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Stone-Carving, Direct Carving and Sundials

( Originally Published 1937 )

The countryman who is always "fixing his place up" frequently encounters a job where a slight knowledge of stone-cutting would be. a great boon.

Stone lintels, keystones, and sills often have to be fitted or altered, a name or inscription carved over a gateway, gateposts decorated or even a headstone lettered for a grave. The drawings (Page 16o) show typical stoneworker's tools which any one handy at the forge can make from cast steel stock.

How to Make Straight the Edge of a Block of Stone

1. Draw the line to which you intend to trim your block.

2. Clamp a straight-edge (preferably a flat iron bar) up to your line.

3. With your chipper against the bar, strike it forcibly with your heaviest hammer, and so trim along the whole edge.

How to Trim a Slab

See that the slab is supported under its whole surface. Draw your lines on both sides and very gently tap along the lines with a wide claw chisel, working from both sides until the slab breaks. Trim it with your claw and finish by rubbing down with a large block of carborundum.


Of all the stones used by the colonists for grave markers none has better resisted the weather than slate. The neat inscriptions on slabs of polished slate show even the light scratches that served as guides to the letterers. Artists should consider this when selecting stones on which to work. Slate is a pleasant material to carve. I have carved a full-size portrait relief in gray slate, direct from life, and I found it possible to use a wooden mallet and wood-carving chisels on the stoe. To be sure it took the finest edge off the chisels, but not much more than this. A fine toothed claw chisel is good for roughing out. One soon becomes accustomed to the grain. Files, rifflers, sandpaper, and pumice all help in finishing.

The native argyllites used for walks and flagging, and also used for headstones, are second only to slate in resisting the weather. This stone is too uncertain in strength and texture to be used for careful studies and portraits, but it has possibilities for free, fantastic or humorous garden decorations. Slabs set into walls or terraces can be amusingly decorated with simple outline drawings deeply incised and only slightly modelled. It is easy to carve.

The reddish sandstone is next in permaence. Where it was sheltered it stood quite well but did not resist the severity of exposed locations. This stone is easy to carve because it is soft, but wears the tools down fairly rapidly. The color is interesting.

The white native marble, so beautiful to work with, and capable of such subtlety of modelling, is the worst of our stones to weather. Hence it is not to be regarded as the ideal medium for outdoor sculpture. The fact that it is harmless to the lungs of the carver makes it a very desirable stone to use, and methods of preserving it from the weather should be investigated.

The Indiana limestone, Bath and Portland stones, are all easy to carve, but also subject to the weather. They are useful for the beginner to practice on. Ile can find odd pieces of them lying around the yards of stone contractors, and purchase them for trifling sums.


In Relief

If the slab is thin support it with plaster against a large piece of stone. Draw the design with pencil or charcoal, and cut the outlines down to the back-ground, clearing it away, and leaving the mass of the figure untouched. Then model it in simple planes, finishing the highest parts first and pushing the finished surfaces toward the background. Note that the dimension represented by the depth of the relief is foreshortened, and the depth of parts such as noses and ears, presented in profile, must be reduced in proportion. Note also that since the relief is a kind of drawing it partakes of the abstract quality of drawing. Emphasize its outlines here and there, by exaggeration of depth to produce a suitable shadow. The light and position in which the sculpture is to be seen in its final location have the controlling influence on such things.

In the Round

Make a block of soap or Ivorite the proportion of the block of stone you intend to carve. Or obtain a small block of talc stone or pyrophyllite of these proportions. The scale should be about i" to the foot. Carve a sketch model out of your small block, fitting the figure well into it in a compact pose. For carving use penknives, linoleum cutting tools, or gouges. For the soap or Ivorite use modelling tools as well. Carve the parts of the figure in roughly geometrical abstractions, using cylindrical shapes for the neck, and limbs, ovoid shapes for heads, and for the torso two relatively rigid parts—thorax and hips—joined by the flexible lumbar region.

Do not rely on detail or facial expression for inter-est. The figure should be sufficiently telling before they are added. The purpose of making the small sketch is to give you the chance of disposing the main masses of your material before you become absorbed in detail. If the first sketch is not a good figure, try another, and do not touch the large stone until the proportions are settled.

Then go to work on the large model with the point, using the sketch for establishing the proportion and disposition of the parts. Finish from the front, pushing the modelled surfaces back with the claw chisels until your work is complete; smoothing further as necessary with the flat chisels, grits and polishing stones.


These are interesting accents for a garden. They may be carved out of solid stone, or the dial with inscriptions may be carved out of a slab and supported upon a pedestal of bricks, rough stone or terra-cotta. I made one sundial for a farm in Great Barrington, Mass. with a direct modelled terra-cotta base and a bronze dial. The Encyclopaedia Britannica gives the mathematical formula for calculating the correct angles of horizontal and vertical sundials for any latitude, and these are quite simple to apply if you know a little trigonometry.

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