Jewelry and Lapidary

Adventures in Gemstone Bead Making: Part One

I Started making gemstone beads after watching John Paulas (Africa John) hand make beads at Cloud’s Gemboree in Quartzite, AZ back in 1998.

He used a Dremel Hand Tool, a diamond drill bit, and a pan of water. So I purchased some drill bits from him and decided to try it out.

I already had the pan of water and the Dremel.

Now, the thing about this technique is that it does not use a drill press. The bead blank is held to the drill by hand. It takes some time to be proficient at this. You start out by drilling a depression in the center of your blank, and then plunge the drill bit in, once the center is established. I never mark things. I prefer to just line it center by eye. You cut a little way into the stone, and then you do the same to the other side. The idea here is that you are going to cut each side of the hole until the two sides meet. This also prevents “blowout”.

I, like Afrika John, when I watched him work, rotate the stone while cutting, both laterally, and rotationally. Now for those of you wondering if this cuts short the drill life, well I’m not sure. I’ve tried cutting holes with a drill press and it seems that once the diamond is worn away from the edges, the drill bit stalls. Of course this happens with hand drilling too. So I’m not sure. At any rate, I’m happy with this sort of drilling. I also don’t own a worthy drill press. This has to be done with water. You can dip the stone in a container frequently. The prefered method for wetting a stone is via a drip tank. Some cutters use a pressure bottle and the syringe needle to position a steady stream of water. I might try this in the future, but for now, my old handmade 5 gallon drip tank works.

So, in the old method for bead making, each bead blank is cut on wheels, like you would any cabochon. This is difficult to round perfectly.

Back in 1998, Africa John had an apprentice working with him. She proclaimed she wanted to make beads like he did, but only better. Since, at that time John was rounding beads the way described above, I think I now know what she was talking about. It is harder to get them round with your fingers so close to the wheel. There has to be a more precise way. While diamond wheels won’t often cut you, anyone who has worked with them know they can still grind through enough layers of skin to make you bleed. It’s best to keep the fingers as far away from abrasives as possible.

Following this experience with Africa John, I cut a hand full of beads this way, a strand of rough Oregon Sunstones, and holes in beach stones and cabochons. I will continue this sort of hole drilling in beach rock and cabs. But there is a better way to form beads.

Recently, it dawned on me: use the hole as the handle, epoxy a nail into the hole, and then you can easily shape the bead. One problem with this notion; you need to use a solvent to get the epoxy out. Heat isn’t enough. And on really wide beads, that nail isn’t easily leaving. I cut 4 quartzite beads that are now burrins because, well, what do you do with a quartzite and nail combo… use it to smooth metal, of course.

So, not a complete failure, but there has to be a better way.

So I searched for Gemstone Bead Making. Nothing relative came up. Until I discovered Daniel Lopacki’s videos on YouTube. There appears to be, as of yet, no other videos showing the handmade gemstone bead making process at all, just videos of bead mills.

Now I have been familiar with Daniel Lopacki through Lapidary Journal from decades ago. Not only did he advertise there, but he was also a contributor. And just by chance I happen to have the August 1998 Lapidary Journal, and on page 77 is an article entitled “Cutting Stone Beads” by Daniel Lopacki. I discovered this after watching YouTube.

So, what I discovered is his use of pin vises and the use of a jig for holding the pin vise completely steady in the initial rounding of the bead blank. Daniel uses a different type of lapidary machine. He uses a multiple wheel, whereas I use disk machines; so I had to think differently to adapt some solution to the Graves Cabmate. My solution is below.

This is made with an angle adapter and a piece of scrap aluminum drilled with one end cut to a taper. A small bolt with plastic tubing is fitted in a hole drilled near the end of the taper. The shaft of the bead holder in the pin vice rests on this plastic covered bolt. When held straight to the disk, the bead can be ground to the size dictated by the placement of the bolt. The added aluminum in the back, not only serves as a handle for moving the bolt closer or farther from the disk, but it can also be rotated 180 degrees to serve as a platform. The shallow standard screw is also bolted with washers to keep tension firm, while making bead blanks (bead blanking). This makes uniform bead sizing possible.

Daniel’s Bead Blanking Jig is an awesome concept, and I really must spent time reproducing and adapting it for use with vertical discs. I think it offers more control than my simple solution. But for now, it has increased my ability to produce gemstone beads by leaps and bounds.

One note about using the pin vise, Daniel uses bar soap to lubricate the bead shaft. He also uses a graphite spacer to keep the bead from rotating against the chuck. I have yet to try bar soap lube, and I don’t have access to graphite, so instead of graphite, I use small rubber discs that are found on flat washer metal roofing nails I purchased in bulk at a garage sale. If I didn’t have this I would probably make spacers out of scrap plastic.

Once the blank is formed, it’s time to shape it. I’ll discuss this in Part Two.

So I’d like to thank the late John Paulas for his exciting my fascination for handmade gemstone bead making. And I would also like to thank Daniel Lopacki for inspiring me to further refine my process.