One day, a man in Southern California was digging in the desert and found a stone of extraordinary size and character—he saw a prize inside it that most people would miss.
With his backhoe, James Lostlen flipped over that irregularly-shaped boulder that weighed nearly as much as his machine and a vision of what could be appeared in his mind:
Mr. Lostlen, 40, from Morongo Valley, California, deals with rocks all the time; you could say they’re in his blood.
As a kid, he watched them cut geodes open and make jewelry with precious stones, while today stones are still a big part of Mr. Lostlen’s life.
Currently, and for the past 12 years, he has lived on an old stream bed two hours east of Los Angeles, where rocks reign supreme.
“There is not really dirt that we are built upon, it’s more a pile of rocks with sand in between,” he said. “So, when you dig it’s a very, very tedious task.”
The rocks make any home project exponentially harder than normal.
Eventually, he “found harmony with the rocks” after taking up stone working, he said. “I have shifted my perspective in a way that I am truly grateful for [all of the rocks] where I used to fully resent them.”
When he found a 25,000-pound granite boulder with an irregular flat top while digging on his property in August 2022, his inner artist banished those contractor’s woes of it being a nuisance.
Having seen locals make giant rocks into bathtubs before, now he wanted one. Yet he did not entirely foresee the monstrous task ahead.
A stone this size requires work at every level imaginable, “from heavy equipment all the way down to polishing pads,” he said. From his 30,000-pound backhoe, down to the finest 3,000-grit diamond paper, and everything in between.
The massive rock measured 7 feet long, 6 feet wide, and 5 feet high, and moving it was the first of many excruciating tasks. “You can roll things much better than you can lift them,” he said. “You have better strength that way.”
Using sheet metal and a series of chains, he fashioned a sled for the boulder, and was able to finesse the rock through twists and turns on his property in the direction of his house.
The backhoe nearly heaved its own tires off its rims hauling the incredible weight.
It was so heavy he had to stop, and he set about a months-long project of chipping out material to reduce the load.
Unlike carving wood or marble, cutting granite is no cakewalk. Among the hardest stones in the world, granite rates 6 or 7 on the Mohs Scale (while marble rates 3).
The job took months of cutting crisscrossing grooves all over the top surface with his 14-inch gas-powered diamond wheel, cooled by water that also kept the dust down.
Painstakingly, he knocked out the stone squares, inch by inch, with a jackhammer or hammer and chisel, and this process went on for some 15 layers-deep before reaching the floor.
He had to measure the wall thickness constantly or risk it being too thin. Mr. Lostlen noticed a crack on the outside that had probably been there for eons; he feared one overly-hard hammer hit might hatch the whole tub.
Inside, he began roughing-in the shape of the seat and floor with a 9-inch diamond cup wheel. Water and electrical tools don’t mix, so Mr. Lostlen donned his respirator as a cloud of granite dust billowed in the desert.
“Fortunately, it’s a very breezy spot that we live in, so the dust is flowing away,” he said.
Despite the powder, as the stonework emerged, the marbled rock “shined really beautifully,” revealing veins of super-hard quartz that inspired him to push through the exhausting, tedious labor.
“What kept me moving forward was the vision,” he said.
A simple lip on one end comprised a seat for three to four people. Left smooth, the opposite end would present a majestic mountain view.
Now switching to a finer diamond wheel to prep the surface for polishing, Mr. Lostlen took out the final bumps and perfected the shapes.
Eventually, the aforementioned crack came to the fore. Experts in stonework offered Mr. Lostlen advice, and he applied epoxy into the fissure, topped with a layer of granite dust to mask the imperfection.
Using a 4-foot-long drill bit, he bored diagonally down into the wall, bridging the fissure, and inserted steel rebar with epoxy for added support. But would the fix hold water? Only time would tell.
The ambitious mason removed 15,000 pounds of granite at that spot.
Now it was time to move the tub to its intended location. However, transiting the enormous fixture took some gymnastics with the backhoe.
“Thankfully nothing cracked,” Mr. Lostlen said.
“Once I had it into place, we did the final wet polish,” he said. “Then it was drilling out the bottom of the stone with a core drill to put a drain in.”
A simple pop-up bathtub drain was used. No gimmicks.
The fixture also included a 150-foot-long trench filled with gravel that allows water drainage into the table and irrigation to some nearby bushes.
A custom copper spout would fill the tub with fresh mineral water from a well and could be operated from inside the tub.
Finishing the ageless, lithic look, stepping stones were set around the tub with a large stone step at the foot of the granite art object.
Mr. Lostlen’s first dip was “surreal,” he said, adding that “there was the additional benefit of feeling grounded in the tub.” The granite has a “rich, earthy feeling.”
The tub took seven weeks over six months to make, reaching completion in June 2023. Of the cost, Mr. Lostlen said it was “one of those projects that you turned off the meter and stomped on the gas pedal to finish it.” Once past the point of no return, there was no looking back.
It cost about the same as a small swimming pool, he said.
“You have to be slightly deranged to take on a project like this,“ he said. “I’ve worked with a lot of stone, but nothing to this scale.”
The stone that inspired him to persist despite the laundry list of monumental tasks now offers sublime desert experiences with a peerless view of snowcapped Mount San Jacinto. In turn, Mr. Lostlen felt compelled to give his very best work “to honor the stone.”