If you’re thinking of starting a new hobby and have a knack for collecting pretty stones, why not try out lapidary? Lapidary is the art of shaping, cutting, and making jewelry out of semiprecious or precious gemstones.
Dealing with gemstones involves a lot of tools, so before dipping your toes into lapidary waters, you need to be familiar with the needed equipment. We prepared a guide of the best lapidary equipment for beginners, as well as all necessary accessories and tools.
Lapidary Equipment for Beginners (The Essentials)
Just like any other hobby, having a designated space for the tools and equipment will help you stay organized, and enjoy your time. Most of the equipment is loud, so make sure to pick a place where the noise won’t bother your neighbors.
1. Organization – A Place to Put Everything
Setting up a workbench (or a couple) for your tools should be your first step. It doesn’t have to be a fancy workbench, you just need a sturdy table, preferably with drawers to keep your small tools in and a large surface area.
As your precious rocks collection grows, you might want to invest in divided containers to keep matching rocks together, and away from other harsh stones and crystals.
2. Trim Saw or Slab Saws
Not all rocks and gemstones are sized equally, so when it comes to cutting your rock collection, there are two types of saws you’ll need; a trim saw and a slab saw.
A trim saw has a small, thin blade, that is made for cutting small stones into smaller chunks, or for creating a flat edge for a cabochon. Hi-Tech’s Diamond Trim Saw is a good starter option.
A slab saw has a larger and thicker blade, making it suitable for trimming down rough rock slabs, or large stones that won’t fit into a trim saw. This slab saw option has a vise to help you trim the rock safely.
3. Rock Tumblers
A tumbler is one of the must-have equipment in your workshop. There are two types of tumblers: rotary and vibratory, but both serve the same purpose of polishing and rounding rough stones.
Rotary tumblers are barrel-shaped and rotate slowly to polish the rocks inside with the help of other rocks and abrasives. We recommend getting a single barrel beginner-friendly tumbler like Lortone 3A Single Barrel Tumbler.
Vibratory tumblers (or vibes for short) take much less time to polish up stones and maintain the original stones’ shape. Vibes have a container that shakes the rocks rapidly, the shaking causes friction which in turn polishes the rocks. If you’re interested in trying out a vibe, Raytech’s Vibratory Tumbler is a good start.
When working with a small number of rocks that don’t fill up your tumbler’s barrel, you’ll need to use filler. You can use ceramic fillers or plastic fillers, both provide cushioning and extra polish to your stones, without damaging them.
This kit here has enough filler and grit for the 4 stages of your tumbler.
4. Cabbing or Cabochon Cutters
If you’re opting for rounded cabochons fit for pendants and accessories, then you’ll need a cabbing machine.
Cabbing machines consist of a station that has one or multiple grinding wheels with different grits. Some may even come equipped with a saw to make the cabbing process easier by giving stones a flat back.
However, you can always get a machine with one grinder wheel and have a belt for each cycle. You’ll mainly need grinding belts and a polishing belt.
Machines with multiple grinding wheels can be a bit pricey for beginners, so we recommend getting a simple slanted cabbing machine.
5. Faceting Machines
These machines consist of a mechanical arm, lap, and a water cooling system. The mechanical arm is where you fasten your gem and adjust its angle according to which type of cut you’re going for. The lap is a disc that can be changed out according to which grit you need and is kept cool using a water drip system.
This option by TBVECHI is a good option for beginners, however, it doesn’t come with a drip system, but you can easily work around this by using a wet sponge on the lap disc before faceting.
If you want to cut down on equipment costs, you can use a faceting machine to make cabochons. However, you can’t use a cabbing machine to make facets.
6. Flat Laps
These are the budget-friendly alternatives to faceting machines, and some people even make flat laps at home. A flat lap is a grinding disc on top of a spindle, usually with a setup water drip system. Laps can be ergonomic to make the grinding process easier, or horizontal.
The grinding discs have different levels of abrasiveness for each phase of faceting. A coarse disc is used for the initial shaping, which is swapped out later on for a finer-grit disc for polishing.
