for that answer because sadly, I've reached the end of this particular post. So we'll take this comparison up next time.

Until then, be safe and be good to one another.

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2015

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. JR, I guess it comes down to "How much is enough?" Is "enough ever enough?" Those guys on TV are not happy with 100 ounces, yet you or I would be thrilled. Their cost is too high. They have to pay for all that equipment, wages and fuel. Our simple little sluice boxes and hand held shovels are payed for. Except for the gas spent to get there, we have no cost into this (non-motorized equipment). Anything we find is profit, yet it ain't much compared to 100 ounces. Is the enjoyment of being out there doing this "enough?" If you enjoy it, I see it as cheap, healthy, entertainment.....with a chance, no matter how small, of striking it rich. If you view it only as a job, probably better give up now and look for a "real job"! I don't know.....maybe I'm too simple minded, but I have fun and to me that's "enough".

  2. Replies
    1. I have found that nothing works better than a wide beach box with ribbed rubber matting covered with miners moss not carpet and topped with expanded metal I catch more small gold at almost any angle with no gold losses using my system if you use riffles and carpet and a steep angle you will lose gold !!! I started mining and became a certified NAUI SCUBA DIVER in 1975 right after I returned home from Vietnam . I still mine almost everyday and prospect with my metal detectors and screens and pans ..

  3. Perfect timing on this post, JR, as I'm looking at getting/building my first sluice. It is unfortunate the state of things and the general public's misconceptions about small scale mining, yet you make a good point about getting back to basics. (That's something we could all heed a little in many aspects of our lives.) I love the challenge of small scale mining and prospecting because when you've learned something new, solved a piece of the puzzle, or recognized a new pattern, the proof is shining right there in your pan. All the expensive gear in the world won't make that color just show up, you still have to think and work for it, so you might as well be having fun along the way. Muskrat is right, it's more about enjoying the time spent outdoors, and any gold just makes the time sweeter.

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and I look forward to the follow up post!

  4. Over on the other side of the Pacific, where suction dredging has been banned for countless years, sluices are pretty common. Interestingly, some states have even banned these, and only panning is allowed. I'd probably say beware and don't stop the fight just because you're happy reverting to a sluice though, as you might lose that right as well.