How to Dig a Water Well by Hand

well image by Amjad Shihab from

Digging a water well by hand is physically demanding and dangerous, but if you expect that water is less than 20 feet from the surface and the soil is not apt to collapse, hand-digging is an inexpensive but labour-intensive alternative to hiring a commercial drilling rig.

Shallow hand-dug wells can easily become contaminated with polluted surface water if they're lined with fieldstone. You can use precast concrete lining starting almost from the bottom and extending above ground to minimise the risk of contamination.

If you're inexperienced, consult with someone who's knowledgeable about your particular type of soil before attempting to hand-dig a well.

Plan the circumference of the well. A narrow well means you'll need to remove less dirt but you'll also have less room to work; a diameter of 4 to 6 feet is recommended. Mark the circumference. Dig with a shovel, use a mattock to cut through hard soil and roots and a digging rod or crowbar to break up and pry out rocks. Put the dirt into a bucket to lift out of the well. Climb in and out of the well on a ladder.

Install curbing of modern steel shutters to reinforce the well while you're digging if there's any danger of soil collapse. Only a shallow well in very solid soil is reasonably safe to dig without appropriate curbing. Consult with local experts who are familiar with your soil for advice on the danger of collapsing soil and the strength of reinforcement you'll need.

Erect a sturdy tripod above the well hole when you can no longer toss the dirt out by hand. Hang a pulley from the top of the tripod. Run a strong rope or cable over the pulley and attach it to a bucket. Lower the bucket to the bottom of the well and fill it with dirt while you're digging. When it's full, have a helper haul the bucket up, dump it in a wheelbarrow and carry it away. Lower the bucket and repeat the process.

Continue digging until water begins to seep into the well, as long as you can continue safely.

Install the final lining. You can use precast concrete rings, concrete blocks or bricks which you lay by hand, or you can pour concrete lining in a temporary wooden form. The goal is to allow a small open area at the bottom where underground water can seep in from the surrounding soil, while sealing the rest of the well with a waterproof lining to at least one foot above the surface, to prevent surface water from leaking into the well and contaminating it.

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