Starting a Mineral Collection

There are presently nearly two thousand different minerals which have been found and identified, and which are recognized as separate and distinct species. Many of these minerals occur in more than one form, and they may vary in color and crystal shape as well. Every now and then someone discovers a new mineral, so the list of known species and varieties continues to grow.

Some minerals are very common and can be found almost any place in the world. Many are less common and occur only in certain localities that for various reasons were favourable to their development. Other minerals are considered rare, and a small number are known to science by only a few specimens.

Because of the great number of minerals and minerals varieties, it is unlikely that any collector can acquire specimens of all of them. Most mineral collectors set quality rather than quantity as their goal, and concentrate their efforts on knowing fewer species well.

Type of Collections

Mineral collections fall into two categories: general and special. A general collection consists of a variety of minerals, specimens of which may come from a nearby locality or from as far away as Africa, India, or New South Wales. Rocks, fossils and other related material are often include, for the scope of a general collection is practically limitless.

Most hobbyists start out with a general collection. The beginner can learn a great deal from a collection of this type, particulary if he has no previous knowledge of minerals. It not only gives him the opportunity to see and handle many different kinds of minerals, but also allow him to compare the physical properties of one species with those of another.

Later, as the collector becomes more familiar with minerals, he often finds that his interest focuses on some particular mineral, mineral group, instance, he may collect only those minerals found in the area in which he lives; or those from a single mine, mining district, county, or state. If representative, regional collections can be of considerable scientific value and are the ones most eagerly sought by museums.

The collector may specialize in one class of minerals, such as the sulfides; or he may narrow his field to a single species-possibly quartz or calcite. Some hobbyists confine their collecting to gem minerals; others collect only single crystals; still others specialize in pseudomorphs or other unusual forms. Not only are there numerous possibilities for specialization, but one or more special colections are often included within the broader framework of a general collection.

Specimens Size

When planning a mineral collection, some thought should be given to the sizw of the specimens to be included. Specimens size may seem unimportant to the beginner who has yet to acquire his first minerals; but as his own collection grows, he will soon come to appreciate the fact that even small mineral specimens take up space and also add considerable weight to cabinet drawers, shelves, and floor beams. Since most of us live in small houses or even smaller apartments that afford only a minimum of space for storing and displaying minerals, it is wise to consider the amount of space available for a collection and to limit the size of specimens accordingly. Through lack of such planning, more than one avid mineral collectors has found himself faced with the choice of abandoning his hobby or moving to large quarters. Many collectors specialize in specimens of a certain size; others try to keep specimens within a limited range of sizes. Some uniformity in the size of specimens will make a more attractive collection. It is important to be acquainted with the following terms used to describe specimen sizes:

Handsize (4 by 5 inches) specimens are particularly good for cabinet display, and for this reason they have popular with collectors. Fine handsize specimens, however, are usually expensive, and in the case of some of the rarer minerals, may be priced beyond the means of the average collector.

Standard (3 by 4 inches) mineral specimens are widely used in the reference collections of schools, colleges, and musuems. This specimen size is also popular with many private collectors. It is particularly good for regional material, ore minerals, and rocks.

Miniature (1 1/2 by 2 inches) and specimens measuring 2 by 3 inches are probably the most suitable for home collections. Both sizes are large enough for display, yet small enough to store easily in cabinet drawers and boxes.

Thumbnails (1 by 1 inch), though small, are excellent for someone who specializes in rare minerals, or who has only a very limited amount of storage space. Thumbnail specimens are widely used by schools and colleges in connection with earth science and geology courses; and because they are moderately priced, they are popular with children.

Micromounts are specimens usually of crystallized minerals that are small enough to fit into a standard plastic or cardboard micromount box. Because very small crystals are often more perfect in form than larger ones, there has been a growing interest among collectors in micromount specimens. Their main disadvantage is that, to be fully appreciated, they must be viewed with a stereomicroscope.

Museum-size is a term used by mineral dealers and collectors for any large specimens; it dose not necessarily mean that such a specimen is musuem "quality". Cabinet-size is another term similarly used. There is no doubt that a museum-size specimen of fine quality is impressive when displayed alone or with other specimens of the same size. However, in a collection of smaller specimens, it tends to look out-of-scale.

Buying Specimens

A beginner often asks' "Should I buy minerals?"

Although there are hobbyists who limit their collections to specimens the find themselves, the average collector generally buys some of his minerals. Just how many specimens a collector buys depends, of course, on where he lives, the type of minerals he collects, and the amount of time and money he can devote to his hobby. A collector usually tries to find as many minerals as possible on his own. Occasionally he will buy hard-to-find specimen from a dealer, and he gets others by trading with fellow collectors. Trading is an excellent way to acquire minerals one might not otherwise find or be able to afford.

The overall quality of a specimen is the most important thing to consider when buying minerals. It should be noted that the quality of a mineral specimen has nothing to do with its size. Thus a large specimen in fine conditon. Until the beginner has gained some experience in selectiong minerals, he would be wise to purchase only moderately-priced specimens of the more common minerals.

