So, we’ve seen how plastic dice are made, from mass-market acrylic and resin dice to indie and homemade resin dice. We’ve talked about dicemaking techniques in common, and how metal and wooden dice are made. In this final part of the series we’ll be looking at stone dice in all their forms – stone, natural semi-precious gemstone, glass, and more – as well as more unusual materials for premium dice.  

This is part four of a multi-part series of posts about how dice are made. See the index in the sidebar for links to all the posts in the series. 

It’s been a long ride, but here we are! 

Acknowledgements

As always with this series I’d like to thank:

  • Alex Abrate of Level Up Dice for generously sharing his time and knowledge; without Alex I wouldn’t have been able to write these posts. 
  • Lena, a fellow dice goblin with some truly lovely dice; Lena kindly assisted with pictures of handmade dice.
  • Melissa of the Goblin Dice Hoard Facebook group for dice collectors, who generously shared pictures of many amazing sets of premium dice.

I wouldn’t have been able to compile this series without their generous assistance. Thankyou all!

 

How Stone and Glass Dice Are Made

Stone, Gemstone and Glass: the Materials

How Dice are Made: Post Index

Before we begin, it’s worth noting that many dice sold as “gemstone” dice are actually made of synthetic materials and glass. Reputable sellers will make it clear in the product description that the dice are glass; unethical sellers will try to blur the distinction between natural semi precious gemstones and synthetic materials such as glass and artificial gemstones.

Synthetic stones aren’t necessarily a bad thing – this isn’t Tiffany’s or De Beers, and “natural” vs “synthetic” has no bearing on how attractive a stone might be for dicemaking – but an ethical seller will make sure you know what you’re buying.

There are several different types of “stone” dice, all of which are often sold in the same categories on dicemakers’ websites.

  • Natural semi-precious gemstones: minerals found and sourced in nature, such as agate, amethyst, fluorite, jade, labradorite, etc.
  • Rocks and mineraloids: lapis lazuli, granite, marble, obsidian, opal, graphite and other similar materials.
  • Organic materials: amber, jet, fossils, petrified wood etc.
  • Gemstone glasses: man-made glasses designed to look like a natural material, such as opalite and goldstone
  • Glasses: man-made glasses which are not mimicking a natural material.

For the sake of brevity, where I talk about stone below, you can assume it applies to all of these materials.

Of all the premium materials, stone dice can be the most complex to craft into dice on an industrial scale. Most metals and most woods react similarly when cut, and – barring major flaws in a billet – are pretty consistent throughout. Stone is different, for two reasons:

  1. Every stone has very different physical properties and crystalline structures which can cause them to behave very differently when cut.
  2. Natural semi precious stone is commonly shot through with flaws and inclusions of other minerals, meaning a slab may be hard to turn into usable dice. A kilogram of stone might only make one or two sets of dice. (The wastage is commonly repurposed for other applications, and small offcuts are often reused in the jewellery industry.)

The material for stone dice, particularly those made from natural materials, can vary widely in availability, whether that’s due to seasonality or the vagaries of geological exploration. As a result, dice made of natural gemstones may well be out of stock worldwide for long periods of time, while synthetic materials are more reliably available but still dependent on industrial suppliers.

Precious vs Semi-Precious Gemstones

As per wikipedia, a gemstone is “a piece of mineral crystal which, in cut and polished form, is used to make jewelry or other adornments.” 

In modern use, the precious stones are diamond, emerald, ruby and sapphire. All other gemstones are semi-precious stones, regardless of how much they’re actually worth. (Some semi-precious stones are actually far more valuable than the low to mid-range of precious stones.)

In practice, some materials which aren’t technically minerals are considered gemstones because they’re used in the same way. This includes organic materials like amber and jet, and rocks like granite and lapis lazuli.

Creating the Dice

Stone dice begin as a billet or chunk of material – when dealing with natural stone, some of the frontrunners in the industry take things a step further and run the stone chunk through a series of scanning processes, such as ultrasounds and other imaging technology. This gives an idea of the internal structure of the billet or slab, and how to cut the material to get the best-looking dice and minimise wastage. The billet will be cut into as many 1” cubes as possible, with placement optimised if the maker scans their materials. 

From this point, each cube of material is shaped by an individual with a grinder to form the shape of the die. Many people doing this work are so experienced they can rapidly grind a complex shape like an icosahedron (a d20) by practice and feel. Some makers are experimenting with more automated shaping using CNC processes, but the process isn’t suitable for all stone types and wastes a lot of material.

The shaped die is masked with paper to reveal parts of the die faces and protect other parts, and then sandblasted. This removes the material from the pips, numbers, or other symbols on each face; the die is then airblasted to remove any remaining sand.

Blue Agate dice by Level Up Dice. Picture by me. 

Finishing the Dice

The dice are then set up for painting; most stone dice are spray-painted, although some special effects may call for handpainting. The masking paper is then peeled off and any remnants of paper or paint are cleaned away with a razorblade.

