Rockhounding ABCs – “Nice Tools if You Can Get ‘Em”

Rockhounding in Maine

“Nice Tools if You Can Get ‘Em”

Depending on one’s budget, your mode of transportation, your style of backpack or wagon, and the number of rockhounds in your party, a number of other tools can be helpful, and can be used depending on the locale, public versus private lands for instance.

One time we had returned from collecting geodes from a dried up creek bed in Southern Indiana. We had driven out to Southern Indiana, filled the trunk of the rental car with geodes (probably stripped the shocks on the back wheels of the poor rental car too), and drove back to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. We had a strategy, and tool in mind to crack the baseball to honeydew melon sized geodes, but we had one geode the size of a basketball, and no idea how to crack it. As we were driving through Manhattan, we saw some street workers repairing a section of street using a jackhammer. We were able to pull over and get the attention of the city workers, and we asked “Gentlemen, any chance you could help us out and crack open a giant geode for us please? We’ll gladly pay you.” The city workers looked at each other, and then told us to “get the hell out of here.”

So we decided to get our own jackhammer!

  1. A jackhammer is a very advanced tool, for use by more than one person, with all of the protective gear we have discussed already from gloves to earplugs to protective glasses and goggles. As alternative to the large upright jackhammer used commonly by city and construction workers is called a demolition hammer, sometimes a concrete breaker or electric jackhammer. They are still heavy-duty tools that require fully understanding the instructions, and adult supervision, goggles and protective gear, and more than one person to help out and act as a spot. However, the hand jackhammers are designed to be held up to crack rock at an angle as well as vertically, and for cracking a rock façade with seams and crevices, the hand jackhammer is the fastest way to expose new stone surfaces. They are electrically powered, so require a generator, something else to transport to your site.

“Points” to consider before Investing in a mini jackhammer:

  1. Consider your budget for such a heavy-duty power tool, and the gas powered generator that is required. Does it make sense?
  2. Consider storage of this large tool and generator.
  3. Can you lease a generator from a hardware store near your rockhounding site?
  4. Does your car or truck logistically accommodate a generator, and are the rockhounds on this adventure ready to haul this very heavy equipment.
  5. Power tools like an electric jackhammer can only be used on private property, if not your property, then with advance knowledge and permission asked beforehand of the property owner.
    1. “Diamond Tip” – For instance, we have hunted for geodes in Southern Indiana on the property of a personal friend from college whose farm is surrounded by acres of forest that contain an eternity’s supply of geodes. He allows us to use a jackhammer and generator on his property to crack open the largest geodes that we could otherwise not move. As well, when we mine for Herkimer Diamonds in upstate New York, we have access to a claim on private property. The land owners receive an annual fee to mine a specifically designated area in the spring and fall. With that annual fee and right to the claim comes the permission to use power tools. So the instances where one can use a jackhammer are not plentiful, but if they are allowed, the return in ease of moving and removing rock is worth the financial investment and sweat the jackhammer requires. The stone in which Herkimer Diamonds are found in upstate New York is very hard dolostone, similar to limestone. It has very few crevices, breaks, or cracks at the depth below underground where the “pockets” of Herkimer Diamonds are found. So the jackhammer allows on to break open a smooth surface of dolostone, and break it apart section by smaller section until you uncover a cavity filled with Herkimer Diamonds.
  • We have a friend who always carries half a dozen crow bars in his truck. Crow bars are very useful when prying apart a very large stone. As you crack open a seam in a large rock, you insert the crow bar to sustain the pressure. Then continue the seam and pry it open even further with another crow bar. By using multiple crow bars, one can open up and split a very large rock, into more manageable sections.
  • Some rockhounds prefer to carry a walking stick, like the ones used for hiking along trails. The terrain is likely going to be rough and rocky wherever you are, and if your rockhounding locale is on the side of a hill or mountain, or down a ravine, or along a river or creek bed a walking stick may be very helpful to help maintain one’s balance and coordination.
  • Specifically for geodes, the soil pipe cutter, an old hand tool used by plumbers and water department workers, can be repurposed into a very effective geode cracker. We bought ours off of eBay, and it remains at home for geode cracking after the geode collecting. It is a steel lever with a chain with teeth, and the chain would wrap around a water or sewage pipe, and then by applying pressure to the handles, and tightening a crank that tightened the pressure of the chain, a plumber was able to split apart water and sewage pipes. The same physics principles apply when you wrap the chain around a geode. With enough pressure the geode splits in half.
  • Simon & Schuster publish a series of books about identifying trees, birds, and wildlife. If you are rockhounding with kids, any of those books can help motivate and encourage some additional activity and curiosity in nature.
  • Rockhounding is a passion for men, women, and youngsters who appreciate nature, and natural beauty, and also satisfies a streak and desire for treasure hunting in many of us. The challenges that face rockhounds, such as dwindling areas where one can explore and rockhound, access to private property being limited and denied by land owners protecting themselves, are many of the same challenges that face our brothers and sisters who explore with metal detectors. Many rockhounds are fascinated by gems, minerals, and crystals, as well as fossils. Some rockhounds only seek out gems and minerals, but some rockhounds are also metal detector enthusiasts. If that rockhound is you, then pack your metal detector and toggle between detecting and rockhounding if you are in a local where both are applicable.

