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.

Stonecarvers Ireland Road Trip

Dan, my assistant, and I have been working in Ireland for a few days and covering a fair few miles.

Last Autumn, coincidentally I was asked by three clients to carve memorials in Ireland. They seemed to be struggling to find designer makers in Ireland making this kind of hand carved work. I was able to orchestrate things so we could bring them over and install them together. We both love Ireland, the music and landscape and Dan’s uncle lives in Kerry, so we popped across to see him too.

Our first stop was Clandeboye cemetery in Bangor, near Belfast, where we installed this Welsh slate memorial.

We stayed in the Cairn Bay Lodge B&B which was really good with amazing views and food. In the afternoon we drove to the Giant’s Causeway, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go.

We then had an evening in Belfast, ending up in The Points watching champion fiddler Niall Mcclean.

The next job was down in Kilkenny, but we decided to go via Connemara to check out the marble. We saw a bit but the yards were closed. We saw huge quarry blocks that were ratchet-strapped to stop them falling apart, which was alarming. It’s mainly green and riddled with cracks. I was told that it’s soaked in glue prior to sawing it in order to strengthen it. Nevertheless it’s quite attractive.

The next job was for a couple in Kilkenny. The stone was Mountcharles Sandstone from Donegal. This looks similar to Yorkstone but seemed twice as heavy and was harder to work. The carved element was inspired by a ring. I carved it in a panel, but also raised it beyond the level of the face of the stone, by starting off with a raised circle. This enabled me to make it bolder and for it not to appear to be sunk into the stone.

We then visited a local stonemason who generously took us to see the Kilkenny limestone quarry in Paulstown. This was awesome. It’s vast.

The clients took us out for a lovely meal and drinks in Kilkenny city, which is a really nice place.

The next day, we moved on to Enniskerry to install a Yorkstone memorial for Katy French. She was a model, celebrity and charity worker well known in Ireland. The tree of life carving is a simplified version of one I carved some years ago.

After a night in Stillorgan (!) We headed off to Dublin to explore, and it was during gay pride, so the city was vibrant, to say the least. We ended up in Devitts Bar watching a great duo, including a wonderful squeezebox player called Neil Harney. Here’s a snippet taken as my phone died.

We then headed west for the rest of the time, enjoying Kenmare and the Kerry/Cork region. One highlight was seeing Dan’s cousin Aisling Urwin play harp and sing. She’s so talented. Her voice is angelic and her playing sublime. She’s about to tour Europe and America over the coming months so keep an ear out for her.

It was interesting to see how there seems to be very few carvers in Ireland and how there’s a demand for well designed, hand carved bespoke memorials. I’m looking forward to coming over again.

An odd pair

I made a couple of bowls over the weekend. One is Carrara Bianco marble, the other is a really nice piece of Welsh slate. These were both inspired by an exhibition at the SCVA (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts) called FIJI, Art and Life in the Pacific. Among this incredible collection of artefacts (the largest collection ever shown) were some lovely bowls.

My bowls are more chunky, especially the legs on the Welsh slate one. As slate is a laminated material, I couldn’t make them thinner without risking them snapping off. This one showed amazing colour when rubbed. Here’s a few pictures…..

Kilkenny limestone sculpture………………phase 2

Welcome!! Well, here’s the next instalment of the making of the sculpture mentioned in the previous blog. kk1I have been working on this over the last two weeks. As I said in the previous blog, it has become necessary to work the shape with the stone lying down, especially as I want the stone to be rounded at the bottom, so it appears to be balanced on the ground. This obviously cannot be done with the stone standing up. It is easier to work it in this way, as I can walk around the form, and get a good and safe working height on my scissor-lift table, which can be adjusted to a good height. This table will lift 1000kg, the stone was 750kg as a rectangular block, and will end up being around 500kg approximately. After cutting the angled sections off and pitching and cutting to the initial outline, and working the hole roughly, the next stage is working around the form cutting rough chamfers and ‘finding’ the shape. I want the shape to flow nicely from every angle, and yet not be predictably rounded. I want some asymmetry and a sense of tension and contortion in the form, so some ‘planes’ are rounded more than others, some of the curves are more flattened and compressed and some more rounded and generous. So I am basically walking round and round the table, cutting and grinding until I’m happy with the flow of the form. It is still early days, and I will turn the stone over tomorrow morning to work the other side and get the shape as a whole roughed out. I am thinking of making the two sides different, and one face will be purely rounded, and the other will have a chamfered element around the hole to add some more texture to the piece, and to make the stone different on both sides. We are planning to install the stone on a single pin so it can be rotated. I am aiming for the finished piece to be tactile (please do touch the sculpture!) and visually interesting. To be experienced with the eyes and then with the hands. There will be polished darker elements, paler claw-tooled sections, a carved chamfer with bold flat bolster chiselling. So lots of surfaces to explore. I’m very texture conscious in my work. I see an area of carved lettering as a texture in the same way as I see a chiselled surface. It’s all to do with rhythm and spacing, lettering and tool marks. I often think letters are like objects, with their own sense of gravity or magnetism, and this is how I think of them when trying to space letters evenly: I imagine they are individual magnets – and they need to pull evenly across the page or stone or they will start to draw the eye, and slide towards each other. Spacing is definitely a dark art, and for me I’d rather see good letters well spaced than beautiful letters bad lyspaced (:-0) I can get quite irritated by bads pacing!!

ANYWAY there’s no lettering on this so I’ll move on (!) This sort of sculpture is like a letter in a way (oh no back to lettering again, he’s going to start moaning about the overuse of comic sans soon………..) in that I’m looking at it like a letter, it has outline, a counter shape (a hole – like ABDOPR etc) it needs to balance and be upright, and the outline needs to relate to the hole, the proportions need to work together, there needs to be balance. That is what I’m thinking as I draw letters too, Drawing a good O for example is tricky because as you adjust the outline, the counter shape (or inner line) is affected, you can keep changing these and literally find yourself going round in circles. Time for more pictures, less talk!!

, and machinedkk5 kk4 kk2 kk1kk3 kk10kk9 kk6 kk7 kk8

These surfaces are still rough and machined, and will be worked more later, to acheive a smooth surface. This will be done with a combination of diamond cup wheels, spiracut semi-flexible silicone carbide discs, then round velcro sanding discs, and finally wet and dry sandpaper, sanded by hand, to get all the kinks and grooves out from the grinder stages. This is a lot of work, as this stone is so hard, like granite. It is unlike ‘normal’ limestone such as Portland stone or Bath stone. These would be so quick to work in comparison, but not weather very well ultimately.