How to Dig a Well By Hand
Access to Clean Water is Critical to Self-Sustaining Living
If you’re a homesteader, there’s value in knowing how to dig a well by hand. Of the three main types of wells—dug, drilled and driven—dug wells are the oldest and until relatively recently, the most common. In the U.S., their main disadvantages are exposure to ground water pollution and ever-lower water tables, as well as a large amount of labor involved. In certain favorable locations, or where modern equipment can’t be used—or in possible emergency situations—digging might be the only option, especially when considering off-grid water systems for your homestead.
For reasons of economy and strength, hand-dug wells are usually circular. Experience has shown that a diameter of three to four feet is necessary for one man to work comfortably. Two men can work together in a hole that is four to five feet in diameter. Since it has been found that two men working together are more than twice as efficient as one man working alone, the larger size is probably more common. There doesn’t appear to be any advantage to making a well larger than necessary when you’re attempting to dig a well by hand.
A lining of permanent materials is necessary to keep ground water from seeping into the well and contaminating it. Built as the digging progress, it is also a protection against cave-ins. In addition, the lining serves as a foundation for the well cover and pumping or hoisting mechanisms.
Reinforced concrete is the first choice for linings, but masonry or brick can be used. Uneven pressure can make the latter two materials bulge and weaken, so they must be thicker than concrete linings. Masonry and brick are also more difficult to work with than concrete when operating out of a hole in the ground. We have found old references to wooden linings in materials that tell you how to dig a well by hand. While not recommended, this the kind of information many homesteaders like to have tucked in the back of their minds. Concrete forms can be pre-cast at the site. A thickness of three inches in good ground and five inches in poor soil is usually sufficient. In this connection, “poor” soil would be shifting sand, shales, etc.
How to Dig a Well by Hand: Getting Started
To begin, dig a hole about four feet deep. “Shutters” are then set in place. These linings extend about six inches above ground level. Tamp earth solidly around the shutters. Their function is to prevent rounding of the edges of the excavation, which not only creates extra work but may be hazardous to anyone working in the hole. The shutter remains in place during the sinking of the first section of the well and stays put until the section is concreted. The experts then construct plumbing rods so they can make sure the hole is going down vertically. This consists of a crosspiece that can be fitted into an exact position over the center of the well.
A hook over the dead center point supports a rope which in turn supports the trimming rods. These rods are the exact diameter of the well. When lowered into the excavation, they enable the digger to keep the sides straight and even. They also help maintain the proper size of the hole from top to bottom. A variation of just one inch will result in 33 percent more concrete being used. Then, with your miner’s pick, bar, and short-handled shovel, you dig.
If the ground is reasonably hard and dry, it should be possible to take the first “lift” (that’s well-digger talk for the sections of the hole) to about 15 feet. Then you’re ready for the lining. The hole is 15 feet deep, the bottom leveled, and the mouth is still protected by the shutters. The next step is to set another shutter or form at the bottom of the hole. It should be about two feet high and is usually made of metal.
This first form is of extreme importance. If it isn’t exactly centered and leveled, the entire hole will be thrown out of kilter. Push loose earth behind the forms. Then push 20-foot lengths of reinforcing rod into the earth so they extend five feet above the top of the well. The number of rods required varies with the type of ground. I’d rather use too many than too few. Seven rods are sufficient for normal conditions, but as many as 19 rods may be needed for shifting ground. The rods are supported 1-1/2 inches from the face of the well throughout their length by pins fastened or twisted to the rods, and forced into the earthen sides of the well. A second set of shutters is now positioned above the first. The space behind is filled with concrete. Be sure to coat the shutters with oil to prevent the concrete from sticking to them.
The concrete is mixed at a ratio of 5:2.5:1 of gravel, sand and cement. A convenient way to measure this is by constructing two bottomless wooden boxes. The boxes measure 30” x 30”. One is 12 inches deep for measuring gravel, while the other is six inches deep for measuring sand. When mixed with 100 pounds of cement, the proportions will be correct. This quantity should be just about right for filling behind one two-foot high shutter. The gravel should pass through a ¾ -inch mesh, while the sand should be sharp river sand. Both should be free from soil or clay. Use clean water only. The concrete should be tamped carefully into the shutter to eliminate air pockets, but be careful not to disturb the reinforcing rods. Leave the top of the concrete rough, so it makes a good bond with the next layer.
When the pouring behind the second shutter is completed, make the first curb. This is a groove in the earth side of the well immediately above the top of the second shutter. The groove should be about eight inches high and cut about a foot into the side of the well. One pin for each reinforcing rod is driven into the groove, and a hooked end of the pin fastened to the reinforcing rod. Then a horizontal rod is put in place and fastened to each pin and vertical rod. Then hand-fill the curb with concrete all around, put the third set of shutters into place, and pour concrete behind them.
