Primitive Cable Tool Water Well Drilling (Posted By Gary Cutrer)

Since I’ve been helping my uncle work over our water wells on the ranch in Upton County I’ve become interested in how they work, how they’re drilled and how underground hydrology works to supply wells with water. While searching for a cheap way to drill a new well I’ve learned a little about cable tool drilling, rotary drilling and air drilling and even drilling using the force of water.

Diagram shows cable tool setup from about the 1930s for drilling for oil.

Diagram shows cable tool setup from about the 1930s for drilling for oil.

Did you know the first drilled water wells (as opposed to hand dug using a shovel or spade) were probably drilled in China? Yes, the Chinese invented cable tool drilling. In that type of drilling a heavy bit at the end of a long rope or cable is jogged up and down to hit the bottom of the hole and break up the dirt and rock into a slurry. Periodically the tool is hauled up and a baler is dropped in to scoop the slurry up and it is hauled to the top of the hole and dumped out. Then the bit goes back in and work proceeds.

Drilling this way is slow going but it works well. The Chinese suspended the rope and bit from a springy tree branch, and men climbed the tree and bounced on the branch to jog the bit up and down at the bottom of the hole. I read somewhere they they drilled holes up to 450 feet deep using this method. In Sichuan Province, wells were drilled down to find brine water to use to make salt..

Of course, cable tool technology became pretty advanced by the time it was used in the early 1900s through probably the 1950s to drill oil wells as well as water wells. Ever seen the old photos of say, Kilgore, Texas, or El Dorado, Ark., with wooden derricks sprouting everywhere, including downtown? Those derricks were constructed of hardwood, often mahogany, and had at the top pulleys that were used to run cables to drill and bale the hole and later drop in casing and tubing and sucker rod.

I found this video on YouTube. In it men are drilling a 200-foot well using man power and what looks like . . is it . . .? Yes, that’s plastic PVC piping used instead of a cable to move the bit up and down. Water shoots out of a fitting on the down stroke so I guess there’s a kind of check valve at the bottom and the clay and water mix is being forced to the top as they work. I would imagine they are not going through any hard rock or maybe just clay and no rock, but isn’t ingenuity grand?

3 Comments to “Primitive Cable Tool Water Well Drilling”

  1. By Roy Decker, March 14, 2012 @ 11:51 pm

    Nice article – the only comment I would add is that the you tube video is showing a different type of drilling than cable tool drilling, what they are doing is called “sludging” and the pipe is pulling up the drilling cuttings in with that water you see getting ejected at each stroke. It is similar to cable tool drilling but cannot penetrate rock.

    True cable tool drilling involves a heavy cutting bit that is suspended on a cable or rope, run through a pulley attached to a tripod or spring pole, the end then attached to a large wheel on a motor or simply raised by hand just like sludging. After a while of dropping the heavy bit into the hole, a bailing bucket is lowered into the hole and the cuttings removed or they are flushed out. It is slow going but can reach pretty deep, this site has an illustration showing the most primitive sort of cable tool drill rig:

    My compliments on your article, I hope you will write more.

    • By Roy Decker, March 14, 2012 @ 11:53 pm

      PS I forgot to add, that such primitive percussion drills (cable tool system) have reached 4000 feet! Who says we have to have costly equipment to drill a water well?

  2. By Steve Lockwood, February 14, 2013 @ 11:38 am

    This drill is way better than anything I could conjure up or even afford to rent to use. For me this is definitely something left to professionals. My friend wants to get into water well drilling in Alberta which means he will definitely have to begin working with a water drilling company and then work his way up.

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