|The Stone Sculptor
Jason P. Nelson
Stone Carving Tutorial for the Beginner
|"An Artist can not fail; it is a success to be one."
-Charles Horton Cooley
Tools & Safety Equipment
It is important to use the proper safety equipment when sculpting stone. You will need dust masks or a respirator, (I
recommend going with a respirator if you are going to work indoors or use rotary tools). You will also need a face-shield
or safety glasses. I also recommend work-gloves and steel-toe boots. When using power tools, hearing protection is
You do not need to spend a great deal of money on tools, to get started. However, when it comes to tools, I've learned
that you get what you pay for; cheap tools generally don't last very long. If possible, you should buy industrial quality
tools. To start off with, I recommend...
~ A masonry rod saw (the rod can be mounted on a 12" bow-saw or hack-saw frame), available at most hardware
~ Rasps. The straight style, steel, wood-working rasps, available at most hardware stores, work OK. However, I
recommend buying a set of rifler rasps, as well. Carbide and diamond rasps last much longer than steel rasps and work
on harder types of stone.
~ Files. Again, the straight style, steel ones work OK, but I recommend getting a set of rifler files, as well.
Diamond files last longer and can be used on harder types of stone.
~ Chisels. People generally think of a hammer and chisels as being the stone sculptors primary tools. They certainly
are very useful, especially when working with marble or granite. However, for the softer types of stone, they are not
essential. I carved many soapstone sculptures before purchasing my first chisel.
~ You will also need some wet/dry silicone sanding paper, available at most hardware stores.
Of course, eventually you will want to add to your tool box... Power tools will help you to work faster, to increase the
scale of your work, and allow you to work on harder types of stone. The first power tool that I acquired was a Foredom
rotary tool. It has a flexible shaft and a foot pedal that controls the speed. After 11 years of use/abuse, it is still
running. Air tools are very versatile and durable. You can run various sizes of die-grinders, angle-grinders,
sanders/polishers, pneumatic files, pneumatic hammer/chisels and engravers, etc. However, some of these tools
require quite a large compressor to supply enough air, so, it is a bit of an investment. Last year, I purchased an
industrial, 5 hp compressor from DV Systems.
Other tools that I would like to acquire include a pneumatic hammer and chisels, a large electric cut-off saw with a 14"
blade, a diamond chain saw, various lapidary saws, grinders and lapping machines and a better dust collector.
Selecting Sculpting Stone
For first-time stone sculptors, I recommend starting off with a relatively small stone, weighing 10-20 lbs. The soft types
of stone such as soapstone, alabaster or wonder-stone are the easiest to carve with hand tools. Soapstone is generally
the softest and easiest type of all; it is composed primarily of talc, which is also the main ingredient in baby-powder. If
you would like more information on the properties of various types of sculpting stone, take a look at Neolithic Sculpture
Supply's "About Stone", page. You should look for stones that have don't have any unhealed cleavage lines (cracks), in
it. These are sometimes hard to spot, but, if a stone has many angular irregularities or protrusions, it is often a clue that
it may be cracked. Another way to tell is by striking the stone with a hammer; if the stone is solid, it will ring like a bell, if
not it will be more of a thud. However, this technique only works with harder stones such as marble.
Setting-up a Studio
Once you have your tools and stone you will need a place to work. Sculpting stone is quite messy; a great deal of dust
and/or mud and debris is created. So, it is not practical to work in your home. A wired and heated garage works well, if
you don't need to keep your vehicle in it. If you do not have a suitable building, you may have to start out in your
backyard or driveway. (My first sculptures were all carved outside.)
You will need a sturdy table or workbench that is of a comfortable height to work at. For smaller sculptures, under 300
lbs, sandbags are helpful for holding the stone steady while you work on it; these can be made by tying-off the ends of
an old pair of pants and filling them with sand.
The ideal studio would have plenty of room, ample lighting, have heating and air conditioning and have running water. It
would have three-phase electrical service, an overhead crane, a good ventilation and dust collection system, a loading
bay and drainage pits built into the floor. It would be an added bonus to have an area to use as a gallery to display your
finished artwork. Eventually, l hope to acquire a studio with all of these features.
When sculpting stone, one uses methods of subtraction; you need to remove material that doesn't belong. There are
two ways to begin. If you have a specific subject matter in mind, then you should try to find a stone that is roughly the
same shape as your intended subject; the closer the better, as there will be less work and less wasted stone. Or, if you
have a specific stone that you want to carve, you can study it and try to discover what is "trapped inside it", waiting to be
You should begin "roughing out", your form with your masonry rod saw. These rod-saws can cut in any direction and
thus allow you to cut curves. Trimming with a saw can save time and you can sometimes save some small pieces of
usable stone. Of course, an angle grinder or cut-off saw with a diamond blade can speed-up the roughing out phase
Once you have done all that you can with the saws, you can start to refine your form, using a hammer and chisels
and/or rasps. You should hold your hammer fairly close to the head; this allows for better control and it is not as
strenuous. When striking the chisel it is best to look at the point that strikes the stone, as opposed to the end that you
tap with the hammer. A light tapping motion is often all the force that is required. It is important to hold your chisel at no
more than a 45 degree angle to the surface of the stone; otherwise you will cause deep bruising and/or cracks that will
be difficult to remove.
Rasps won't remove material as quickly as a hammer and chisel, but, they work well on the softest stones. They will get
clogged quite quickly; a brass-bristol brush can be used to clean them.
When you are satisfied with the shape of your sculpture, it is time to begin filing. Files are used for adding fine details
and to remove the deep gouges left by the chisels and rasps. A thorough filing job will mean less time and money spent
working with sandpaper.
The final steps are generally sanding and polishing, although, some artists prefer to leave portions, or all of their
carving, with a rough texture. Soapstone sculptures can be dry-sanded with steel wool. However, I prefer to wet-sand
with silicone carbide sandpaper. I like to start with 180 or 220 grit. Then I progress to 400 grit, then 800 grit. This is
usually sufficient for soft stones such as soapstone, alabaster and wonder-stone. When sanding a stone sculpture, it is
important to make sure that you don't move on to the next grit level too soon. It will take much longer to sand-out a
deep scratch-mark with 400 grit than it would have with the 180. You should dry-off your sculpture to check for deep
scratches before switching to 400 grit, (they are hard to see when the stone is wet).
For harder types of stone, such as marble, you need to progress to 1500 then 3000 grit to achieve a good polish. You
can go all the way up to 60 000 grit, for an exceptionally lustrous finish. For very hard types of stone, such as jade,
granite or quartz, I recommend using diamond sanding/polishing accessories.
Rubber-bonded abrasives that can be mounted on mandrels and used with rotary tools, are great for sanding nooks,
crannies and other hard to reach places. The most well known brand of rubber-bonded abrasives is Cratex.
Soft-stone sculptures are generally "polished", with linseed oil or bee's wax. I usually use linseed oil; simply apply the oil
to a cloth and then rub it onto your sculpture. Sometimes, depending on the stone, two or three applications are
Sources for Tools and Stone
There are many good sources for sculpting stone and tools. Because shipping costs can be quite high, it is a good idea
to try to find a local source. However, this is not always possible, especially if you live in a smaller community. If you
happen to live in Thunder Bay, you can buy soapstone at Painted Turtle Art Shop.
Some other good sources for stone and tools are: Neolithic Sculpture Supply , based in Vancouver, B.C.
Stoneman Distributors, based in London, ON.
Art City Studios, based in Ventura, CA.
The Complete Sculptor Inc. based in N.Y.C
Sculpture Supply Canada, based in Toronto, ON.