The Lost Art Of Digging or Drilling A Water Well

The Lost Art Of Digging or Drilling A Water WellHaving a supply of water in your home saves a lot of troubles. With the average person using tens or even hundreds of gallons of water a day, the prospect of having to carry water from a nearby spring, river, or lake is almost impossible to imagine without making a major change in lifestyle. Digging or drilling a water well is the best option you have, although it has nearly become a lost art.

Yet, for most of us, that’s just what would happen in a disaster. The local waterworks shuts down and were without water unless we carry it in buckets or have a supply of water jugs stashed away in the basement. A long-term disaster, for most of us, means a return to the Dark Ages whenever it comes time to get a drink or wash hands or dishes.

The need of a water well

Getting an “in house” (or close-to-the house) source of water could really improve things and save a lot of time otherwise spent hauling water during a disaster; time which might be better spent working at producing food or any of a number of other important survival tasks. While a few lucky souls have a nearby spring or creek from which water can be diverted into their living area, most of us don’t have that luxury.

A water well can be an important solution to the problem. Unfortunately, digging or drilling a water well has nearly become a lost art in the United States with only a few people knowing how to go about doing it properly.

The first secret to creating a water well is finding the proper location for it. Space doesn’t permit going into this in great detail, but an important point to keep in mind is that water tends to seek low points; you’re more likely to strike water at the base of a hill than at its top (or at least you’ll reach it sooner).

Also, keep in mind the fact that care must be taken not to dig a water well where the water might be contaminated by sewage systems, chemical contaminants, surface runoff, or the like.

Related reading: How To Find Out If There’s Water On Your Off-grid Property

It should be noted that “old-timers” claim that one of the best ways to find water which is within 20 to 30 feet of the ground is to find a spot where willows or cottonwood trees are growing naturally — not planted there —and flourishing. In such a spot, water is generally close to the surface of the earth.

Several good sources of information on modern methods of finding the proper site for a water well (along with a lot of other helpful information) are available. Another help is to get a regional map showing surface drainage and rock types in your area and tracing the source of your groundwater.

Right out front, it should be noted that the best bet for having a water well available for emergency use is to have a well drilled by a commercial driller now and then leave it covered but ready to go if you don’t need it now. Having a water well ready to go would save a lot of tears and sweat and really make the transition from your municipal supply to your own well considerably less traumatic.

There’s also a do-it-yourself method for digging a water well before a disaster (when you have the time and utility-supplied power and water to do it). There are small well-digging machines that can be purchased online.

What if you have to dig a well following a disaster?

Some methods aren’t practical without specialized machinery and power sources. Blasting, water-jet drilling, etc., are all out if you’re starting practically from scratch. Post-disaster wells will have to be dug using mostly muscle power and methods used by our forefathers. And, after all, it must be remembered that, not long ago, this was the way of doing things.

Digging a well with a spade and shoring up the hole as it is dug can be done, but such work takes forever and a day and can be very dangerous. Furthermore, once in, a shovel-dug well is dangerous since children often manage to fall into them.

Another large problem has to be faced since shoring systems are normally based on straight boards which create square shafts and, in turn, square-walled wells which are very inferior in strength to round-walled wells. Added to the problem is that the wood shoring will gradually rot, swell with the moisture of the well, and eventually cave in.

This means that the shoring has to be lined with rock. We’re talking major work with a large, hand-dug well which is designed to last for more than a few weeks.

Auger for digging a water well

 A better bet is to go to a smaller scale and dig a water well in which it isn’t necessary for the worker(s) to be inside as it’s dug. In areas with very firm soil (lots of clay) and where groundwater is 50 feet or less from the surface, a water well can be put in with a hand auger. Such auger bits are sometimes used for digging post holes and can be found in many farmer’s supply stores or ordered online, the auger is twisted into the ground until the screw head is filled with dirt.

The tool is then lifted out of the hole, and the dirt knocked out of it. As the water well hole deepens, the handle is removed from the auger and a length of pipe added to it to make it longer so that the hole can be dug farther into the ground.

As the length of the pipe on the auger becomes greater, a 10-foot or higher platform is normally made over the water well sight so that the auger can be pulled out by a man on the tower working in conjunction with another on the ground.

Once dug an “augered” well is lined with a pipe or concrete sections to keep it from caving in or becoming contaminated with run-off surface water.

The sand point water well

In areas where the soil is sandy, and water is within 30 feet of the surface, auger digging doesn’t work too well since the well tends to cave in before the water is reached. Another type of water well which is easier to dig in such soil is the “sand point” or “driven” well. Such wells are pretty simple and quick to drill and might even be done on a “make do” basis with household plumbing pipe (though the flow from such a water well would be rather small).

