Traditional Carving Methods
Creating Original Stone Sculpture
I use traditional stone carving methods - hand tools (no power tools), hand sanding, finishing carvings using several coats of a natural drying oil. I like to use the qualities of the individual piece of soapstone to enhance the form of the animal I am carving, which means that every carving I do is one-of-a-kind and unique. Although I focus mostly on birds and herptiles (reptiles and amphibians), I do not use set patterns, so sizes and poses vary from carving to carving.
I use Canadian and Brazilian soapstone, either purchased at a stone distributor, or online. Stores are nice because you can choose each piece yourself, but I don’t always have that luxury. So far, I have been very lucky with soapstone I’ve ordered directly.
I examine a piece of soapstone carefully before deciding what to carve it into. I want to use all of its qualities: its colours, veining, size. If it has areas that are softer, I want to know where they are - to help avoid breaks part-way through a carving. Cleaning up rough chunks of stone is important - I file off any weathered areas with a coarse rasp. I will often sand the whole piece of stone with 180 grit, then use a damp sponge on the stone to get an idea of the finished colour and areas of veining. I do this even when I buy blocks of soapstone. Veins will be the last to dry, so this is a good way to find out where those are before you start carving.
Each piece of stone is different; and has a character all its own. How that character is interpreted will affect how successful the final carving will be. This is an important stage, deciding how to work with the stone to bring a carving to life.
Stone hammer (dummy), and stone chisels. Saws: Hand saws, duct-taped wrapped hacksaw blades. Rasps: Coarse round, half-round rasps. Rifflers/riffler rasps. Hand chisels (woodworking type).
It’s best to handle tools before you buy them, to make sure they feel comfortable in your hand, but this is not always possible. I rarely find tools at regular hardware stores; I find most of my tools at specialty hardware stores like Lee Valley Tools, and eBay.
I think carefully about what I want to carve. My favourite subjects at the moment are Ontario owls, raptors, ducks, frogs, snakes, toads, and salamanders - all species that are local to where I live. Subjects will occasionally suggest themselves in the stone (pick me! pick me!). Sometimes I will already have ideas from real-life sketches in my sketch books (see my biography for more info).
I sketch the basic form onto the stone (Direct Stone method), then rough-in or block in the design, removing excess stone with hammer and chisel, or saws (depending on the hardness of the stone). This is a fun time, and can be tiring!
Once the carving is roughed-in, I review as many references as I can find that relate to the subject. I do basic sketches of the subject from as many different angles as I can, to get a better understanding of the animal’s form. My carvings don’t “replicate” real life - I’m trying to find a creative balance between stone and a believable and recognisable animal. Art doesn’t mean you have to put in every photographic detail. There is lots of technology that can do that in other ways.
I use time-consuming wet-dry sanding (220/300/400/600/800/1000 grit to remove all tool marks. Higher numbers begin to bring out the stone's natural colours.
To finish, I use several coats of pure Tung oil, a non-toxic, food grade, “drying” oil (not like a culinary oil), over a period of several days. This hand-rubbed finish gradually develops a lovely patina, which brings out the colour and veining, and also gives the surface of the carving some scratch resistance. It is not a popular finishing technique among carvers, partly because it takes so long. I think the results are well worth the trouble and time. It gives me a chance to develop one last connection to a carving before it is sold.
I always hope to catch a spark of life in my carvings. Thinking about the stone, what subject would be best for it, taking time to develop the form, checking form against references, and finishing to the best of my ability. Click on this link to see more of my finished carvings.
Canadian Stone Sculptor