masonry, stone, brick, chimneys

Working with a Stonecarver

Professional stonecarvers can usually work in a variety of styles and with a variety of stone to create elements that will last through the ages.

Click here for a list of specialists in hand-carved stone

By Walter S. Arnold, Stonecarver & President of the Stone Carvers Guild

Some of our oldest records of civilization come to us through carved stone. This art has been with us throughout our history, adapting and changing to fit with different times and cultures, while retaining its historic foundations. Stonecarving can still be fresh and relevant in the 21st century but is rarely used. Very few architects, designers and builders are accustomed to working with carvers, and the process of commissioning custom work can be a bit daunting.

This need not be the case. Stonecarvers are generally quite down-to-earth and accommodating. Unlike most artists, who focus on personal expression and prefer to work in their own personal style, professional carvers are used to working in a wide variety of styles and adapting to the needs, dreams and specifications of their clients. A hand-carved stone fireplace, family crest, door surround, keystone, ornamental panel or fountain can add a sense of individuality, quality, craftsmanship and style that truly highlights a home or building. It can be a focal point that enhances and emphasizes the work of the architect or designer.

Finding and Choosing a Carver
Upon learning that I am a stonecarver, many people are quite surprised. They thought we were extinct. To the contrary, stonecarving is not a lost art. There are many skilled stonecarvers in North America, continuing the old traditions by applying their skills to both traditional and contemporary design. You can find a list of carvers here and by visiting the website of the Stonecarvers Guild.

The guild is a trade association that is working to maintain the traditions and skills of stonecarving and ensure that carved stone will continue to play an important role in our built environment throughout the 21st century and beyond. All the professional members of our guild have at least six years of professional carving experience and draw on each other for support, ideas, techniques and resources. Guild members annually demonstrate stonecarving at StonExpo the annual trade fair of the American stone industry.

To select a carver, look at the work of a number of carvers. Each has his or her own style and approach, but understand that a good carver can work in a broad range of styles, not just those represented in his or her portfolio. The portfolio only reflects work that others have commissioned; your commission can be a unique reflection of your own taste.

Working with a Carver
There are several stages in working with a carver. In the initial discussions, you will look at the carver’s work and experience, and the carver will need to understand your project. Next come design and pricing, then shop drawings and ordering of the stone. When the stone arrives at the carver’s shop, the process of carving will begin. The last steps are the delivery and installation.

In the initial phase the carver will want to know about the style, choice of material, budget, schedule and practicality of the project. Information about the design and scale of the room or building will be helpful. Do you want an old, rustic look or a crisp, modern look? What type of lighting will illuminate the work? Is there a lot of natural light? Will the walls be light or dark? Will the foundation support a lot of weight, or should the stone be cut thin to minimize the load? If the work is on the exterior, is it facing north where there will be limited light and shadow? Will it be in a harsh or mild climate? Will it be viewed from close up or far away, or both? If you are considering a fireplace, what are the dimensions of the firebox and the wall? Is it wood burning or gas?

If you have pictures of work that appeals to you, bring them along to help the carver understand your taste and the style of the project. Take advantage of your carver’s expertise and experience. The cost of a carving is determined by the amount of time required to execute it and the cost of the particular stone that has been selected. Often, the carver can recommend small changes that could reduce the price while maintaining the overall visual impact. Other changes could add considerably to the effect of the finished work but might cost more.

Stonecarvers can design the work to your specifications or work directly from your plans. If the project is simple and straightforward, the carver can probably price it based on your initial discussions. In other cases, it can take a good bit of design work, development drawings and models before the carver can calculate the cost of stone and the carving time required. Discuss who will do that design work: the carver, the designer or the architect. If the carver is doing that work, a design fee may be required.

Custom hand carving is not a fast process. The earlier in your project you begin talking with a carver (or carvers), the easier things will go. It can sometimes take months just for the stone to get delivered to the carver, so if time is an issue, ask whether there are alternative types of stone that can be obtained more quickly. Every type of stone works differently and has different durability. Tools, techniques and speed of work can vary, and that can impact greatly on the result and the time (and price) required.

