Anyone Can Carve
So Says This Very Talented Husband-and-Wife Team
Story and Photos by James E. Mulkey

When Steve Hardies of Quartzsite, Arizona, urged me to pay a visit to Karen Bennett and her husband, Chuck, to take a look at their gemstone carvings, I expected to see the usual carvings of Greek goddesses done in jade. Boy, was I wrong!

Shown above left is small carving by Chuck Bennett of a mushroom made from a crystal of rutiliated quartz mounted on lepidolite mica. Center is a choker designed by Karen Bennett, with two faceted Brazilian amethysts, three Colombian emeralds, and an unusual piece of gemstone carved by Karen. Above right is a life-sized carving of mushrooms made from alunite, a gemstone found near Quartzsite, Arizona. The mushrooms are life-like in every detail, including the fluting under each cap.

Karen and Chuck specialize in creating unique carvings from the very best grades of gemstones. They use only natural gemstone materials, such as lapis lazuli, tiger's-eye, Montana agate, alunite, chrysoprase, dinosaur bones and rutilated quartz crystals, to form the exquisite creations that designers across the nation then use to fashion necklaces, pins, earrings and pendants.

Chuck recently embarked on carving a series of life-sized, realistic-looking mushrooms made from alunite--a gemstone that's found near Quartzsite. Alunite is an off-white color with splotches of bright red or brown as nature's accent.

The Bennetts exhibit their gemstone carvings at more than 40 rock and gem shows each year, traveling to places like Trona and Holtville, California, and, of course, Tucson, Arizona.

The carving of small pieces of gemstone material is much like carving and cutting cameos--a subject about which comparatively little has been written. And what has been published deals with techniques that are now outdated.

The Bennetts have devised new strategies and techniques for gemstone carving. Chuck and Karen use a dentist's drill. However, Chuck modified the tool by attaching two tiny hoses alongside the drill, so that both compressed air and water can be used to cool the work and to blow away any debris created during the carving process.

Prior to beginning a new carving, the Bennetts cut slabs to size, using one of the three slab saws they keep in operation almost around the clock, since they purchase most of their gemstone material in rough form. Some of their work, such as sanding and grinding, can be done on their Diamond Pacific Gem Maker, especially when making cabochons. However, the Bennetts use their modified dentist's drill for most of their carvings. The work is intricate and highly specialized, not to mention time-consuming. It's not unusual for Chuck or Karen to spend up to 20 hours on a single, small gemstone carving.

Karen, a graduate of the Cochran School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., says she prefers creating extremely small carvings, which she uses to make finished jewelry.

"More and more folks at the shows want to buy finished pieces," Karen explained. "They want one-of-a-kind necklaces of ultramodern design, using gemstones like lapis, sapphires, emeralds or even diamonds." The necklace shown at right was created by Karen from a carving of drusy carnelian, sterling silver beads and fresh water pearls from Japan.

I asked Chuck how he goes about finding a gemstone suitable for carving. His answer surprised me "Some of the time we collect our own material, after first locating a good gemstone deposit. For instance, we found huge quartz crystals that were buried 20 feet below the surface in loose soils in the central part of Oregon," Chuck said, showing me some snapshots he had taken of the dig. "We hired a man with a backhoe to do the digging. During the dig, we uncovered deposits of extraordinarily large quartz crystals not too far from where I grew up in Oregon's Willamette Valley."

"I got into the business as a result of my childhood experiences with my uncle, a lapidary who frequently took me with him into the field to dig for gemstones," Chuck said. "He also took me to rock and gem shows."

Shown at left is a polished slab of velvet peacock obsidian mined by the Bennetts in central Oregon.

"After Karen and I had our fill of digging for geodes, we drove to a spot south of Bend, Oregon, where my uncle had often taken me to collect obsidian in my youth. It was there that Karen and I discovered what we call 'Velvet Peacock obsidian' - an obsidian so colorful and so unique that we applied for, and received, a trademark for the name."