The top will be too high to reach once the third shutter is fixed, so subsequent stages will have to be reached from a bosun’s chair suspended with a half-inch rope from a winch. Two more sets of shutters are set in place and cemented. The top is now five feet above ground level. The concrete should be left overnight before proceeding.
The weakest part of the well is at ground level. For this reason, the top should be made six inches thick. If the well has a diameter of 4-1/2 feet, you will need to excavate to a diameter of five feet. The shutters below are left in position. Leave them for at least a week to allow the concrete to cure. But remove the shutter at the surface, being careful not to disturb the plumbing pegs, which hold your plumbing rods.
Three more shutters are added and concreted one at a time. Before concreting the top lining, the tops of the reinforcing rods are bent around the well at about two inches above ground level. Concrete is poured to six inches above ground level. This will keep surface water out and protect the well from falling debris. The first lift is now complete. You have 13 feet of concrete lining supported on the curb, six inches of wall above ground and the bottom two feet are unlined excavation.
Continue this process until the aquifer if reached.
The only problem you should run into in subsequent sections when learning how to dig a well by hand is where the top of the second left meets the bottom of the first. One solution is to make precast tongued bricks. They can be forced into concrete in the opening, forming a snug fit. It will be impossible to pour concrete when the aquifer is reached. Then you’ll need to use precast caisson rings. These rings, precast on the surface several weeks earlier, have an inside diameter of 3’1” and an outside diameter of 3’10”. Each cylinder is two feet high. The rings are made with four 5/8 inch rods embedded in the walls and four equidistant holes to accept the rods from caisson immediately below. The rods project two feet above the top surface (for two-foot caissons), and the holes have widened tops so the rods can be bolted and remain flush.
Lower the first ring into the wall. When the second ring is lowered, it has to be maneuvered so that the rods from the ring below penetrate the holes of the ring above. They are bolted tight. When four or five rings are firmly bolted together, sinking continues by hand-digging inside the caisson. As the caisson goes down, more rings are added until water is entering at such a rate that bailing with the kibble is no longer possible. You’ve hit bottom… which in well-digging, is good. (Well digging is the only job where you start at the top and work your way down.)
The space between the lining and the caisson must not be filled with cement, mortar or stone. This allows the caisson to settle later without breaking the lining. Depending on the nature of the aquifer, water may enter the well through the bottom or through the walls. When the latter method is preferred (and it usually is), the caissons must be made of porous concrete. This is accomplished by mixing the concrete without sand, which fills air spaces, little tamping; and mixing with as little water as possible. Obviously, this concrete isn’t as strong as that which is made with sand. Proper curing is even more essential than usual.
How to Dig A Well By Hand: Easy Method for Digging
Does learning how to dig a well by hand sound complicated or involve more work than you expected or were prepared for? If you live in one of the few areas where you can get water without going to great depths, a simpler, more primitive method just might work for you.
An easy method for learning how to dig a well by hand is to just dig a hole of the desired diameter and depth. The excavated material is placed in boxes or buckets and hoisted out of the hole with ropes. When water is reached, bail it out with the solid material. The drier you can keep the hole, the deeper you can go, and the well will produce more water.
When you have gone as deep as possible, lay around stones two or three feet high around the perimeter of the bottom. Just lay a stone or brick and mortar wall from there on up to the surface. This won’t make as strong a wall as the previously described method for how to dig a well by hand, and it’s also harder to make the walls waterproof to keep out contaminated ground water. But if you can’t get water any other way, and you are prepared to start filtering well water, those will be minor concerns.
You Can Squeeze Water Out of The Ground
Back in the early 1960s, we interviewed Professor Farrington Daniels, who was doing research into solar power and solar energy facts at the University of Wisconsin. He mentioned a way to get water from soil that could be useful in an emergency. It amounts to a very simple solar still.
- Dig a hole in the ground. Size doesn’t matter, but the bigger the hole the more water you can expect.
- Place a container in the center.
- Cover the hole with a sheet of plastic, sealing the edges with soil.
- Place a small weight in the center, over the container.
- Moisture in the soil will be evaporated by solar heat, condense on the plastic, dribble down the inverted cone and into the receptacle.
- Note that with some types of plastic the water droplets will fall straight down instead of running to the point of the cone. Tedlar is one that avoids this.
- Placing green vegetation in the pit will increase its output, especially if it’s wet with dew.
Have you learned how to dig a well by hand? What advice or tips would you share with someone else who is looking to learn how to dig a well by hand for their homestead?
Originally published in the January/February 1999 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.