Oh Well

We have not been blogging much lately, because spring is here and we’re on the land. When spring hits, the sparks start flying with action outside. We’re building Sanctuary, aka Factor e Farm.

The last week we’ve been drilling our well using a basic drilling rig from Rockmaster. On the Third Day, we hit water.

The drilling rig is called a rotary hydraulic drilling rig, which is the most common method for drilling deep wells. The drilling method is like an oversized power drill a rotating bit at the end of a pipe drills into the ground. The difference is that water is also pumped forcefully through the 1″ drill pipe down the bore hole, in order to soften the ground, cool the drill bit, and send drilling tailings up to the surface.

The video shows the water pump, the drill bit spinning, and water coming out of the bore hole. The tailings settle in a settling pond, and water is recirculated from the settling pond to the drill bit with a 50 psi, large volume pump.

Drilling a well is quite an experience. Several points are worth sharing.First, it should be pointed out that clean water is crucial for any community. We are sharing this experience in order to help the prospective builder of communities to understand what it really takes to drill a well. When we were researching small-scale, mechanical well-drilling over a year ago, we found very little useful information – so we are writing our experience with a hope that it provides at least some of the powerful insights regarding this very important topic.

We say important because ability to drill a well is crucial to providing reliable, clean water on a consistent basis. Water is not to be taken for granted. Even though we had city water running nearby, we did not connect to it because we didn’t want to be drinking chlorine or getting water bills. We have learned that with basic, proper equipment, drilling a well is remarkably rewarding to do. Face it – water is everywhere under ground. We have learned to tap it, so that we no longer have to rely on a limited supply of rooftop catchment. That supply is limited indeed – we ran out, due to mismanagement, last summer, and in the winter, the pipes busted.

It is expensive to have a well dug – $10k on average in the USA.

We started our well drilling adventure over a year ago with a decision to build a rotary hydraulic drilling rig by ourselves in order to avoid the high costs of hiring somebody. We purchased only the critical components: a water swivel ($240), 4 drilling bits ($240) and drill pipe ($5/foot) from Rockmaster. We were up to our own to set up a water pump and a drive motor, as well as the rig structure itself. We thought it was a good idea to save ourselves about $1500 by building the rig ourselves.

I went to the drawing board and came up with this design. (You don’t need to examine this too closely yet. I will critique it later in our Learning Summary below.)

This design turned into this practical implementation:

This design was powered by tractor hydraulics (note this hydraulic refers to synthetic oil hydraulics, not water). We bought a hydraulic motor ($200, Surpluscenter) to drive the auger using the hydraulic power outlets from the tractor. Moreover, we bought a hydraulically-driven water pump ($150, Surpluscenter) – such that the entire system is powered by our tractor, instead of separate gasoline engines. We used the drill pipe that we bought – 1″ metal pipe with threaded connectors .

The system failed for several reasons. First, the water pump was not strong enough. Second, the lowering mechanism was awkward, as it required two people to operate – one on each side. Plus, the up-down track had too much slack, so the drilling head would move around too much. Next, we ran into troubles with a secure water connection to the water swivel – we did not have the correct fittings.

We learned that in order to do this right, you first have to have a firm clue on the design, and then you must do some creative thinking when things don’t go right. In short, the details you must solve are:

  • Sufficient pump pressure and secure water connection from pump to water swivel – you must have enough pressure when you are 100 of more feet down
  • Tight track for moving the drilling head up and down in a straight line
  • A guide for the drill bit near the base of the well rig so the drill pipe does not oscillate
  • Correct rotation speed and power for the drill pipe – about 2 rpm, about 5 hp motor for small rigs
  • Downward pressure beyond gravity by itself
  • Pipe clamping and pipe lifting mechanism
  • Secure attachment of pipe to drill head to withstand several hundred pounds of force – due to weight of the drill pipe and any resistance to upward pulling of pipe

Given that there were simply too many details to work out, we simply scrapped the rig and bought the complete package from Rockmaster, at about $2300 total. We did not want to work out the correct fittings and pumps and so forth.