"At the time, I was working as a machinist, so I began to buy up used lapidary equipment that I could rebuild (such as the three slab saws out back) and also collecting gemstone material," Chuck said. "It was only later that we moved to Quartzsite and went into the lapidary business full time."

"The first thing either Karen or I do is to select a piece of rough cutting material that's suitable for carving, be it a hunk of sugilite from Namibia, South Africa, or agate from Montana," Chuck said. "Then we decide on a suitable subject. It might be a snail or an abstract design. At any rate, we form a mental image, which is released by the controlled removal of excess material."

Anyone Can Carve!

If you think that only highly trained artists are capable of gemstone carving, think again. Chuck worked for 15 years as a logger and machinist prior to learning how to carve gemstones. However, he always had a strong desire to carve. Maybe it was his childhood that convinced him that his life's work should be lapidary art, thanks to his uncle's early influence.

It took many hours of learning the techniques of gemstone cutting and polishing, and many more to learn how to carve and polish the tiny, exquisite pieces he and his wife carve from every gemstone imaginable, including citrine and amethyst.

At left are a number of Chuck's free-form carvings. The materials used include chrysocolla, malachite, alunite, azurite, cuprite, dinosaur bones, sodalite, rutiliated quartz, agate, obsidian, and opal.

Patience and a desire to learn were things both Chuck and Karen had in abundance Chuck from years of learning how to play his Hammond B-3 organ (the big one), a gift from his parents when he was 5, and Karen from learning how to paint and draw in public school and college.

By its very nature, gemstone carving is time-consuming, much like learning to play a musical instrument, but the end result can be achieved in a matter of days rather than years. To learn how to carve, it's not essential that you have a background in lapidary work, though it is helpful. Don't get the idea that your first attempt must turn out perfectly. As with every other craft, it takes time and practice to learn to carve gemstones.

The Right Stuff

At right Chuck displays a fine slab of colorful Arizona petrified wood. The Bennetts buy and use only the finest grades of gemstone material for use in their carvings

The selection of good-quality material is a prime consideration when getting ready to carve. Select a stone that's free of fractures and pits; after all, you wouldn't want your creation to fall apart when it's finished! For that reason, those gemstones most often used by both beginners and professionals include jade, jasper, agate, howlite, travertine, serpentine, rhodonite, quartz crystal, obsidian and opalite.

Let's say you've found a gemstone that seems suitable for carving. How should you test it for quality before investing time and money in a project using that stone? A good way would be to cut a cabochon or simple leaf from it, using a trim saw. Pay close attention to the stone's brittleness while using the trim saw and grinding wheel. Is the stone even in its hardness? Or does it have soft spots? Does it undercut when being polished? Does it easily fracture from heat while being worked? Finally, does the finished stone have the general appearance that's suitable for a carving? Does it keep its color when being worked? (Many stones change color when heated by grinding and sanding.)

Gemstones of the right size, quality and color may not always be available at your local rock shop. That's one of the reasons the Bennetts shop for good cutting material at every rock and gem show they attend, always hoping to find yet another prize. Locating material that's just the right color is especially important when, for example, you wish to carve a leaf with fall colors that vary across the leaf. Remember Keep your eyes open for multicolored gemstones, like petrified wood, in case you decide to carve floral or leaf designs.

Necessary Tools

Shown above is Chuck in his outdoor lapidary shop where slabs are cut. At left, Chuck is preparing a very large, high grade, chunk of chrysocolla-azurite-malachite for slicing in one of the three slab saws which he keeps busy 24 hours a day. Above right Chuck is inside his lapidary shop, standing beside a Diamond Pacific Gem Maker.

Ordinary lapidary equipment, such as a slab saw; trim saw; and grinding, sanding and polishing arbors are needed so as to slab, trim to size, grind, sand and polish your carving. Of course, you will need a Foredom Tool with a variety of interchangeable handpieces and chucks to hold carbide tips, along with an assortment of sandpapers, carbides and felt tips, in addition to discs for detail work.

