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How To Pan For Gold

Steve Herschbach

The gold pan is the basic miner's tool. They are used for prospecting and testing of deposits for heavy minerals. The final cleanup of most sluicing and dredging operations is done with a gold pan. For some, gold panning is a mining method in itself. To find gold, a beginner needs nothing more than a gold pan and some basic tools. While many associate steel pans with gold mining, steel pans today are mostly sold to the arts and crafts market and as souvenirs. Plastic pans are molded with riffles that aid panning and are colored to help show the gold. Green is considered the best color as it not only shows gold well but also the blacks sands that one is attempting to separate from the gold. Some pans feature a recessed bottom referred to as a "drop center". This creates a catch trap around the bottom of the pan to hold the gold. Some panners prefer this design while others feel it also holds undesired material so both styles are popular. Plastic pans can be molded with "cheater riffles" that make it easier to pan and still not lose the gold. A 14" gold pan is about the right size for most adults, while most children would probably be better served with a 10" gold pan.

The ''standard'' steel gold pan of old was 16'' wide at the top, 10'' wide at the bottom, and 2.5'' deep. When full, and level with the top (a ''struck pan''), it would hold about 336 cubic inches, or 0.0072 cubic yard. In theory, this means that 140 pans equal a yard of material. In reality, packed gravels ''swell'' when removed from the ground. A swell of 20 to 25 percent is average. It can therefore take from 150 to 200 pans to process a yard of material. The figure used most often is 180 pans per yard. Assuming about ten pans per hour, a good panner should be able to pan about a half-yard a day. A very proficient panner working easy material may be able to pan up to a yard a day. Needless to say this would be back-breaking work!

In good hands, the pan is one of the most efficient gold recovery devices available. In fact, panning samples that show substantial amounts of extremely fine float gold has misled many a miner. This is gold so small that although it can be recovered with a gold pan, it will wash out of most simple sluice boxes and gold dredges. Anyone wishing to mine for gold needs to become proficient with a gold pan. It is an invaluable tool for testing, and for the cleanup of larger scale equipment, such as sluice boxes. There is some skill involved in gold panning, however, and the big mistake most people make is in not learning how to pan before going out for the first time.

Gold pans old and new - classic 16" steel pan (rusted) and square riffled plastic LeTrap pan

Find a tub large enough to move the pan around inside the tub. Obtain a few flakes of gold, or lacking gold, use small flattened lead shot. The gold or lead flakes should be about 1/16" in diameter or smaller. Fill the tub with water, and fill the pan level to about 1" short of the top with sand, gravel, and small rocks. Some actual stream gravels are best. Carefully count out a number of lead or gold pieces and push them into the material in the pan. This is the key thing about this process. It is necessary to start with a known number of pieces in order to gauge how well the panning process is going. Ten flakes is a good number to use.

There are lots of ways to pan, but all that is important is getting rid of that sand and gravel while keeping those sample pieces. Submerge the pan just below the surface of the water, and allow the water to soak into the material. It may be necessary to stir the material up somewhat to wet all the material in to pan. Pick out any larger rocks at this time. Then shake the pan vigorously side to side and front to rear, all the while keeping it just under the water and basically level.

The goal is to get all the material in the pan moving vigorously and very soupy. The gold or lead is much heavier than an equal size piece of sand, and so with all the material moving around the test samples will quickly sink to the bottom of the pan. The next step involves taking the pan of material and tilting it forward, away from the panner, and scooping some water up out of the tub. The goal is to try and make a wave similar to that seen on a beach. Scoop the pan into the water and then lift the pan while tossing the water away. The water should ride up the tilted pan, and then as the water flows back out of the pan it will carry some material out with it.

Getting comfortable while panning can be challenging!

The secret is in keeping the material in the bottom of the pan stationary and letting the water wash off the top layer in the pan. Do not dump the material out of the pan; wash it out of the pan. Three or four of these washing actions take place. Then the pan goes back to the level/submerged position for another round of vigorous shaking. Then back up, tilt forward, and scoop/wash the material. And that is it, over and over, until only a few spoonfuls of material remain in the pan. Watch the material carefully while washing for a glint of gold or lead. If a piece is seen, stop and shake it back down into the bottom of the pan. If the pieces are seen often, it means the shaking action has not been vigorous enough to sink the samples to the bottom of the pan.

More care must be used when washing as the last bit of material remains in the pan. One wrong scoop and everything in the pan will go in the tub! When only a spoonful of material remains, swirling the material around in the bottom of the pan with a small amount of water will reveal the pieces of gold (or lead). A very handy tool at this point is the snuffer bottle. The snuffer bottle is a plastic squeeze bottle with a tube inserted into in such a fashion that small items can be sucked into the bottle but cannot escape. This makes it easy to spot your samples, and then suck them up while getting as little sand as possible. When all the pieces have been captured, dump material still in the pan into the tub. Then take the cap off the snuffer bottle and dump out the captured pieces back into the pan. It should now be very easy to separate the test samples from the tiny amount of sand remaining.

Now count them! All the original test pieces should be captured. If not, rinse everything out of the tub into the pan and start all over. The first goal is to get to where the test pieces are reliably recovered every time. When that point is reached, the next goal is to try and pan faster, to speed up the process. Beginning panners take incredible amounts of time on a single pan when they are learning, sometimes 15-20 minutes or more. But with practice it should take no more than a few minutes to work a pan of material. Gold panning championships are measured in seconds, not minutes.

If this kind of practice does not take place before going out to do some actual gold panning, the chances for any kind of success are very minimal. The new prospector will have no idea if there was gold in the material they have chosen to pan. When nothing is found, they will have no idea if it is because of poor panning technique or just because there was no gold to start with. It is very important to have confidence so that when a particular spot is sampled with a pan a few times and nothing is found, the decision is then made to try panning somewhere else.

Video - Basic Panning Equipment & Panning Techniques

One item that can really help the panning process is a screen. Screens are used to remove rocks from material before panning, aiding considerably in the panning process. Screens are designed to fit into or over the pan. Choose a screen size that will eliminate most material while not being so small that gold will not pass through the screen. A screen with a 1/2" hole size is safe for most locations. If all you anticipate is small gold, a 1/4" hole size will eliminate more worthless material quickly. Consider carefully before using a screen any smaller than 1/4". It is good practice to thoroughly wash material through the screen with vigorous shaking, then to quickly flip the screen over and dump it out where you can take a quick look at the discarded material, in case a large nugget has been accidently screened out. The last thing you want to do is toss the screened material out into deep water, and see what you think is a large nugget flying out with the rocks!

Other items handy for gold panning are rubber gloves for protection from cold water, rubber boots, a small shovel or large scoop, a small pry bar and of course a snuffer bottle. And a bottle to put the gold in. Do not use glass, as it can be too easily dropped and broken.

Next is the question of where to go gold panning. Always attempt to go where gold has already been found, as stumbling on an unknown gold deposit is not likely to happen. Be sure that the area is open to the public, or that permission is obtained from whoever has jurisdiction over the property. For most visitors with limited time it will be best to stick with known public sites. For a list of panning sites in Alaska visit ourPublic Mining Sites page.

When panning, it usually will make more sense to spend extra time and effort filling the pan with quality material. For example, splitting bedrock crevices and cleaning them thoroughly can take some time, but the material produced will usually have a better chance of producing a good showing of gold than simply filling the pan with a couple shovels full of bank material. Panning can produce substantial amounts of gold, but the material must be chosen carefully for good results.

Good Luck and Good Panning!

~ Steve Herschbach
Copyright © 2009 Herschbach Enterprises


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