PREPARING TO BEGIN THE CARVING
SETTING UP THE WORK AREA — THE CARVING STAND
The carving table or carving stand should be placed so that you can work on it from any direction, and it should be placed a comfortable distance away from anybody else's stand. The stand should be placed firm and level. If the stand wobbles, the leg or legs should be wedged in a stable position so that the tabletop is level.
Your carving stone should be placed on the stand so that it does not wobble or roll. This may mean wedging it with scraps of wood and stone, or supporting it with a sandbag.
SAFETY & CLOTHING
Using handtools, there are only a few points to remember about safety. Protect your eyes with safety glasses or goggles, either of which can be worn over contact lenses. Goggles probably will give the best protection and can be worn over your regular glasses, but they tend to fog up easily. Safety glasses are usually more comfortable, don't fog up, and give all the protection you should need for carving stone.
Work gloves will prevent blisters and scrapes on your hands, and will also soften the blow when you miss the chisel with the hammer. Thinner styles of gloves made of canvas, jersey, or smooth leather will allow you to feel what you are doing with the tools better, but they are not as durable as unlined rough leather gloves that are relatively inexpensive.
General work clothes might consist of a long-sleeved work shirt, jeans, either sneakers or work boots, and a cap. During hot weather a pair of shorts and a short sleeve shirt are OK, but open-toed shoes are not recommended. A student wearing sandals dropped a chisel point-first on her toe — this resulted in a trip to the emergency room and stitches.
If you are going to be using power tools, which create a lot of noise and dust, then a pair of hearing protectors (or earplugs) and a dust mask or respirator should be used. When working outside in an open area, both noise and dust are dissipated quickly and should not be a problem for neighboring students, but be considerate of the person who might be downwind of your dust when sawing with the diamond blade.
CLEANING THE WORK AREA
As you work you should place the larger pieces of waste under the carving stand to prevent turned ankles. At the end of your daily carving session the work area should be cleaned of all debris, and the tools you have been using should be placed back in the storage boxes where you got them.
CHOOSING A BLOCK OF STONE TO CARVE
Before you pick a stone up and start to carve, there are several things you should try to determine. Perhaps the most important thing to determine is whether or not the stone is badly flawed. There are no foolproof methods to insure a minor hidden flaw will not appear deep in the block, but there are a couple of ways to tell if the stone is worth considering.
INSPECTING THE BLOCK OF STONE FOR FLAWS
Wet the stone with water and inspect it. If there are any major cracks which seem to go most or all of the way through the stone, you must realize that instead of a single stone you actually have two smaller stones that are just temporarily joined.
Make sure you inspect all sides of the stone, even the bottom. Sometimes a hastily inspected stone seems to be OK, and only after you get it up on your carving table do you find a bad flaw on the bottom or back side. Another method for testing the soundness of the stone is to listen to it. Use your hammer and tap the stone. If you hear a relatively clear ringing tone it indicates a stone without major flaws. On the other hand, if you hear a dull thud you probably have a flawed stone. Tap the stone in several places — if you hit directly on a small blemish it will give a thud, and you might discard a stone for only a minor flaw that could easily be carved away. If the rest of the stone sounds better, then consider removing or working around the flawed area. Any stone will sound dull if it is lying in full contact with the dampening earth, so if possible stand the stone upright before testing for soundness. For the same reason, clean the stone of any clinging soil before testing.
OTHER FACTORS IN CHOOSING A STONE
Other factors in choosing a stone would be the qualities which draw you to it — perhaps the color, the veining, or the shape and size. Select a stone that interests you more than any other, for whatever reason. The qualities you find interesting will often jump-start your creative energy and make it easier to begin the carving.
Most of my own sculptures begin with an intuitive feeling. I will have a basic idea that fits into the stone, but I try to remain open to change. As I carve, the design always changes as I get down into the stone- my finished sculpture never ends up as what I thought I was going to carve when I started. The form evolves as I begin to understand the particular piece of stone I am carving. During the carving process the form becomes more clearly defined both in material and in concept.
Let intuition help guide your selection.
Although the stone may suggest a certain form or idea to you, remember the stone is going to get smaller, and the shape will change as you work on it. Though your intuition, your emotions, and your thoughts can guide you in choosing a stone, you also must use all your senses (especially sight & touch) in transforming the stone into an expressive carving.
THE BASIC CARVING PROCESS - ROUGHING OUT THE FORM
The block was likely chosen in preference to other blocks for a combination of several reasons — the size, the color, the lack of apparent flaws, the shape, etc., and that choice is in itself the first step in conceptually roughing-out the form.
When I am asked by non-carvers or students about the way I choose what to make I often say something to the effect that the particular block of stone in my stonepile raises its hand and says, ‘Pick me, pick me!’ I then go on to explain it in a more serious manner by saying I simply allow my intuition to guide me in finding the vehicle for my expression. I rarely ‘know’ on a conscious level what I am going to make before I begin — rather it might be more accurate to say I gain that knowledge through the process of making, and the first step in the process of making is the material itself.
