How to Carve Opal

opal carvingMany cutters still find it a mystery on how to carve Opal. Artistic carvings are popular for jewelry or specimens. Opals that suit pendants look fantastic and one-off unique carved pieces are popular on jewelry and many opal specimens that might be considered as paper weights are now popular with that extra bit of carving on them.

Boulder opal

Boulder opaI is one of the most popular opals for carving due to large sizes and unusual shapes and patterns in the opals. The opal can actually decide its fate just by looking at how it was formed and to follow colour veins in the ironstone.

Black opal

Professional cutters charge $50 to $100 per hour to carve good black opal rough specimens. It is worth paying extra to get professional finish on an expensive black opal, as opal colours can be tricky to follow and polish correctly

Black opals that have thin colour bars are hard to carve, but sometimes you will find potch and colours in swirl pattern and these are ideal to practise carving on as they are not expensive but if carved correctly they can make stunning specimen.

Crystal opal

These crystal opals are generally easy to carve and the size is not too large so the cutter can get the best polish.

Ethiopian Opal

Ethiopian crystal opal is easy to work with and most carvings have no potch but fully opal colours and easy to give good polish. Ethiopian Opal Specimens with Phantom inclusion inside can be carved to make unique specimen and they do look so unique on display and we are attaching interesting article on how phantom inclusions are formed.

Type of Carving

The most popular carvings are artistic carvings or tribal designs. Many designs that look like tribal designs are popular. Tribes like Red Indians, Eskimos and Aborigine designs are popular. The next most popular design is modern artistic designs that are found in nature, designs like shells or leaves.

Animal designs are not easy to do and most opal carvings with animals are made in Asia due to labour costs to make design.

indian opal head carving

Opal Indian head carvings are very popular. They are mostly carved into boulder opal due to the large size that is required, as most are few inches’ wide

Some crystal can be carved but can be too expensive

Its best to pre form shape of an Indians head and to polish before starting dremel drill

Boulder opal with good colour ironstone with broad section of colourful opal is best but if starting just ironstone is good to you perfect the drilling and polishing of this design.

You do require full range all lapidary drills from diamond tipped pointed drills to round burrs and for polishing you also require polishing wheels a s rubber disks to wool polishing tips

Also note the feathers require delicate work and are hardest part of this Indian head carving a s if not polished the result is burred look and you do need to put lot effort into carving and polished the feathers on this design

Equipment required

Standard saw blades and polishing wheels are required. Most opal cutters already have this equipment so they can rub or slice the opal into a rub ready for carving and polishing.

Also check that your air extraction works well when carving opal especially when drilling the opal colours.

Once you have picked out your opals that you wish to carve, you will need the following equipment:

  • Fixed drill out fit - Many cutters might have a dremel drill but for best results you will need fixed outfit that doesn’t move. It is important that you use both hands to hold the opal for carving.fixed drill set up
  • Slow speed electric motors set up to drill, or even old dentist drill is sufficient.
  • Diamond tip drills from 80 to 240 grit.
  • Coarse drills are only required on carving out ironstone but when you work with the opal best not to use under 120 grit as 180 should be ideal for more delicate work with drills.
  • A large selection of lapidary tools is recommended to make professional finish.
  • Sanding disks -These are required to help mark out your carving design and can even be used to cut small piece off your opal.
  • Rubber tipped drills -These are flexible tips made of rubber impregnated with diamonds and you need following grits: 80,120,180,280.
  • Polishing pads -It is very important to have large variety of polishing pads or sand paper as if you are working with boulder the ironstone it is soft and will require a lot more work than the opal so it is important to have high level of even polish.
  • Sandpaper grit can be 50 grit to 2000 grit and diamond tip rubber.
  • Final polish -Wool tipped drills are best for your final polish with polishing powder compound to give high polish.
  • How to make a fixed drill?

If you have a dremel drill, you can set it up to be fixed by clamping onto your bench. It needs to be housed also as if you are working the rub. The boulder opal can be very messy.

drill in foam box

Image is of foam fruit or vegetable box cased around drill. This drill is just standard electric motor with good water source and placed in foam box. An old dentist drill is also ideal, as it leaves both hands to hold and work the opal for carving.

The biggest mistake new carvers make is trying to hold dremel drill and carve and give up as the finish is not satisfactory.

The next mistake is never enough polish as you need a lot of patience and variety polishing wheels or sandpaper to get a good finish.

Drill grit is also important as coarse grit under 100 may cause the opal to chip and not give good finish

grinding wheel

Coarse grits are good for basic work and cutting away potch or ironstone but once you work with opal colours, it is best to use above 180 grit so as not to chip or damage the opal.

Many specimens do not need carving design before but best to clean the opal and follow the veins before deciding on a design

Opal carvings needs a lot of patience to get the good finish so please be patient and wear safety mask while carving with drill or polish wheels.

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