Dry Panning and Other Stuff

Since I talked a bit about desert or dry placer gold in my last post I thought it'd be a good idea to write a follow-up on dry panning. A comment posted by my pard in Idaho, Gary Thomas ("Muskrat Outdoors") prompted me in this regard, so I think this is a subject worth approaching. Not just because of Gary's question regarding dry panning, but because this is a topic that's rarely addressed in full.

Dry Panning is Difficult

As a small-scale guy or gal your gold pan is the best sampling and clean-up tool in your prospecting and mining arsenal. No rocket science here, but some folks still think a gold pan is a low-order piece of mining equipment. Nope. It's not meant for moving lots of dirt. Finding color is its primary function followed up by its overall usefulness in panning or "cleaning up" the concentrates left from running various types of small-scale mining equipment...from the simple sluice box to a desert rat's dry washer. Gold pans were always designed with water in mind, since water is the life blood of most placer gold operations, big or small. But what happens with a gold pan when no water is available to sort sample material? The answer is that it becomes much less efficient as a veteran miner's primary sampling tool and nearly worthless in the hands of a greenhorn or newbie. Why do I say this? Because dry panning is difficult to do well for experienced folks, let alone those who don't have a lot of prospecting or mining time under their belts. Oh, I know. There are those "experts" on YouTube channels and various online sites who will tell you differently, but simply put...they are talking out their asses to some degree or another, no matter how much they protest otherwise (and always be wary of those "who doth protest too much"). Alternately, these folks may simply be superior miners and dry panners compared to myself. Quien sabe?


Gold is nearly 20 times heavier than water so it will sink like the Titanic once it's in water (albeit much faster than that ill-fated Cunard liner). But what happens to gold when no water is in that gold pan of yours? First of all it can't drop immediately (or nearly so) to the bottom of your pan unless you've been lucky enough to stumble upon some large nuggets or heavy, coarse pieces in that desert wash or in those dry-as-a-bone bench gravels you're sampling. The other stumbling block to dry panning is simply that small pieces of gold (fines or small flakes) can often go over the side and back into the dirt under your feet as you shake, rattle, and roll that gold pan of yours. Sorting material using various dry panning techniques is a laborious task that requires patience and yes...skill. Sure, you can get pretty good at it but dry panning will always be risky business to some extent no matter how proficient you are at it. I know this. Again, been there and done that countless times over the course of four decades. If all this weren't tough enough already, desert or dry placer gold tends to take on the color of the earth it's pulled out of. It'll be covered with dust, dirt, desert cement (caliche), or even coated whole or partially with "desert varnish" that puts a black layer or coating over it at times. This makes spotting small pieces of gold in a dry sample pan extremely difficult even if you've managed to keep them in the pan. With no water in your pan to wash that dust and dirt away, dry panning becomes problematic in this regard as well as with the specific gravity thing. In other words, dry panning is a tough nut. That said, you may want to take a look at this dry panning contraption from Keene Engineering.

A Little Story

OK, all that stated I have a little story to tell you about dry panning where playing the devil's advocate makes me look a bit foolish. And that's OK because, in all honesty, I have played the fool more than a few times in my life and in my mining ventures. Anyway, back in the days when I could still gain free access to and prospect the Old Placer District here in Northern New Mexico where dry placer gold was first discovered in 1828, I came across a viejito (little old man in English) who was using one of those old metal gold pans. He was sampling that wash downstream in a very systematic way, dry panning material he took below small drop offs. I had been doing the same thing minus the drop off routine but had little to show for my efforts when I stopped to chat with this old guy who was probably in his 70s at that time and who hailed from the nearby village of Cerrillos. We exchanged a few pleasantries in "Spanglish" which is often the main form of communication hereabouts with some locals and he showed me a small gold vial wherein resided some very nice flakes and "chunkers" that he'd pulled from that wash that very day. Now I was using a Garrett "Gravity Trap" to dry pan with...you know, the dark forest green pan with the raised "step" riffles in it. Pans like this can make your dry panning tasks a bit easier because of those built-in riffles, but this old timer had me beat all to hell when it came to dry panning and I'll readily admit that, despite the fact I'd been prospecting and mining for nearly 20 years at that juncture. He wielded that old rusty metal pan like a true artist and he let me observe his technique as he sampled yet another drop off. Dry pan, dry pan. Boom! That old timer pulled three very large gold flakes from that small drop off right in front of my startled eyes. He was the best dry panner I've ever seen...before or since. In fact, I felt I knew a thing or two about how to dry pan at that point but that viejito made me look like a bumbling idiot. True story. So what is my point here? Dry panning can be done and can be done well. But this old timer was the exception and not the rule. Remember that.

