Turning stone on the lathe is making a comeback. Colorado alabaster has a long history with lathe turners. During the Great Depression, there were as many as 25 different businesses in northern Colorado making items from the local alabaster on lathes of every description. Some typical items of the day included vases for dry flowers, lamps, ash trays, candy dishes and bookends. By far the most popular items were nightlights made in the shape of miniature lighthouse towers on rough stone bases that resemble the rocky coast. Their realism was enhanced by the little steps cut into them that led to the door at the base of the tower. The lighthouses had small light bulbs to illuminate the stone and the small windows cut into the tower. Other shapes of illuminated lamps were also made by various local manufacturers and some examples still exist of ornate shades and globes for table lamps and other fixtures.
Today, wood turners across the country are rediscovering the beauty of turned stone objects, especially bowls, lamp shades and wall sconces. Some of the finest art galleries in the country are now carrying the beautiful and unique bowls turned from Colorado alabaster by expert turners such as Max Krimmel.
Alabaster is not difficult to turn and can be turned on most standard wood lathes or on metal lathes as well. Bowls are a good shape to begin with as the open shape is easier to hollow than globes, vases or jars. The most common way to attach the stone to the lathe is to first grind a flat spot on the base side of a piece with a belt sander or disk sander. Next, glue on a scrap block of wood that can be screwed to the face plate of the lathe.
You should remove large corners or protrusions by sawing or grinding before using your lathe tools. You can use a band saw or reciprocating saw to cut alabaster. Carbide blades work best in case you
encounter any quartz crystals. Useful hand tools might also include an old hand saw or one with replaceable blades such as a coarse tooth hacksaw for small cuts or bow saw for larger cuts. Alabaster is heavy and the stone should be fairly well balanced before turning on the power.
Standard steel scrapers rather than gouges work best on alabaster but carbide tipped tools stay sharp longer. When we were kids, most of the tools we used were made from old machinist files ground to fit the job. Here are just a couple of pointers. Try not to get too wide a cutting edge against the stone. This helps prevent tool chattering. The stone has no flexibility, so if you go thin, be very smooth and steady when using the tools.
Max Krimmel has an excellent web site with instructions and pointers for turning alabaster and I recommend that you visit it before you turn your first piece.
Buying alabaster for turning
We can supply alabaster in various states of preparation depending on you needs and budget. If you want to order stone for the lathe, please call me so I can talk to you about your choices in ordering and the prices. Call 970-221-0723.
Random shape orders can potentially include the oddest shapes and have the most waste. However, if you have the tools and ability to cut the stone easily and want to use the cutoffs for turning small pieces too, you can order random and still make out fine.
Symmetrical turning pieces would be the next step up for turners. I can choose pieces that are shaped somewhat symmetrically to eliminate some of the waste and labor needed to prepare them for mounting on the lathe. These pieces will generally have a bowl shape and may have a
sawed base or rim side or both.
We can cut blocks for bowl blanks which will save you even more time and effort and also will have cheaper shipping costs for a given bowl size. The price per pound for cut bowl blanks varies with the size. Bowl blanks in the 6″ to 9″ diameter range are the least expensive. Larger and smaller sizes cost more per pound.
We also have round cylinders for turning. These have the least waste of all. We have precut Italian alabaster cylinders from 4 to 13 inches in diameter.
In addition, we sometimes cut Colorado alabaster cylinders in 1 to 4 inch diameters. Please call for availability and pricing. 970-221-0723