"...a time to gather stones together" - Ecclesiastes
About Ward Pumice Company
Hi, I'm Stuart Ward and run a one-person backwoods home micro-biz.
I know... Company sounds like a big outfit. That wasn't my intent; just like the sound of it.
Besides, a party of stellar jays often oversees operations, and helpful chipmunks scamper over rinsed stones set out in the sun, jostling them and helping speed drying time.
While a kitchen table operation, I've been gathering and wholesaling pumice 23 years. Mine was only a hobby business, supplying a dozen or two regional outlets -- until changing fortunes prompted getting serious. I'd been gathering stones all along like a squirrel gathering nuts, thinking "someday..." In 2009, with the Great Recession hitting, someday came like gangbusters.
one wholesaler's perspective
Most wholesale suppliers have one fill application to open account, especially if they also retail their products. While mine's fairly efficient operation, prefer running things more informally. I built this transparent website not wanting to conform to, for me, spirit-stifling conventional business protocol and pay someone to build and maintain any more robust streamlined site, brimming with bells and whistles and shameless flashers. This homemade effort suits me. It reflects a simple business. Since dealing with sometimes-limited, seasonal item, I've little incentive to attract any droves of new buyers through fancier website anyhow.
Traditional secrecy surrounding all-critical gap between wholesale and retail price is product of now fading "All the Market will Bear" business attitude. In new greening, more conscious economy springing forth between cracks of crumbling old order, it no longer needs be kept so secret.
"There's nobody else we want to order our pumice from."
~ Rainbow Grocery, San Francisco, CA
Any shopper realizes a business has overhead and must markup goods over what they pay just to stay afloat, let alone ever hope to get ahead. It's price shopper pays for convenience of buying one
or two of a thing rather than truckload, often by walking or driving a few blocks or making a few clicks online. Retailers make their living selling by the each or few as a service, in contrast to wholesalers, like me, who serve by selling in volume, at discount, most commonly to retailers for resale along buying chain.
Here I should add that any shopper who stumbled on this site and is indeed interested in maybe just buying a stone or two, click here for lists and links to retail online and brick store suppliers carrying stones.
inventory and order sizes
With average inventory of ton or two of assorted select-grade stones, replenished every summer, plus another ton or so of shop grade/seconds, I'm a boutique pumice wholesaler, an artisan pumice supplier if you will. No by-the-pallet freight-shipping supplier. (Amusingly, sometimes get phone offers from truck lines hoping to haul my stone to fill empty rebound.) That said, I'm generally able to keep up with demand for scores of retail concerns and other modest-volume purchasers.
What's modest? In normal snowfall years, maybe 100-150 ct. of medium select stones (1.4-1.9 oz.); 50 or so of 2.0-2.2 oz. thru 4-4.9 oz stones; 50 lbs. of seconds; each maybe re-ordered 1-4 times a year or so.
Mt. Shasta's summer snow and glacial melt only send so many stones down each year under its unique time-release plan. Since I don't fancy hiking up to lofty source and packing out between harvests -- beyond Walter Mitty fantasies, anyhow -- I sometimes do run low on faster moving sizes and have to ration accordingly. Severe California drought, despite respite last winter, continues to threaten continued availability of a few popular sizes and some rationing remains in effect. (Check bottom of home page or below price list for current availability report.)
I manage to keep as many stones stocked as I do for new and repeat customers only by fending off larger-volume resellers, who would gobble up entire supply of given size and still want more yesterday at steeper discount.
Meanwhile supplies of other stone sizes not in as much demand keep accumulating. (Offering some 18 different weight ranges and two grades plus bulk/packaged option keeps things interesting.)
The fact certain sizes don't move as fast as others in no way means they mightn't be perfect for right buyer, whether for body care or other application. The now-popular 3-3.9 oz. size, for instance, once didn't move at all, and the .6-.7 oz and 1.-1.3 oz. stones took years before catching on. Meanwhile, .8-.9 oz. size can still go begging, as can select-grade 5-5.9 oz., 6-6.9 oz. and 7-10 oz. stones, many of exquisite shapes and varied surface textures.
living close to nature
I feel the deep connection to earth of one blessed to live amid the tranquility of nature.
