Alternate Materials I: Stone

by Chuck Holcomb

I don't know if you woodworkers in the group realize it or not, but there are some other materials available to you, which you can use your woodworking tools on, and create some really unique minis.

For instance, have you ever considered using stone to make a miniature vase, floor tiles, sculpture, bowl, tabletop or lamp? While "stone," as a generic material, *is* a relatively hard substance, there are a couple of minerals which work quite readily with some very simple tools. Two of the most common are soapstone (steatite/talc) and marble. Of these, soapstone is the easiest to work and to obtain.

IMPORTANT: Working in stone produces dust and larger particles which can be hazardous to your lungs and eyes. ALWAYS wear eye protection and a dust mask when working with stone! NEVER say, "I'll just do this one thing without it..." it only takes one tiny stone flake to blind you forever.

Since it is the easier of the two to work, let's look at soapstone first. This soft, "greasy" feeling mineral can be purchased at rock shops, art supply stores, from the back of magazines like Lapidary Journal, some craft stores, rock and gem shows, and even at hardware stores! In your local harware store take a look near the lumber crayons ("keel"), chalklines and the like, and you will often see little, light green, flat slabs of material, about 1/2" wide, 1/8-1/4" thick and about 4-6" long. This is soapstone, which is sold as a marking implement, primarily for marking on metal. Soapstone is so soft, you can work it quite readily with any kind of knife, a nail file, sandpaper, dental picks, or even your fingernails! It takes a beautiful shine, using nothing more elaborate than sandpaper, and then you can see the true beauty of this mineral. Some varieties of soapstone have beautiful flecks and veins of brown, green, gold and even some muted reds in them.

The marking sticks of soapstone would make beautiful stairs, tile floors or tabletops. You can easily cut soapstone with just about any kind of saw, but I would recommend either a fine-bladed hacksaw or, better yet, a coping saw with a metal-cutting blade in it. Just the way they are, the sticks are just *begging* to be polished and cut into floor tiles for that elegant bathroom you are dreaming about! You could also put a number of them side-by-side, and make a really fancy shower surround.

I would recommend, for soapstone and any other soft minerals (like gypsum or sandstone):

-A hacksaw, or a silicon carbide blade for a hacksaw, for harder stones like some of the marbles. These look like a rod, with particles stuck to them. These particles are chunks of silicon carbide, bonded to a pliable metal blade. For larger chunks of soapstone and marble, if you have access to a lapidary saw, this would be ideal for making thin sheets of stone, for easier working.

-Files: these can be needle files, diamond files, nail files, rasps...just about any abrasive you can think of.

-Sandpaper: I would stick to the silicon carbide (black) papers, for the simple reason that they are harder and longer-lasting than garnet or flint paper, and the added bonus that they are waterproof, so you can polish under running water, to prevent the paper from loading up. This is available in grits up to 1500, which is more than sufficient to give most stones a mirror-like finish.

-Glue and cement: For sticking stone to wood, foamcore, or whatever else you would use for a wall or floor (or ceiling, for that matter) I would recommend a good, 2-part epoxy. I would also rough up the back of the stone, or even drill some holes in it (shallow ones) to give more purchase to the epoxy. You might also want to try one of the cyanoacrylate ("super") glues. I would go with a gel formula. Silicon sealer would also be a good choice. For gluing stone to harder materials, like metal, glass, or other stone, you would have the best luck with jeweler's cement, which you probably won't find in your local hardware store, but would have to get from a jewelery supply house.

-Power tools: For soft stones like soapstone and white marble, you can pretty much use anything that you would use on hardwood, although be forewarned: stone will dull even carbide bits and blades MUCH faster than the hardest hardwood. Besides being hard to cut, stone is also an abrasive. However, I use my Dremel moto-tool all the time with stone, and have had pretty good luck with silicon carbide (green) grinding stones, and carbide bits, as well as cutting disks of silicon carbide sandpaper for polishing with. And I ALWAYS use eye and breathing protection!

Now, let's take a look at marble. Marble is quite a bit harder than soapstone, but comes in an even larger variety of even more beautiful colors. Here's a good rule of thumb for marble: the darker the color, the harder the stone. Marble ranges from snow white to black as night, with virtually every color and comination of colors that you can think of, in between. The white marble, which most people are familiar with, is the softest of the marbles, and consequently, the easiest to work with. You can use pretty much the same tools to work white marble as you use on soapstone.

Remember, though, marble is harder, and so is going to be harder on your tools. Sharpen hand tools often, use a slower speed with your power tools, and you may want to experiment with hand-sanding and polishing under water, to help eliminate dust and make your paper last longer.

With marble, you can do pretty much the same things as with soapstone; table tops, tiles, vases, urns, garden furniture, statuary, stairs, sinks, tubs, showers, bird baths, architectural features like fireplaces, hearths, gargoyles, columns, walkways...the possibilities are endless.

Depending on where you live, marble can be easy (as in my case, a hoot 'n' holler away from the Vermont marble mines) or nearly impossible to come by. However, no matter where you live, there is almost definitely a business or two in your area that works in monuments. Generally headstones and so on, but monument workers also frequently do statuary and the like, as well. In any case, this is the place to go for your marble. They generally buy their marble in large chunks, and there are invariably broken pieces lying about which you should be able to get for a song,...and maybe even for less than that, if you talk really nice to them!

Try to get the white stuff, or at least as light colored as possible, because some of the darker marbles are *really* hard, and can be quite a pain to work. I'm doing a small sculpture in green marble at the moment, and it is very difficult to work with. I've worn out no small number of Dremel bits while doing it, and it's only about an inch long and a half inch wide!

Whichever you decide to try your hand at, you'll love the results. Marble and soapstone are beautiful minerals, a pleasure to work, and polish up very easily for a very professional look.

And always remember: WORK SAFELY!!

Chuck Holcomb

For questions about this article email Chuck at

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Last updated on: Friday, March 28, 1997.