Carving Techniques

etched, incised, set in a panel or bas-relief

When creating a piece of work that is essentially in relief as opposed to a fully three dimensional sculpture there are different ways of incorporating the various elements. Elements such as form, shape, texture, carved imagery and lettering all need to balance to make a successful design.

Different projects bring different possibilities and one must adapt the design to suit the specific setting and the chosen material, while considering scale, lighting, durability and the visual impact. Some materials are well suited to fine very detailed work, whereas others will require a bolder approach, a heavier hand so to speak. Below I will try to illustrate how different techniques work in different stones, focussing mainly on etching or incised work, carving within a panel, and what we often call raised carvings, or low relief or ‘bas-relief’ (from the French for low).

Incised carvings

Incised carvings are literally cut into the stone, a form of engraving. This can be a purely linear expression or a more textural approach but the surrounding surface of the stone, outside the outline of the image, is left untouched. This can be a useful technique to employ when the image to be carved is delicate, such as a dandelion seed head for example where it would be difficult to carve between all the hairline thin elements. Another example would be a dragonfly for example, where although it would be possible to have raised material to describe body, the legs and antennae would present quite a challenge and sometimes a combination of raised and incised can work in these sort of instances. Fine-grained materials like slate are great for this delicate work as small details can be shown clearly, whereas in a coarser stone like York stone, this technique needs to be scaled up somewhat and can be a little harder to see. Here are a few different examples of incised carvings in different stones:

Carving within a panel

This is a really effective way of creating a bolder, more striking image without having to carve back the whole surface of the stone (which you will see is necessary in the raised carving section below) and this is therefore a less time-consuming method. It also means that a good depth can be achieved in the ‘negative space’ around the image. This negative space is important – it should be seen as an important part of the whole design. This extra depth means more shadows – which is really what you are observing when you look at a carving – and a more sculptural form, as can be seen below:

Raised relief carving

This is the most sculptural form of carving that is possible without making a fully three-dimensional carving. With this technique, the outline of the sculpted element is drawn out on the surface of the stone, and then the surrounding stone is carved back to a different level, thus creating a raised area on the stone. This makes the carved element more of an object in my mind, with more presence. See there examples:

Sculpture ‘in the round’

This technique is quite self explanatory really, the carving is three dimensional and not set on or attached to a background but seen from every angle as a three dimensional freestanding object. The examples below illustrate variations of this.

St James’s RC Church, Spanish Place

I had a site visit today to check some measurements for a plaque I’m designing, and enjoyed looking at the exquisite carving and detailing there. There was a lot of Hopton Wood limestone larger columns and Derbyshire fossil stone pillars, also lots of exotic marble. These pictures show some of the sculpture and materials.

Making a bowl from Caithness stone

A previous stone bowl

I have been making a bowl recently and thought I’d show you the different stages in the process. Every stone is different, and my working techniques and choice of blades will vary according to what works best. It’s often a case of just trying things out, and seeing what cuts and abrases best.

Firstly, I selected a sound slab of stone
Disc cutter, with nice new blade, cutting the rough outline.

With this Caithness stone, I initially used a multi purpose 12″ disc cutting blade. I then found a 5″ granite flush cut blade worked much better than the marble/limestone ones. Then a combination of cup wheels, spiracut semi-flexible silicone carbide discs, and velour/velcro sanding discs, then hand sanding with wet and dry paper. A big portion of tenacity, concentration and elbow grease is needed. It’s pretty hard stuff……but lovely, and satisfying.

A cylinder is the first goal. Breaking it down into stages….

I designed the bowl before starting, and made a scale drawing of the section, in order to calculate the largest possible chamfers I could remove to start forming the desired curve for the underside of the bowl. The two lines that describe the chamfer are scribed onto the stone, one on the side and one on the bottom.

Slots cut with a granite blade, then these pieces are tapped off with a hammer. This removes a lot of material quickly.

It’s really important that the first chamfer is very carefully and accurately ground off, and is straight, in section, not curved, as otherwise you’ll never get as much material off as you want, you’ll end up with a chunkier, heavier bowl. You must work to the scribed lines, making a straight cut between them. Eventually the curve is found, once you have taken off a series of incrementally smaller chamfers and roughly rounded everything off.

After removing several chamfers and rounding off
Rubbed with sandpaper
Flipped over and ready to mark out the inside
Compass used to scratch on the inner line
Cut an accurate groove on the line to protect it and to help with visibility later….. it’s a dusty phase coming up and this will help me to get stuck in without taking too much away.
Slots cut with a granite blade, deeper in the middle obvs!
Chip out the waste
Roughed out inner section

The inside is more tricky as you’re kind of working blind and trying to take enough material away, but without digging in too much. I don’t want this too deep, as it’s a birdbath, and also I’ll be drilling into the bottom for a stainless steel dowel.