At left, the dentist's drill in use. Karen is shown at right working on a small carving in the lapidary shop. She specializes in carving very tiny gemstones. More recently, she has started making finished jewelry using her gemstone carvings.

The Bennetts utilize a modified dentist's drilling outfit to do their gemstone carving, in addition to using a carving arbor and gemstone lathe. But, as mentioned earlier, they work at it full time. To get started, you can use a Dremel tool with a set of tips, felts and discs in lieu of the more expensive Foredom tool.

Conventional lapidary equipment can be used for much of the work in creating carvings. Don't get the idea that you need all of the tools described above to carve gemstones; for instance, having to buy a large slab saw, while nice, can be eliminated by purchasing your gemstone materials in the form of slabs. Many carvers work with only a small trim saw. It is possible to carve with only a simple, homemade carving arbor.

Sawing slices is the main use for the slab saw. While 3/16 inch is the standard thickness for cabochons, carvers of gemstones will discover that there is no standard thickness for cabs. Each sculpture may require a special cut, shape or thickness. A trim saw, or even a slab saw, should be used for much of the preliminary work.

A coolant should always be used with the diamond blade on your slab saw in order to lubricate your work and to prevent overheating of both the blade and gemstone. Any light oil can be used, although special products are available designed for just this purpose.

Once you have roughed out the size of your stone, use a trim saw to trim away any unwanted material. The trim saw is commonly used to cut out a pattern from a slice of stone, much like you would use a jig saw. It's common practice to use a .040 or .050 blade for the really tough jobs in gemstone carving.

Chuck sometimes uses his trim-saw blade as a grinding wheel, manipulating the stone in various positions against the blade. It is quite effective and fast; however, it takes practice so as not to destroy the stone's basic shape.

One or more grinding arbors, or wheels with adhesive grinding papers, are needed for use in grinding operations. Water must be used as a coolant at all times when grinding your stone. Either a silicon grinding wheel, a wheel with self-adhesive grinding papers or a diamond-dressed grinding wheel is used in shaping, carving and smoothing any cut marks left by your trim saw blade. Start out with a 100-grit wheel, then move on to 220-grit.

Three Basic Steps

Making a carving can be divided into three operations preforming with a saw, grinding and finishing. The grinding should take the longest amount of time, and leads to the final shape of the carving.

You can use conventional, as well as diamond-belt, -drum and -disc sanders whenever the design of a carving permits. Many of Chuck and Karen's carvings are sanded in some areas, using conventional sanding equipment, while small tools, such as their modified dentist's drill with a sandpaper disc or tip, are utilized for the balance of the carving. Most of the time, however, Chuck and Karen use their dentist's drilling rig with diamond compounds to carve, grind, sand and polish their creations.

Shown right are a few examples of gemstone carvings made by Karen including a green slug, which can be used as a pin, carved from high-grade chrysoprase from Australia with inserts (blue dots) of sugilite from Namibia; two green chrysoprase carvings of Australian material, two carvings made from lavender colored chalcedony, and two carvings including a heart shaped piece made from a type of chalcedony from Oregon known as "Holly Blue".

Yes, you can use conventional lapidary equipment for the grinding operations. For example, the flat parts or rounded, cabochon-like portions of a carving can be worked using conventional lapidary tools to both grind and sand. However, the more intricate carvings, such as some of the "chevrons" seen in the Bennetts' work, require the use of a Foredom tool--the Bennetts use their dentist's drilling rig--with appropriate attachments for grinding, sanding and polishing.

Three grades of sanding cloth, or tips for your Foredoom tool, are needed to complete the sanding job. The preferred sanding cloth is one that can be used wet or dry. Generally speaking, 220-, 440- and 600-grit meet most requirements. If you choose to use diamond tools, as the Bennetts frequently do, follow the manufacturer's recommendations regarding grit sizes.

Sanding should take up about one-third of the time you spend to complete a carving.