Basic Equipment

The hobbyist who plans to do some collecting in the field will need certain basic equipment. Collecting equipment is sold by many mineral dealers, or it can be ordered from scientific suppliers such as Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York. Gads, sledges, and other suitable tools may be available at local hardwere stores.

The most essential tool for collecting minerals is a geologist's hammer-either a standard pick hammer, or one with a chesel-shaped cutting edge. A pick hammer is usually the best for working in pegmatites and other "hard" rock formations. The hammer should be made of well-tempered steel, with a square striking face and cutting edge at right angles to the handle. Some collectors prefer and all-metal hammer; ohters prefer one with a wooden or fiberglass handle. Each has certain advantages and disadvantages. Generally speaking, a hammer with a wooden or fiberglass handle is lighter, easier to carry, and more comfortable in the hand; while an all-metal hammer is more durable, particularly in hot, dry climates. Geologist's hammers also come in several weights; the choice is a matter of personal preference.
Safety goggles or a protective evy shield should always be worn when hammering, chipping, or trumming rock. Wearing such goggles in the best way to avoid serious eye injuries that may result from flying slivers of rock or tool steel. Plastic safety goggles are inexpensive, lightweight, and designed to fit easily over regular eyeglasses.

Some sort of hand magnifier is indispensable for examining and identifying specimens. Small magnifiers are available in various styles but the pocket variety, with a lens that folds into a protective metal case is usually the best for use in the field. Hand magnifiers are available in 5x to 20x magnifications. The higher the magnification of a lens, however, the smaller and narrower its field of view. Thus lenses abobe 10x are not recommended for mineral work. It is important that the lens selected be corrected both for color and for spherical aberration. A good "used" magnifier can sometimes be purchased from a dealer in second-hand optical equipment.

A collecting bag for transporting specimens and collecting equipment is another essential. The bag should be made of canvas or heavy cotton duck and have an adjustable shoulder strap. A knapsack of the type sued by the Boy Scouts is also suitable.

In addition to the equipment mentioned, a mineral collector needs a good penknife, a small Alnico magnet, and unglazed white tile, and some kind of notebook for recording collecting data.

Other Useful Equipment

Until he has had time to familiarize himself with the various practices and techniques employed in field collecting, it is unnecessary for a beginner to buy more than the basic equipment. Later, if the need arises, he may wish to add some of the following tools to his stor of equipment:

A crack hammer is essentially a lightweight, short-handled sledge. It is useful for breaking up tough rock, strinking chisels, driving wedges and gads, and for general trimming purposes. In a hammer of this type, a one-piece, all-metal construction is the most practical because it eliminates any danger of the head loosening and flying off. Crack hammers are available in weights of two, three, and four pounds.

A chipping hammer is similar to a geologist's hammer but it doesn't have a flat striking face. It combines a vertical blade at one end of the head with a standard pick at the other. A chipping hammer is particularly good for working n sedimentary rock, and for this reason fossil hunters often prefer it to the more conventional geologist's hammer.

Gad-point chisels of various lengths and diameters are extremely effective for splitting and prying apart rock. For this purpose most collectors prefer gads to steel wedges, which have a tendency to "mushroom" with hard use. Wedge-bladed cold chisels have more limited use in the field, although small ones are sometimes helpful in removing delicate crystal lining from cavities. Cold chisels and gads are used extensively for hand-trimming and shaping specimens. A broad-bladed chisel, called a pitching tool, is also helpful for trimming and shaping.

A modified pry bar known to mineral collectors as a pocket robber in unexcelled where considerable leverage is needed for prying or moving large rocks. Pocket robbers are made from standard hexagonal bar stock of various lengths. The ends are tappered and bent over slightly in opposite directions. A bar about two feet in length is good and not too cumbersome to carry.

In some situations, a shovel may be needed for digging or removing loose rubble. The blade of the shovel should be fairly shallow in depth, and pointed rather than rounded at the tip. A small folding entrenching shovel similar to the type used by the U.S. Army is ideal.

On occasion the collector may find a gold pan useful for recovering heavy minerals and small gemstones from stream gravels. A black, sheet-iron pan about sixten inches is diameter is recommended. Some models come equipped with a foam-rubber pad designed to trap small particles in the bottom of the pan. Strong arms and a good deal of practice are needed to use a gold pan efficiently.

Screens and sieves of various mesh sizes can be used for separating small mineral fragments from dry soil, cray, or gravel. The exact size of the screen mesh must, of course, be determined by the size of the particles to be recovered. It the hobbyist is handy with a saw and hammer, simple hand-screens can be hamemade from scrap lumber. Suitable screen mesh can be purchased by the yard at most hardware stores.

Small garden tools such as hand-weeders and cultivators can often be used for digging in loose soil or mine-dump rubble. Other toolsand common items found in the average home may also prove useful. Improvised equipment is more often the mark of an experienced collector rather than a beginner.


Every collector needs a good book on minerals for reference. The most useful is one that describes in some detail the occurrence, physical properties, and chemical composition of the more common minerals. It need not include descriptions of minor subspecies or rare minerals that are seldom encountered in the field. If the book contains photographs, these should be of representative specimens.