Central Virginia Woodturners

a registered chapter of the American Association of Woodturners

Alberene SoapStone Tour

Here are a series of photos taken by Denny Martin at the club trip to Alberene Quarry organized by Dennis Hippen.

We were give a short safety form to read and a pamphlet describing the company’s history. Since the 1880’s when James Serene found a quality vein of soapstone the company has had operations in Central Virginia employing as many as 1000 people in 1925. In today’s economy the company is much smaller.

The first impression of this company is that it is quiet, rusty and unique nestled in the middle of beautiful mountain scenery near where the “Waltons” story typified Americana. The buildings have obviously been around for a while and many are examples of soapstone durability.

This contrasts with modern diamond wire cutting equipment used to cut slabs of stone from ¾ inch thick up. Most of the current production is from recycled “rejects” that were less than the required 50” by 50” sawed in the obsolete gang saw building. The rejects were dumped into the worked out quarry pits along with the overburden. These “rejects” weighing as much as 14,000 lbs. are now being recycled for countertops and slabs up to 30 inches wide and bulk stones as big as the block allows. The only effluent from these operations is stone dust entrained in water which is allowed to settle out in an old quarry before the water is absorbed into the ground.

The tour began with a walk through the coring and turning area where pieces are turned on a standard lathe using grinding stones and water in place of tool rests and gouges. Cores up to 14” can be cut and mounted on the lathe. Finished samples of the output of this operation were available in the office.

The stone yard handles rock up to 15,000 lbs. with an overhead bridge crane and a turnover table to position the rock for cutting on the diamond wire saw table. Imagine a 10 ft. tall band saw. Properly positioned stones are cut into 1 ¼ inch slabs for countertops and as little as ¾ inch for other applications. Conveyed from this machine on a large roller conveyor the slabs are polished to remove most of the saw marks and then the slabs proceed to manual polishing where a final finish is ground or brushed on the surface of the slab. Many finishes can be applied to the stone. Slabs are then moved to pallets and sorted and inspected for flaws before sale. Other pieces are cut to size with diamond blade saws for stove parts, pavers or countertops.

The resident artist, Toru Oba, was an interesting part of the tour and showed us around his area containing sculptures that had taken as much as 3 months to complete and ranged from water fountains to large free form sculptures. He explained the numerous finishing techniques he used to texture and polish the soapstone and other materials. After the tour we enjoyed a casual lunch at a local eatery and took the scenic route home.

Jim Oates