Before the industrial era, a well was simply a narrow hole dug down to the water table, where water that seeped into its bottom was drawn upward in a bucket attached to a rope. An improved version of this open seepage method is the driven well.
In its simplest form, this method of bringing potable groundwater to the surface uses a rocket-shaped “well point,” driven downward until it reaches the water table. The well point is hollow, with mesh-covered holes along its barrel to allow water to flow into it, while excluding coarse sand and gravel.
The first step is to determine where the largest deposit of water lies and where it is nearest to the surface. The time-honored method for accomplishing that is through “divination.” This unexplained yet undeniably effective means of locating subterranean water was once practiced by well-diggers using a green willow “twitch.”
“Witchers” would walk a selected area holding their twitches—which weren’t necessarily made from willow—parallel to the earth. When the twitch began to vibrate or dip toward the earth of its own accord, there was water present underfoot, and the more forceful the dips, the closer the water table.
Today’s witchers tend to use a pair of L-shaped steel wires with equal-length sides about 6 inches long. To eliminate any chance of being influenced by the user, one side of each wire is placed inside a plastic PVC (water pipe) tube, and the tubes are held in a vertical position so that the free end of each wire is parallel to the ground.
With tubes held at an even height with about 4 inches between them, the witcher walks his chosen area until the wires swivel toward one another and form an X. Below that X there is water close to the surface. Why water-witching works has puzzled scientists for centuries. But it does work, and the technique is still used by many professional well drillers today.
Driving The Point
There are several methods of getting a well point down to the water table, but the one most used by people in remote places today is the driving method, in which the point is driven downward like a nail. A pipe cap screwed snugly onto the threaded end protects it from being damaged or deformed while being pounded from above. It is essential not to damage the mouth or threads. If they do become damaged, the pipe might not seal enough to produce a good vacuum at the pump.
Begin by digging a pilot hole at least 2 feet deep using a hand auger or shovel; augers make narrower holes, but wider shovel holes require that soil be tamped around the well point to help hold it straight when pounding. A PVC casing placed over the well pipe—kept above the point so that is doesn’t inhibit water flow—keeps loose dirt from falling in around the well pipe as it is driven.
Well hammers can be as simple as a sledgehammer or a large wooden mallet. When punching through harder earth, some well drillers prefer a pile-driver weight (a pipe filled with concrete) suspended from a tripod where it is hoisted upward, then dropped onto the capped well pipe. More physically demanding are slam hammers comprised of cylindrical, flat-bottom iron weights with a long steel rod that’s inserted into the well pipe to serve as a guide.
When the well point has been driven down to the point where 10 inches remain above ground, remove the protective cap and screw a 4-inch pipe coupler (an internally-threaded collar) over the exposed threads. Use pipe joint compound or Teflon tape (wound in the direction of the threads, clockwise) to ensure a watertight seal.
Screw a 6-foot pipe (usually) that is threaded on both ends into the coupling. The actual length of the pipe can vary, but longer pipes need fewer sealed joints. Cap the upper end of the pipe, and pound it down until only about 10 inches remain above ground. Remove the cap, apply sealer to the threads, and screw-on another nipple and another length of pipe, and repeat the process.
The pipe should move visibly downward with each blow from your hammer. If it stops and refuses to sink after several blows, you may have hit a large rock. Do not try to hammer the pipe any deeper or you might damage the well point. It’s easier and safer to pull up the point by gently wobbling the pipe back and forth to widen the hole as you pull upward. Next, move the operation to another location.
When the well point reaches water you’ll hear a hollow “bong” sound from the pipe with every blow. Remove the cap and drop a chalk line down the well pipe until slack in the string tells you that the weight has reached the bottom of the well point.
Pull up the string, and measure how much of it has been wetted to determine how deeply the well point has penetrated into the water table. To ensure suction at the pump, it’s important that the entire length of the well point be immersed, and preferably 2 feet beyond that to account for seasonal variations in the water table.
Install The Pump
When the drop-string is wetted to a length of at least 5 feet, it’s time to screw-on a pitcher pump (remember to seal the threads). Prime the pump to create suction for its vacuum cylinder by pouring a cup of water into the pump’s top, and jack the handle until water spurts from the pump with each down stroke. Jack the handle roughly 100 times to create a cavity filled with clear water around the well point.
Alternately, you can use a portable electric water pump to create a cavity more quickly around the well point, and to test for a benchmark flow of 5 gallons per minute. When only clear water comes from the well spout, remove the pump and thread-on a “check valve” between the well pipe below and the pump above; this will help to prevent water in the pipe from draining back down, reducing the need to prime the pump.
Well depth depends on how deep the water table might be at your place. The depth to which manual pumps can operate is limited, depending on the type of pump, the force of gravity and the length of its drawing stroke. In general, pitcher, jet, or centrifugal hand pumps are effective to a depth of 25 feet. Larger stand pumps with draw cylinders will work to a depth of 50 feet.
Even with all of the pesky red tape, a driven hand-pumped well is worth the hassle for the peace of mind it brings knowing that you can never run out of drinking water, come what may.