Fireside Chat about Carving Tools
Fireside Chat about Carving Tools
It's a blustery ice storm outside, so I thought it would be a good day to talk about tools.
I am often asked about the tools I use to carve soapstone. At this point, I am only using non-mechanized tools, so let’s take a look at some of those. Soapstone can also be carved using “grinders”, flex-shaft tools, and Dremels, among others, but due to my current carving philosophy and workshop set-up, I am only using hand tools. It’s a slower process, certainly, but gives you more time to consider the stone, and develop a connection with it. And it’s easier to correct mistakes before it’s too late!
I always wear an N95 or N99 dust mask, and safety glasses over my prescription glasses when using tools like chisels and hammers. Often gloves, too - grippy inexpensive garden gloves (don’t last long), or nice flexible leather work gloves.
I have the typical irrational preference for certain styles of tools, so I will picture some and not others. I am not promoting any specific brands. It’s a matter of individual preference, and if you want to begin carving, you should try tools belonging to friends or family before making any decisions. Everyone’s hand and grip is different; there may also be differences depending on whether you are left or right handed (I’m left). Decent tools aren’t cheap, and should last many years. I will cover my sharpening techniques in another post.
About the tools in general:
Good woodworking tools will be sufficient for many carvings. Basic hand chisels, hand saws, coarse rasps, and rifflers give the ability to carve the softer soapstones, like most Brazilian soapstone. I have recently progressed beyond woodworking tools, so I will cover those briefly as well. It is possible to spend a lot of money on tools; I always consider how much a particular tool will help my ability to carve, rather than accumulating all the tools I can.
It’s my experience that only a few specialized stores in Canada carry the tools needed for carving, although of course simple jack knives, small saws, and 4-in-1 files can be used (see below). I did some research and found suppliers of good quality woodworking and stone carving tools. You know what they say about having the right tool for the job.
Hand saws (wood saws)
Used for blocking in a carving, to saw away chunks of stone that are not needed, after a pattern or idea has been drawn on the piece of stone. I don’t like coping, hacksaw, keyhole, or jig-type saws especially, although I own an assortment of them. They never work as well as I hope they will - the blades are flimsy or not aggressive enough. My favourite go-to saw is a 21/2’, stiff, coarsely-toothed wood saw I bought about 30 years ago. The size saw I use depends on the size of stone I am carving.
Years ago, on the advice of Sculptor Sandy Cline’s website, I used duct-tape wrapped hacksaw blades when I first began carving small pieces, and also used these while teaching carving to others. They are cheap, work well on softer soapstones, and are good for details.
Large - good for larger pieces of stone, obviously. Some can also be (carefully) used with a small hammer (I have a nice little square-headed wooden hammer). Small - great for details, and smoothing rough areas for an intermediate look at your carving’s progress.
Rasps and Rifflers
There are many kinds of rasps and rifflers. Their shape, and coarseness (or fineness) of teeth allow them to be used for detail and removing stone from difficult areas. Pictured are a round rasp, half-round rasp, and four shapes of rifflers (or riffler rasps).
Carbon steel stone working tools
I purchased a basic set of these tools last summer. Some of the Canadian soapstone I received as part of a skid order last summer was too hard to block in using my saws or other woodworking tools. I faced a key decision: whether to go with power tools like grinders with diamond wheels, or to go with good traditional stone working tools.
I went with the traditional hand tools (I really wanted a set, anyway!). Part of the decision was purely emotional: having watched many shows where people were chipping away at hard stone with hand tools, I wanted to learn these skills, too. Also, I was hoping to be participate in the annual Canadian Stone Carving Festival in Ottawa, where each carver is given a block of limestone to carve with hand tools only, over two days (and then the carvings are auctioned off for charity). I have registered for the 2019 festival, and am looking forward to participating.
The tools I purchased are Italian made, and are tough and sharp enough to carve limestone and marble. For now, I am very pleased with how they work on the harder Canadian soapstone. I like the gentle rhythmic ringing sound of steel tapping steel tapping stone, and watching a ridge of stone gradually crumble or shatter ahead of the point or other chisels. Using them has given me a deep appreciation for the work of stone carvers throughout time. Now I want to buy more, of course!
Stay warm and safe during this storm.
Here’s a link to the Canadian Stone Carving Festival: