With a flame-flecked red stone gripped in his massive hands, Russell Olson moves the loonie-sized piece across the spinning blur of a grinding wheel.
Water flies off while Olson’s practiced hands slide alongside the wheel, the fine grit of the disk eagerly pulling off unneeded material from the work.
Quickly the piece of red rodenite morphs into a heart while his hands continue to patiently nudge the rock against the wheel.
This is something Olson has done thousands of times in his 40 years of carving, sanding, shaping and cutting rock, crafting countless objects of treasure and delight. But for others who watch in awe, this is Lapidary 101 – the art of gemstone cutting and polishing – and a glimpse into Olson’s vast knowledge of the art.
Beginning this Tuesday at VISAC Gallery’s rock lab in the Greater Trail Community Centre, Olson will willingly dispense a lifetime of knowledge of lapidary — cutting and shaping rock — to those people who endeavour to take the time to learn the patient art.
“It is an art, but it’s more than that,” he said.
It’s almost a lifestyle. Nearly 40 years ago Olson took a course on shaping rock, but it wasn’t until he came across some lapidary equipment soon after that the passion for the art took hold.
Once he saw the wonderful and colourful world awaiting inside each of the rocks he had collected, Olson was hooked. His weekly excursions into the backcountry for rocks took on more of a purpose, and with each new find he couldn’t wait to crack it open to find what it contained — and then shape it.
A self-taught rock hound and lapidary, Olson has been teaching for several years, relaying the knowledge of years and countless hours of shaping rock.
A lapidary — meaning concerned with stones — is an artist who forms stone, mineral, gemstones or other hard materials into decorative pieces such as engraved gems.
Olson typically uses rock such as B.C. agate, jaspers, petrified wood and rodenite in his classes, giving people four classes of instruction on the various machines and how to safely cut and shape a rock.
Once a shape is chosen, the rock is then scribed with an aluminum pencil, and sliced into a usable rough shape with a diamond-tipped saw blade, using water to keep down the amount of fine dust that results from the cutting.
Then, using a silica carbide grinding wheel (also on a water feed), the rock is ground down closer to the desired shape. All sorts of lapidary tricks can then be employed to create bevels, edges and rounded surfaces on the rock, depending on the material used.
Most of lapidary art involves motorized equipment and resin or metal-bonded diamond tooling, with successively decreasing particle sizes (grits) until a polish is achieved. The final polish uses a different medium, like tin oxide.
Olson’s classes begin this Tuesday in the lapidary room in the VISAC Gallery, located in the basement of the Greater Trail Community Centre. There are two offerings: 1:30-3:30 p.m. and from 7-9 p.m.
The four-session course — eight hours of instruction — costs $75 per student with some minimal cost for rock (dependant on material chosen). Contact gallery director Laurie Merlo at 364-1181 between 10 a.m.-2 p.m. to register.
For those who wish to continue further with their lapidary knowledge, drop-in fees are available for use of the lab’s equipment.
Olson’s work is available online on Kijiji Nelson, as well as Trail’s Artisan.