The cleaned, painted dice are then tumbled to polish and finish them. Unlike plastic dice, they’re tumbled with other stones, which vary depending on the hardness of the dice material – the hardest stone dice are tumbled using rose quartz stones.

Alternatively, if the stone dice are intended to have a sharp edge, they’ll be hand-polished instead of tumbled.

Ionized Finishes

Some brands produce “Ionized” dice, where some or all of the stone surface has a reflective rainbow finish to it – Level Up Dice pioneered this process and other dice in this style are starting to appear in the market of late.

Ionized finishes follow a similar process as regular stone dice, except instead of painting they go through an ionization process which is similar to the anodization used on aluminium dice, chemically bonding the colourant to the surface of the dice.

Labradorite dice by Level Up Dice. Picture by me. 

Glass Dice

Glass dice (including gemstone-like glasses) are usually created in the same way as stone dice. The main differences are:

  • The raw material is created in slabs or billets rather than having to deal with chunks of raw mineral, reducing the need for scanning and the amount of wastage.
  • Working with glass has much more stringent safety requirements, due to the risks posed by glass powder and fibres.

Glass dice can include:

  • Clear and coloured glass, often marketed as “crystal”.
  • Opaque coloured glass, such as that found in Level Up Dice’s new “Candy Glass” range.
  • Synthetic materials often marketed like gemstones, such as opalite and goldstone.
  • Dichroic glass, a layer of holographic material sandwiched in between glass layers, used to make dice such as CrystalMaggie’s Fantastic Glass and Level Up Dice’s Radical Glass. (A similar technique can also be used with plastic layers.)

Fantastic Glass dichroic glass dice by CrystalMaggie. Picture thanks to Melissa of Goblin Dice Horde.

Other Materials

Metal, wood and glass are far from the only unusual materials used to make dice. For starters, every indie maker working in resin seems to be trying to answer the question “yes, but can I include this in a die?” for everything from ramen noodles to miniature rubber ducks to human teeth.

On the “luxury dice” side of the industry, there are a range of interesting materials in use:

Bone, horn and ivory dice

These materials are usually formed into dice using CNC techniques like wood and stone dice. Some may also include resin material – many bones are hollow or porous and need to be cast into a billet using resin before cutting and shaping.

Modern synthetic materials

A number of dicemakers make dice of entirely modern materials:

  • Teflon
  • Carbon fibre
  • Micarta and Thurmanite – composites of densely layered paper or fabric bonded with resin or plastic
  • PMMA – otherwise known as Perspex, Plexiglass, Lucite etc. This is the same plastic used to make injection-molded mass-market plastic dice, but for premium dice the plastic is cast into billets and then cut and machined to shape, to preserve optical clarity.

These dice are usually formed into billets and then cut and machined to shape, with numbers engraved, burnt or inlaid. 

Mammoth Ivory dice by Artisan Dice. Picture thanks to Melissa of Goblin Dice Hoard. 

Resin stabilised materials

As well as making dice out of resin and various pretty additives, resin can also be used as a stabiliser or bonding agent for other materials.

Used as a stabiliser, it adds structure and rigidity to materials which might be too soft or brittle (or not large enough) to use for dice by themselves, such as Artisan Dice’s resin-stabilised gator jawbone dice.

Used as a bonding agent, resin binds together particulates which would otherwise fall apart, fills gaps and spaces, and adds material strength – this is the technique used to make TruStone material for Level Up Dice and Elemental Dice material for Artisan Dice.

Once a resin stabilised material has been created, it can be cut into dice-sized chunks and machined into shape using the most appropriate technique for the included material. This is different from mainstream resin dice with inclusions, where the dice are still cast as a liquid and inclusion items are put into the dice as they harden.

Gatyor Jawbone dice by Artisan Dice; these dice are made of hollow bones stabilised with resin. Picture thanks to Melissa of Goblin Dice Hoard. 

In Summary

As you can see, the methods for producing each kind of dice have some factors in common but the details can vary significantly. 

Material Forming Method Finishing Step(s)
Acrylic Automated injection molding Painting, machine tumbling
Resin Automated or manual pouring into molds Painting, machine tumbling (or hand sanding and polishing)
Metal (cast) Casting into molds (Optional) Painting, enamelling or plating
Metal (precision) CNC milling (Optional) Anodization
Wood CNC milling (Optional) Metal inlay
Stone Grinding Various options: painting, abrasion, iodizing, inlay

Turning raw plastic, metal, glass, stone and wood into polyhedral solids to generate random numbers for you is a long and involved process. Dice brands and hand makers are always innovating, looking for new materials to turn into dice and new methods to improve existing processes – who knows what the next big dice material will be?

The End

So that’s the end of this series, with everything you ever wanted to know about how dice are made and a bit more besides. Hopefully this has been informative and interesting – got any questions? I’m happy to find out the answer if there’s something else you want to know about dicemaking!

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