So when Rockmaster arrived and the pump fitting was bad and leaked, I was pissed. They sent us a replacement which turned out not to work. Then we got a replacement for the driving motor cage, which was bent and the motor did not point straight down. After 4 sessions of this pettiness, we got the rig to work – but not before winter came – and as such we are doing the drilling first thing in the spring. Rockmaster was all together helpful, but it took sufficient frustration and time to make me conclude that Rockmaster sucks. We paid good money to avoid exactly these types of problems. Yes, there is a number of details – but the overall system is not that complicated.

The procedure for digging a well is:

  1. Locate water veins. To do this, we witched for water. I don’t know how the stuff works, but the divining rods clearly moved in my hands at certain locations. We surveyed the land every 10 yards or so, and then perpendicular to that. We put markers where we felt water signal, and selected a location that both Brittany and I agreed on.
  2. Dig a settling and pumping pond for recirculating water. This should be about 1-2 cubic meters. There should be one larger pond where the drilling tailings settle, and a smaller pond from which the water is pumped back into the drill rod. We just took a few bites with the backhoe to do this – otherwise it’s a few hours with a shovel.
  3. Line the ponds with polyethylene or some waterproofing so that the water does not seep into the ground. In our case, our soil is quite clayey, so that it does not require a liner.
  4. Fill the ponds with water. In our case, the ponds filled by themselves after some heavy rains.
  5. Move the drill rig into place.
  6. Set up the pump. Put the suction pipe and strainer into the suction pond, and connect the pump outlet to the water swivel. Prime the pump.
  7. Connect the smallest bit to a section of drill pipe and attach to the drilling head.
  8. Begin drilling. When you go down one pipe section, disconnect it and add another section of pipe. This works well when two people do this with pipe wrenches. When rocks or harder soil layers are encountered, extra downward pressure is useful. At one poing, Brittany had to step on top of the drilling head to help it break through some rocks. Keep going until you hit water, and perhaps 10-50 feet further. We went down about 60 feet and hit water. We are going a total of 100 feet, to set up a good 40 feet of water reserve – or about 40 gallons if we are drilling a 6 inch wide well.
  9. Lift the drill pipe. To do this, just lift the pipe up with the winch on Rockmaster. However, when you disconnect the pipe, you must hold it up so it doesn’t fall down. If the pipe falls down far into the hole, it is difficult or impossible to retrieve it – so the project must be abandoned and drill rod and bit are lost. Rockmaster provided no clamp for holding the pipe up. We welded a clamp that had a set bolt in it. When the bolt was tightened, the clamp held the pipe, and we could remove the pipe section. Then we lowered the drill head to attach and lift the next pipe section. This is long and tedious work – so we used the assistance of our tractor front-end loader. We moved the drilling rig out of the way, attached the pipe to the front-end loader, and simply used the loader to lift the pipe up. This was much quicker, such that we pulled out 70 feet of pipe in about 1 hour.
  10. Change to the next larger drilling bit.
  11. Continue 8-10 until the well is dug.
  12. Lower the casing. This is still forthcoming.

To be continued…


  1. Sepp

    Thanks for this very useful discussion. I am thinking of drilling a well on an island property and have not found any commercial well drillers, so this may come in very handy.

    You say at one point that Rockmaster sucks, but you did use their equipment, and your well is going down.

    I take it you don’t have an alternative recommendation for a supplier of simple drilling equipment such as the one you got from Rockmaster?

  2. David

    Thanks for taking the time to share this info. I have been doing research in anticipation of drilling my own well and this is helpful indeed. Like Sepp asks above, I would also be interested in recommendations regarding alternatives to Rockmaster.

    Regards and thanks again for the info.

  3. Marcin

    Friends, to our knowledge, what we have gotten into in our purchase is what we now consider a ‘toy rig.’ As far as what we know now, real equipment that can actually perform – is $40k for the smallest one that I saw so far. I did not look too deeply, so there may be a better option. If anyone knows of anything, let us know.

    You see, one issue here is that we’re competing with a trade. Well drilling is serious business – so one has to do some research to find out the facts.

