Kenmare lapidarist keeps on polishing

Jill Schramm/MDN Standing next to a grinding machine used for hand finishing Aug. 4, Skip Erickson holds a rock that he’s been working on.

KENMARE – After nearly 30 years of cutting and polishing rocks, Donald “Skip” Erickson still enjoys his lapidary hobby.

The Kenmare resident works with agates, feldspar and similar rocks – some of them considered semi-precious stones – that people have donated to him.

In turn, he donates the rocks he polishes.

“I don’t have any trouble finding people who like to have a polished rock,” Erickson said with a smile.

He also supplies the local nursery with polished stones for use in its displays. He used polished rocks to create a splash board behind a restroom counter in the Methodist church in Kenmare. Although he gives his work away, he still can enjoy his handiwork in use throughout the community, Erickson said.

Erickson grew up on a farm near Coulee. After 18 months in the Army, including working as an auto mechanic in Panama, he returned to the Coulee area to farm. He and his wife, Coleen, who died in 2015, also served several years as missionaries in Bolivia.

Moving to Kenmare in their later years, the Ericksons spent winters in Texas and eventually in Arizona. On a visit to the local senior activity center in Arizona in about 1992, Erickson saw a room with “lapidary” on the door.

“I thought ‘What’s lapidary?’ I never heard of it,” he laughed. “They had a lot of equipment there, and they had a very active group years ago, but over time they kind of dwindled until there was no one hardly.”

The Ericksons decided to try out rock polishing, teaching themselves through books.

“My wife was interested at first, but she soon got her fill. She decided it wasn’t for her,” Erickson said.

He kept at it, though, and when the annual wintering in Arizona became too much for the couple, they settled down in North Dakota, and Erickson shopped auction sales to purchase his own rock polishing and cutting equipment.

“I started polishing rocks. And then, when people heard about it, they brought the rocks that they picked up in the fields, thinking, ‘Well, they’re pretty.’ So they brought them in,” Erickson said. “Most of them I could use.”

His current workshop is a room in a food pantry building across the street from his Kenmare residence, which had the extra space to offer him.

Erickson tries to get in two to three hours a day in his shop. He noted his eyesight isn’t what it once was, but he is working on cutting Christian crosses from stones and polishing them into wearable jewelry.

Over the years, a fair number of his stones have been turned into cabochons, with domed tops and flat bottoms, for necklaces, pins or use in western string ties.

“I used to back them with silver. But that got too expensive,” he said. He also used to make bases for clock faces from stone.

Polishing stones is a time-intensive and meticulous art. Rocks go through a series of tumbling, eight days each time in the tumbler, to be polished by grit to bring out their shine. Grinding stones requires considerable water to keep rocks cool and avoid cracking, and drilling into rocks is a delicate process even with diamond bits.

“If you press down too long and get the bit too hot, it’ll evaporate. So it takes real close attention,” Erickson said.

With boxes of rocks on hand, Erickson figures he has enough supply to keep him busy for a long time yet.

“I think that polishing rocks is very similar to what God is doing with us, and has been trying to do for 2,000 years,” Erickson said, adding with a chuckle, “I see the way God is working on us, and someday he’ll get us straightened out.”

He figures that’s why he’s still going at 94 years.

“God’s still working on me,” he said.


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