Master Opal Cutter, by Dennis Dahl “The Opal Man” - June 14, 2015
Over the years, I have changed and modified my methods of cutting opal–some of it due to necessity and some of it through invention. When I started out cutting opals, it was with silicon carbide grinding wheels and sanding belts. Later I began using spongy wheels for smoothing out ripples in opals and pumice wheels for preparing the opal for polishing. I used cerium oxide on felt wheels for the final polish giving the opal a mirror like finish.
When I was in Illinois I had room for two setups, one with silicon carbide and the other diamond. I preferred the silicon carbide method as it gave me a better feel for the opal. When I moved to Wisconsin, I did not have the available space to maintain two separate opal cutting setups. Since I was cutting a lot more boulder opal, and I found diamond was better at finishing boulder opal with it’s varying hardness due to the boulder stone. I decided to use diamond almost exclusively and I have gotten pretty used to this method of cutting but if I ever get the space again I’ll go back to both opal cutting setups. Each have their distinct advantages.
I define the title of professional opal cutter as “one that cuts opal for a living.” As a professional opal cutter I concentrated on speed especially since my entire inventory at the time consisted of about 100 opals, not really enough to make a living selling them. I also wanted to carry a large variety of opal. Most everyone thought opal was only white so I set about to prove that it wasn’t. With the Lord’s prodding I worked long hours and my cutting speed and knowledge of the opal increased.
Almost every type of rough opal is a little different and you have to be careful that the opal doesn’t fool you. Some opals face one way only, some both ways, others on the side some at a diagonal, some grow gypsum, some develop white spots, sometimes the opal will lift off the host rock, mainly boulder, some will chip in cutting, some will absorb water like a sponge and turn a completely different color usually transparent and when it dries out will turn white but still with beautiful color, some rough will look great with water and turn pale white when it dries out. Opal is Queen of Gems because they are so beautiful, entrancing, captivation and you can fall in love with them.
At my peak, many years ago, I was cutting over a 1000 opals weekly while working up to 20 hours a day or more. You could say I was a bit driven, but I loved it! It was like opening Christmas presents you just kept wanting to see what the next opal was going to look like from the saw to the grinding wheel to the finished product. I would fall asleep standing at the cutting wheels before I would realize I needed to rest, even then i would grudgingly lie down for a rest. Later I leveled out my cutting production to around 600-700 opals a week. With age comes wisdom and experience but the eyes aren’t as good as they were once were and now they get sore if i use magnification to much. which I’ve had to do, plus my legs just don’t like standing for 20 hours a day anymore, how odd is that! Any more my cutting is closer to 200 a week but I don’t need to build stock as much as maintain what I have and besides I need to get out and walk and I like golf As a professional opal cutter, I have cut somewhere over 150,000 opals, but a good many of them have been those tiny little opals that are fast to cut. Boulder opal is a lot slower because there is a lot of rock and usually not to much opal, so it takes a while to get to where the opal is.
You would think after almost 40 years I would be tired of this, but to be honest with you I probably have more appreciation for opal now than ever. God has created in this stone an array of colors and patterns and brilliance that have no end and no equal. I’m as excited now at cutting a new parcel of opal as I ever was. There is beauty in every opal whether its very expensive or very inexpensive, high grade of low grade opal appeals to the heart and the emotions. it’s brilliance can knock you over it’s soft colors can make you cry. Truly, opals are like windows by which you can see into the kingdom of heaven because it just doesn’t seem possible that they could come out of the dirt.
DONAHUE HIGHWAY ~ QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA - June 13, 2010
From Winton to Alice Springs is a fair bit of road and the best way was north or south we were told. Bitumen all the way but an extra 500k.
Bolia was to the south and shorter by far but we heard conflicting stories and that was par.
The truckies said it was terrible. “You’d blow all your tires. You’d better go north ‘cause we’re not liars.”
But a young lass said she’d traveled that way a little while back and had no worries and “That was a fact.”
She had two kids way back then so we had to try. After all, we were men.
We stayed overnight in Bolia. Our mind was set that the Donohue Highway was our best bet.
The day was great, the road was good and the car was loaded with nice fresh food.
300k we’re cruising along ‘til our tire went flat and we had to fix that.
We picked up some rocks and to our surprise they were jagged and sharp – was this really wise?
We decided to go forward rather than back and take our chances on this rocky track.
On to Tobermory the wind at our back. We said a prayer and relied on that.
We were worried I can tell you there in the outback not a car had we seen since starting down this track.
We knew another flat would set us back, a day maybe two and that was a fact.