    The good news is – that based on our experience – we are in a position to design and deploy a low-cost, high performance rig. We mean a real rig that can go through rock and one that has 2000 pounds or so of powered down- and up-force of the drill pipe. Rotary hydraulic digging is still the way to go. We will design this for testing with our open source tractor (see – and we estimate a price for this rig to be about $2-3k for parts. Thus, one can make one DIY style – or purchase it at a predicted turnkey cost of about $5-6k. The parts and materials are rather easy – it’s how it all works together that needs to be right. We will return to the open source well rig in about a year – after we build facilities here. If you are interested in helping us accelerate our public-domain developments, you can help by sending technically-literate people our way – in order to help us integrate a design, drawings, materials list, fabrication procedures, and so forth. We can cover the materials budget easily if we have the necessary due diligence behind us. We are looking for remote or on-site collaborators.

    Well drilling is crucial to healthy communities. Please help us make open source well-drilling happen, sooner rather than later.

  4. anon

    [quote]Locate water veins. To do this, we witched for water. I don’t know how the stuff works, but the divining rods clearly moved in my hands at certain locations. [/quote]

    Surely you jest?

  5. Jean

    Look don’t use rockmaster. They ripped us off I will advertise for them all the time now. They need to be put out of business. Didn’t send all of our equipment will not return our phone calls. Now none of their numbers are in operation. Find another alternative. Save yourselves money and frustration!

  6. Bill

    Interesting article. I am looking at using a Rockmaster VTX 620 to drill our well here in Arizona. We have a group of 5 families that will be pitching in to buy and then cooperatively drill the wells. What do you think about Rockmaster? I have seen some good, and alot of not so good reviews of their product and services.



  7. William

    The Rockmaster folk are not honorable people in any description of the word. I have never been lied to or treated the way these two lousy individuals respond to me. Their names are Corina and Scott. They do not send ALl the parts for drill assembly NOR will they do so after calling it to their attention. Also, the mud pump is a lousy unit to serve less than 40 ft of drilling before seals were destroyed. The water swivel will begin giving the operators a complete bath with worn seals in the same order, near 40 ft. Getting either of the two to send replacements is impossible. They simply do not care or will service the customer’s needs. The electric start control for engine was not supplied and they finally sent me the controller absent of any connection information after physical threats to both of them with a one way travel to their destination of over 2000 miles. I was not kidding as I had already arranged to catch a ride with my truck driver son who was angry as I with both of these dishonorable people running a “fly by night” operation of fraud.

  8. ken

    I have built a well drilling rig using a 2 man post hole drill with it’s attached transmission.The water swivel that attaches below needs of be of quality.Do not buy one from companies that sell small well drilling rigs. They wont last 20 min.You will have to get one that can be attached to the motor and trasmission mount.It will be suporting the drill stem and bit when the stem and bit are withdrawn from the hole. The frame was made from 2by 2 14 ga steel.I have a handwinch and electric winch for raising and lowering The power head and bits. The hand winch is to slow down the drill when going down.Goto fast on soft material and you will stick it in the ground. Attach the electric winch when pulling up.My frame has 3 legs.The power head between the front 2 legs.With a cross plare to center the bit. Both winchesre moted on the back leg.I use a mining bit first to see what i’m drilling throgh.Then a 4 or 6 in reamer all with carbid teeth.I use a 4 in roller cone for rock. roller cone was $ 600.00. This stuff isn’t cheap.
    Where I live you need to go 600 or more feet for good water.Cost is $25.00 a foot.yep its in Texas.

  9. James Bergman

    Thanks for your post. I have been toying with the idea of digging a well in my yard. Not because I really need it, but because I would love to have it in case I needed it. Anyway, I appreciate your directions on how to dig the well. You almost have me convinced I can do it myself.

  10. John Carston

    It’s interesting to see the method of drilling that you used. I’m looking into well drilling lately and have been gathering information, so this post has been helpful. Thanks for documenting so well the methods and equipment you’ve used, this may be helpful if I forego a commercial company, but so far I think a professional service may be my best bet considering my limited experience.

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