Grinding and polishing with the 5″ grinder

Now the stone is brought in for finishing by hand, which is when you can feel it taking shape, and also get rid of all the mini chamfers and kinks in the grinding process. Wet and dry paper is used, from about 60, 80, 120 grit dry, then 120, 240, 320 600 with water.

Wet and dry finishing
Wet and dry finishing
A close up of the wet stone

Here are a few pictures of the finished stone, prior to the final rinse and oiling it. I chose to leave the rough natural top surface as a nice contrast to the smooth underside and interior.

Showing the section

Historical type setting examples and the Type Archive

I have recently been working on designs for a memorial to a compositor. For those of you that don’t know, a compositor was a person who arranged movable type for printing lettering. The family emailed me these wonderful membership cards of his. I thought they may be of interest. They reflect the era somewhat, and I think they’re great.

Talking of typesetting, a few months ago I visited The Type Archive in Stockwell, London, and it was a fascinating trip. There was an amazing collection of old typesetting machinery and associated equipment. Their website is great too: “The Type Archive holds the National Typefounding Collection, purchased with grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund; broadly comprising; 1. the typefounding materials of the Sheffield typefounders, Stephenson Blake, a collection dating from 16th century London typefounders to their 20th century counterparts; 2. the hot-metal archive and plant of the Monotype Corporation, operating from Salfords in Surrey from 1897, and in London’s Lambeth from 1992 to date; and 3. the Woodletter pattern collection and plant of Robert DeLittle in York from 1888, and in Lambeth from 1996″.

Here are a few random pictures I took there:

Trees, monoliths and memorials

Well, it’s been a weird few months hasn’t it, with the COVID situation. I have pretty much been able to continue as my design room is at home, and we have been careful to alternate time in the workshop, and Dan (my long suffering dust maker!) has been able to carve things at home during the worst of the lockdown.

So here are a few pictures of what we’ve been working on recently.

Willow carving, reverse of Welsh slate memorial
The front of the previous memorial, destined for Black Isle near Inverness
Oak tree relief for a small tree marker memorial in Northumberland
Rustic sculptural York stone signage
Preparing a huge slate monolith for carving. This is in the private garden at Holkham Hall. It was very hot! See next pictures
South facing side featuring the inscription ‘THE UNEXPECTED IS THE HISTORY YOU HAVE NOT READ’ close-ups to follow. Lady Leicester wanted the wording to be subtle, read up close, so as not to detract too much from the power of the monolith.
Close up of the South face
Close up of the South face
Close up of the South face
Close up of the North face
Close detail of riven slate monolith above
York stone memorial to the 7th Earl of Leicester, Holkham Hall. I took this picture while I was carving the monolith above. It’s weathering nicely now.
Welsh slate memorial in Ashdon, near Saffron Waldron, see reverse on next picture
Reverse of memorial with words from Mother Julian of Norwich and a wee hazelnut
Moleanos limestone plaque for St Mary’s Church, Primrose Hill
Yotk stone memorial, Sculthorpe, Norfolk
Detail from the stone above
detail from York stone memorial
detail from York stone memorial
Monolith inscribed with words from Rumi, a 13th century Sufi poet…. See next few images. This was planted in a field in Suffolk.
I had to grind back some of the stone to accommodate the lettering as it was very rough in places. Detail to follow
Sometimes grinding back the surface reveals a different sort of beauty within the stone
Seem like a good place to end this blog….. I hope it was interesting. Feel free to comment, I welcome your thoughts and reactions

Bishops’ tablet final stage

I was able to finish the gilding yesterday as the cathedral was empty, which was ideal for uninterrupted loose leaf work. Here are the final pictures

Gold enamel undercoat
Application of tinted gold size with tester patches
Gold leaf laid in, ready to sand back
After sanding
Close up. These are only 20mm tall
Another close up

Gilding is always quite a fraught business, laying in the gold too soon and it wrinkles up, and too late it won’t adhere. This went well. I used 4 hour size, but it was ready within an hour.

Norwich Cathedral additional inscriptions

The Bishops tablet in progress
Setting out the High Stewards inscription

Last week I was working in Norwich Cathedral adding names to two stone plaques. The material seemed to be Nabresina Gold, which I have carved before. It’s quite hard, and ‘plucky’ in places, so I had to be extremely careful chasing in the serifs. The previous inscriptions were of varying quality, and stylistically a bit all over the place (for example the narrow 0’s on the High Steward numerals, which were somewhat at odds with what had gone before). I drew lettering that was close to, but not copying some of the better examples, attempting to create some harmony with the original carving and letterforms, and hopefully set a good precedent for future additions.