Rockhounds and Metal Detector Enthusiasts Unite!

Rockhounding ABCs – “Tools of the Trade”

rockhounding in Maine

“Tools of the Trade”

This section deals with the rockhounding tools suggested for most any surface, locale, environment. In another section we will deal with specialty tools that complement the following tools, but for quartz, pyrite, fossils, for example, these are the tools required. Please note that depending on the maker, some of these tools may be labeled or branded differently. The tool combo that every rockhound needs is a hammer and chisel. The technique of cracking open rock is to find a naturally occurring crevice or seam, and widen and force it open to split and separate the rock. Then find or create another crevice or seam and separate or split the rock as you work to find the crystal, or lack thereof. Another chapter describes rockhounding techniques in detail, but for every rockhounding adventure, follow these 3 rules.

  1. One of the useful hammers, depending on the maker, is called a drilling hammer, club hammer, hand sledge, or blacksmith hammer. This is the hammer that is used to pound the chisel into a crevice or crack as you separate rock. The face of the hammer is wider in circumference so you can squarely pound the chisel. This is the tool used with a chisel to break up rock, separate rock, and uncover pockets.    *ILLUSTRATIONS OF HAMMERS HERE*
  2. The other hammer we recommend, depending on the maker, is called a brick layer’s hammer, a rock pick, or a pick hammer. It has a slender head, the diameter of the head closer to the diameter of a traditional hammer, for more intricate chipping, and the other end is the “claw” which is useful to pry apart stone. This smaller hammer allows for more delicate pounding of the chisel, and can be used alone with accuracy to crack away rock or stone from a rock face.
  3. Chisels come in different sizes, and we suggest you carry two. The longer chisels can second in use as pry bars, to separate slabs, pry apart rock using the longer chisel as a lever. There is a smaller chisel that we recommend to be used with the club hammer (hand sledge) when you are faced with a smooth face of rock. The smaller chisel carries more force when you just need to get started breaking up rock from a fresh face.
    1. “Diamond Tip” – Another reason to carry two chisels is for the advantage when breaking apart a larger stone. After you are able to hammer the smaller chisel into the crevice or seam, to start separating and breaking up the rock face or outcrop, you leave that smaller chisel wedged inside the seam, and then take your larger chisel to pry apart the stone.

Rockhounding ABCs – “Rockhounds, How do you Carry All Your Stuff?”

American Geode

“Rockhounds, How do you Carry All Your Stuff?”

This section deals with the bags, knapsacks, totes, backpacks and other equipment that make transportation of your gear, and then your loot, as convenient and efficient as possible.

