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How to Dig a Well by Hand

Water is life.  It is one of the most important resources for survival.  It would be great to just drink from the pond or the river, but this water would need to be purified.  One of the only ways to regularly collect drinking water that needs no purification is a well.  Being able to dig a well by hand is a great way to start.

A well is simply a hole in the ground deep enough to hit the water table.  Primitive wells just let the hole fill up with water.  Then a rope and a bucket gets the job done.  The problem is that debris and pollution can seep in making well water less pure.  In addition, the walls of the well are prone to caving in.  There are additional steps that should be taken to finish the well.

If you want to live off of the grid and rely on your own water, you can dig, drill, or drive a well.  Digging a well is the oldest and simplest way to attack the project, but there is lots of work involved.  If you have the money, the time, and a way to get the equipment to the right spot then drilling or driving is easier.  Otherwise, it looks like we are digging.

Generally, hand-dug wells that hold up the best are circular and are four to five feet in diameter.  I suggest a five-foot diameter to allow two people to work at the same time.  It will be quite the project, but in this article, we will cover how to dig a well by hand.

Well Linings

All permanent wells need to be lined with a permanent material to keep the surrounding debris from contaminating the water.  These linings are built as the well is dug so that it protects the well from caving in.  The lining also supports the cover along with any pumping or hoisting equipment.

Steel reinforced concrete is the best option for well linings. You can also use bricks if needed.  You just need to be aware that uneven pressure can make brick linings collapse, so they must be thicker than concrete linings.  Bricks are also tougher to work with when in a hole in the ground.  You want a concrete lining to be three to five inches thick depending on the quality of the soil, and brick linings should be at least twice that thick. 

First Steps

Okay, let’s get started.  You need to start by picking a center point for your well and then use cordage and a stake to draw a circle for the start of your well.  Next you will need to dig a hole about four feet deep.  Shutters are removable linings that will be used to hold the walls of the well in place until the liner is added.  These shutters extend about six inches above ground level.  You will need to tamp down the soil around the shutters.  

These temporary linings will avoid rounding of the edges of the soil removal making the work site safer and more efficient.  The shutters will stay in place while the first section is sunk.  Skillful well diggers then build plumbing rods to make sure that the walls of the well are perpendicular to level.  A crosspiece is placed in the proper position over the center of the well for this purpose.  

This works similarly to a pendulum.  A hook is placed over dead center with a rope running down to support trimming rods.  These rods are all the same length which will be the diameter of the well.  When these rods are lowered down, they let you keep the sides straight and even.  They also make the size of the well uniform.  When using concrete to line your well, you need to keep your costs down.  If your well is just one inch off in thickness, it can increase your concrete budget by 1/3.  

Digging, Forms, Rebar, and Concrete

When the ground is hard you can usually remove the first section of the well down to about 15 feet.  Once the hole is dug, the bottom is even, and the shutters are in place at the top you can move to the base.  There you will add more shutters at the bottom, but these are only about two feet high.

Your initial form is going to need to be perfect.  If it is not perfectly level and even, the entire well will be off.  Make sure you add loose soil behind the forms as they are set.  Push steel rebar lengths of about 20 feet into the ground so the end remains five feet above the ground. You can use anywhere from seven to 20 rods depending on the consistency of the soil.  These rods are supported 1.5 inches from the face of the well by pins attached to the rods and secured in the sides of the well.  Then a second set of shutters is added above the first set.  All of the space behind is filled with concrete.  Shutters should be coated with oil or lubricant so they do not stick to the concrete.

Your concrete should be mixed 5 to 2.5 to 1 for gravel, sand, and cement.  To make mixing easy, build two wooden forms that are 30 inches by 30 inches.  Make one form a foot tall for measuring gravel and make the other six inches tall to measure sand.  When you mix 100 lbs of cement, the ingredients from the two forms should be measured properly.  This total amount of concrete should be right to fill behind one two-foot-tall set of shutters. The gravel should go through a .75 in mesh, and the sand should be sharp river sand.  They should both be clean from clay and soil.  All concrete should be tamped to eliminate air bubbles but be careful not to move the rebar.  The top of the concrete should be left rough to bond with the next layer.