After growing up in San Francisco proper and dharma-bumming through '70s, I've called same two acres of juniper-and-sage high desert woodlands in foothills of Mt. Shasta, California, home most of adult life. Such lifestyle has fine-tuned an innate reverence for wild nature and delight working with her to earn livelihood.
In the early '90s a neighbor and I were looking out over our local part-time creek's then-dry bed from above a dirt road culvert. A flood of summer snow melt had roared down the mountain overnight, leaving in its wake an intriguing scattering of porous light-colored stones.
"Wonder if there's any market for those," neighbor John mused.
Suddenly I did too. It was as if the stones were saying, "Gather us, we're nature's gifts."
Something of an impressionable rock hound in youth, I knew whole pumice was traditionally valued for filing away foot calluses, ^ Mt. Shasta pumice here showcased by Torry Chapman of Mystics Hallow Shoppe.com. Washington State mountain in background, not California's Mt. Shasta, actual source
scrubbing rills, cleaning toilets and such, but hadn't ever seen them in stores unprocessed. I wondered... In time I discovered there was indeed a market for genuine pumice, even though -- or maybe because -- over 99% of stores' pumice were adulterated yet considered the norm. It took a year of researching, experimenting on own feet distressed from frequent barefooting, and gaining discriminating eye in field and processing to gauge what made a select rock select, before quietly launching business on local level in 1992. My neighbor, already into other stuff, supported fledgling efforts.
Sales were for long time limited to a couple dozen local and regional outlets, most natural food stores with beauty/health sections. For 18 years it was a quiet little hobby business, as I wasn't dependent on it for income. Then came '08-'09 economic crash. Caught on the wrong side of stock market dumbly attempting day trading, suddenly felt wolf at my door for first time in decades. (Had forgotten how unnerving a feeling that can be.)
I learned -- post-haste -- how to cobble together this website. I suddenly had to reach much wider market. At first Google-search results buried my listing on page 57. Since then, happy to say, it's climbed to page one for most key-word searches, sometimes at top, right below others' paid ads.
There is indeed a market for genuine natural pumice stone. Business has grown an amazing thirteen-fold since that low point and is now pretty much supporting a modest lifestyle. Stones roll across country and into Canada, some now and then even bobbing overseas to Australia and Europe. Offers from professional website builders to streamline site, enumerating the many ways I'm doing it wrong, are cheerfully ignored. As said, I can't afford to grow business much more without running out of product.
Initial focus was providing affordable bulk stone to retail outlets stocking natural body-care products. It soon grew to include many artisan soap makers, along with occasional mineral spring resort, eco-friendly gift shop, rock & crystal store, and other natural-healing oriented places. Two large California Bay Area concerns have been re-ordering 23 years.
By 2009 inquiries began coming in for other stone applications, and I diversified by selling for non-body-care use as well. It's now maybe a third of business volume. Happily discovered natural pumice is indeed a rock for all reasons.
Among others, I've supplied New England fire-starter makers, a sculptor, Beverly Hills clothier showcasing stone-washed Levi's, and Converse shoe company for outlet's flagship store displaying stone-washed keds.
Also, rock specimen kit assembler, jewelry maker, pool tile cleaners, marble step scrubber, several chinchilla caregivers, a global industrial corporation de-gunking aluminum-oxide sanding belts...even a small order for NASA, something to do with comet research. Now and then, supply television and film production companies wanting to age costumes by stonewashing, including TV show NCIS and New Orleans spinoff (probably for appropriately attired dug-up-body scenes and such). I even got to supply stones for movie "Terminator 5". (I know, dubious honor, but still...)
Lest you think it unseemly name dropping so much, know it took my reaching normal retirement age before making first business mark in life. It's such rich irony, I'm amazed and delighted is all -- and astounded over stone's countless applications and variety of people and businesses attracted to real pumice.
