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Miners are necessary to build any kind of fortress, unless you're planning on living outdoors like one of those foolish elves. Miners are dwarves with the "Mining" labor activated. To get miners to dig out an area, you must designate it for mining, and your miners must have picks available. Miners are also required for the construction of various buildings, such as wells, channels, and floodgates.
If a dwarf carrying a pick is no longer set to Mining, they will drop the pick wherever they happen to be and wander off to a different job. The pick will be retrieved by the next miner in need of it.
The rate at which a miner clears rock and constructs mining-related buildings is dependent on their skill level as well as their agility, which can be seen on their view->general screen. A legendary miner can cut through rock at roughly the same rate that a heavily burdened dwarf normally walks through the halls of your fortress, and is a joy to behold. Cutting through ore is twice as fast as cutting through rock, while cutting through gems depends on miner skill (and possibly attributes). A Novice Miner took twice as long to cut through gems than through rock; a "Very Agile" Accomplished Miner cut through both at about the same speed, and a "Perfectly Agile" Legendary Miner cut through gems 2-3 times faster than rock. The real-time rate of mining is dependent on CPU speed: a Perfectly Agile legendary miner, for example, can mine about FPS×2 squares per minute, or FPS×4 ore squares.
All mining yields vary depending on the material being mined (stone, ore, or gems/coal) and the miner's skill level, with a Dabbling miner having only a 25% chance of yielding anything useful - a Legendary miner will produce usable ore 100% of the time, usable gems or bituminous coal 62.5% (5/8) of the time, or ordinary stone 43.75% (7/16) of the time, and the yields from a less experienced Miner will be reduced accordingly.
The mining skill is unique in that it is the only civilian skill that can be used in combat. Because miners quickly improve their mining skill during the normal course of mining, and because they always carry their picks with them, miners are extremely useful for defense in the early stages of the game. Wood cutters also carry their battle axes with them at all times, but axes use a special combat skill that is not practiced while doing civilian work. Miners will use their picks as weapons if they are drafted while they are carrying picks, and they are not designated to use any other weapon (i.e., they are instructed to fight unarmed). Picks make better weapons than one might expect - basically, they are spears that do 30% less damage. During this combat, a miner gains mining skill. However, since Mining does not count as a military skill, your miners will become recruits and receive an unhappy thought unless they have received other training.
The material or quality of a pick does not affect mining speed, but it does affect combat strength.
A miner selects squares based on two different situations. When the miner is not currently mining, the square selected is a bit confusing. They seem to in most situations mine the westmost square. After the miner is digging, the next square picked is a random adjacent square to the mined square (not the miner). When there are no squares adjacent to the current square, the next square picked is the same as if the miner was not mining.
Bowyer · Carpenter · Engineer · Wood cutter
Brewer · Butcher · Cheese maker · Cook · Dyer · Grower · Herbalist · Lye maker · Milker · Miller · Potash maker · Soaper · Tanner · Thresher · Wood burner