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Prospecting Equipment

If you're new to prospecting, rockhounding, treasure hunting, etc, some of the equipment can look a little alien, and its use somewhat cryptic. Also, the line of distinction between one piece of equipment and another of the same type that costs more can be blurred. Here we'll try to cover the basics of each.

Gold Pan - The gold pan is as fundamental to gold prospecting as the shovel. While panning for gold in and of itself is a popular hobby activity, the gold pan has two main uses in prospecting and mining.

The first is to sample areas for potential larger scale operations. A gold pan is light, mobile and very efficient at quickly testing to see if a particular spot has gold.

The second is to clean up material concentrated by other equipment. Concentrates are the heavier material retained by larger equipment like sluice boxes, dredges, trommels, highbankers, etc. This equipment is great at moving large amounts of material and quickly developing concentrates, but it takes the finer touch of a gold pan or or other equipment to separate the gold from the concentrates.

For detailed panning instructions, visit how to pan for gold.

Classifier - Classifiers are essentially screens designed specifically for classifying sands and gravels into batches of the same sized material. Most classifiers are designed to fit a 5 gallon bucket or standard 14" gold pan, but smaller nested sets are made to classify gold and gems after they have been cleaned from the surrounding gravels.

Classification improves the efficiency of gold recovery, the speed of panning. In the field, the classifier is placed on top of a pan or bucket and material is shoveled in. Some shake, some submerge in water and some do a little of both, but the basic idea is to pull off the larger material in the classifier, letting the smaller fall through into the bucket or pan. Then the classifier is given a quick check for larger nuggets (always check your classifier!) and the fine material worked as normal. Classifiers come in a variety of mesh sizes and you will need to determine what you prefer for how you work.

Sluice Box - The sluice box is one of the most popular pieces of small-scale mining equipment available. Material is fed in one end, washed over a series of riffles by running water and either settles behind the riffles or washes out of the box. We have an excellent reference under sluice box use and set up.

Snuffer/Sniffer Bottle - If you've never seen one used, you may wonder just what the heck this thing is, but it's also an extremely handy piece of equipment. The snuffer (sniffer, sucker, etc) bottle is used in place of tedious tweezers, match sticks, wet finger tips, eyedroppers, etc to get fine gold out of your pan. The bottle has an angle cut straw that extends into the bottle, so once material is sucked in, it doesn't fall back out.

Use is pretty simple. Squeeze the bottle to squirt water and move material around in your pan and release the squeeze (under water) to suck material up into the bottle. Once you're back at home in a controlled environment (over a clean pan on a table or counter top) you can remove the straw, replace the funnel shaped cap and tip into a vial filled with water. Shake and your gold will move from the bottle to the vial. Top up the vial with water so there's a nice bulge on top and replace the cap. The extra water helps prevent bubbles.

Some notes here: Always transfer gold to vials in a controlled environment. A pan teetering on a large rock by the side of a stream is not a controlled environment and will eventually lead to lost gold, broken vials and other headaches. Have some water in the clean pan and always place the straw in the pan while you transfer gold. Quite often I've found gold that had been stuck to the straw in my pan and simply sucked it up again and transferred as described above. Always use a vial that is full of water or you may lose some gold in shaking. Lastly, the bottle end does not fit in a 1/2 dram vial.

Vials & Display Cups - These are pretty straightforward. You put your gold, gems, coin finds, etc in 'em and show off to your friends. The display cups are perfect for little nuggets and pickers and the vials are great for the rest, even providing nice magnification when liquid filled. Just don't drop them on a rock! Keep your gold in your snuffer bottle while on the stream or in the field. Glass breaks and little vials and cups get lost.

Loupe - The jeweler's loupe (loop) is a folding pocket magnifier that's great for examining mineral specimens, gemstones, etc. The main distinctions between loupe types are the magnification, size and most importantly the optics.

"10x" means 10 times magnification - plenty for most prospecting, mining, gem hunting/grading and coin hunting activities. Higher magnification is a trade off of viewing area, smaller the higher you go with magnification.

"21mm" means the lens is 21 millimeters across. Anything from 17mm to 21mm is pretty reasonable.

Optics is where the quality and dollar signs change rapidly. A singlet loupe has a single lens, a doublet two and a triplet three, more or less obvious from the names, but it really translates to image quality. To get the same magnification with a single lens requires the total focal length from a single piece of glass (it's very rounded). A triplet on the other hand can divide that focal length out between the lenses (less rounded).

The advantage of a single lens is that it's relatively cheap to manufacture. The trade off is that the image becomes distorted towards the edge of your viewing area and colors can actually distort as well. Triplets are more expensive to manufacture, but have far less distortion of both image and colors.

