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8 Strands Opal Beads

8 Strands Gem Opal Beads

From inside out #1, #3, #6, #7 & #8 By Daniel Lopacki.

#2, #4, & #5 By David Silva.
Copyright by Daniel Lopacki all rights reserved


Daniel Lopacki made his first strand of beads over thirty-five years ago. From the beginning he found it a challenge to find the best techniques for making the best bead possible. In doing this he has become recognized both by his peers and the bead buying public as one of the premier bead makers in the world. Over the years Daniel has made beads from material as soft as Jet and Pipestone, to material as hard as Tourmaline. Since the mid 90's Daniel's speciality has become Opal beads and if you visit his studio you can be assured he will have some Opal beads in the works.

Daniel lectured at an international bead conference in 1996 on the subjects of "Stone Bead Making" and "Opal Bead Making Techniques". In 1997 a group of individuals established a new guild for bead makers, thus the name World Bead Makers Guild. The guild chose four guild masters, Jamey Allen --- Polymer Clay; Art Seymour --- Furnace Glass; James Smirich --- Lamp work Glass and Daniel Lopacki --- Stone.

The following techniques are the same that Daniel uses in his bead making. He freely admits that there are many other techniques to produce great beads, with all of these being less time consuming than his method. But if you are willing to spend the time to learn and then apply the following techniques to your bead making, you will find that there is a distinct difference in the "LOOK" of the finished product.



The first and most critical step in bead making is your choice of material. It is essential that you choose stone free from cracks and/or flaws, mainly cracks. You will find it very frustrating if you are spinning cracked material, as a major portion of your bead blanks will break into pieces and your labor will go to naught. Internal flaws, such as feathers or clouds come into play when you are using transparent or translucent gem material. A minor flaw in transparent gem material can be magnified by the shape of the bead; this being the case I highly recommend using flawless gem material whenever possible. The rewards will show in your finished product, and the value of a flawless gem bead can be worth many times more than the same bead of flawed material.

Amyetrine Bead
Amyetrine Bead

Another consideration when choosing material is dichroism. This is the property that doubly refracting crystals have of transmitting light of various colors when looked at from different angles. Dichroism is very apparent in most Tourmaline; if you look at the side of strongly dichroic Tourmaline you can see through the crystal, but if you look at the end of the crystal you cannot see into it at all. With a dichroic stone, it is a must that you orient it to the angle that best allows the light to pass through, otherwise your beads will be either half or completely "dead" in the light.

Gemmy Chrysoprase Bead
Gemmy Chrysoprase Bead

I find that Opal is the most challenging material in bead making. In choosing Opal for bead making there are a few important things to consider.

Opal usually shows its best color either on the face or the side of the stone. It is rare that you will have Opal with the same color density in all directions. I find that the best choice of Opal for beads is Opal with the bright color on the side of the rough.

Another consideration. Is the Opal directional? Directional Opal, when turned 360 degrees, will not show color in all directions turned; it will show strong color in one direction, but if you turn it 180 degrees in the other direction it is completely dead. If you are after a truly gem-quality strand of Opal beads, it is a must that your bead blanks show color in the full 360 degrees of rotation -- otherwise the finished beads will have dead, colorless areas that can be somewhat disappointing after all of your labors.

Gem Opal Bead
Gem Opal Bead


Obviously if you have a piece of stone large enough to just slice it up into various size squares, this is all you need to do.

If you are using small pieces of rough stone from which you can only get one, two or three beads, the process is more involved.

On a flat lap, I face the rough on the side that will produce the largest bead blank. Knowing that in the final shaping process I will lose some material from the side of the bead I sometimes leave areas with the natural depressions, as this allows for the thickest bead possible.

stone bead making

After I grind the rough to thickness, I then saw or grind a flat face to do layout from. Working from this face, with the use of a dial caliper and a carpenter square, I lay out lines on the stone to show the largest square that I can get (above). Again, knowing that I will lose all edges in the rounding process, there may be lines that don't meet at the corners (below). With the use of a 4" trim saw I cut along the lines that I have laid out, after sawing the blank from the rough, if I have not ground the number two side of the bead blank, I then grind it flat and parallel to its opposite side.

stone bead making

Your Results.
stone bead making

Gem Opal Bead
Gem Spider Web Turquoise Bead


Some bead makers drill their bead blanks by visually drilling at or near the center of the blank. I personally choose to lay out the center of each bead blank prior to drilling. In doing this you will nearly always get the maximum size finished bead from your blank. If you are using material that costs up to 200 dollars a gram this is a must as far as I am concerned.