Of course, you can’t just push the pipe into the ground and have a water well. The end going into the earth needs a special end called the “point” which, as the name suggests, has a pointed, spear-like end which is easily driven into the ground.

The point section also has a number of small holes in it so that water can flow into it while sand and dirt are filtered out of the water.

The simplest method of obtaining a point (and the pipe coupling to connect to it) is simply to go to an irrigation supply company (try your local farmers’ co-op for a near-by source) and buy what you need. But, in a post-disaster situation, the point section could be created by some judicious grinding shaping, and welding of a pipe so that it ended in a point.

Small holes could then be drilled into it (or slits filed into its surface). This would be a very tedious job; however; buy now or pay later seems to be the choice here.

Using a bell

Generally, the sand point well is pushed into the earth by some sort of weight which is dropped from a pulley hoist or the like. The tool designed for this is called a “bell;” the heavy bell driver fits over the end of the pipe and has handles on either side so that a couple of stout fellows might use it without a hoist. (In a real pinch, it is even possible to use a sledgehammer rather than a bell to drive a sand point into the earth.)

The point and each section of pipe that is fitted to it as it is driven into the ground are threaded on each end and joined together with pipe couplings. As it can be imagined, great care has to be taken when driving the point and pipe into the ground not to damage the threads in the top section being struck by the bell driver.

Use a protective cap

Generally, this is avoided by using a protective cap which is screwed tightly into place over the exposed threaded end of the pipe or point being driven into the ground. Using a number of weaker blows to drive the pipe rather than heavy blows is also a good way to protect the threads.

When the section of pipe is most of the way into the ground, the end cap is removed from the pipe, a coupling is threaded onto it, and another piece of pipe fitted onto it. The end cap is then placed on the top of the new section of pipe. Care also has to be taken to check the protective cap from time to time as the section is being driven into the ground since the cap will tend to work loose under the blows of the bell.

If it comes loose and the cap is hit, the threads can be ruined. Ruining the threads means you’ll have to abandon the sections of pipe in the ground or rethread the section by hand, neither of which is too rosy a proposition.

Using A Weight

A second way of driving a larger pipe with a sand point is to use a long weight inside the pipe and point. This weight is lowered up and down to strike the point from inside. This method is normally a bit slower than using a bell since less weight can be brought to bear on the point. But it is also less apt to damage the threads on the pipe or cause the pipe to bend.

Five-foot lengths of pipe are the maximum size to be used with a sand point well. When joining each section of pipe, use plumber’s pipe compound to help prevent leaks and/or air getting into the pipe when you’re trying to pump water through it later on.

The holes in the sand point some-times clog up, and the amount of flowing water drops down, often leading the user to think the water well has run dry. Back in the “good old days” when I was a kid, the solution to this problem was quite simple: the pump was removed from the sand point, and a small-caliber rifle (usually a .22 LR) fired down the water well two or three times.

This generally seemed to work quite well, though one has to wonder if the lead of the bullets might have raised the lead content of the water to rather high levels. Care should also be taken to be sure water doesn’t get into the barrel before it is fired.

The cased water well

Another type of well which can be put in by hand is the cased well. Such a water well uses a string of connected sections of lightweight easing. The casing shell is slowly lowered into a hole which is dug from inside the casing itself with an auger (in clay soil) or with a tool called the bail cup or bail bucket.

There are several types of bail cups. In sandy soil, the tool is like a long bucket with a hinged valve at its bottom. A weight slides up and down inside the top of the bucket, and the rope connected to the bucket to pull it back up is connected to the weight.

When the bucket is pulled back to the surface after being dropped into the sandy soil, the suction of the weight tends to pull the sand upward momentarily, and the valve shuts below it to keep the sand in it.

The other type of bucket is a heavy set of blades which first cut into the dirt and then tighten up to take a bite out of the ground which will remain in the bail as it is hoisted back out. This type of bail bucket works in a manner very similar to a two-handled, manual post hole digger or some cranes used for earthmoving purposes.

Related article: Divining-Dowsing-Witching Water to the Degree of Survival

 As dirt, rock, and sand are removed from below the casing, the casing can be pushed down and other sections added to the casing from above. The maximum practical depth for a cased well driven this way is about 50 feet with sandy soil being most ideal for putting down the water well.

Moving the ball up and down is best done by building a small hoist above the water well and then dropping the weighted bailing bucket straight down the casing shaft. A pulley really helps when it’s time to hoist the bucket and dirt up out of the water well. This task is quite a job and best done by a number of strong men with a tractor, car, or other motorized vehicle being most ideal for making the work of hoisting the bait bucket go more easily.