Stray caution note here on using pumice for stone-washing clothes: never done it myself - or any drilling/slicing/carving/grinding etc. either. It's up to buyer to discover proper method and quantity - I hear they can destroy top loaders' plastic agitators, and adding too many stones might distress cloth to shreds. Film production companies dedicate cement mixers for such efforts.
Soon after branching into retail in 2010 on eBay and at local booths, realized was too geared to selling in bulk to want to dink with by-the-each sales and collect and track sales tax. Though missing interacting with actual stone users, contentedly returned to wholesale-only operation.
beginnings & current
Business is run with joy of service and working with nature. I started out as Mt. Shasta Sage in 1992, after local sagebrush stems harvested and bundled into smudge sticks for wholesale (much harvested on own high desert woodlands), briefly becoming largest northern California wholesaler of mountain sage sticks before everyone and their uncle started wrapping them, and then public started preferring white sage.
Soon branching into pumice gathering, eight years later dropped sage line, calling it a wrap after making some 14,000 bundles. Re-branding in 2009, current biz name reflects dedication finding, processing and delivering finest volcanic pumice Mt. Shasta has to offer.
Whole pumice is my only product.
Mission: to get as many quality pumice stones to as many people
possible as cheaply as possible in a good way and foster working closer with nature.
Without shortchanging own efforts, and allowing for outfits' reasonable markups, I strive to keep prices buyer-friendly for end-users. Low overhead and modest lifestyle allow this. I avoid kind of buyers hoping to just flip bulk stones to another wholesaler, making me feel like faceless widget-peddler, unless value-adding stones with packaging or as part of other product offering like body care gift sets, or only taking modest markup for efforts as stones travel up ever-widening distribution chain around the world.
I feel setting retail markups too high -- say over two to three times cost on smallest stones to 50% on largest -- drives up cost too high for many prospective end-users, creating price-resistance rather than passing on savings and keeping stones affordable to most people possible. This obviously defeats price-point intent and can make me feel I'm undervaluing efforts and must either resist temptation to raise prices or succumb.
Long ago discovered a buyer marking up small fifty-cent-wholesale stones thrown into bags to five dollars -- a one thousand percent markup. Couldn't help but feel more than tad exploited. And naive, for assuming seller would pass on savings and have fast seller on their hands rather than going for all market would bear, gearing for fewer sales at far greater profit margin.
Adding paper slip talking up "rare stone" and "sacred mountain source" to well-heeled clientele, perhaps having more dollars than sense, didn't make me feel much better. Yes, stones are relatively scarce, and mountain is indeed sacred. But I feel there's no need to turn it into some lah-de-dah prestige item and price out buyers of more modest means and make me feel exploited in process.
Granted, it's a fine line. Have since come to realize how retailers must grab profit where they can to meet often nutzoid storefront overheads. And how some retailers possibly share my resistance to dinking with selling by the each low-price items and so price them to make sale worth one-at-a-time, "Would you like a bag for that?" effort.
That said, I noticed tendency with retailers to go with smaller stones and take bigger markup rather than larger ones with smaller markup. While understanding urge to do this and make bigger return on investment, buyers should know certain people have been seeking larger genuine pumice stones forever, half-thinking it's unicorn stone that doesn't really exist. What one doesn't make in maximum selling volume stocking larger stones is made up in very happy customers, boosting biz's good will. Some buyers offer two or even three sizes of Mt. Shasta pumice, thus accommodating everyone's Goldilocks druthers.
Whatever the markup, it's the hope that with seller's cooperation an easy positive energy flow in stones is kept from harvest to retail purchase and other end uses. They are truly nature's gifts. Any cost attached to them should solely reflect actual efforts and expenses -- yours and mine -- getting them to market.
