Can You Make Jewelry Out of Petrified Wood?
Petrified wood is among the most varied and beautiful fossils out there. With that said, you can do a lot more than just set limb casts on your shelf! Making jewelry out of petrified wood can be a bit time-consuming, but the end result is often well worth it!
Let’s go right ahead and dig in, with some suggestions for great jewelry you can make out of petrified wood.
Working With Petrified Wood
Before we get into some specific ideas, it’s a good idea to refresh yourself on the properties of petrified wood.
Petrified wood is generally close in composition to agate and chalcedony. It tends to be on the harder end of things, being notoriously difficult to cut and takes an incredible polish due to its density. Some wood is opalized rather than agatized, but it also tends towards the harder, more stable end of the spectrum.
This means most work with petrified wood should be done wet, with diamond tools.
Petrified wood bears the same risk of silica dust and the attendant problems as other silica-based rocks, so make sure you have a good particulate mask in addition to safety glasses when working with it.
Slicing petrified wood is usually done with a slab or trim saw depending on what’s available. I’ve had luck with cheap wet tile saws, but you’ll have to spend some money on a real blade.
Any drilling or carving should be done with a rotary tool of some sort. Flex shafts are ideal since they allow you to work in water without the risk of shock, but Dremels do the trick in a pinch.
A quick list of supplies and tools for those who lack them:
- Dremel– A battery-powered model is good but has a shorter working life, which can really stretch out a project. A corded model with a flex shaft with a corded model is your best option here.
- Flex Shaft– The linked model is one to attach to a Dremel. High-end carvings are usually done with professional-grade tools like a Foredom, but the shaft plus rotary tool is a good setup for beginners.
- Tile Saw– A real lapidary trim saw is best, but a wet tile saw will work to cut petrified wood as long as you get a good blade fitted. Here’s a guide on how to cut stones using a tile saw.
- Diamond Burrs/Bits– These are great for drilling and carving. Diamond bits are disposable items, so buy a larger set with some multiples for when the previous ones wear out.
The above will let you modify the stone in any way necessary to get your project done.
The key to grinding/cutting stone is to work at a low RPM, keep the material wet, and work slowly. Petrified wood is a time-consuming material, but the end result can be quite rewarding.
Utilizing Natural Forms
The natural form of some pieces of petrified wood is quite attractive. You can use this to your advantage when making a piece of jewelry simply by finding a piece that’s light enough to wear and remains pleasing.
One of the neater things you can try is cutting off the exterior bark of a limb cast and then setting it. You may or may not want to polish it, but it’s quite simple and doesn’t require a lot of tools to set.
You can either drill a hole with a diamond bit, or you can set the piece of bark with prongs.
Take a look at any piece you’d like to turn into jewelry before you slice it down. Preserving some parts of the natural form can take even a “boring” piece of petrified wood and allow you to create something truly special.
On rare occasions, smaller branches and twigs are sometimes preserved in a size suitable for jewelry. These can be drilled and hung from a chain or cord to create a pendant without requiring any further alterations to the piece of petrified wood.
You may also run into a piece that ends up making unique shapes as it’s slabbed due to the shape of the limb cast. It can be worth it to leave a bit of the bark structure on the piece to add some natural flair to the cut stone.
Sliced Limb Casts
Limb casts in the ¾” to 1 ½” range are awesome for making jewelry quickly. You can simply cut the limb down into pieces of ⅛” or so in size to create a simple pendant.
Slicing through limb casts can be time-consuming, and you’ll want a way to sand and polish the faces of the specimen after it’s gone through the saw. A flat lap is the quickest way to do it, but a Dremel with sanding discs is definitely up to the task.
You can also hand-sand the pieces to a high grit and polish with a leather cloth and cerium oxide. Just keep in mind that working by hand with petrified wood is going to be extremely slow, comparable to jasper or agate.
I’ve always felt this method is underutilized, especially since it can yield incredible results with the right wood. A limbcast of Arizona Petrified Conifer Wood can bring out great colors, while opalized limb casts yield an incredible internal structure.
It’s worth trying, especially if you’re planning on cutting down the piece of wood anyways.
Cutting En Cabochon
Petrified wood works identically to chalcedony and other microcrystalline quartz. That means it’s hard, dense, has few pores… and takes an awesome polish. A high polish is one of the prerequisites for cutting cabochons.
Cutting a cab with a Dremel is doable, but it will take time. You need to cut a slab off of the initial stone, then trace out your cabochon’s shape and liberate it from the rest of the slab.
If you want to set the cab be sure to get a good dome. Very low domes can be attractive for display specimens, but they’re problematic to set using traditional methods. High domes aren’t necessary, just make sure to get a great, even curve and a smooth, even exterior edge.
They can be set using any traditional silversmithing or wire wrapping method to make incredible, wearable art. Or you can just drill a hole and tie a lark’s head with a cord if you prefer a more naturalistic look.
Gem carving is an almost lost art. For every three dozen people who cut cabochons, there’s one rogue carver out there trying their best to create wonderful art instead of just displaying what nature left behind.
Carving isn’t as hard as you’d think. Petrified wood carves slowly, allowing you plenty of time to correct the course if you make a mistake early on. You can do it with any rotary tool or flex shaft and a diamond bit, just make sure that you’ve got a setup that lets you work submerged.
A Pyrex dish with a cut piece of dish mat on the bottom works well, just fill it until it’s ¼” to ½” higher than your piece of petrified wood.
Carvings can be set or tied in a lot of different ways, it just depends on the individual carving. If you take it into account when you’re making your initial design you’ll have an easy time of it.
Carving takes a bit of time to learn, but the tools are readily available these days and you can learn from other carvers online. The situation has much improved for would-be gem carvers from even a decade ago. Back then even YouTube videos on the subject were scarce.
Today? It’s a great skill to learn for those entering the lapidary arts and it can be developed to a high level with practice. Petrified wood is an excellent material to learn on as long as you have the extra time to carve it properly.
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