From comments I have received there is still interest in cable tool drilling and cable tool rigs. Certainly, these rigs have nowhere near the popularity they once did. The rigs and the cable-tool method of drilling have become almost mysterious, judging from what I have heard. So I plan to write a couple more columns about the old, old Bucyrus-Erie 20W I had years ago. 

The 20W rig had a quality design and build. This was not by accident. The Bucyrus-Erie line extended and advanced the Armstrong Drill line, which went back many years. As I have written, Bucyrus-Erie bought out Armstrong Drill in the 1930s and about 1943 dropped the Armstrong name and built the rigs as Bucyrus-Erie. Despite good design and build, the 20W had a couple of weak points: the power unit and the mast. 

Powering the 20W Spudder

The 20W I purchased used was powered by a 4-cylinder Hercules Model IXA gasoline engine. Hercules built engines in Canton, Ohio. I don’t know if they are still in business. The IXA was a flathead engine with a displacement of about 113 cubic inches. Fuel was supplied from an overhead tank as I don’t believe this engine had a fuel pump. Ignition was by a magneto. When I bought the rig, it was crank started. This was not a bad deal, as it started rather easily in any weather — provided you had the right oil in the crankcase. The multi-grade oils of 2020 were unheard of. We ran straight grade 30 oil in the summer and 10 grade in the winter. If the weather turned quickly cold in the fall, you sometimes got caught with the wrong grade of oil, but that was not a big problem. Sometime after I bought this rig, I found a starter and generator for the engine. I built a battery box and now had an electric-start engine. Overall, the Hercules was a good engine.

This little engine had plenty of power for normal drilling. I remember seeing this rig run by its first owner, who bought it brand new. He was drilling a 6-inch well with heavy tools and the little Hercules seemed to do the job very well. The problem I encountered was with the carburetor. This engine had an updraft carburetor and, as I remember, its air came from an oil bath cleaner outside the engine house. Michigan winters often have dampness and humidity, causing the carburetor many times to ice up. This caused the engine to run at uneven speeds — slowing down then speeding up. Running cable tools effectively requires a smooth-running engine. If you open the side panel when this was happening you would see frost between the carburetor and the intake manifold. It was obvious some icing was occurring, much to the consternation of the driller. I have read this problem occurred in some aircraft engines of that era with great loss of power and disastrous results — a crash. I put up with this icing for a couple of winters and then got a bright thought. I was able to reroute the inlet to the air cleaner to a point inside the engine cover right over the head. This gave the engine warmer air to use and cut back on the icing to a great degree. When the weather warmed, I would replace this intake pipe to one that took its air from outside. The conversion was a simple job.

The engine house or cover had to be quite low to fit in the frame on the 20W, limiting upgrade options. If you wanted to go to a newer, more modern overhead-valve engine, you had to extend the frame. This presented all kinds of problems. However, in later years, Bucyrus-Erie did make the frame different so you could use a taller engine.

The little Hercules served me well for many years. Eventually, though, it just about wore out. It was the main reason I traded this rig for a newer-model 20W with a much more powerful engine. 

The Mast on the 20W

The second design flaw the 20W had, in my opinion, was the mast and its lack of strength. Early 20Ws had a 32-foot, one-piece mast made of steel in a box-like section. After a few years, Bucyrus-Erie offered the option of a 36-foot telescoping mast. My rig had this mast design, which I think later became standard. If you drilled small-diameter 3-, 4- and 5-inch wells, the 36-foot mast was none too high, and you really needed a 40-foot mast. Five-inch channel iron made up the lower section of the 36-foot mast. It was heavily braced on both sides with steel bars that ran 90 degrees to the length and diagonal bars between the crossbars. The upper section, while made from 4-inch channel iron and also well braced, was the problem. 

If your 20W had a casing reel — mine did — and you had strung up a two-part line you could lift about 6,700 pounds. A two-part line, of course, had a traveling block with one sheave. I think the manufacturer really intended the casing reel to lift sections of casing into a vertical position to attach to the string, or to lower strings of casing into the drill hole for grouting or another purpose. Most 20W operators I know used the casing line to pull casing driven into the ground or assist in pulling when bumping back casing. If you got a hold of a casing that was really tight in the ground and fully engage the casing reel clutch, even at part throttle, on the engine you could kink or severally bend the upper section of the mast. When I bought this rig used, it came with a bunch of tools and a spare (but ruined) upper mast section. The former owner said he had pulled hard and the mast just bent over.

Apparently, this owner had replaced the bent section and then bent slightly the replacement section. When my dad and I bought the rig, the bend in the upper section presented somewhat of a problem. Years later, we cleaned and painted the rig, which it needed badly. We took the mast apart and had that upper section straightened at a good welding shop. After we put it back together, we put a lot more care into how much load we applied to the casing line.

This aspect of the 20W needed improvement, and almost every owner of a 20W I have talked to agrees. The Speedstar 55, the 20W’s close competitor, featured an upper mast section the same size as the lower section. Drillers I knew who owned both told me the stronger mast on the 55 made it a much better rig than a 20W. I don’t think that this improvement was ever done to a 20W, although I haven’t seen a new one — now built by Buckeye Drill of Ohio — in many years. The poor mast design of the 20W did not detract from it being a solid, money-making rig.

We had a mild fall in Michigan and, as I write this in early December, my infamous lawn has gone from lush green to kind of a dead grey. It is, of course, dormant. I converted my trusty John Deere lawn tractor into my trusty John Deere snow plow — ready for the white stuff we know is coming.

It may well be 2021 by the time you read this, and we will be in the midst of winter here in the northern parts of the United States. Hopefully, the Covid-19 crisis will have improved. This dreaded affliction hit home this week for me when the wife of a dear friend and retired well driller died after contracting Covid-19 in the hospital where she went for a back repair. You have our sympathy, Dick.

Until next time, work safe and live safe so that you don’t come up with the dreaded Covid-19.

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