 (Not far from the Old Placers.)

It's All About Sampling

So what did I do about sampling when I was spending all those years working dry or desert placers? Well, by gum, I actually used my brain and had a friend build me a small, lightweight "puffer" slap-handled dry washer that could fit in my backpack. I'd set off to sample with a shovel, a five-gallon bucket, a classifier, and that little rig on my back. When I came to a likely spot I'd set that little puffer up, classify and run some material, bag it up and mark it, and repeat the process. Then I'd go back to my camp site and pan those samples out in a tub of water to see what was what. Prior to getting that little sampling dry washer, I used to do a similar deal by dry panning. If you're a budding desert rat you can do this same sort of thing but remember it's all about efficiency and gold recovery. Unless you're a dry panning "star" like that little old Hispanic man I told you about, I recommend you get (or build yourself) some sort of small, portable dry washer to sample spots with. That dry washer will be more efficient (if set up and used properly) than any dozen gold pans used dry. OK, that said let me tell you something else...and some of you experienced desert rats out there are guilty as charged in this regard. Quite a few desert rats I know or have come across over the years NEVER sampled much, if at all. They'd simply drive into a desert placer area and go right to work in a likely looking spot using a full-fledged dry washer, shoveling away like madmen, and essentially rolling the dice when it came to getting the gold. A half-hour to hour's run with a regular-sized dry washer will tell the gold tale, of course, but if it ain't there you gotta move all that gear to another spot and try again. This approach never made much sense to me. I've always been about sampling, sampling, sampling before I set up my main gear. But hey, to each his or her own.

Even though I dropped a dime on some of you, best of luck out there you desert rats!


  1. I would like to have a dry washer, but really wouldn't use it much around this part of the country. If I still lived in Nevada, I would own one for sure! Dry panning some high bench once in a great while, would make more sense in my area, but like you say, I'm not confident I can do it. It is an art of it's own to do it right. Back in Boy Scouts, it was as much as anything just to keep a bunch of wild boys busy! I think we had very little chance of finding anything, but it did get me interested. Good post here Jim. Thank you. I might have to play with this some more and practice!

    1. Well had you stayed in Nevada Gary, you'd be an experienced desert rat when it came to dry panning and dry washers! It is a good thing to know though and a lot of fun...minus the work aspect.

  2. Jim,
    I have a video some where of that old fella at Cerrillos teaching Dry panning and showing how to blacken the old steel pan over a fire of newspapers. One of my old partners got the old timer to make a video with him. The old fella said that's the way him and his brothers fed the family during the depression. That was a long time ago.

    Rattlesnake Jim

    1. Has to be the same old guy Jim. He also mentioned to me something about making it through the Depression this way. That dude could work a dry pan like a master!

  3. Rattlesnake Jim! That's really cool that you have a video of the old miner in action. Is there any way for some of us to view the video?
    I was going to ask J.R. what the old guy's metal pan looked like.
    So I will ask you both now.
    Do you recall the approximate diameter and whether or not it had a drop bottom and were there any riffles?
    I'm really curious what the old timer used. He was probably good enough to find color with most anything.
    I have a very large old timers gold pan that I bought off of eBay several years ago.
    It looks blackened by fire. It has a drop bottom and no riffles.
    It's in great condition and I think the old timer would probably like it.
    I would love to see the video Jim if you could somehow make it available.
    I think it would be fun to do some dry panning with the old man.
    Thanks you'all.


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