Prospecting Equipment 2

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Basic Tools

For beginners the best and cheapest way to get started is with the gold pan. A decent setup for the desert would consist of the following items:Basic tools

  • One or two gold pans, usually a round 14″ diameter green plastic pan, though there is a variety of types, sizes, shapes and colors available and everyone has their preference.
  • A classifier or screen for sizing which separates out the larger rocks.
  • Digging and crevicing tools. Such items as a shovel, pick, trowel, screwdrivers, whisk broom, old toothbrush, spoons, tweezers, etc.
  • Bucket(s) (usually 5 gallon) for transporting the dirt (also makes a good stool).
  • Water containers (5 or 6 gallon) for panning in dry areas.
  • A mortar trough in which to do the panning in dry areas.
  • Sucker (also known as Snuffer, Sniffer or Snifter) bottle for removing the small gold in the pan.
  • Small container such as an empty plastic film canister or small glass vial for your gold.

Most people already own one or more of the above items and all are inexpensive.


Gold panner
Richard is working his gold pan and finding a bit of gold.

For a small investment, you learn the basics. The most important factor in gold prospecting is location, location, location. By observing, asking questions, and practicing with a gold pan, you gain valuable experience. Once you get a feel for where to find gold, you may want to acquire other equipment which will process the dirt much faster. Some people even prefer panning as there is nothing mechanical to break down and it is quieter and more peaceful than most other methods. In all the methods discussed below, the last processing step will usually involve panning of the concentrates so a gold pan is an important tool.


The Gold Pan

Gold pans

As you can see, there are a variety of gold pans. Most are either steel or hard plastic, though most people anymore use the plastic variety as they don’t interfere with metal detectors, can be made in a wider variety, are lighter in weight and don’t rust. Plastic pans are usually black or green in color (though some are blue). All show up gold very well though most people seem to prefer the green color. Most places that sell gold pans also sell gold so you can make your own comparison when choosing. Pans also come in a variety of standard sizes, from 8″ to 18″ though the 14″ is the most widely used. The larger 16 to 18 inch pans are rather heavy when filled and the smaller 8 to 12 inch pans are used mostly for sampling or finishing. Other sizes and shapes are available for specialized tasks or simply as decoration.

There are two basic styles for the round pans, one with a large flat bottom and one with a smaller recessed (or drop center) bottom that acts as an extra gold trap. Some people like the larger area in the bottom and some like the extra gold trap. There are also variations of these with a differing number and size of coarse riffles and some with a textured area for final panning. One thinks only of round gold pans but square gold pans are also available. Since they are all usually less that $10 apiece, it is affordable to have a variety.

Gold pans are best used with water, but with practice they can be used for dry panning when no water is available or for sampling. In that case one saves the concentrates and does the final panning with water. This can save a lot of work by not carrying water to the site or packing too much dirt out. This is not a substitute for wet panning as one can only pan down to the heavier black sands which then must be panned with water. For a good description of the panning process with pictures, see Gold Prospecting & Treasure Hunting.


  • If you think you are at a good spot but don’t see any gold after 2 or 3 pans move on and find a different spot. Obvious, easy to reach spots have probably been worked many times and you will not find much.
  • For metal gold pans, one has to burn the pan first to eliminate any oils used in manufacture which could cause small gold particles to float. However even with plastic pans one should be careful of oils. Our hands have natural oils which can cause small gold to float. If this problem occurs, a couple of drops of detergent placed in the pan will break the surface tension and allow the gold to sink. Note that even small gold particles will sink very rapidly (like a rock so to speak) whereas other small particles sink more slowly.

Classifiers (mesh screens or sieves)

Small classifiers
Variety of screens, both manufactured and hand made.
Large classifier
Large free standing classifier used by Gary Grant for his Keene dry washer.


Used to classify (or sort) rocks by size. Gold separation works best when the gravel to be worked consists of similar size particles. This allows the material with a higher specific gravity (such as gold) to settle to the bottom without interference from larger, heavier rocks. The larger rocks would also settle to the bottom due to their weight, not their specific gravity. Club members own a large variety of classifiers.

As with gold pans there is a large variety of types, shapes and sizes. The most important difference is the mesh size. This usually ranges from 1/2″ square holes down to a mesh number of 100 with mesh sizes of 1/2″ and 3/8″ being most commonly used in the field. The smaller mesh sizes (bigger mesh numbers) might be used when working with concentrates. The smaller the mesh size used in the field the more likely that gold nuggets will be lost in the discard but larger openings can also cause the loss of gold due to inefficiencies caused by large size differences in the material being worked.

A mesh number indicates the number of openings per linear inch whereas a mesh size quoted in inches or fractions of inches is the actual size of the openings. Thus a mesh number of 2 is the same as 1/2″ mesh and a mesh number of 4 is the same as 1/4″ mesh. A 1/2″ mesh has 2 openings per linear inch which for a square mesh would be 4 openings per square inch. A rectangular mesh would require two measurements to completely specify the size of the openings. The notation (-10+14 mesh) refers to material that will pass through a 10 mesh screen but not through a 14 mesh screen. Be aware that there are other standards that differ, especially British and metric systems.