Crevice Tool - A crevice tool can be anything from a screwdriver, to an old bent spoon, to the professionally manufactured crevice tools we carry that are designed specifically to scrape material out of small cracks and crevices - the places gold loves to hide.

Brush - When prospecting dry bedrock, scraping cracks and busting up decayed, fractured stone, the material, while rather small in volume, can be pretty rich, so it's common to carry a brush to sweep up the material. Some people use a stiff paintbrush and others a wire brush, even toothbrushes make their way into prospecting kit bags. Stiff paint brushes aren't all that stiff and wire brushes leave behind wire bristles that will set off you friends' metal detectors, so we started carrying our version of a bedrock brush. Still, in the end if it sweeps, it'll work.

Rock Pick - A rock hammer on one side and a pick on the other, the rock pick is one of the most common tools in any rockhound's bag. Used to dig, break specimens out of the matrix (surrounding rock), crack quartz samples, etc, the rock pick is multi-function tool in a small package.

Pry Bar - The pry bar is used to break open cracks in bedrock, scrape cracks, dig hard packed material, break apart strata looking for fossils, etc. A good pry bar is an ever handy prospecting tool.

Underwater Viewer - Most commonly used for nugget sniping, an underwater viewer can also be used to keep an eye on your dredge partner, view fish in their natural environment, pinpoint a target while metal detecting in the water, look for relics, sharks teeth and fossils in clear water, etc. The viewer lets you get up close and personal with what's resting on the bottom. Many a nugget has been found with little more than a viewing scope, a pair of long tweezers and a ping-pong paddle to fan away loose gravels and reveal the good stuff.

Pick - Picks are a standard digging tool among prospectors, rockhounds and treasure hunters alike. Weight, durability and size make a difference in choosing a pick. For most uses, something that is easy to pack in and can be swung with one hand, from potentially awkward positions will be the best choice. A full sized pick is for more serious digging in the same hole for days on end. Even then, room to swing can be hard to come by. We recommend a lighter weight half-length pick like the Estwing GEO/Paleo Pick we carry.

Treasure Scoop - Plastic treasure scoops are excellent for digging targets while detecting, as well as feeding sluice boxes or recirculating equipment. The plastic will not set off your detector and the deep bowl of the scoop is less inclined to lose material than a garden trowel. Loss of material while sluicing can mean loss of gold...

Digging Knife - A digging knife is commonly used in both gardening and metal detecting, and for the same reasons. Imagine planting a tulip bulb near your favorite maple tree. You have the same sod and roots to contend with as you do digging a silver coin. Most digging knives/digging tools used in detecting have at least one serrated edge for cutting a nice plug in the sod and slicing through tree roots, etc.

Super Magnet - A super magnet placed on the end of a pick can be a fantastic aide in metal detecting. These powerful magnets pick up iron targets, sometimes right out of the ground, and out of your way. Another pass with the detector and you know if your signal was true.

Suction Dredge - A dredge works by pumping water under pressure through a venturi located at either end of the dredge's suction hose. The venturi is both smaller than the diameter of the suction hose and angled away from the suction end, back towards the dredge. The high pressure jet of water sent back up the hose creates suction at the working end of the suction hose.

Most suction dredges use either a suction nozzle or a power jet. The primary differences are which end of the hose is generating the suction (is it pushing material up the hose or pulling it up), whether the hose needs to be primed and remain full of water during operation and how many hoses you're dealing with under water. That's about as simplistic as you can get, but the practical translation is that the self priming suction nozzle works best for smaller dredges operating in shallow waters, while power jets are best on larger dredges running in deeper water where they take the extra hose and piping out of the way. Some would say the power-jet is more efficient, but dredge size and water depth are the main criteria.

Note: Most states require a permit to operate a suction dredge. Check your local regs.

Highbanker - A highbanker or highbanker/dredge combo is generally a sluicebox mounted on legs with a hopper at the top end. The hopper is equipped with spray bars for washing material and a grizzly (set of parallel bars) for classifying off the larger rocks. A pump is attached to send water through the spray bars and material is shoveled directly into the hopper. Because the system washes, classifies and concentrates the material (via the sluice box), and can be fed directly with a shovel (or small loader on larger models), the highbanker can process a lot of material in a relatively short time.

The name "highbanker" comes from where they are usually operated - out of the water up on the "high bank" where material often requires washing to free the gold from the surrounding dirt, clay etc. Because the water flowing out of the sluice is often extremely dirty, many states require use of a settling pond when running bank material. Material from the wet portion of the stream may not have this requirement, so the highbanker can be run as a power sluice.

In any case, check your local regs. In some cases a special permit is required for operating a highbanker.

Rocker Box - coming soon

Drywasher - coming soon

Metal Detector - coming soon

Concentrator - coming soon

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By: Randy in California
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