Well, readers, I am back to one of my favorite subjects for this edition of the “Let Me Tell Ya” column: the cable tool method of drilling and cable tool rigs. At one time, cable tool, or spudder, was the predominant method of drilling water wells in Michigan. In 2024, this method is not nearly as popular as it once was, but cable tool drilling is still done in this state. 

The Tried and True Cable Tool Drilling Method

Almost every water well contractor I know has one or two cable tool rigs in their inventory, along with mud rotary and other types of drilling machines. I was recently told by a very successful contractor, who I believe has three cable tool rigs in his inventory, that this method is somewhat fascinating to younger drillers — fellows in their 20s and 30s. They seem pretty surprised that a good well can be made with a cable tool rig almost as fast as can be done with a rotary. Young drillers are learning that the method of drilling is not what determines whether they do a good or bad job — the skill and determination of the driller is what’s most important.

A Blast From the Catalog Past

A few months ago, I got a call from a man in Colorado whose father had been a water well contractor and drilled by the cable tool method. This man wanted to make a model rig to present to his father and was really interested in seeing what the control levers on a Model 20-W looked like. He asked me for help, and I found an old 20-W catalog with a good picture of the controls. I was able to send a copy to him, which I hope helped him out. I also found a copy of an older catalog for a 22-W, the next larger rig to a 20. 

In the heyday of cable tools, these were very popular rigs. If you were drilling 3” and 4” wells with an occasional 6”, the 20-W was ideal. If you were drilling commercial wells up to and including 10” (a not very popular size), a 22-W was your machine. They were both built by a company that is now out of business, but one of their former dealers will rebuild your 20-W or 22-W to like-new condition. 

I decided to leaf through these older catalogs just to refresh my memory as to how they were built and what their capabilities were. In the case of both rigs, I found a statement that kind of shocked me. The statement was, “The derrick should always be supplemented with guy lines for added stability.” 

Both of these catalogs showed pictures of rigs set up and operating. Much to my surprise, many had guy lines going to the top of the derrick. The derrick or mast of a rig is also sometimes called the boom — all of them are pretty much vertical steel structures with diagonal bracing for strength and steps so they can be climbed. I must admit that I have never seen a single 20-W or 22-W operating in Michigan with mast guy lines. 

The Many Differences in Drilling Equipment Parts

Even more impressive in the 20-W catalog was a list that included 60 different parts and tools furnished with each rig. This included a funnel to fill the gas tank, seven different wrenches to adjust the machinery, including the crank pin, a grease gun, and an oil can, and assorted other things besides the rig itself. What really caught my eye was that four stakes with plates, four steel guy lines — each 85 feet long — and 16 - 5/16” cable clips plus 4 - 12” long turnbuckles were also included. These items were the guy lines mentioned elsewhere in the catalog. 

As I mentioned, many of these rigs shown operating had guy lines to the top of the mast, but some rigs had four lines, some had three, and one had two. It looked like the two-guy line rig had one going straight forward and one straight rearward. There were also several rigs shown without guy lines. 

To me, what is really interesting is that using an 85-foot guy line on a 20-W, which had a 36-foot mast by triangulation, the line would go out 70 feet from the rig. With four guy lines, this meant that the stakes to hold them would be in a 140-foot diameter circle. On the small lots where many residential wells are drilled in Michigan, this would put the guy lines a couple of lots away, and I don’t think those lot owners would appreciate the lines and stakes. 

My point is, why didn’t I see any 20-W with guy lines to the masts? The 22-Ws that were pictured pretty much had four guy lines — nothing was said about the length of those, and there was no listing of parts included with the rig. A real expert in this method has said that guy lines would really strengthen a mast. I must agree with him, but I have just never seen it in my area.

If we go to the larger rigs made by this company — and there were four sizes, each with more outstanding capabilities — then I could see where guy lines would be necessary. I have a hard-bound book about the history of this manufacturer, and it shows all of their bigger rigs. For each rig, the pictures all show those masts supported by not four but eight guy lines. Four of these were attached at the midpoint of the mast, and the other four at the top. 

In some of the pictures, it was not clear, but it looked to me like some of the rigs had 12 or 16 guy lines. In one picture, a large rig had been used to pull tubing from an oil well — there were many thousands of feet of this tubing in what looked like 40’ sections; they were stored against the mast until put back down the well. The author of this book, a professional engineer with a drilling background, said about this picture, “In this case, guy lines are very important.” 

Well, now you have read my story on guy lines, and it appears that even an old dog like me can learn something. If you are setting up a spudder for heavy work, no matter what size rig, I think it would be good to include some guy lines. 

How’s the Weather?

As to my monthly weather report, we had really heavy snow several weeks ago here in Michigan and then some cold, cold weather — the chill factor was way below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. 

As I write this on the first day of February, we have only a few piles of snow where it was pushed, and if my lawn were growing, it could be mowed. The secondary roads are a total mess, with breaks and potholes. On the gravel roads, you would be best off with a track-type vehicle — there are that many holes. 

Until next time, continue to work hard, above all work safely, and take some time to relax every once in a while.