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Selecting the right gold pan is as important as knowing how to use it. When selecting a gold pan there are some questions that you should consider, such as, "What size gold pan is right for me? Do I want a metal or plastic one? Will I be using it with a metal detector?"

Whether you are a novice gold prospector, or a seasoned pro, it will help to understand something about the nature of gold pans, their uses, construction, virtues and drawbacks. When you understand these things, you will be able to choose a pan that will give you many years of service and enjoyment.

First of all, your gold pan is an essential tool required in most aspects of gold prospecting. As well as its uses, it has its limitations. It is generally used for both sampling and clean-up. Using your gold pan to "sample pan", or prospect, for areas which show the greatest concentrations of gold bearing gravels will save yourself much time and effort if you locate sources of gold enrichment before setting up your gold recovery equipment. I see so many prospectors who just arrive at an area and set up their equipment without first sampling to see if gold is present in any concentration at all. Then they spend all afternoon engaged in back breaking labor without knowing whether their working gold-bearing gravels or not.

After determining if gold is present, use your gold pan for the processing of the concentrates of such gold recovery equipment as sluices, dredges, drywashers and highbankers.

Use a plastic gold pan to isolate small targets from dirt and gravel when nugget shooting or relic hunting.

A gold pan is not intended to be your sole means of recovering gold, unless you are crevicing or sniping for gold.

People can become discouraged and quit gold prospecting as a hobby because they get tired of wielding pan after panful of dirt all day long only to have a few flakes at the end of the day. This is where selecting the proper size gold pan will save wear and tear on you.

A very common mistake that is made is to purchase the wrong size pan, generally one that is too large for the user. Using a gold pan that is too large is guaranteed to result in aching back and shoulder muscles. When physical discomfort is experienced what naturally follows is a growing dislike for the process of gold panning itself. Panning should be and is, an interesting, fun and oftentimes profitable venture.

To help make your panning an enjoyable experience, selecting the proper size pan is paramount. For example, a gold pan for a child to pre-teen should be no larger than 10-inches in diameter. A woman is generally most comfortable with a pan 10 to 12-inches in diameter. A large man or hefty teen should use a pan 12 to 14-inches across.

While I don't generally recommend pans any larger than 14-inches in diameter for panning, I use an 18-inch pan when I go desert prospecting -- not to pan with -- but as a water basin in which to pan into. This 18-incher, along with a 10-incher, to pan with, allows me to use a minimum of water while sampling desert gravels for gold or for processing the concentrates from my drywasher.

Some years ago I taught gold prospecting classes along the San Gabriel River in Southern California and I needed an easy and accurate method by which my students could easily choose the right size pan for themselves. What I came up with was this -- simply pick up the gold pan you are considering purchasing and lay the pan flat along your forearm with the rim-edge lying on your elbow crease. If the gold pan is the right size for you, the opposite edge of the rim should lie between your wrist and mid-palm. If the edge extends past mid-palm to your fingertips, or beyond, pick the next size smaller pan to purchase. If the gold pan does not cover the area from your elbow crease to your wrist, you should pick the next size larger.

Now that you know what size gold pan to choose, you must decide if you want plastic or metal. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. It has been my observation that a prospector will tend to prefer the type of gold pan that he or she learned to pan with. However, if you are purchasing one for the first time, there are some things you should consider.

Will you use your gold pan with your metal detector? If you intend to use it with a detector for the purpose of nugget shooting you must purchase a plastic pan, for obvious reasons!

Let's first discuss plastic pans as they are quite popular, excellent for beginners and require no upkeep other than to be kept away from high heat.

Plastic Pans

The main advantage to plastic pans is that they don't rust! This is a good thing! If you are not an avid prospector and just want a gold pan to stow in with your hiking or fishing gear for occasional use, or for use by the kids to keep them busy, a plastic pan is for you. They are light and durable, made of high-impact plastic. They can take quite a beating and unlike their metal counterparts, require no upkeep. When used under normal conditions, they will last indefinitely.

When a plastic pan is brand new, there will be a tendency for water to bead up on the surface. Pan a few panfuls and by the end of the day the gravel and sand moving across the inner surface of the pan will have scoured the surface sufficiently to prevent beading. Or, before using the pan for the first time, gently wash the interior surface with a light abrasive cleanser such as is used for scouring kitchen sinks.

Another advantage of plastic gold pans is that they accommodate the use of a magnet for the separation of magnetic blacksand particles from gold.

When nugget shooting (using a metal detector to locate gold nuggets) a gold pan is often used to isolate a target, hopefully a gold nugget, from its surrounding dirt and gravel. Naturally, you will want to use a plastic pan for this operation. If you were to try this with a metal pan your detector would sound on the metal pan with a loud, ear-splitting bang!

One of the most popular plastic pans is the Garrett Gravity Trap, a bright green color, which enhances the visual effect of gold, making it easily visible. The Garrett Gravity Trap pan has extra riffles (creases for trapping gold) molded into its sides and a nice mining scene pressed into the outer bottom. The Gravity Trap pan can be purchased from most mining supply stores and many rock shops. If it is not available in your area, order it from Garrett Metal Detectors, 2814 National Dr., Garland, Texas 85041.

One drawback I have found with plastic pans is that they can be too lightweight. A strong gust of wind may easily topple your pan from the rivers edge right into the river where it can be swept away. This loss may be prevented by placing a fist-sized rock into the pan as an anchor when you are not panning.

Metal Pans

These are my all-time favorites, requiring only a little more care and upkeep than plastic pans. Their only requirement, other than their initial preparation for use, is to be put away dry. These pans are traditional! The 49ers used them! And, they have changed very little in more than a century. It gives me great pleasure to think that I am using a tool virtually unchanged since the Gold Rush days. Of course, these days they are manufactured of spun-steel -- a process unknown to Gold Rush prospectors. There are two types of metal pans -- spun steel and copper -- and we will cover the uses of both types.

