Lapidary Start-up Costs

by Ahna White.
So, you think you’d like to make your own cabochons? Well, I’m going to tell you what’s involved in doing that! (This article doesn’t include faceting gems – that’s a completely different subject!)

Banded agate cabochonby Ahna White.

Banded agate cabochon
by Ahna White.

One of the first things you learn in a metalsmithing class is how to bezel-set a cabochon.

Because of that assignment, I went searching for some interesting stones to set.

That’s when I fell in love with rocks! I have over 10 years experience in stained glass work, and the concepts of cutting, shaping and polishing cabochons are very similar to working with stained glass!

Lapidary Equipment

I didn’t have anyone to tell me what I needed, so I started doing a lot of research into lapidary equipment. I figured out that, at the very least, I would need a Trim Saw and a Cab Machine.

Opal designer cabochonby Ahna White.

Opal designer cabochon
by Ahna White.

A Trim Saw is used to cut down rock slabs (flat pieces already cut from rough rock) as close as possible to the shape of the cabochon. This is a basic machine that uses a blade, and has a water reservoir, used to cut stone. Nothing fancy is needed. You just want to be sure that the surface area on the machine is about 4-5 inches on each side of the blade.

Cabbing machine.

Cabbing machine.

A Cab Machine is used to shape and polish the cabochon. Here, I made a mistake. I found three different machines with very different prices, from $336 to $1600. I decided to go in the middle, and selected a machine that cost $795.

The description said it was all I would need – but what it didn’t say was that you had to change out pads and wheels every few minutes, and had to take off all the wheels to change the saw blade! That was fine for the first day or so, but I quickly realized this was going to be a nightmare! I returned it; top-of-the-line, here I come!

I got a Diamond Pacific Genie with 6 wheels and a totally separate machine for cutting the slabs, and it was well worth the extra money! When it comes to cabbing equipment, I don’t recommend cutting corners, because you will end up wasting a lot of your time.

Lapidary Equipment Cost Breakdown,
Excluding Tax and Shipping

  • Trim Saw – $425 (only for cutting slabs, not rough rocks)
  • Cab Machine – $1,600

Additional supplies:

  • templates
  • apron
  • safety glasses
  • dopping supplies
  • coolant
  • polish
  • blades
  • rock slabs
  • If you really want to start from the ground up, you need a Slab Saw for cutting rough rock – A 16″ Slab Saw will cost: $1,700.
  • Additional supplies:
  • 5 gallons of water-soluble cutting oil
  • sharpening stone
Rhodocrosite designer cabochonby Ahna White.

Rhodocrosite designer cabochon
by Ahna White.

Maintenance Costs

If you do your cabbing at a ‘hobby’ level, you will probably need to buy new wheels and blade for the Slab Saw about once every 12 to 18 months.

The Trim Saw will require more blades; a good blade for a 6′ Trim Saw is $28, and you should have two different sized blades, depending on what you’re cutting.

Material like rhodochrosite is soft and easy to cut, but materials like agate are very hard, and will dull a blade quickly.

A sharpening stone will help extend the life of the blades.

The Cost of
Making Cabochons

A word about cabochons… there are two different types.

I refer to the first as a ‘generic’ cab, in which you cut as many cabochons from a slab as you can. You’ll get more cabs, and very little waste, which is more cost-effective.

Dumortierite designer cabochonby Ahna White.

Dumortierite designer cabochon
by Ahna White.

Then, there is a ‘designer cabochon’, where you select the best pattern or colors on the slab to create a more beautiful cabochon. You create a spectacular piece, but there will be more waste, and a higher cost as a result.

Last but not least is your time. If you are starting with a rough rock, a slab saw will take about 20 minutes to make a pass; the nice thing about this is that they come with an auto-feed system, so while you’re cutting a rock in that machine, you can be working on something else.

I can usually spend about an hour at the Trim Saw to produce 10-15 cabs, depending on what material I’m trimming. Harder rocks take longer to cut through.

The cabbing machine takes the longest, and you don’t want to rush in any of these processes. This will need anywhere from 20-50 minutes per cabochon.

In summary, each individual cabochon will take 45 minutes to 1-1/2 hours to make.

Your basic cost for equipment will be about $3,725, plus the additional supplies and the raw material/rough stone.

You will need to produce 150 cabs and sell them for an average of $25 each to pay for the equipment.

By that time you’ll need to replace some blades, and you can start recovering your costs for supplies and stone.

Sorry… it will be awhile before you can start getting paid for your time!

Ahna White
Art Created by Ahna

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Comments

  1. christy says:

    This article helps me so much! It let me know what I needed to start up without looking around to much. I appreciate your honesty!