Having the material on the carving bench helps the carver to define the inherent possibilities for the particular piece. The block on the workbench helps to focus the carver’s attention to the task of determining an approach to take with the specific work. By determining what forms are possible in the block the carver can then decide which of those will allow the greatest degree of expression. Determining what is desired of the form within a conceptual framework is less easily defined, because it comes down to personal aesthetic choices on the part of each and every carver. But here perhaps the intuition can be used more effectively than logic — if the carver is able to choose the block of stone out of several of the same color and size, then their unconscious already has helped to build the framework of the sculpture-to-be. At the point of actually setting the stone up on the workbench it should be studied with a discerning eye as to potential possibilities, but by allowing the intuition to help guide further choices the carver can sidestep the rather daunting idea that they must conceive of a detailed master-plan prior to beginning the physical labor. By using the intuition to guide the carving process one step at a time (which is my own method) the carver can follow the inevitable unexpected breaks or flaws with design changes without major trauma.
Once the block of material is selected, a crayon or grease pencil can be used to loosely sketch the main forms on the surface. These markings will help the carver to keep track of the intended forms even when the block is rolled around or turned on its side during the carving process. The next stage of roughing-out — the initial removing of material — will depend on the tools one has available. Remember that stones that are more uniform in density and texture allow the carver a greater degree of control while working, while stones that are not uniform due to inclusions, veining, or bedding grain require a slower, more careful approach.
If using hand tools, and the form is not a sawn block (without flat sides), the point is used to make a series of cuts or furrows into the surface areas that need to be removed. First cut a series of furrows across the areas which are waste, and then the point can then be used to knock-away the resulting row of ridges. The depth of cuts and the spacing of the rows will depend on the nature of the stone being carved. This is not a difficult operation, but does requires a certain amount of patience for slow and steady work on the part of the carver.
If the block is a cut one that has flat-sawn sides the pitching tool can be used to remove large chunks. This can be used to remove a great deal of material rapidly, but comes with the warning: predicting the exact fracture on some types of stone is uncertain at best, and sometimes results in unexpectedly large amounts of material being removed. After there are no more areas of waste that can be removed with the pitching tool (usually pitching a medium-size carving block will take less than thirty minutes), the point method described above is used.
If using power tools to rough out the form the most efficient method is to use a right-angle grinder fitted with a diamond saw blade. The saw blade is used to make a series of cuts into the surface areas that need to be removed, much like the furrow method as described for use with the point above. The saw cuts are arranged in a series of crisscrossed rows, to a constant depth so the point or a pitching tool can be used to knock off the waste fairly easily in a uniform manner. The actual depth of cuts and the spacing of the rows will depend both on the size grinder/blade available and the nature of the particular type of stone being carved. Larger tools allow greater amounts of material to be removed more quickly, but with less precision than if a smaller tool is used. The process is repeated so as to remove the desired depth of waste material in layers, and each succeeding layer needs working with greater care and precision as the final surface is approached.
CARVING FROM THE HIGH POINTS
Often it is helpful to re-sketch the intended form with the crayon on the stone as the form is carved away. Keeping track of the design as the stone changes shape is not easy, and you also need to keep track of the high points. In carving stone, you must work the tools in relation to the high points. You want to carve down and away from the high point; otherwise, you risk inadvertently breaking the high point away.
To illustrate this, suppose you were carving a human head out of a proportional block of stone. First, because a head has bilateral symmetry, you might want to mark a vertical centerline around the block.
The tip of the nose, the ears, and the chin would be the first high points you have to consider, and the centerline will help you to determine symmetrical placement of these and other features. Mark these areas with a crayon, and then you can begin carving away the areas in between them.
The nose is usually the feature of the head protruding the most; therefore, it would be the highest point on your stone. Make sure the area that you want to be the nose is not flawed, and begin carving by firmly placing the chisel point on the far side of the nose area, down and away from you at about a 45-degree angle.
Begin carving with a series of strong blows, keeping the point firmly pressed into the surface of the stone. Each blow will probably knock a small chip off and moves the point of the chisel forward, so you will need to constantly modify the pressure and angle on the chisel. After six to ten blows, you should have cut a shallow but well-defined channel in the stone. Place the chisel point near where you began, and cut a second channel parallel to the first. Continue doing this until a shallow layer on the far side of the nose area has been removed about halfway to the ear.
Either go around to the other side of the stand or rotate the stone so that you can remove the equivalent material on the other side of the nose. After following the same procedure, you would stand at the top side of the head so you could carve the waste from the lower side of the nose and towards the chin. At this point, you would also begin to carve from the chin towards the nose. The shallow channels you are carving should go about halfway between the two features and meet. Now the lips can be marked as a pair of slightly lower high points, and worked the same way.