We prayed that God’s grace would greatly abound and get us to Tobermory where a tire could be found.
Well, we got there all right though we looked a fright. They must have a spare or we’d be here all night.
The man was amazed and thought we were mad to come all this way with no spare to be had.
We asked for a tire and what did he say? Just “$400 is all” we’d have to pay.
We looked at that tire and truth be told it, was bald on one side and the other was mold.
We figured the worst was over. God got us this far, we’d just keep hoping and praying for tar.
We’d come a long way and the road was still bad, we’d hardly seen a vehicle and that was sad.
We came across a camper pulled off the road, with a flat tire and a heavy load.
He was at a strong tilt on the side of the road. We told him to pull up and level his load.
He wouldn’t take heed to our stern reprimand and continued to jack up that old caravan.
In a hurry we left. He must be mad, changing a tire on the side of a hill, what a cad!
On to Jarvis leaving the caravan behind, figured he was upside down, stuck in the sand.
We made it to Jarvis happily so surely they’d have a tire and off we’d go.
The lady was fair we both agreed and a whole shed of tires you wouldn’t believe.
So she looked and looked but to her disgrace there wasn’t a tire to fit in the whole darn place.
She had one tire two sizes too large, we’d be riding at an angle like a love sick barge.
We declined her offer sorry to say and she was sad we didn’t have to pay.
We added more fuel so she wouldn’t feel bad and headed for Alice a little bit glad.
We saw a Toyota heading our way. His roof had eight tires tied down to stay.
We held our breath. We were able men, but we kept praying for Bitumen.
We finally hit dust and boy were we glad. All that rock was making us sad.
We pass the gem fields so we know we’re close, maybe three hours at the most.
We stopped by the side of the road to see what we could see but truth be told the reality was we just had to pee.
We’ve come a long way and that’s no sin, but wait, stop, it’s Bitumen!!
We’re both so glad we came this far, and now we’re riding on beautiful black tar.
We made it to Alice no worse for the wear, happy we weren’t stranded, somewhere out there.
You may believe there is no God that when you die you just become sod.
But I believe that someone cares and when you ask he hears your prayers.
Lightning Ridge – Finch County, NSW AUSTRALIA - June 13, 2008
Opal buyers were a bit skeptical of black opal since the only opal people were familiar with was the white and crystal from the mining fields of White Cliffs, but some opal buyers were amazed at the beautiful deep rich colors of the black opal and were more than willing to pay a fair price for them. Soon the Ridge grew as more miners came to seek their fortune in black opals.
As you enter Lightning Ridge there is a sign that greets you saying “Lightning Ridge Population ??. That’s because no one really knows what the population is. Lightning Ridge has a very transient population and although mining is done mostly in winter time, May through November, summers are hot and many head for the sea coast and cooler temperatures; seasons are reversed in the down under.
I started going to Lightning Ridge to buy opal in about 1976. At that time it was pretty much dirt roads. The first time I went was by train to Dubbo and then by bus to Lightning Ridge. On my first train trip up to Lightning Ridge I noticed that all the people had blankets and comforters. I remember thinking that all these people sure like to be comfortable when traveling. I had no idea the trip was about 10 hours and the train had no heat. It was mid-winter and although it was about 50 or 60 in Sydney during the day, the train went up through the hills of Orange, snow country, and there was snow. I nearly froze to death with only my light jacket for warmth. It was a very long night. What a person won’t do for opals.
From Dubbo there was a bus that took me the rest of the way to Lightning Ridge; it had heat, praise God for small favors.
Sometime in the 1980’s the old wooden train that I was used to, was replaced with a new modern “XPT” train. It had heat and the trip to Dubbo was now only 5 hours long. From there it was another 5 hours to Lightning Ridge. So the whole trip was now only 10 hours in total, not 15 hours like before. It was also during the day, so I could enjoy seeing the countryside and in comfortable seats. I never mourned the passing of the heatless wooden train.
When I first started buying at Lightning Ridge, I just walked around the town knocking on doors. Most of the buyers set up at the Black Opal Motel. It seemed to me that everyone talked in terms of 100’s of thousands of dollars regarding opal. “He bought an 800 thousand dollar parcel from someone or "that buyers good for millions". Runners would come to me and ask if I was interested in a small parcel of 80 or 90 thousand. I only had abut $3000 or $4000 to spend on rough opal at the time and I figured that the Black Opal Motel was just for buyers with 100’s of thousands of dollars to spend. Eventually I found out that some miners had only small parcels of $300 to $500 so I was able to start buying at the Black Opal Motel. I did see a lot of beautiful opal and even though I couldn’t afford some of those opals they were certainly entrancing to look at.