Stray note: A 47-year vegetarian diet based on belief all sentient beings deserve to live lives unexploited by humans precludes selling stones to any whose business in any way involves harming animal kingdom.
people are funny
Human nature being what it is, most every skin-care pumice supplier seems moved to alter natural pumice somehow. Add their imprint. They feel silly or uncreative selling them as... well, just rocks.
So they'll contour them on grinding wheel, drill holes in them for shower-hanger hemp ropes, slice them in half, crush them to granule and resurrect as cutesy cookie-cutter-shaped ghosts of former selves, add patchouli or lavender scent, dye them chartreuse, fuchsia...something.
My niche, one shared by very few on any ongoing basis, is supplying volcanic pumice stones exactly as found in nature (with occasional wire brush scrubbing to rid of any creek silt remaining after rinse). Nature's the artist, I'm the talent scout. They're the rock stars -- the original rolling stones, even -- I'm the humble roadie tasting bit of glory through association. Together we're a team.
Each summer, as weather in our high-desert woodlands turns exotic, I get my forestry gather permit and make forays onto nearby public lands and privately-owned alluvial fan, latter by generous permission of absentee owner. (I pick up litter to help even balance.) There I surface harvest by hand, one by one and on foot, latest arrivals, time-released daily from high up the mountain by glacial snow melt and stranded as day's waters recede. Knowing when, where and how to look for what stones is something honed over decades and still being refined. Wily nature plays with me by waters constantly braiding new distribution courses over lands.
Stones wet from creek are sun dried, hand rinsed in rainwater and float tested -- rough indicator of most effective scouring surface (rejecting any that don't float at least a second*). Then they're baked in the sun again until bone dry. Separated out are seconds, or shop/economy grade -- still useful stones, just not as optimal or aesthetically pleasing for skin care.
*Lighter pumice, with more delicate cell walls, will seem to float forever. Mt. Shasta's pumice, with thicker (thus, sharper and more durable) cell walls, are far less buoyant.
Finally, select-grade stones are sorted into weight categories. Other suppliers might gauge stones by length; I go by weight range, finding it more precise measure of actual stone mass, as depth and width can vary greatly between same-length stones.
Entire operation -- minus short drive in 4-cylinder car -- is absurdly low-tech. Powering self with foodprint of less resources-guzzling vegan diet, like to think it's reducing adverse impact on planet a nano-bit more -- though no doubt I'm unwittingly profligate in other ways. (Check out Dr. Will Tuttle's transcendent book The World Peace Diet and yet-novel idea of holding compassion for every sentient being, not just select few.)
strollin' on a creek bed
I revel working in nature. The kid in me makes forays perpetual Easter egg hunt. Mother Earth is left undisturbed in wandering about searching for new arrivals while enjoying the glad tidings of nature and getting good grounding workout lugging laden bags about. Only occasional startled birds and tiny lizards skittering about seem to mind presence. Okay, ant colonies might occasionally mutter, "Who moved the mountain?" but always try to minimize natural disturbance.
Over decades of handling untold tons of pumice I've come to resonate with them. I understand why Native Americans hold rocks are alive, a reflection of Great Spirit. Pumice stones indeed emanate a certain fine intelligence and are said to have specific healing properties. Some claim pumice can amplify empathic powers, cleanse space by absorbing negative energies, even help mend long-standing emotional wounds. (Read more on Umpteen Uses page - scroll down to below list to Esoteric Uses.)
"I looked and looked for real pumice for a long time; when I found you I was sooo delighted! Not only are they wonderful gifts of nature but they carry great Mt. Shasta energy. They are perfect for my little organic boutique and skin care spa. I am grateful for all you do!"
- Jackie Davis, Port Clinton, OH
My commitment is to fulfill each customer's needs whenever possible. As tiny biz, Ward Pumice can deliver customized service -- unlike larger companies, for whom real whole pumice, if they even carried it, which they don't, would likely be just one of hundreds of products sold by the case, drop-shipped from another business, "temporary availability; sizes may vary, substitutions possible, void where prohibited, may cause death, see your doctor -- help, I'm being held captive in a legal disclaimer office!"