The final shaping of your carving should be done with small tools, such as a Foredom or Dremel tool. Any details that may have been ground or sanded away are then redrawn. Most of the detail on the Bennetts' human figures, such as face, hands and hair, is done using small discs and tiny abrasive points. Use carbide steel dental burrs for the pupils and corners of the eyes to make the results easier to see.

The equipment you need for polishing gemstone carvings can be mounted directly on your arbor or motor shaft. Slower speeds are needed for polishing than for grinding and sanding, and the polishing wheels are much lighter. Leather, muslin or hard felt wheels are commonly used, regardless of whether you are working with an arbor or a small tool such as a Dremel.

Frequently Asked Questions

One of the most common questions asked by the beginning lapidary is how much it's going to cost to get started. Except for his dentist's drilling rig and a Diamond Pacific Gem Maker, Chuck purchased used equipment and rebuilt the various sanders, slab and trim saws as needed. Remember Any hobby is going to cost something, be it golf, boating or big-game hunting.

As for space required for a workshop, the Bennetts, who live in a double-wide mobile home with their teenage son, had very little space. While a large, metal storage shed can be modified to make a lapidary shop, Chuck built one out of wood. For rough work, like slabbing and trimming, Chuck put up a framework of aluminum poles covered with plastic tarps (like the ones you see at rock and gem shows) to create an outdoor shop.

The "final touch," as the Bennetts like to call it, is the polishing operation. A choice piece of gemstone has been selected, its shape dictated by its size and configuration and, at last, the grinding and sanding steps have been completed so all that's left is the final polish.

The choice following the sanding operation becomes whether to leave some parts, or even the whole carving, natural. Some workers reduce a polish to a more subtle finish when it would otherwise detract from a carving's overall appearance. As a rule of thumb, if it has a shine in nature, polish it. If it has a soft finish, duplicate it. Some animal carvings look great with most of the area highly polished. A human figure requires different finishes; the face and hands require a soft finish, while clothing may be highly polished and the hair either highlighted or highly polished. A finish which best suits the subject should be your objective; oftentimes, though, the choice is up to the artist.

Shown at left are more of Chuck's carvings. These were made from amethyst, malachite-azurite-chrysocolla, Rocky Butte jasper, sugilite, rhodonite, dino bones,"concoxinite", covellite, sunstone, alunite, and Montana dendritic agate.

The Bennetts use a variety of shape-dependent polishing tools when producing their gemstone carvings. Just as a beehive-shaped, felt tip might be used on a Foredom tool for one piece, different polishing compounds are used on each carving, depending on the nature of the stone. A slurry of cerium oxide is one of Chuck's favorites, although Karen prefers some of the Rapid Polish compounds. Many times, however, polishing is done on a leather wheel, with chromium oxide as the polishing agent.

Keep in mind that each surface on one of the Bennetts carvings has to go through the grinding, sanding and polishing processes. That's one reason so much time is required to finish a stone.

The two main problems in polishing are caused by improper sanding or a poor-quality stone. That's one reason the Bennetts insist on buying only the best-quality material they can find. It's a heartbreaking experience to put a lot of time and effort into a stone, only to find that it crumbles or falls apart once you start the polishing process.

Finally, diamond cutting-tools, as mentioned above, are sometimes used to advantage by the gemstone carver. Diamond tools are replacing carbide these days and include the following diamond-charged saws, drills, mounted points and discs (on Foredom and Dremel tools) and sanding cloth. Of course, diamond is more expensive, but these products reduce the amount of time required for most operations.

There are other reasons, however, for using diamond compounds and dressings on a carving. They leave a clean, sharp cut and are available in extremely small grits and a wide variety of shapes. Really hard stones, such as sapphires and emeralds--both of which are frequently used by Karen--can only be cut using diamond tools. Such tools also allow the creation of minute detail in a carving, such as for a cameo.

Remember Always use a coolant when running diamond tools to prevent heat damage to your stone and your tool.

So, now that you know everything you need to get started in carving, plunge in. You may find that you're a natural at it!


Table of Contents

Bob Keller