The funny thing is that some of my best contacts in Lightning Ridge were early on when I was walking around knocking on doors asking people if they had any opals for sale. At one of the doors I knocked on the occupants wanted to know if I was going to take the opal out of country. They asked me several more times during our conversation and then it dawned on me that the reason they were asking me was because they were ratters or night shifters. Night shifters were men that hear about someone’s opal find and would go out during the night and gouge out his mine and leave before daylight. I left this particular parcel alone as I wanted nothing to do with this setup.
There are a lot of great people on the Lighting Ridge opal fields and and then there are the unscrupulous ones that will reap what they sow. So for these night shifters, gain is only temporary.
Every opal field is a little different in what it produces in opal. At Lightning Ridge most of what is mined is Black Opal, but it also produces a fair amount of Crystal Opal and Grey Opal. Grey Opal is opal that has a light grey backing, many call it semi-black just because it sounds better. Lightning Ridge also produces the most outstanding crystal opal. In terms of brightness, no other opal field can compare to the quality of crystal opal at Lightning Ridge. Although Lightning Ridge is known for its beautiful Black Opals, I’m always on the look out for fine Crystal Opals and so should you.
At Lightning Ridge a “claim” measures 50 X 50 meters, a meter being 3.1 feet or 50 yards by 50 yards. When you peg a claim, your pegs must be at least 3 feet above ground or 1 meter. The cost of your claim will be $150. You can spend as much as you want on mining. You can go out noodling or specking for opal on dirt that a previous opal miner brought up out of their mine and left, assuming you are not on a pegged claim. Cost is nothing.
You might get tired of hauling that bucket up the ladder so then you’ll want a hoist or windlass. It works like the water well, you have a wooden rod with rope wrapped around it tied to a bucket only you bring up dirt instead of water.
Then you might want to invest in an automatic hoist where you pull the cord and it automatically takes the bucket up to the top where someone will have to empty it.
You could also invest in a tunneling machine, excavator, bulldozer, and a blower. A blower is a machine that sucks up the dirt and sends it through a series of pipes up the mine shaft and into your truck. There’s a term on opal fields that is often repeated, “He’s putting his money back into the ground”, which means he’s buying more machinery to move more ground in the hopes of finding more opal, faster. I talked to one opal miner recently who said it cost him about $12 a week to mine for opal. A day earlier I talked to an opal miner who said it costs him about $4000 a week to mine for opal with the machinery that he had. You can be sure the guy with the $4000 a week habit is moving a lot more ground, but is he finding opal?
There are of course a myriad of other things you could do to enhance your mining experience. Satellite photography that is heat seeking, cold seeking, and God knows what else is utilized. Of course most opal is about 30 to 60 feet underground so good luck. Lightning Ridge is in some ways like any small town, post office, bank, grocery stores, pharmacy, laundry, motels, pubs, Olympic sized swimming pool, golf course with black sand greens, restaurants, schools, and lots of shops selling black opal. There are also a lot of signs saying “OPAL BUYER” or “BUYING NOW.” For sure Lightning Ridge is a town built on opal, specifically black opal.
Lightning Ridge has more trees, bushes and greenery than the other opal fields, maybe because it’s on the edge of black soil country. In the 1990’s Lightning Ridge was a boom town. An opal field close to Lightning Ridge called Coocoran was producing black opal and lots of it. At the same time the Japanese yen was very strong against the Australian currency and the Japanese, great lovers of black opals, were buying a lot and so was everyone else.
Things have changed. There is still opal coming out of the ground but not a lot and consequently not a lot of opal miners or buyers. Like everywhere else, life is slow. Still Lightning Ridge is a unique place and by in large the opal miners are an optimistic lot always believing that the next chink will yield a gem worth thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Some miners mine for the love of money and others for the love of the opal itself. Black opal is a gem like no other, mystical, entrancing, it’s rich beautiful colors almost make your heart skip a beat or jump for joy. No other gemstone that I know of elicits the response of complete awe from men and women alike as that of black opal. I have seen people yell, swear, cry, and just look with stunned silence and the wonderment of a truly beautiful black opal. Many people believe that it is nature that produces these gems but for me, I see the hand of a loving God showing us just how awesome He is by creating a stone with rich, vibrant colors that dance, and play, swirling, rolling, flashing, prancing and all in a rock! Truly it is a glimpse into the kingdom of heaven and all it’s radiance.