Widdershins Studiotm is a private lapidary workshop located near
Eastover SC, about 20 miles east of the Columbia, South Carolina’s capital
city. I am the lapidarist, aided by my wife Christine and -- much less often
-- by our Belgian Shepherd and dozen or so tabby cats. The workshop
shares space in our residence on 12 acres of secluded, wooded land replete
with a pond, geese, ducks, raccoons, opossums and deer.
I've been doing lapidary work intensively for several years, as a prime
avocation and a mode of relaxation. My main interest is in shaping and
polishing cabochons – domed pendants worn on a necklace or as a brooch, whose
perimeters are normally oval or circular -- but may also take on "free-form"
shapes and contours. My cabochons are made from a wide variety of natural
minerals, including obsidian, agate, jasper, jade, quartz and many other
interesting material types.
I buy my raw materials in the form of pre-sliced slabs from dealers and rockhounds,
usually from the Western states of Utah, Idaho, and Oregon – domestic
hotbeds of great lapidary rocks and stones. However, many dealers also buy
and sell much-sought-after lapidary rough from all over the globe – Brazil,
Mexico, Europe, India, and even Tibet.
I've been truly amazed to find out how many hundreds of varieties there are
of agate, jasper and other beautiful lapidary materials. Some distinctive
varieties are often found in only one location on the entire Earth.
Rough-cut slabs may be anywhere from 0.2 to 0.3" in thickness, and range
from small pieces only a few inches on a side, to larger slabs up to a foot or
more across. Cutting larger rough rocks into slabs requires large, specialized
(read expensive) slabbing saws. Because it's a particularly messy,
time-consuming operation, I prefer (at this time) to buy most of my slabs
The number of cabochons that a slab can yield varies greatly, since not
every square inch of the slab is necessarily usable or suitable for a
beautiful final piece. Nature is far from perfect, and one must avoid soft
inclusions, non-sealed fractures, bad voids, vugs, large pits and other
problem areas on the slab. Plus – more importantly – unique local areas of
pleasing patterns and colors fairly cry out to be selectively chosen for a
uniquely stunning final cab. This means that the surface will never be
"divvied up" in the most efficient way.
I lay out and mark the cabochon perimeters with a fine-tipped permanent
marking pen or aluminum scratch pen, using a steel template. These marking
templates contain calibrated (standard) ovals, circles and other shapes. For
example, some standard oval cabochon sizes are 40 X 30 mm (my favorite), 30 X
22 mm, 18 X 13 mm, and so on. For very dark materials, I may use a fine white
waterproof paint pen to do the marking.
I next trim out each marked figure, allowing some margin outside its
perimeter, using a 6" circular trim saw. This is like a cute little table saw
for a midget, but uses a thin, diamond-edged saw blade. (Normal ceramic saw
blades like the kind that you see in Home Depot do not work. In fact, all the
necessary equipment, tools and consumable materials are very specialized and
must be ordered from lapidary supply houses.)
The bad part of this trimming operation is that the sawblade requires
constant flooding with a special oil-based coolant – very foul-smelling stuff.
As the saw blade rotates under the worktable of the trim saw, it plunges
through a reservoir bath filled with oil and pulls some of it around with it
over the top again, onto the workpiece – while also slinging it all over the
human operator as well, since the splash guards are not very effective. There
is also a small feed vice and guide rail that can be used with this type of
saw, to allow it to do slabbing on very small pieces of rough. I've used this
feature from time to time, but it's limited to rough rocks and stones no more
than about 2-1/2" in diameter.
After washing the cut-out "preforms" with soap and water – and
remarking the cab outlines if necessary – it is time to begin the cab shaping
operation. I use a 6" horizontal polishing machine that uses a constant water
drip-flow as coolant. It is variable-speed drive, up to about 3,000 RPM. I do
the basic shaping of the cab perimeter and curved surface contours using a
solid steel, diamond-impregnated, 180 grit wheel. I do this by hand, and do
not use a dop
(extension) stick – I've learned how to keep my pinkies always just clear of
the rapidly spinning wheel surface – at least, almost always. I obtain the
curved surfaces using movement techniques that I can't easily explain or
describe. Suffice it to say that the touch and feel for this took a good long
time to acquire and develop fully. The technique used must also be adjusted
according to the hardness of the material, and whether it includes both hard
and softer minerals in the same cab.
With the basic shape of the cab established, I replace the unit’s hard
shaping wheel with new wheels, upon which are attached 325, 600 and 1200 mesh
grit diamond-impregnated sanding disks. These are adhesive-backed disks so
they can be replaced when spent. For final success, all grinding marks from
the previous shaping or sanding wheel must be fully removed before
sequentially moving on to the next finer disk. This takes time and lots of
The final polish is normally done using a wheel with a dense, hard cotton
fiber pad attached. The polishing is also performed wet, using either cerium
oxide powder (if a hard stone) or chromium oxide (if a softer material). To
get the best luster I can on softer materials, I sometimes use a rough leather
disk on the wheel, rather than the flat cotton pad.
If the final stone is a calibrated size, I may mount it in a commercially
purchased plated gold or silver hoop or clasp. If the cab is a non-calibrated
or a "free-form" shape, I'll drill a small hole (using – you guessed it – a
special diamond-impregnated drill point) and attach a simple wire-wrapped loop
and jump-ring to use with a necklace chain.
The entire process may take anywhere from 2 to 3 hours per cab. Considering
the cost of consumable items – for example, those 180 grit hard shaping wheels
run $80 a pop – and thinking about the man-hours involved -- it is certainly
not a way to get rich.
But when I view the natural beauty of the finished cabochon – I know it's
definitely a way to get happy…