  1.  A backpack remains the classic, historically best way to carry gear when walking through the woods, uphill or downhill. A basic fabric backpack should suffice for any rockhound. One does not need the multi-pocketed style of backpack used for hiking, but of course if that is the backpack you have, it will more than suffice.
  2. We would venture that you have plenty of tote bags, or totes in your closet or pantry. Seems that every corporate, school, civic, or special event offers a free tote. These are ideal for rockhounding. They can be folded up into very small area and stored in your backpack, and then unfurled and opened up to transport your gems, minerals, fossils, or crystals. Canvas or vinyl tote bags are all terrific and can enable you to transport a lot of material back to your transportation. These kinds of bags, canvas and/or vinyl can also be washed in the washing machine once free of rocks and rock debris.
  3.  A wagon is an investment to consider. Not the Radio Flyer Red Wagon style, but the folding wagon, also known as a collapsible utility wagon or outdoor utility wagon. They have a canvas interior and fold up for transportation. This can be a very valuable complement to your rockhound ensemble if you are transporting a lot of tools, or carrying tools and supplies for youngsters, or just want a convenient way to transport minerals, fossils, and stones back to your transportation. A wagon is something additional to carry to the site, so consider in advance if you will be rockhounding at the frequency, and intensity in which a wagon would be helpful.
    1. “Diamond Tip” – We learned the hard way while hunting for geodes in Southern Indiana that the type of outdoor utility wagon described here is better than the Radio Flyer Red Wagons. While on private property outside a farm, we had discovered some very large geodes, and all our tote bags and knap sacks were full. The property owner suggested a wagon that he had in his barn. So he runs back to the barn, and when he returns he is pulling his kids’ Red Flyer wagon. We filled it up with geodes and started to pull it up the hill, when the two back wheels buckled and went flat, and one of the front wheels fell off altogether. The property owner planned to buy a replacement wagon before they notice it’s missing, and we all decided to buy a collapsible utility wagon before trying that again.
  4. When transporting crystals, or brittle fossils, protect them with newspaper which can be easily folded and carried with your other gear. Newspaper is also good for wrapping safely any delicate or small crystals you discover during the adventure.

Rockhounding ABCs – “Clothes Make the Rockhound”

American Geode

“Clothes Make the Rockhound”

                What you wear when out rockhounding is just as important as what you bring. Rockhounding is like hiking, star gazing, bird watching, or geo caching as one must be protected against the elements. Unlike those delightful past times and hobbies, rockhounding means you may be in a single spot for hours at a time, cracking rock, chipping rock, and dusting off specimens.

                One time we were rockhounding for garnets from an outcrop in Connecticut that was on the private property of a Boy Scout Camp. We called the Boy Scout camp weeks in advance to ask permission to rockhound there, and to find out what was the protocol. This was on private property, so without permission, we would have been illegally rockhounding, and at risk for a tangle with law enforcement. The Boy Scout camp director was happy to oblige, and shared with us that no power tools were allowed, and he asked for responsible rockhounding. We scheduled the date in advance, found out whom we needed to call if questions came up, and we began our preparations. We did not know where exactly the outcrop was, as the directions were vague, the Boy Scout camp was not actively promoting rockhounding or inviting rockhounds after all, but we knew it was at the camp’s exterior, and near a railroad track. So while driving around the outer borders of the camp we saw a break in the woods that lined the camp and saw railroad tracks. We parked on the side of road, on the camp’s side, and got out our packs and started to march to search for this outcrop. The directions led us to believe the outcrop would be visible if we followed the railroad tracks. We were ready for this walk, prepared in advance for the changing weather of the spring, the emergence of bugs, and the hand tools required. We came to a clearing in the brush and woods, thinking we were close, when before us we see a number of discarded Listerine Mouthwash bottles lining the path, and then some Popov Vodka bottles, and then some rubbing alcohol bottles, and then we arrive at our destination,,,,,an old abandoned meth lab!  There was the propane tank connected to various drums and barrels, out in the middle of the woods! We looked around, realized “yeah, this is a meth lab,” then we cursed, and then proceeded to walk back to the car. Rockhounding is not easy. We drove a little farther about another mile, and decided to search again. This time we saw the outcrop from the car. Since it was spring, the trees were still somewhat bare. We parked again on the side of the road, camp side, and with our packs marched toward the outcrop. This outcrop was very, very hard, but we saw the orange garnets on one of the exposed faces, so we were happy to have multiple chisels, both styles of hammer, and some crow bars with us. The matrix surrounding rock was so tough that we decided the best strategy was to chip away blocks of stone, concentrated as highly as possible with garnets, and then we would work on this stone back home.

