Meet the May Township man turning stones into jewels
The steady grind rumbling through Bill Voedisch’s garage is not the hum of a car engine, but a tumbler filled with grit, pellets and stones. Agates, to be precise.
A days-long jostle in the machine is the first step to transforming the rocks into finished pendants, ready to be strung on a chain and worn around the neck. After pieces are worked into final shape and holes are drilled for eye studs, they head to the polishing tumbler for finishing. Filled with ceramic pellets, the agate pieces and ever finer polishing grits, the pieces emerge after eight days with a high polish.
Although many will recognize Voedisch as the longtime chair of the May Town Board, his passion for making agate jewelry might come as a surprise. Voedisch himself was surprised by his enthusiasm for the craft back in August 2016.
“I had no notion of doing any of this,” he remembers. “When I was about eight, a neighbor kid’s father bought him a rock cutter and polisher. I said, ‘What is this all about?’ That was really my only history with the process.”
Then his wife, Laurie Carlson, bought him a class: two and a half days cutting and shaping rocks at North House Folk School in Grand Marais.
“I thought, ‘How can this be two and a half days?’” he says. “But then I go up, do the first full day, the second full day. By the third day the instructor was trying to boot me out at 1 o’clock. Everybody else was gone but I was still there trying to use the equipment.”
“I was so excited, I thought, ‘I have got to get this crazy equipment.’”
So he did. A rock saw, grinder, drill and a polishing tumbler later, he was chipping away at a Christmas list to rival Saint Nick’s.
Voedisch’s admiration for the stones is evident as he talks about them.
“There are agates from all over the world but the Lake Superior agate, I think, is quite stunning. If there’s red in it, that’s iron. The striations are normally quite beautiful. And I like them because they’re local. They’re from this state.”
In his eyes, every stone has something to say.
“This one is probably going got be very odd,” he says, sorting through the collection. “It’s going to be nothing but gray pieces, but that might be very elegant. ... Don’t even form an opinion until you make the first cut. This one looks like a pretty blah but the first cut is always so revealing.”
The pendant making process calls for decisions along the way, such as forming the shape of the finished piece.
“There are a couple ways to look at this,” Voedisch says. “You can either assume the shape of the stone is just exactly what you want to do. Or you can make something, like a rocking triangle.
“When you do that you’re obviously cutting away some of the color, which can be pretty vibrant. But I think I want to start doing more of this geometric stuff.”
To acquire the stones, Voedisch forages for them himself or buys from regional collectors.
“Here’s the hard part about walking down Old Gus and finding agates,” he says. “You can always find agates because every gravel pit out here has them. The glaciers came down to about where Highway 94 is, then receded and left Lake Superior agates.
“So all the gravel pits north of 94 have them, but they get crushed in the crusher with the mined materials used for road gravel. So what you really want to do is get permission to go into a gravel pit, or go up to Lake Superior and walk the shores, or go into a rock shop.
“A lot of these we found, and Laurie bought maybe seven or eight online from collectors up on the North Shore.”
To craft the pendants, tools must be strong.
“Whatever is doing your cutting or shaping has to have diamonds in it,” Voedisch said. “The saw and the grinder, they have to be tough. There’s a hardness scale that goes from one to ten. One is talc. Ten is a diamond. Lake Superior agates are a seven.”
When it comes time to saw, Voedisch advises patience.
“You can’t rush cutting,” he says. “You have to let the saw do the work. Once a stone is cut, each slab becomes a separate project. I look for harsh flaws to remove while envisioning the shape. All this is done on the grinder. It’s like a record turntable with four changeable disks of various degrees of aggressiveness.”
After grinding, the piece is ready for polishing in the tumbler with eight or more pieces at one time for eight days. After those eight days,Voedisch drills a tiny hole, then cements a ring stud for a jump ring soldered at Stokes in Stillwater. It’s a small but important flourish. A strong jump ring prevents the pendant from getting lost due to a weak link.
Of the finished necklaces, Voedisch says, “What a neat gift, one you made yourself out of a local material that will last forever.”
It’s a gift he enjoys making almost as much as giving.
“You can see I’m just in love with this stuff,” he says. “Aren’t they something? Agates are really cool. It’s just huge fun.”