When you are finished pouring concrete behind the second shutter, you will need to form the first curb.  You will just cut a groove into the dirt wall of the well about eight inches high.  It needs to be cut about one foot into the soil.  You will drive one pin for each piece of rebar into the groove, and the hooked end is attached to the rod.  A horizontal rod is then attached to each pin and vertical rod.  You will then need to hand-fill the groove with concrete and add a third set of shutters.  Fill in concrete behind this next set.

Once the third shutter is attached, the top will be too high to reach.  You will need to handle the next several levels from a bosun’s chair hanging from a winch with a rope.  Next you will need to add two more sets of shutters and cement them.  lastly you should now have the top of the well about five feet above the ground.  Let all of the concrete set overnight before moving on.

The Top of the Well

The part of the well most likely to break is at the top.  Because of this, the top of your well should be six inches thick.  Therefore, if your well is five feet in diameter your top should be six feet in diameter.  Dig out the dirt to accommodate this new diameter.  Leave the shutters below where they are for at least a week to let the concrete cure.  Remove the shutters at the surface while being careful not to move the plumbing pegs.

You will now need to add three more shutters and add concrete one at a time. Before you add concrete to the top of the lining, you need to bend the rebar around the well at about two inches above the ground.  Pour the concrete up to six inches above ground level.  You now have the first lift complete.  You have constructed 13 feet of reinforced concrete lining, six inches of wall above the ground, and two feet at the bottom of dirt walls.

Keep Digging

You will now need to repeat this process and keep digging deeper until you reach the water table.  The toughest part is figuring out what to do where the first section poured meets the section below it.  You can make precast-tongued bricks to force in the concrete form for a tight fit.  You will not be able to pour concrete once you hit water, so you will be using precast caisson rings at that point.  They will be 3’1” on the inside and 3’10” on the outside in two-foot sections. They are constructed with four 5.8” rods in the walls and four holes for the rods from the ring below.  The holes are wider at the top, so the rods are bolted down and still stay flat.  

You will need to drop the first ring into the well.  Then, maneuver the second one so the rods from below line up with the holes.  Bolt them down tight.  When you have four or five layers assembled, you will keep digging by hand inside the rings.  As you get deeper, you will add more rings until the water is pouring in steadily.  

The gap in between the rings and the lining cannot be filled with cement, mortar, or rocks.  This lets the rings settle later without the lining cracking.  You could have water coming into your well through the floor, through the walls, or through both.  To allow as much water flow as possible, your caisson rings should be made of porous concrete.  To accomplish this, you should skip the sand and keep water to a minimum for your concrete mix.  It weakens the concrete, so it should cure even longer.

Finishing the Job

Your well is now finished and full of what should be clean drinking water.  You now must keep it clean and figure out how to extract it for use.  The simplest way to extract water is to use a bucket and a rope.  You can do this by hand, or you can build a frame with a crank to make it easier on your back.  

The top of the well should be protected from debris, so a cover is suggested.  This could be something built to size to make a tight seal, or you can just place a sheet of metal or wood on top. It just needs to be heavy enough that wind, animals, and kids cannot remove the lid.  

The best option is to hook up a hand pump or an electric pump to either bring water to the top of the well or pipe it all the way to the home.  This can be a project entirely on its own, so do some research before you attack this endeavor.  If you go with an electric pump, be sure you still have a manual way to extract water.

Final Thoughts

While digging a well is a big project, it can add so much to your homestead.  Not only does it get you off the grid saving money and giving you independence, it also may be the only way for your family to get drinking water.  There are so many scenarios in which the grid could go down and you could be left without water.  Whether you dig your well now to be prepared or you dig it after the grid goes down, take your time and do the job right.  If the project is completed properly, you should have clean drinking water for years or even generations.

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