The need of a pump

Once the casing has gone down far enough to reach water, getting the water up out of a cased well is usually achieved by placing an electric pump toward the bottom of the casing. But it is also possible (and more practical in many survival situations) to place a pipe inside the casing and use a pump on the surface or — if a pump isn’t available — to simply drop a bucket or similar container fastened to a rope down into the water well and then pull it out after it has filled with water. If time permits, a weighted bucket with a rubber valve on its bottom can be made which will greatly speed up this process.

It should also be noted that cased wells are very common in some areas of the country. During an emergency, it would be possible to decouple and remove electric pumps from these wells and use a bucket, can, etc., on a rope or string to bring water up out of the well. This would be slow going but could be used to supply drinking water when none was otherwise available


A wide array of other types of pumps have been created, and some very simple and reliable hand pumps are still available commercially. These pumps were widely used in the 1800s and early 1900s in the U.S. I remember seeing my grandmother use a hand pump, which was the sole source of water for my grandparents’ whole household.

Prices of pumps range from around $90 to $300 or more depending on the options you need on them (like drinking fountains), the volume you’ll be pumping from the well and the depth of your water well.

In areas which hive a steady wind from time to time (of 5 mph or more), a windmill is one of the time-honored ways of getting water out of the ground on a steady basis. Windmills are a bit unsightly and need to be about 15 feet above surrounding trees and buildings to function well. This makes them undesirable to many.

Advantages of using a windmill

The windmill has a lot of plusses. When coupled with a storage tank (preferably inside in areas where the temperature gets below freezing), the windmill can supply a large amount of water to a household and, when used with a pressurizing tank and pump, the water can be supplied with enough pressure to make the water flow freely throughout the house even if the tank is lower than the fixtures.

Placing the water well slightly uphill from a house and using a storage tank can also create running water of sorts for use by household members.

A third way of achieving this with cased water wells is to use a windmill or other source of power to compress air which, in turn, runs an air-driven pump located at the bottom of the cased water well. This gives the user water whenever the tap on the end of the system is turned so that running water flows from house-hold water fixtures just as it does “in the big city.”

Electric water pumps might be an option for those who have emergency generators. As with the windmill or the hand pump, the electric pump can be coupled to a pressurized storage tank, so it’s possible to run the pump for only a short time to supply your household for a long period of time with running water.

Gasoline pumps are also available and can be used in the same manner for those who don’t have an emergency power generator.

A quick note:

Regardless of what type of pump you use, if it is used only intermittently, the chances are good that it may “lose its prime.” This means that the air-tight seal is lost and the water in the pump and pipe leading from it down into the well drops out of the pipe.

Many pumps can’t overcome this problem without water being added to the pump to “prime” it. Thus, anyone needing water must be prepared to sacrifice a few gallons to get things started. This can be an important point to keep in mind during an emergency.

It is also wise to have spare valves for pumps since these seem to be one of the first parts to wear out. Follow manufacturer’s recommendations on lubrication and use and a good pump should last a long, long time.


Whether you “plan ahead” and get an emergency water  well sunk in your back yard now, decide to get your own well so you can get away from being dependent on someone else for your water, or simply give it a “good think” so you’ll know how to create a water well if you ever have to during a long-term disaster.

You don’t need to be thrown into the Dark Ages should your local utilities, and waterworks shut down. Like the pioneers of a century or two ago, you can drill your own water well and drink water secured through your own know-how and the sweat of your brow.

Useful resources to check out:

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2 thoughts on “The Lost Art Of Digging or Drilling A Water Well”

  1. When drilling with a Sand Point, it is VERY important to ROTATE the pipe as it is being driven.
    Hit the top with the Bell, then using a pipe wrench, twist the pipe 1/4 turn or so. Do this EACH TIME you hit the top. This method keeps the point drilling STRAIGHT DOWN, preventing it from drilling off at an odd angle, at which the pipe or the actual point may snap and become lost. Needing to start over with a new point. . .

    If you fill the pipe with water, and keep filling as you drill, WATCH the water level. When it SUCKS down, and is gone, YOU HAVE HIT WATER.

    Secure the pipe with a chain, or some rope as you are drilling. If you hit a cavern, the whole mess may drop down out of sight. With a chain wrapped around, you won’t lose your pipe and point.

  2. One of the perks of my current house is that it has a “dug” well. Since it is a shallow well, I could put a simple hand pump on the cap. I opted not to put on a foot valve to keep the water in the pipe just below the first valve. Instead, as the vacuum lets go, the water falls back down. The normally-empty pipe makes it freeze proof in the winter. This means having to prime the pump for each session but knowing that, I keep a bottle of water from the last pumping handy.

    A manually-pumped well is a real peace-of-mind prep.


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