Because a steel pan is prone to rust it must be thoroughly dried before being put away. Steel pans are popular and inexpensive, costing only about $7 or so, depending upon the size chosen.

When you first purchase your steel pan it will be silver in color and have a thin coating of machine oil. In order to maximize the visibility of gold in your new steel pan you must first prepare the pan for use by "blacking", or burning, the pan before using it in order to darken it thereby making gold more easily visible.

The old-timers used to "black" (a prospectors' slang term) their pans by rubbing them with lard and shoving them under hot coals to cook all night. I have tried this and although it works, it can be quite messy. While on a camping trip, I tried this method and the next morning recovered a pan that was covered in both ashes and soot.

I will give you a more modern method that will be much neater and cleaner.

To black your new pan, wipe off any residual manufacturer's oil with a paper towel. Place the pan on the back burner of a gas or camp stove. Turn the burner on to a low-medium to medium flame and let the pan cook until it turns a blue-black color. If the oil still remaining on the pan starts to smoke, turn on the vent fan or open the windows if you are doing this indoors. It may take several burnings for your pan to attain an even, dark-gray color when completely cooled.

After blacking your pan allow it to cool on the back burner. Rapid cooling, such as immersion in water may cause the pan to warp. A word of caution: Be very careful when blacking a pan, especially if children are present. A gold pan will get extremely hot during this process and serious burns could result. If you have children, wait to black your pan when they are at school or away from the house. Never leave your pan unattended whether you are blacking it in the house or at your campsite.

Blacking allows you to see gold much more easily, as gold is more readily spotted against a dark or contrasting color. With time and use your blacked, steel gold pan will mellow to a fine dark-brown patina. It will look like the gold pans the 49ers used!

The only negative aspect to steel pans, other than rusting, that I have found is that they will transmit cold from freezing rivers more quickly to your fingers. Rivers running with snow-melt in early spring can be numbingly cold. In this case I either wear insulated gloves for panning, or use a plastic pan.

Copper pans, unlike the rest, are not used either for sampling or processing the concentrates out of gold recovery equipment. They are used for mercury amalgamation -- the process by which fine gold is recovered with mercury. If you intend to use a copper pan for amalgamation purposes, never black it. Blacking will interfere with the adhesion of the mercury to the pan. If you wish to learn more about mercury/gold amalgamation purchase a copy of Robin Lee's, The Placer Miners Alchemy Cookbook. Also, most books on placer and lode prospecting contain chapters on mercury amalgamation.

While a copper pan will work just fine for panning, there are some drawbacks. For one, gold is not easily visible on a shiny copper surface. Although you could black a copper pan, the metal from which it is made is too soft, allowing rocks to scratch through the blackened layer revealing a streak of fresh copper. Take it from me, a newly exposed copper scratch seen through black sand looks deceptively like a stringer of gold dust, or flakes and can be disappointing to the prospector hoping to catch the glint of gold!

Another factor against copper pans, for general panning purposes, is that they usually cost three times as much as a steel pan of the same size.

Steel pans may be used for purposes other than panning. I use mine to dip up a cooling drink from the river, to serve as a wash basin, act as a lid to a frying pan -- and as the frying pan itself when I forgot to pack one -- and a plate upon which to place my sandwich and accompanying goodies. Plastic pans will serve similar purposes -- all but to cook with, of course. Never use a copper pan which has been used for mercury amalgamation for any of the above purposes!

Drop-Bottom Pans

Drop bottom pans are also called drop-center pans and are gold pans that have a bottom slightly deeper than that of conventional pans. They come in both plastic and steel. The Garrett Gravity Trap has a drop-bottom, as does the Keene plastic pan. My personal favorites for all applications, other than nugget shooting, are the steel drop-bottom pans produced by Keene Engineering. The deeper bottom of these pans makes a nice nugget trap. They also retain fine gold exceptionally well.

I prefer drop-bottom pans, without riffles molded into the sides because the panning process goes much faster. Extra riffles, while helping retain material in the pan, also serve to slow the panning process. A good panning technique will negate the need for extra riffles. This is especially true in the sample panning, or prospecting, stages. In this preliminary stage, prior to setting up recovery equipment, I must often do quite a lot of panning before I discover the area of greatest gold concentration. And believe me I donit want to spend more time at this than is absolutely necessary. I want to get to the gold recovery stage as soon as possible!

Odd-Shaped Pans

The Goldhawk is one of the most unusual on the market. It is not round but triangular in shape. It's light-weight, made of black plastic and easily used by someone who has never panned before. It is based on the "cow's horn" principle used by gold prospectors in Central Mexico.

The Mexicans will cut or saw a cow's horn in half and with a wrist-rocking motion, they "pan" their gold concentrates. The Goldhawk works the same way. It is a fine sample-panning tool but has its drawbacks for the clean-up process. Because of its unusual triangular shape, it is difficult to set down on rocky terrain and pour a bucket of concentrates into without it tipping over and spilling the concentrates, along with any gold that might have been in them. However, the Goldhawk would work well for nugget shooting.

There is also a square gold pan on the market called "Le Trap". It is plastic with extra riffles molded into its sides. I have seen people using them with success. It is a good sample panning and clean-up tool. Still, I prefer traditional round gold pans -- perhaps because these are what I learned to pan with.

The GoldHawk and Le Trap can be purchased at many mining stores and are often featured at gold prospecting conventions.

Whether you are a pro or novice, a little knowledge on the subject of our most basic prospecting tool, the gold pan, will go a long way towards helping you select a pan that will make all aspects of gold prospecting more enjoyable and comfortable -- which could ultimately mean "more profitable", as well!



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