Know Your Stone
Each type of stone has its own particular characteristics, including strength, density, variation in color and tone and “carveability.” Some stone will cut to a clean, crisp edge; other stone will crumble or chip easily. Most carvers have favorite stones, materials that they know well and from which they get optimal results, so ask the carver’s advice. Some carvers only work with one type of limestone and devote a great deal of effort to understanding the difference between the stone from each quarry, while others use a wide range of different stones.

Once the design is determined and the type of stone selected, the carver will prepare shop drawings, job tickets (which detail how each piece of stone needs to be cut and shaped), templates or patterns and sometimes models. Even when working from finished drawings prepared by an architect, the carver will need to translate those into shop drawings and make sure the thickness and sizes of each piece are appropriate for the particular type of stone and application.

Once everything has been figured out and confirmed, the stone is selected and ordered, generally custom cut to size, from a stone mill. When the stone blocks arrive at the carver’s shop, the design will be laid out on each piece, using the templates and job tickets. Most of the carving is done with hammers and chisels. Small hand-held pneumatic hammers, invented in the 1880s, are used extensively, along with mallets or hand hammers. With either pneumatic or hand hammers, the process is the same; the chisel is driven forward, carefully cutting and shaping the stone. Saws and drills may be used to rough out the block, and rasps or sanding might be used to apply final textures. Some types of stone take a polish; others will be taken to a chiseled or sanded texture. There are many different textures and surface treatments possible, which can create a richer effect.

When the work is done, the carver will check over each piece to make sure everything is properly aligned and finished and then ship it or deliver it to you. Some carvers will install their work; most do not. A consultation with a mason or builder in your area is helpful for planning this part of the process. The carver may be able to recommend a stone mason.

People often have the image, perpetrated by countless cartoons, of a carver making “one last tap” and shattering a piece. Damage to the work during carving is extremely rare among professional carvers. However, damage during transportation and shipping is all too common. Carvers are very concerned about their work and want to be sure the mason plans properly for the support, anchoring and mortar or adhesive selection. Confirm with the carver that he or she agrees with the approach that the mason will take.

There are many different segments in the U.S. stone industry, and they don’t always overlap. Almost all the marble fabrication in this country is done with slabs. The stone is imported already cut in ¾- to 11/4-in.-thick slabs, suitable for wall panels, counter tops and the like. When thicker pieces are needed, the slabs are laminated.

Carvers work with dimensional stone. The American limestone industry works with dimensional stone. Large quarry blocks are shipped to stone mills, where they are cut to any size. There are only a few sources of dimensional marble in the United States. Many carvers who use marble import their own blocks as needed. Make sure your installers have experience working with dimensional stonework. Many marble setters are only familiar with slab work and can underestimate the requirements for installing carved pieces.

There is a great difference between hand-carved stone, production stonework, cast stone, cast marble and other products. Each carved-stone piece is unique, reflecting the skill and passion of the carver and the individual nature of each block of natural stone. Stone is a natural material and is subject to variations in color and texture. A carver will make sure each piece is aligned perfectly, with the stone cut from a block that has been carefully selected for color tone, grain, consistency and suitability for the type of carving required.

There is also a great deal of mass-produced carving available on the market. Typically, a factory will turn out dozens of similar pieces, using machines and repetitive designs. They create with modular elements (for example, fireplace legs) that can be mixed and matched for standard catalog items. Cast stone and cast marble are synthetic products made from molds. They don’t have the undercutting, light and shadow, texture and sense of individual hand-crafted quality that come from a carver’s emotional commitment to the work.

Natural stone, like many natural building materials, improves with time. It gains patina and character and can look better years or centuries after it is completed than it did when it was new. Synthetic products will never look any better than they do the day they left the factory.

A carved-stone element can be a highlight in your project. It can tie together diverse design and stylistic elements throughout the building, expressing and symbolizing the care, quality and craftsmanship that went into the entire design and construction process.

Click here for a list of specialists in hand-carved stone