As I'm forever pointing out, over 99% of what's touted as natural pumice in stores and online plumb isn't. Genuine natural pumice is made by nature -- period.
Stuff audaciously posing as natural pumice can only be distributed by the zillion by first adulterating stones into uniform size and abrasion surface by an energy-guzzling process of crushing stone to powder and granule, adding liquid frothing agent and epoxy binders, firing up resulting slurry and injecting into molds -- futilely trying to match nature's superior abrasion and durability, while only achieving pale approximation. But, hey, it's dandy uniform product. As a niece put it, it's the difference between soaked particle board and soaked wooden plank: one soon disintegrates in water while other keeps integrity intact.
This intensive process obviously ratchets up product's carbon footprint. Adding insult to injury and paying for the privilege, it deprives people the simple pleasure of connecting with nature's handiwork in its pristine state.
Retailers might have to educate their customers of these vital differences before they can appreciate stone's superiority over man-made quasi-pumice that many don't even recognize as shameless posers.
Okay, let's be fair
Reconstituted pumice -- and other manufactured scrub bars, rasps and file sticks, for that matter -- do offer certain features over whole pumice: wider availability for sure, more consistent work surface, controlled coarseness level (such as it is), uniform shape, and maybe greater ease keeping hygienic.* I've tried these myself and can appreciate pluses. But then there are all those pesky minuses - -bigger carbon footprint, less than eco-friendly harvesting practices, often higher cost, altered from natural state, and lower durability and filing effectiveness.
* Keep whole pumice sanitary with periodic debris removal by brushing and rinsing and then soaking in jar filled with weak bleach solution (1 part in 10 warm water) or anti-bacterial soap for 10 minutes, rinse, and air-dry - in sunshine's purifying rays when possible.
Some might feel the trade-off's worth it. Others may use both natural and manufactured scrubbers, liking generous assortment of dermabrasion tools in body-care kits.
initiation by fire
Yet others aren't even aware such pumice has even been processed -- like me, once. The first time I bought pumice years before starting up, I got a small shrink-wrapped bar imported from Japan then popular in local boutique stores flirting with ostensibly earth-friendlier products. The label said natural pumice, so of course I thought it must be cut from some huge slab of pumice stone or something, like from a New Hampshire granite quarry. Finding no use instructions and knowing no better, I promptly rubbed it dry on dry back. I felt like I'd been whipped for days after. Initiation by fire.
everybody must get stones...
Real pumice appeals to growing numbers of people who'd rather work directly with nature.
I resonate being part of growing back-to-nature movement, which, nearly a half century after splendiferous rebirth in the '60s, is now at last percolating into fringes of mainstream consciousness (along with natural diet, transcendental meditation, yoga, cannabis healing, recycling, simpler living and tiny homes. This, despite noteworthy greenwashing efforts of moribund business-as-usual concerns to spin entrenched earth-hostile production practices into cat's meow.
A giant distributor for big-box store chains once approached me., wanting quote for initial order of 25,000 pieces. I obviously couldn't accommodate them. But the imagination reeled a while...I coulda been in Target. Point: big businesses suspect there could be great demand for genuine pumice if they could crank up numbers of consistent size and grade to make it worth effort.
slow and steady supply
But they can't. Not in long run. Nature's way of supplying is often slow but steady -- and, in the case of pumice, incredibly varied in size, color, quality, and abrasive properties. Even down to each eruption of same volcano. Most summer days I'll gather up maybe two cloth bags' full -- three or four on a really good day, when I push endurance and carry up to 60 pounds wet stone, some in day pack -- trudging up and down part-time creek's often-rocky bed and nearby loose sand on 90 to 100 degree F. days, sometimes wondering about sanity.
Low humidity and cooling wet creek bed are saving graces, and a spartan nature helps. If still working when day's melt starts surging, add figuring how to get from A to B without ruining yet another pair of sneakers. There are always far more smaller than larger stones to be found.
on continued availability
As mentioned, I'm mostly able to replenish stocks only once a year, in summer and early fall. On occasion, long-term buyers have had to shift to next size up or down after repeated inroads into one size depletes that stash for any relatively high volume purchase until next summer harvest.