                While we were hammering the chisels with our hammers, the noise emitted by both of us was quite loud. Then, in addition to the noise we were creating, we heard the popping of gunfire! We had read that this was a camp ground and firing range, and while we were not targets, and we were not hanging out in the range, we were in the vicinity of the noise. Prepared for this scenario, we had ear plugs in our packs, and were able to rockhound despite the noise we were generating, and that the gun fire was generating.

We did not recover garnets or crystals in this scenario, but removed stone for later work. We hauled back as many slabs as we could responsibly load into the back seat and trunk of the car without destroying the car’s shocks.

                Here is a list of considerations when putting together your rockhounding ensemble:

  1. Prepare for rain with a parka. They are easy to fold up and easy once folded up to store in your backpack. When cold outside, a parka also offers a layer that can warm you up quickly.
  2. Boots! Expect a rocky, rough terrain. Boots made for hiking, not just for walking, will be helpful as you find yourself balanced at different possibly awkward angles chipping away at a stone. The boots are protection against mud, snakes and other critters, and best bet for any terrain. We have bought our boots at thrift stores and over eBay to save a few bucks. Expect your boots to get quite dirty, and possibly needing to be replaced each season, so feel free to purchase second hand, used boots, expecting to wear them down quickly.
  3. There is a reason that jeans were standard uniform for miners in California. They are hardy, big resistant, easy to wash and dust off, and ideal for rockhounds. Jeans are the way to go, no matter the temperature. You will find yourself sitting in a hole, or in a pile of dirt or on the side of an outcrop. Stay comfortable and free from scratch or injury by wearing jeans.
  4. We prefer long sleeved as additional protection against mosquitoes and other bugs, and protection against the sun. Long sleeve t-shirt, with a short sleeve t-shirt over it is fashionable, and smart rockhounding.
    1. “Diamond Tip” – The t-shirts, long sleeve shirts, jeans, etc. that we recommend for rockhounding are going to get very dirty, very quickly. The lifespan of a rockhound’s wardrobe is lessened with each adventure. We prefer to shop for all these articles at the local thrift or second hand store as a result. Clothes, especially shirts and jeans are plentiful in nearly any size. If you need to discard a shirt or jeans afterwards, better for your expenses, and more environmentally responsible for it to have been a second hand article.
  5. Goggles, glasses, eyewear for everyone! When hammering rocks, shards will fly. Goggles, protective glasses, Blu-blockers or sunglasses are absolute requirements. Just like in shop class, please do not begin cracking away at stone without wearing protective eyewear.
    1. “Diamond Tip” – Protective glasses are a good option to buy in bulk. If you go on an adventure with a group, there will likely be someone who does not have them. These are necessary for the safety and responsibility of the entire rockhounding party. Please always wear protective glasses or goggles and insist your rockhound buddies do as well.
  6. Hat, chapeau, or cap. Whatever you call your headwear, it is a valuable asset your rockhounding uniform to help protect you from the elements, the sun, keep your hair out of your eyes during this activity that requires all your hand to eye coordination.
  7. Gloves are critical, whether they be industrial gloves, or fabric or cloth gloves that are available from any hardware store, or convenience and gas station store. Your hands will thank you, and your manicurist will thank you.
    1. “Diamond Tip” – A cost effective glove are the fabric and cloth gloves that are often found in the car supplies at a corner store, or any drug store or convenience store. They are a low price point, and you may want to have more than one pair to share with fellow rockhound.
  8. Ear plugs. This is a personal preference depending on your sensitivity to noise. Banging on rocks throughout the day, or using a jackhammer (extreme rockhounding), can be taxing to your hearing. Some rockhounds are not impacted by the loud noise and do not need them, but other rockhounds require ear plugs for comfort and precaution. Perhaps pack ear plugs as they are small enough to take up next to no space in your pack.
  9. SPF! Shield yourself from the sun any day you rockhound! You could be in the shade, you could also be in full sun, the entire day. Protect your skin beforehand with SPF (this is good advice for every day), and bring a small travel sunscreen for other rockhounds not as prepared as you are.
  10. A notebook and pen to help you record the provenance of your finds and discoveries. Another chapter describes in detail the importance of documenting your finds, and the additional value, sentimental as well as financial and monetary of documentation. Your cell phone is a great tool for this, but a small notepad and pen or pencil may be easier to use.
  11. Sometime a gem and mineral club can be granted access to rockhound around a working mine. If you are a member of a club, and your club has not explored this option, we suggest your leadership look into the potential for a field trip to a rockhound among a working mine, which requires their permission, guidance, and supervision. In those special instance, special gear is often required and that includes a hard hat, and boots with steel tips.
  12. A first aid kit is helpful for Band-Aids and bandages since you are using tools, cracking rock and stone, and are out in the elements, and susceptible to cuts and scratches. The first aid kit can incorporate the sunscreen we recommend, and hopefully is not needed if you are prepared, but a basic first aid kit is a good resource to have for any outdoors activity.
  13. When you are rockhounding along an outcrop on the side of a state or county road where rockhounding is permitted, consider a fluorescent orange or yellow mesh vest for safety. Pennsylvania for instance is a state where rockhounding is allowed (no rockhounding along federal or US highways or freeways), and while we are as far as possible away from the road itself, we wear orange and yellow mesh vests as a courtesy to cars driving by, with drivers interested in what you are doing (a common occurrence). Some public areas where rockhounding is allowed, are also areas where hunting is allowed. For instance, where we hunt for geodes in Southern Indiana, private property, acres off a private farm, backs up to a state forest in Indiana where seasonal hunting is allowed. We also rockhound in Texas and in Georgia, on private acres that also allow hunting. Wear a vest if you are rockhounding in an area that you believe is also used for hunting.