Some discs are available in a magnetic form to be easily swapped out. However, we don’t recommend using magnetic discs at high speed as they could fly-off.
A good option for a flat lap is Hi-Tech’s All U Need Machine, which comes with multiple disc options for you to try out.
7. Rotary Tools and Dremels
Carving intricate shapes and details onto stones will require a rotary tool or a Dremel. Most models come with different attachments for carving, grinding, and even polishing to touch up your pieces.
Rotary tools are perhaps the most flexible of all the tools because the bits and burrs can be easily swapped out.
You can opt for a diverse set like the Dremel Rotary Tool Kit, this kit has all the different accessories you could need, along with a handy LED light.
8. Dop Sticks and Wax
These are a must-have if you’ll be cabbing or faceting your stones. Dop sticks are essentially wooden sticks with globs of wax on one end.
When heated, the wax becomes malleable enough for you to stick your stone’s base to, and once you’re done shaping your stone you can simply heat it again to release the stone.
However, you can also use a wooden dowel and wax or 5-minute epoxy to fix the gem in place.
They prevent injuries, as well as provide a grip on your stone for easy shaping. We recommend watching a tutorial to understand how they work.
9. Polishing Tools
Even after buffing and polishing your rocks with the different attachments your equipment may have, they might still need an extra step to make them shine bright.
Burnishing powder or polishing powder is often used in tumblers to give an extra shine to stones that may be covered with fog or water residue. The amount of burnishing powder will depend on how many stones you have per batch.
Some types of stones will only require some buffing with a polishing cloth or even a piece of denim.
Buffing and polishing belts, wheels, and bits and burrs are also readily available as accessories for grinders and rotary tools, so make sure to take advantage of them and make those rocks sparkle.
10. Lapidary Accessories
A workstation isn’t complete with the appropriate accessories to help you with making the best out of your gemstones. These a few more additions to your cabinets to make your lapidary experiences a breeze:
- A colander to wash your stones off before using them
- A magnifying glass or loupe, also known as jeweler’s eye, is your best friend when examining your collected specimen for damage or patterns. Read my article about the jewelers loupes that I recommend.
- Cabochon templates, are plastic or metal stencils of different shapes and sizes of cabochons to guide while cabbing and help you create uniform shapes
Dealing with saws, grinders, and stones needs the proper gear to keep you safe and sound, here’s a list of some essentials you’ll need:
- Safety goggles to avoid any flying shards or stone dust
- A finger guard or finger guarding tape. These are optional but help with avoiding blisters while cabbing or faceting
- Safety gloves, this is a must when using any type of saw or drill bits
This list is mostly for guidance, but you should follow the full safety regulations while working with power tools. This includes electric, mechanical, occupational, and chemical safety. Keeping your work area well ventilated, properly lighted, and comfortable are also important considerations.
Lapidary Books to Get You Started
If you’re looking for good books to polish up your knowledge about lapidary, we’ve got you covered with our list of beginner-friendly books and guides.
Gemstones and Minerals Identification and Uses
Curious as to what types of stones are out there? This illustrated guide will help you identify the different stones you collect, as well as what type of technique suits them.
If you’re looking for a handbook on all things rocks and minerals, the Smithsonian Handbook: Rocks & Minerals is also a great read.
How To’s and Guides
This book has all the different lapidary techniques covered and provides detailed instructions for each technique. Not only is this suitable for beginners, but it’s good to keep around for any needed memory jogging.
The Art of Gem Cutting is a valuable addition to your reading list when starting out. Guiding you through the entire process from buying the stones to the final polish.
Starting a new hobby as intricate as lapidary may seem intimidating at first, but once you know the different tools out there and how to use them, it’s just a matter of building up your workshop one tool at a time.
We know lapidary equipment can be a bit pricey especially when you’re just starting out. If you feel overwhelmed with all the choices, we recommend starting out with a simple tumbler, or this all-in-one workbench equipped with a trim saw, grinder, polisher, and a flex shaft.
We hope our handy little guide helps you carve your way into lapidary with ease!