To lay out blanks I use a dial caliper.

stone bead making

I start by picking twenty or so of the largest blanks, I then measure across the face of one of these blanks. This measurement is then divided by 2. I set my caliper to this number and lock it in place, then place the blank on the step on the back of the caliper. Using a .05 mm pencil, I lay out one line from each of the four faces of the blank. If the measurment is a little off it will make a small square where center is. I just keep picking the next group of larger beads and repeat the process until I am out of blanks to mark. I am now ready to drill.

For drilling, I use diamond drills in conjunction with a Foredom with a #30 handpiece a Foredom drill press and a table top variable speed control.

stone bead making

I have a brass water tray that screws to the drill press table with a thumb screw from below, and in the bottom of this tray I have adhered with dop wax a piece of a hard stone slab. The reason for the hard stone in the bottom is two fold: It gives you something very flat to place the bead blank on and it reduces blow out to a minimum. Blow out results from the pressure of the drill point breaking a circular portion from the bottom of the blank just before it drills through.

You can drill your blanks with them submerged in water, but you will need to change the water in the tray quite often so you can see the layout lines.

I have overcome this problem by making a pressurized water system from an ordinary garden sprayer, a valve that I purchased at the hardware store, and a small hypodermic needle.

With this system you can direct the flow of the water precisely where you want it to go. With a drain hole in the tray, you will always have clear water to see the layout lines on the bead blank.

stone bead making      stone bead making
If needed, to achieve a standard size hole I will usually drill my first hole undersize -- for instance, if I want a 1 mm finished hole, I will first drill a .75 mm hole, and then go back through each hole with a 1 mm drill. This results in a hole that is the same size in every bead blank.

If I want a large size hole I usually start with 1 mm and then step up to finish size i.e. 1mm / 1.25mm / 1.5mm / finish at 2mm. My logic for doing this, it is much easier and quicker for the 1mm drill face to penetrate than the 2 mm. Once you have the initial 1mm hole all other holes go very quick, usually a matter of a few seconds.

I recommend a speed of about 3,000 to 4,000 RPM for the .75 mm diamond drill. As the diameter of the drill increases, the speed should come down accordingly 2.5 mm about 1500 RPM. Excessive speed keeps the water from reaching the bottom of the hole.

Diamonds create ultra fine dust as they drill, so it is a must that you clear the drill quite often -- drill down a little bit and then raise the drill out of the hole, repeating this process until you are through the bead blank.

Please note: The deeper you drill the less time you can keep the tip at the bottom of the hole as it is very hard for the dust to work up out of the hole.

Remember, too high of speed or not keeping the hole washed out will result in the diamond plating burning off the drill shaft.

stone bead making

Gem Jade (Nephrite) Bead


I have developed a fixture for rounding the blanks one at a time. In using this fixture you lose some time in the process of rounding each blank, but your end result on any given bead is the largest bead possible from that blank, again if you are using expensive material you want as little waset possible.

I have found that you can achieve near-perfect rounds for a whole strand in as little as an hour using this fixture. Even if it takes two or three hours to get your near-perfect rounds, the time it saves in the next step of the process more than makes up for the time spent in rounding.

The fixture is very simple to make: all it requires is a pin vise, a piece of metal bent at a ninety-degree angle with a slotted hole on one side.

stone bead making

The reason for the slotted hole is so you can adjust the height of the pin vise so that its center sits just below the center of the grinding wheel.

You will need to secure the pin vise to the slotted metal piece. My choice is the screw clamp that is commonly used to secure electrical wires going into a knock-out box.