Rockhounding ABCs – “Supplies to Battle the Mosquitoes and the Flies”

Rockhounding in Maine Mine

“Supplies to Battle the Mosquitoes and the Flies”

When you are out in the wild, down in a mine, out on a hike, exploring an outcrop, and run out of a supply, or realize you forgot something, depending on where in the country you are, there will not be a 7-11, Piggly Wiggly, or Buc-ee’s nearby to make a quick run. With preparation however, you can rockhound uninterrupted, and be prepared in advance for the most likely scenarios, as well as the less common scenarios or challenges you may encounter.

Imagine finding an outcrop with a concave structure, like a cave but only about 10 feet deep of an interior. We found this structure one time in upstate New York rockhounding in an area known for quartz and pyrite. We flashed our cell-phone flashlight in the crevice and saw walls of quartz crystals. We had hit a jackpot. Then, like something out of a Harry Potter movie, a thick black opaque form started to rise. A giant swarm of mosquitoes! Fortunately, we had packed a plethora of mosquito coils, and were able to light a triangle of coils inside the entrance that dissipated the mosquito swarm, enabling us to take a crack at the quartz crystals in peace.

  1. Plenty of mosquito coils are necessary no matter the locale, season, or weather. Once can form a protective triangle around the area where you are mining to clear the air of mosquitoes and other pests. Even if you are rockhounding during the day time, the brush and underbrush and foliage is likely full of mosquitoes.
  2. Matches! The mosquito coils require matches, and lighting them may take more than one attempt if the day is windy, so pack many packs of matches (no pun intended).
  3. Mosquito repellant is still needed to protect you from what could be very harsh and aggressive mosquitoes, not your suburban or city style mosquitoes.
  4. Sunscreen is another requirement as chances are very good you will be out in the open air, in the sun, or overcast, rockhounding is an outdoors activity, and like most outdoors activities, sunscreen is recommended.