One of the more popular classifiers is a 14″ diameter model which has a taper to enable it to fit nicely over a standard 5 gallon bucket and will also fit in a 14″ gold pan. It has 1/2″ square holes which are just small enough that a dime will not pass through diagonally. It also stacks nicely with 14″ gold pans for storage.

Dry Washers

Two dry washers in action
Kelly Robertson on the left with his Gold Buddy dry washer.
Dave and Kate on the right running a manual dry washer.
Electric dry washer
Ed Ramos and Bobbie Block with a Keene electric dry washer.


Mini dry washer
Jack Stephenson and Gene Doe using a small battery powered dry washer.

This type of equipment is used where water is not available and the dirt is very dry. Even slightly moist dirt will cause problems and gold will be lost. This method is not as efficient as wet methods since the material will not break up as well when dry and some gold will be locked up in dry clay or stuck to larger rocks or organic material and lost. As mentioned under “Classifiers”, it is important that the material to be worked has a consistent size and this is even more important when using dry methods. Thus a smaller screen size is usually employed for dry methods and one must be careful to examine material that does not pass through the screen. Dry methods are more likely to lose very fine gold than wet methods.

When set up and run properly, they have very good gold recovery. Whereas most equipment uses a riffle box with a solid base, a dry washer has a cloth base. Instead of relying on water, these utilize air by having a blower or bellows force air up through the cloth bottom of the riffle box to agitate the material and cause the lighter material to “float” to the top, where the very lightest material is blown off, and the remainder of the light material floats off the end of the riffle box. The heavier material collects around the riffles. This can cause quite a dust cloud around the equipment. Most dry washers also have a vibrating action to help the gold to settle. This can be as simple as a weight attached to a fan in the blower to make it unbalanced and thus cause a vibration. Some of the newer dry washers even use the heat from the blower exhaust to help dry out any moisture that may exist in the material.

There is a large variety of dry washers available, both home made and mass produced. Some are manually operated while others are powered, either gas or electric. The gas powered machines use a leaf blower type of motor which blows air up through the cloth bottom while manual and electric usually use a bellows type arrangement. They also come in a variety of sizes. Many club members use a dry washer and you can see quite a variety at the outings. Jack and Gene even found some gold with the small battery powered dry washer shown here. Some manual dry washers can be easily converted to electric. Oddly enough, the desert is too damp for dry washing much of the year, especially as you dig down towards bedrock.


Vac-Pacs (or Gas-Vacs)

Ron's gas-vac
Ron Shrum vacuuming his diggings.
Jerry's gas-vac
Kenny cleaning out a spot with Jerry’s gas vac.


Typically powered by a gasoline engine driven leaf blower rigged to a five gallon bucket. The device is used to vacuum material off bedrock, especially any holes and crevices where gold may collect. Gold does not collect on smooth bedrock where it is feasible to use a broom, but in all sorts of cracks, crevices and indentations where a broom is useless. A lot of work is required to clean off the overburden and collect the richer pay dirt on the bedrock and it is painful to leave gold for lack of the right tool. These are owned by several club members and used at most outings.

These are made for basically dry conditions and do not seem to be produced as a wet-dry unit like electric powered Shop Vacs. Several different commercial models, including a backpack model, are produced and plans are available for building a gold mining vacuum from hardware store parts. For plans, see the References section.


Rotapan sitting on upside down 5-gal bucket.
Rotapan parts
Top and bottom portions of a rotapan.


Rotapan in action
Carter Thoenes spinning Ed’s rotapan.

This is a step up from a gold pan while still being simple and hand operated. It consists of two separate parts, a top screening pan and a concentrate pan, that fit together. The whole works is made to be placed in a water filled 5 gallon pail with the concentrate pan having hangers that go onto the rim of the pail. The screen pan is then placed onto the post. This post acts like a bearing so the screen pan can be easily rotated or agitated back and forth. The screen pan has a 3/8 inch screen in it so that a separate screen is not necessary, making the unit self contained. There is at least one unit among club members. Ed Ramos has one of these units.

The unit is operated by an oscillating motion followed by a lifting and then more oscillations as it is lowered. This is easier and faster than standard gold panning techniques. The concentrate pan will contain the heavy material. The concentrates will still have to be panned to separate out the gold but this will be the equivalent of several pans of concentrates. How often the concentrate pan will have to be emptied depends on the amount of black sand and other heavy material present in the gravels.

For additional information, the main web site for Rotapan is Gold Prospecting with ROTAPAN.


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Notes on graphics:

All clip art on this page created by Jamie Girard and donated to the Tucson Desert Gold Diggers. Copyright © 2002 by the Desert Gold Diggers.