Again, I try to keep year-round availability of all sizes, for repeat buyers first and foremost, and then new customers whenever possible. Bottom line: this pumice is seasonally harvested product. The State's five year drought just ended, thank goodness, promising greater harvests to come. Really didn't want to see stones actually become scarce items, commanding prim prices at places like Priscilla's Posh Pedicure Parlour for Pampered Peoples.
competitive pricing, dizzying variety
Prices are competitive with few vendors offering similar real pumice, along with most reformulated pumice products. I admit small adulterated cheapos made by the zillion in China might have me beat, along with ephemeral here-today-gone-tomorrow suppliers from third-world countries paying peasant labor fifty cents an hour after local volcano goes. Variety selection is several-fold any likely to be found elsewhere.
None I've seen online offer more than one or two sizes, and surprisingly few online vendors even tell you average size or weight! (Note to online merchants: don't become one of these. Give people a clue and offer average size and/or include another item in picture for comparison, to enable informed purchasing.)
Getting handle on dizzying variety of sizes and grades is indeed daunting challenge of marketing this pumice with any rhyme or reason. Over decades I've wracked errant left brain's organizing ability to hammer out workable system of categorizing, grading, and pricing that I'm happy with.
Perhaps it's little wonder most business concerns, frustrated over nature's refusal to be more uniform in its splendid creations, opt to re-form pumice stones' wild-child nature into cookie-cutter obedience -- send them to re-form school: "Bad stones, bad!"
They thus achieve desired uniformity but at price of compromising original stones' superior abrasive quality, destroying natural formations, preventing user's nature connection, and ratcheting up product's carbon footprint and cost. And then have the audacity to call them natural. "Bad marketers, bad!"
I like doing business with those wanting organic green products, who can appreciate whole pumice unmessed with by man and simple low-tech business operations working with nature. People who, had they the time and proximity, would no doubt be out gathering stones themselves, thank you very much.
Flat-rate priority mail boxes from USPS post office now claim to be made from post-consumer waste and I want to believe it, as most all stones are shipped with them. Recycled wadded newspaper used for most box fill and recycled bubble wrap for base cushioning when available. I admit I splurge on virgin tissue box liners, plus single sheets of bubble wrap when none on hand to recycle, trusting others will recycle them in turn. Many sinkers re-purposed as landscaping; others form impressive conversation-starter pile.
Happy to report sunshine supplies all power for website work. I've lived off-grid since 1978 with no generator backup; it's sunshine or bust. Fortunately it's local banana belt. Sometimes people 15 miles away might be shoveling snow under overcast skies, spring seeming far away, while here it's sunny, ground bare, rural denizens merrily soaking up rays. Other times, like right now, there's snow blanketing panels. In fact, I need to stop writing now to uncover them or I might run ou
(Later...) With no advertising or physical store, overhead expenses are kept rock bottom. To further keep costs down, I take credit cards only thru PayPal. (One needn't have PayPal account to transact.) I know, there's PayPal's Square now for taking cards with smart phones, but I barely even use dumb phone. A little technology goes a long ways in my world.
Mine's a simple operation, here for the long haul, dedicated to supplying natural pumice in a good way.
"Thank you for the fine service. I got my pumice stones today and I must tell you they work awfully good... I'm very pleased."
- Arthur M., octogenarian fire-starter maker, Maine (First online order, in 2009; good omen.)
Home is little-big cabin I built in 1980 without power tools. It's perched on two acres adjoining public forestland in wooded high desert foothills of Mt. Shasta in upstate California. Rain's harvested off roof and purified, electricity generated by Sol.
p.s. here's a pinterest site with lots of pix and uses for pumice of all stripe.
Thanks for visiting. Not into Facebook, so this page doubles as substitute.