  2. I am older with some physical problems. when I was a teen my dad was rockhounding and doing cabochons and I went with him and even cut and polished a piece myself. I did not pursue it due to moving far away from him. I wish I could have. he had a basic unit with two grinding wheels and a polishing wheel and a saw blade. he did not have such a fancy outfit as you show. I learned on this outfit and could see myself using such an outfit. I saw the $700 unit you mentioned online and my hubby is ok with me buying that, but I know he would never go for the 3000 dollar unit. I have about 35 lbs of slab my dad cut before he got Alzheimer’s and quit working rock. since reading your article I’m at a loss what to do.

  3. Thank you so much Ahna for this insightful article. Stones are a passion of mine and I am just learning to work them to create cabochons. If people are interested in learning this process but have a problem with the expense, they might look into gem and mineral clubs in their area. I joined one near me this last spring and they have all the equipment there and there is always someone there to teach you how to use it. To join a club is a lot less expensive than having to go out and purchase all the equipment on your own. Thanks again for the article.
    Judy

  4. That’s a really good tip, Judy – thank you for adding that!

  5. Julie White says:

    I’ve always had an interest in lapidary but ultimately decided to leave it to someone else as I already work in so many media. Thanks!! This article is very helpful in summing up all that is really involved in doing your own lapidary work.

  6. Katherine says:

    Hi Ahna,
    Your article is the most help I have found after much perusing on to
    He web
    I have gone through the stages of rock hound doing hand shaping and tumble
    I got to wanting to create my own cabs from rough
    I am will I got to spend what I need to, but don’t want to over or under purchase
    I just bought a 7 inch trim saw from Harbor Freight for $80.00 but haven’t opened the box yet
    I am so unsure of just what I need
    You seem to have done all your research including the mistake you mentioned so I think following your advice is a great way to go
    Can you give me the details of the slab saw you use?
    I also have heard good reports on the Genie
    Do you know how it compares with a CabKing?
    Thanks for your time and interest in helping a fellow lover of our earths bounty Kat

  7. If you have a lapidary club in your area you can join for the year and try the different machines they have.

  8. Teresa Dalton says:

    Thank you for this article! It was just what I needed to get an honest break down of what the costs really are. So thanks again for the perfect advice!

  9. Nancy Schreiber says:

    Want info. about rock tumblers.

  10. Hi, I just got started in making cabochons and jewelry as a retirement project. I bought a trim saw $485 + $28 s/h and a Cab King $1325 no s/h. So I’ve got $1838 invested in equipment so far, with about another $300-$400 for a buffing wheel. You really need a buffer to put the final polish on your cabs. So far I’ve bought all my slabs on Ebay, and haven’t needed to buy a slab saw at this point until I know that I’m really going to stay interested in this hobby. Then I’ll buy a slab saw at a later date. If you’re going to also make some jewelry with your newly shaped stones, you’ll need some hand tools and materials for making rings, bracelets, earrings, and necklaces. I plan on wire wrapping most of my cabs, so you’ll need to buy various rolls of different gauges of copper &/or sterling silver wire to wrap the stones. As far as hand tools, I’ve purchased numerous templates of various shapes, jewelry hammers, small metal 4″x4″ pounding bench plate, stainless steel ring sizer, and a number of different types of pliers for bending wire to make bails and wire shapes. To keep all your tools/materials in a handy place, I also recommend buying a nice crafters case with a handle and wheels. I spent approximately $500 on all the hand tools/materials. My final and last expenses of around $2000 have been for various rock rough, slabs, and already made stones from India and China, which I bought on numerous Ebay auctions for a dirt cheap price, with no s/h costs. The down side of buying abroad, is it takes a few weeks to ship here. So, for around $4500, I’ve started a hobby that I think I will really enjoy for many years to come. If all goes well, I should also be able to sell some of my handmade jewelry, cabs, and artwork for a half way decent profit. Hopefully, I should be able to recoup most of my expenses over the next few years. If anyone else decides to sell their cabs/jewelry, some good places to start are Ebay.com, Etsy.com, Craigslist.com, Craft Shows, & County Fair booths. Good luck to anyone else wanting to start a fun hobby/home business.

  11. I am waist deep in this and I can tell you for certain that this article by Ahna provides solid advice. I will also encourage you not to spread yourself out too thin. Focus on mastering one thing at a time. Cabbing – Slabbing – Setting -Sourcing Material. There is an art to each of them and they each take time and patience to master. I have found that the online community is incredibly supportive for both hobbyists and artisans and they are a great resource as you face your challenges. FB seems to be the most active right now for us but that could change. If you are a cheapskate like me consider constantly monitoring Craigslist for deals and steals on equipment and rough. EBTH and Auctionzip are great for catching material and equipment being sold out of old estates and collections. My last word of advice is to be generous with your acquired wisdom, skill, and experience and, on occasion, even with your best material. This will pay huge dividends in the long run. Thanks Ahna for taking the time to post this.

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