Some of the earlier inscriptions were quite poor, and some not even set out square on the tablets. It was awkward work as these letters were only 20mm tall, and there were stone columns in the way on both sides, which meant that some physical contortions were necessary. I can see why previous carvers struggled…..

Detail from existing inscription
Detail from existing inscription
Detail from existing inscription
Detail from existing inscription

Here are some pictures of my work on this. The Bishop’s inscription is yet to be gilded, and has an undercoat at present in these pictures.

Flood painted, prior to rubbing back
After careful sanding
A close up of the 20mm letters
The High Stewards tablet
Another close up, again 20mm letters

I look forward to gilding the Usher inscription, it’ll look great. It was a lovely experience, with the choral and organ accompaniment. I hope to be lettercutting there again soon.

Some recent work

Here are a few pictures of recent work, in different materials.

First a bowl and memorial, both made using Caithness stone:

Next, some York stone memorials:

The last one is in Holkham Hall churchyard. I hope you find these interesting….

A road trip to The Black Isle

Dan my trusty assistant and I have been installing a stone in Cromarty, and exploring some of the historic sites here. Last time I came up this way I visited the enormous Sueno Stone near Elgin, now encased in glass, and the Nigg stone. These Pictish stones have both been unearthed and re-erected. They are from around the 8/9th century. Here are some old pictures:I was commissioned to make a stone to go in Cromarty cemetery. I had previously installed one in Kirkmichael. These were both Caithness stone, which is a hard mudstone, rather like slate. It can be highly polished, but I opted for the more natural and rugged riven finish. The more recent one for Calum is a neutral grey colour, it will become a bit more rusty in colour over time, as can be seen with the other stone here, which I installed about 10 years ago.Kirkmichael is a wonderful small church that has recently been restored. During the restoration many wonderful stones were unearthed and they are on display there. They’re amazing and some are from the 13th and 14th centuries. They feature swords alongside the crosses, tree of life imagery, steps of Calgary, and some of the later ones have sextons tools, imagery relating to death and spirituality, the mort bell, hour glass etc. Feast your eyes on these.

Recent work in Aldborough

We installed a stone in Aldborough the other day, and it was a chance to see some of my previous commissions there, some of which are shown below. They vary considerably in style, design and materials. I have used all my own fonts on these, hand drawn and hand carved. I hope you like them, the older stones are starting to weather nicely now.

Moleanos limestone from Portugal

The stone above was a memorial to a friend who ran Aldborough antique shop. The stone has references to some of his furniture and the bell that was attached to his door and rang upon entry. I miss Terry, he was a real character. He was always giving things to my kids…..

Here are a few more

matts weatherd copy.jpg
Crossland Hill York stone

Crossland Hill York stone

Above is a York stone memorial showing the front and back of the stone. Marianne was a Moari, and the symbolism on the stone reflects her ancestry. The raised carving of the Koru on the front was copied from a bone pendant she wore and the fern carving on the back symbolises new life, growth, strength and peace.

Woodkirk stone, from Yorkshire

Woodkirk stone, from Yorkshire

This stone above was to a local woman of German descent, and the design and lettering was created to give a Germanic feel to the stone. I designed and drew these letters specifically for this commission. It’s weathering beautifully.

Woodkirk stone, from Yorkshire

Woodkirk stone, from Yorkshire

detail from the Cook memorial above

detail from the Denham memorial above

Above are two more York stone memorials, one featuring a lily carving and another an Ethiopian cross.

Welsh slate monolithic piece

This wonderful piece of stone was one I came across in a quarry in Wales. I knew Alan, he was a lovely lad, a keen fisherman. The stripes made me think of water.


Above, another piece of York stone, carved on both sides as you can see. Words by Mother Julian of Norwich adorn the back with an early Christian inspired depiction of incised doves on the back, complimenting the relief carvings on the front.

Honed Welsh slate

Honed welsh slate


detail from Penny’s stone

detail from Penny’s stone

This one is Welsh slate. Penny was my friend and neighbour and was very into her flowers. She was a lovely woman, missed by many. Working with slate gives a very different effect, it’s more akin to illustration than sculpture. The sharpness of the lettering and level of detail that can be achieved in slate is very challenging and rewarding.

Nabresina limestone from Croatia/Italy border

This last image shows a cross made using Nabresina limestone. I quite like the simplicity of this, and the subtle bluey colour of the paint.