Once your fixture is made you will need to drill and thread a hole in the side of your splash pan for mounting the fixture to your machine. Bolt the fixture to your machine tight enough to allow it to move backward and forward, but not loose enough to allow the grinding process to push the blank away from the wheel.

stone bead making

Pull the fixture away from the wheel, place a bead blank onto the pin in the pin vise (the pin should be slightly smaller than the hole size), slowly push the fixture forward until the blank touches the wheel, then slowly turn the blank around with your fingers. The result will be an almost perfect tube that is ready for the next step in the process.

stone bead making

Large Opal tubes directly off fixture.

Notice some areas are yet to clean up, this will disappear in final shaping.


Shaping is the process that literally makes or breaks the beads that you are making. If you are trying to achieve a smooth symmetrical bead, you need to shape each half of the bead exactly the same. In order to do this consistently, it takes practice, practice and more practice!

You will eventually get to the point where you will be able to shape a bead with only one hand and with excellent results.

First you want to choose a pin for the pin vise that is just slightly smaller than the hole in your bead and just loose enough for the bead to spin freely. You will need to keep a moist bar of soap on hand, as this is used to lubricate the bead on the pin.

You will use a soft stone "spinner bead" (I prefer jet), below any bead you are working on. This spinner bead keeps the pin vise from cutting a groove into your bead as it spins.

I prefer to work with my bead blanks starting with the thickest and working my way down to the thinnest. The reason for doing this is that you want the tip of the pin to be just below the top of the bead face. If you start with the thick beads and work your way down, you just have to lower the pin in the vise from time to time.

stone bead making

Place your spinner bead on the pin, rub the pin on the moist soap bar and place your bead blank on the pin. Then loosen the pin vise just enough to allow you to push the pin just below the surface of the blank. This done, tighten the pin vise.

Start the shaping process by holding the pin vise as near vertical as possible to the grinding wheel and lightly touching the edge of the blank just below the center of the wheel, the blank will start spinning. Break the edge a little and then tilt the blank inward toward the hole, as you do this apply a small amount of pressure against the wheel. This will start the grinding process and also keep the bead spinning. I make it a point to shape my beads right down to the hole, as this allows you to grind off any blow out that resulted from the drilling process.

stone bead making

Working from the hole out, you can start to grind the material from the blank. Watching the side of the blank works best for me because I can see the bead as it is shaped. I rough shape one-half, and then the other, to remove the excess material. To assure that the bead is balanced I then go back over the bead to achieve my final shape.

Once I am satisfied with the final shape, I repeat the above steps to all of the blanks that I have prepared.

Three bead shapes from same blank.

Remember to use the soap every time you put a blank on or turn a blank over!


Sanding your shaped bead is exactly the same as the shaping process, except that at this point you are only smoothing out any rough spots on the shaped bead, not removing excess material. If the bead seems to have an irregular shape that you do not like, it is best to go back to the grinding wheel to reshape it; trying to do this on the sanding drum is a very slow process.

I use a worn 600 grit sanding drum for my sanding. This will remove any scratches from the grinding process and leave no new coarse scratches on the surface of the bead. I suggest that you use either a five or ten power eye loupe to inspect each bead for scratches prior to polishing, as you cannot remove a grinding scratch in the polishing process.

The sanding steps follow: rub the pin on the soap, place your small jet spinner bead on the pin, place the shaped bead on the pin and make sure that the pin is just below the surface of the hole in the bead. Using the same technique that you used in shaping, start sanding the bead from the hole out. As you come around to the face of the bead, make it a point to sand past the center of the bead face.

This takes some practice so don't be surprised if your bead jumps off the pin when you first try this technique. Turn the bead over and repeat this process. When you feel that the bead is finished, check it with the loupe for scratches. If no scratches are visible, the bead is ready for polishing.


I use three hand techniques to polish beads. The one I use depends on how hard the material is and how much of a water wet look I want on the bead. These techniques work best if you have sanded all of the scratches off of the beads and have used a worn sanding drum. If so your bead should look almost polished.

For softer material such as Turquoise or stone of similar hardness,I have found that you can use Zam, a commercial green buffing compound, to achieve a brilliant polish. Apply the Zam to a treated muslin buffing wheel and use exactly the same techniques that you have used in the sanding process. One point to remember is that you don't use the soap for a lubricant in this process; you can only use soap when water is present. In this and all other processes you need to remember to use the jet spinner bead.

