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The Craft of Stone Carving

The Craft of Stone CarvingIntroduction to Stone carving

Whether working  on classical columns in ancient Rome, temple statues in India, tomb façades carved from rock faces in Jordan or gothic gargoyles in Europe, carvers through the ages have and much in common.

In many western communities, a strict hierarchy evolved within the carving profession. A young apprentice graduated from the lowly tasks of sharpening tools and carving moulding to more elaborate cornice work. Only the master carver was allowed to chisel out the important illustrious figures.

The design

Certain considerations dictate the design of a piece of work. Strong bold shapes are needed for a piece of work to be positioned high up on a building as it has to be viewed from the ground. Consequently it is pointless to include intricate details as they will be lost to all but the birds. On lower levels, more compact, intricate designs are worked, as they can be seen at close quarters. This in churches, lecterns and fonts are often densely decorated with delicate carvings.

Each type of stone has different characteristics which affect the way it can be worked. Portland stone, for example, is extremely hard, making it difficult to carve. It allows sharp, crisp definition of forms. The most skilled craftspeople can exploit this to chisel out fine detailed figure work. Its hardness also means the stone weathers slowly, so it will maintain the ornamentation longer.

Bath stone, on the other hand, is much softer than Portland. Although this makes it easier to cut out fine details, these tend to be blurred at the edges and wear away more rapidly. Such stone is perfect for broad designs, with sweeping curves and open shapes.

If a piece of carving is required for restoration work, the design and stone will be dictated by the carvers who have gone before. Often, the piece to be carved is in a standard design. An experienced craftsperson has an extensive knowledge of the major styles, such as classical and gothic, and design motifs within those styles. Such knowledge is as much a part of the job as knowing the practical side of cutting the stone. Only now and again does the chance arise for the carver to originate a design.


Like many crafts people, the craver builds up a collection of tools which becomes personalized to the individuals technique. Carvers will often make their own tools to fit the requirements of a certain job

Hammers, mallets and dummies provide the force which drives the cutting tool through the stone. Mallets are traditionally made of wood, but today nylon heads are widely used. Hammers are metal headed and vary in weight and size. Dummies look similar to a mallet, but the head is smaller, longer and made of metal.

The point is used to rough out the stone and it shatters rather than cuts the stone

Chisels, claws and gouges are the main implements for cutting and shaping the stone. They range in size and fineness. The cutting edges of these must be very hard and sharp. The edges are made from either tempered steel or tungsten

Files vary in size from large, rough heads down to riffers which are only inches long and used for cleaning out nooks and crannies.

Powered tools driven by compressed air are widely used. These save the carver using a hammer or mallet, leaving both hands free to guide the cutting edge

The carving

Guided by sketches and pictures the carver will begin to rough out the stone using the point.

As more and more stone is cut away the tools used need to be finer to enable accurate carving. Chisels are used to cut away the stone; claws are used for modelling, shaping and adding texture.

On softer stones, as the details become finer, it is possible to push the chisel into the stone without the use of a hammer or dummy. This leaves both hands free to steady and guide the implement. On soft stones like bath and alabaster it is even possible to use wood carving tools.

Rifflers, the small files often curved and pointed, are used to clean out nooks and crannies. It is easy to rely on these and the larger files too much and over refine the surface, giving it a modelled rather than a carved appearance.

The nearer the carver comes to completion the more nerve wracking every move becomes; one false stroke can mar hours if not days of work. More worrying is judging correctly when to stop carving; there is a fine dividing line between over and under carving a piece.

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