The early days of oilfield drilling were almost always done by the so-called dry hole methods – either hand dug, cable tool percussion drilling or rotary augers/scrapers. Hand dug wells using shovels and buckets were relegated to digging very shallow wells or enlarging surface seeps. Leonardo da Vinci, however, developed a hand-rotated auger that could drill several hundred feet. Dry hole augers were common in Europe while the percussion-tool drilling which was developed in the US, was the most commonly used drilling technique in the US.
Augers could only go several hundred feet deep, while cable tools could go thousands of feet. An excellent description of the cable tool drilling process and drill cuttings removal is found in the book; The Oil-Well Driller, A History of the World's Greatest Enterprise, the Oil Industry by Charles Austin Whiteshot, copyrighted 1905. The following is adapted from his description.
"In most places the well is spudded to solid rock and a wooden conductor is inserted to keep the surface ground from falling into the hole. In some places drive pipe is used to case off the quicksand.”
The drillings then were removed from the hole every few feet with a sand pump or bailer. These dry drillings wer dumped trough a hole in the rig floor onto the gound. They would then be washed away from the rig as needed.
Wet Hole Drilling
Whiteshot then reports that in some percussion drilling, about one barrel of water is put in the hole followed by the drilling tools. The walking beam is then used to raise and lower the drilling tool, mixing the water with the “drillings.” After five or six feet of hole was drilled, the drilling tools were pulled from the hole and the bailer or a sand pump is run in to remove the slurried drillings. This technique was normally used when drilling water sensitive clays.
“The bailer is a tube about 25 feet long with a dart valve on the bottom and a bail on top to which a wire or rope is attached. Bailers vary in size depending on the hole size. The bailer lifts the drillings out of the hole. The bailer is emptied or dumped through a hole in the derrick floor called the dump hole. The drillings accumulate under the derrick and some carried away by water. After the hole is bailed out and water is again put in and the tools are run in and hitched on as before.”
The above description was undoubtedly the common method of removing drillings during a cable tool drilling operations. It was sometimes called "wet hole" drilling to differentiate it from the "dry hole" method. The use of clay-laden fluids (mud) was not reported in either cable tool or rotary drilling in oilwell operations until after 1900. Muds may have been used, but were undocumented. From about 1860 to the end of the eighties, water well drillers were using rotary drilling and flushing the wells with water. By 1930 most oilwell drilling was the hydraulic rotary process. There are areas of the world, where cable tools are the most economical means of drilling.