For harder material such as Lapis, Sugilite and similar material, I use diamond powder mixed with honing oil, or the diamond paste that comes in a syringe. As long as there are no scratches on the beads, you should be able to go right to a 14,000 mesh compound. If you are using the syringe with the paste, apply directly from the syringe. If you want to mix your own diamond compound you will need to purchase diamond powder and honing oil. Crystalite sells an oil called diamond extender which works well for this purpose. In a small bottle (the five carat diamond bottle works great), mix approximately two carats diamond powder with ten to fifteen drops oil. Each time you apply this mixture, shake the bottle vigorously to suspend the diamond in the oil.

Using a hard felt 4" buffing wheel, apply the diamond compound to the buff with your finger tip. Rub the paste or the homemade mixture over the entire face of the felt wheel. When you first start to use the felt wheel, you will need to apply the compound quite often, but after awhile you will find that you need only apply the compound infrequently. Again use the same technique that you used in sanding, to polish the bead. A note of caution -- the felt buff will cause a heat build-up in the bead, so do not use this technique to polish heat sensitive material such as Opal.

The third process is for very hard material such as petrified wood, agate, tourmaline, and ruby. This process is somewhat involved and I don't recommend that it be used, unless you are using very unusual or very expensive material. I do recommend using this process on Opal as it will make the Opal beads look like they are wet.

You will need to purchase a few special things for this process -- a small motor, I'm using a 1/15 HP motor I bought years ago, a variable speed controller and an arbor to mount the wheels on.

If I were to do this today I would purchase a Foredom Bench Lathe which can be used in many more applications other than polishing.

The wheels that you will be using are of redwood or a similar softer wood, and most likely you will need to have them made at your local wood working shop. The wheels that I use are two inches in diameter and roughly one inch wide. The diameter of the wheel can vary but I think anything over four inches is unnecessary.You will need three wheels on three seperate mandrels.

stone bead making

After you have your set-up put together, you will need to charge one wheel with 1,200 mesh, one with 14,000 mesh and one with 50,000 mesh diamond. Apply the diamond oil mixture in the same way as with the hard felt wheel. I use the diamond oil mixture only on wood: Diamond has an affinity to oil and as the oil/diamond penetrates the wood it has a cutting plus lubricating effect with no heat buildup.

PLEASE NOTE: It is very important that you store your polishing wheels in their own zip lock bags, mark each bag and wheel with the mesh size. If you neglect to do this you will contaminate the wheels and they will always drop scratches on your surface being polished.

You will need to do the following steps with all three of the diamond grits, first 1,200 then 14,000 and finally 50,000. It is imperative that you clean all of the compound from each bead before going to the next step, otherwise you will contaminate the wheel of your next step with the coarser grit and this will cause scratches that you won't be able to overcome. You must also make sure that the holes are throughly clean. I do this by drawing a bead cord with the wire needle that is slightly oversize, through the beads in warm soapy water.

On the 1200 mesh wheel use the same technique that you used in the sanding process. Using the variable speed control, set the speed of the wheel at the speed which seems to work best for the mesh size you are using. You do not need high speed, you want the diamond to have a chance to cut. Repeat this process for each mesh size. You will notice a distinct difference in the bead as you go from 1,200 to 14,000 to 50,000. If you choose to polish your beads in this way you will be amazed at the end results, and you will have a strand of beads that will show off your material to its best.


When I finish all of my beads, whether they are for one strand or twenty, the first thing I do is visually separate them into six or eight piles. I arrange them in groups from the smallest to the largest.

Starting with the beads in the largest group I use the dial caliper to measure the beads as I place them flat on a table top: I put the largest bead in the center of the strand, then place the next smaller bead to the right side, the next smaller bead to the left and so on until I have placed all of the beads in their proper order.

Once I have done this I then string the beads onto a good bead cord (I use saddle stitching thread). Starting with the smallest bead on one end, I string them up in order, tie the ends off and have a prefectly tapered strand of finished beads.

Gem Jelly Opal Bead Strand

Happy bead making ! If I have inspired you to make a bead or a strand of beads and you would like to send a photograph of your beads, please do.

You can also email an image, please limit the image size to less than 500k.

Daniel Lopacki Co.
P.O. Box 144
Cliff, N.M. 88028

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