How Does Gold Mining Work?

Ken Black

Gold mining can use several different techniques, depending on the situation involved and the type of mining being done. Some techniques and tools are relatively simple, so much so that nearly anyone could do it. Other techniques are going to be very detailed and exacting, taking a great deal of expertise and specialized gold mining equipment.

Tunnels in a mine.
Tunnels in a mine.

One of the easiest types of gold mining is the technique known as panning. Mining for gold using this technique involves no more equipment than a simple pan and is, perhaps, the most well known type of mining. Ironically, it may also be the technique that yields the fewest results. To use this technique, one simply needs to find a pan and a pile of dirt or muck. In most cases this is done by rivers. Sediments are collected and placed in the pan. Water is used to wash out the lighter materials, leaving the heavier metals, hopefully gold, in the bottom of the pan.

The goal of panning for gold is to separate the dirt from the gold.
The goal of panning for gold is to separate the dirt from the gold.

In popular culture, the panning method of gold mining has resonated with many people. In fact, in areas where gold mining used to be popular, tourist attractions trying to capitalize on that history by offering to recreate that experience. This is, perhaps, one reason why the mental image of panning for gold remains so strong in people's minds.

Hard rock gold mining is another popular technique, used among those who were truly serious about gold and mining. When people think of California mining, this is often what they think about. In this case, miners worked themselves into the mine using picks and other equipment to chip hard rock off the walls of the mountain. The hope was that among the ordinary rock, precious metals would also be found. This technique, or one similar to it, is likely the best way to find significant quantities of gold in many places in the world.

Another common technique is using a device similar to a cradle to rock heavier sediments to a screen on the bottom. Often, this technique will also involve using water, which can encourage the heavier particles down through the rocker. Thus, this technique was also used close to a river or lake, or at least at a location where water was easily accessible.

One very sophisticated technique, which required the use of machinery or animal labor, involved crushing quartz rocks to find gold. In earlier times, this was done using a spindle and using horses or oxen to turn the spindle, which ground the rocks and possibly revealed gold. This technique was perfected and often used in Mexico.

California gold mining typically uses the hard rock method.
California gold mining typically uses the hard rock method.

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Discussion Comments


@lovelife -- Yes actually we do have active gold mines. Next to Australia and South Africa, America is the third largest supplier of gold.

Most of the mines active today are in Nevada, with Alaska and Colorado coming in second and third, as the most active states for gold mines.


I love this type of history! We actually have old mines near where we live. The tourist bureau has used the panning for gold as something fun for tourists to do, while teaching them about our local history.

Does anyone know if there are still active gold mines in this country today?

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