Different types of stone

this is a selection of some of the British sandstones, limestones and slates I have worked with

As a stone carver working in the UK I am lucky to have quite a range of local stones to choose from. That is not to say I will not work with imported materials, but my practice is generally based around using British stones. Different stones have very different properties. Some stones are close-grained and good for detailed work and others are coarser and lend themselves to bolder designs and simpler forms. Choosing the right material for the job is something that comes with experience. Some clients will come with a specific need in terms of material pallet and if this is very limited due to the setting then often the stone chooses itself and then the project is all about designing something that works in that material.

The main British stones we use are Sandstone (such as buff York stone, red St Bees stone, and grey Forest of Dean stone) Limestone (such as Kilkenny stone, Portland stone, Purbeck stone, Ancaster stone) and Slate (such as Welsh blue/grey, Westmorland Green and Caithness flag stone). There is also Granite (such as Cornish grey or Scottish red) and Marble around the UK but we don’t tend to use these much. Some limestones (such as Connemara and Purbeck) are referred to as marble, because they are a little harder and denser than other limestones, and take a polish, but they’re not true marbles as far as their Geology is concerned. I’ll not go into the geology in much depth on here, but basically limestones are sedimentary, made from calcium carbonate, and often formed in shallow seas and you can often see fossils such as crinoids and ammonites in the surface. These rocks were formed around 70-350 million years ago. Sandstone is also sedimentary, and normally made up quartz and feldspar and was formed at least 300 million years ago. Marble is metamorphosed limestone – limestone that has been subjected to heat and pressure, such as Carrara Marble which is around 200 million years old. Slate is basically compressed clay or volcanic ash formed around 400 million years ago, and this makes it much finer and less granular, although it is foliated and splits readily into layers. Granite is igneous, and formed from magma. It’s coarse grained and hard, and formed around 300 million years ago.

Sandstones vary considerably, and some are quite tight-grained (such as Woodkirk stone from Yorkshire and Forest of Dean stone) and these are good for quite detailed work, whereas Clashach stone from near Elgin, or gritstones from the Peak District are coarser and lend themselves to bolder simpler designs. Slate is much finer and perfect for really crisp detailing, which is an advantage, and it’s basically waterproof which is good for weathering, but it is also a laminated/layered material which tends to make it harder or riskier to work in three dimensions, so it’s not so suited to bold relief carvings, although it is not impossible to work it in this way. Limestones can also vary considerably, for example Cotswold stone is relatively soft and pale whereas Kilkenny stone is dark and hard. These are all considerations when designing an inscription or sculpture. For example if there is a lot of lettering needed on a small stone, then Costwold stone will not work. One might need to use a fine sandstone, or most likely I would steer you towards slate, or hard limestone such as Hopton Wood stone. Often the choice of materials is governed by the setting for the work, yet sometimes there is no obvious preference. Sometimes the material is chosen due to the brief having certain restrictions regarding size and content, sometimes the stone is the first choice and then a design is made that works with that material.

Here are a few examples of carvings in sandstone:

Here are a few examples of work in different limestones:

Here are a few slate pieces:

Influences and inspiration

My work is informed by many things. There is naturally the direct influence from my 5 years at the Richard Kindersley Studio. In my time there I was primarily carving letters, thousands of letters, putting in the hours. I think I must have carved around 25-30,000 letters in that time according to my calculations. If one believes the theory that to become an expert you need to practice for 10,000 hours then my 5 years did exactly that – I’ve done that maths too (nerded out a bit there, sorry). Richard’s father David was apprenticed to Eric Gill, and there is a kind of direct line from Gill to me in that respect, and some of the way I was taught would have echoed how David was taught by Eric I suspect. The combination of developing type design in parallel with stone sculpture runs throughout. Where David was quite traditional and arts and crafts in his work (I’m generalising a bit) I feel Richard was more experimental, and explored working with concrete, fibreglass, metal and other materials more. This is where my knowledge of classical lettering was deeply ingrained. Here are a couple of examples of things I carved while working with Richard:

Before working with Richard, I trained at Weymouth College in Dorset, which was a stone masonry course incorporating construction, architectural carving, lettering and sculpture. This gave me a fundamental understanding of the different ways to work stone, the different tools involved and visualising three dimensional forms within the stone. There we carved masonry elements such as ball finials, capitals and bosses, egg and dart mouldings, dentils and such like.

Prior to that I was a practicing artist and working different jobs to earn money. I enjoyed drawing, painting, wood carving, engraving glass and working with different materials, but I felt I was playing around somewhat rather than being good at any one thing. This lead me to want to try and specialise and focus in on one area and that is when I decided to commit myself to working stone. These are examples of the sort of thing I was making before studying at Weymouth, the first drawing was part of my ‘O’ Level exam…..

Below are a few examples of the sort of work that I admire and that influence me stylistically, ranging from ancient carvings, Aboriginal , Oceanic, Classical Indian, African, Romanesque, and artists like Noguchi, Brancusi for example:

I am less concerned with being representational in a photographic way, more concerned with stylised abstraction and simple forms, although I like to keep trying new things. Here are a few examples of my own work, a random selection:

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.

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

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.

Bale Church piece

I recently installed my second memorial in Bale churchyard in Norfolk.

The first I carved for here was to an inventor and featured some nice cogs on the back. This second memorial features an angel head reminiscent of the 18th century style, along with the cross keys on the back and a runner…..I also really liked 4 deeply carved panels on the font and some lovely inscriptions in the floor