Stone Carving

Q: I am interested in carving a piece of stone and was wondering if it can be done without a lot of fancy equipment.

A: Stone has been carved for a long time without much equipment being necessary. Softer stones are, of course, easier to work with. To start with, you can buy a lump of soapstone (steatite, or talc) small enough to hold in your hand and a short-bladed knife. It comes in lots of colors, and is the softest stone that will hold together well enough to be worth carving.

Some safety considerations: Be careful not to cut yourself. Restaurant supply outlets carry butcher’s gloves that will protect somewhat against a slicing wound, which are common among those who carve using the hand as a vise. Whenever using electricity and water together, make sure to run the power through a ground-fault interrupter, which cuts off the power when it senses a short.

Pipestone, or Catlinite, is another easily worked stone that lends itself to carving with steel tools—Native Americans carved it without them to make their famous calumet “peace” pipes. Steel files will work on this material for smoothing out, as will any sandpaper. You can also use rotary files, burs, and mounted stones if you have any of these—but they aren’t necessary. You’ll save time if you start by roughing out the shape with a saw, or you can just start whittling. Don’t expect it to go to a very high polish, but it can be made shiny by taking it to 600 grit and then using pastewax.

Larger pieces of stone, mostly marble and limestone (although granite and even harder stones are still sometimes carved this way as well) are traditionally carved using a succession of steel points and chisels. These tools are struck with a hammer, which can cause metal chips to fly as well as stone: be sure to wear adequate eye protection. The points are used first for roughing out, then toothed chisels are used to remove the faceting left by the points, and to determine the compound curves. Fine details can be added with progressively smaller chisels, or abrasives can be used to create a smooth or a polished surface. Nowadays sculptors often use reciprocating pneumatic tools to hold the chisels, and electric or pneumatic grinders instead of patient hand-rubbing, but the process is much the same.

For softer stones like sandstone, a rotary hammer (basically a drill that incorporates reciprocation) can be handy for roughing out too. Although it is slower than using chisels or power tools, carving can be also be done with hand abrasive techniques. This goes quicker with soft materials, but hard stones can be carved this way if one has a lot of patience. Amber, soapstone, alabaster, and the calcites can also be worked with steel riffler files—the ones with odd-shaped ends—then smoothed out with successive grits of silicon carbide sandpaper. For harder stones, you can get diamond files and rifflers to do the roughing out.

A bow-drill can be handy for making holes in beads. These were used originally as fire-starters, but were soon equipped with stone points and became the first “power” tools. Mounted horizontally and powered by foot, they evolved into the first lapidary arbors. Attach a Jacobs chuck and a drip-feed to one, and you can use it the same way as a flex-shaft tool, with the added advantage of being able to hold the work with both hands. Of course, you can also use an electric motor and a modern pully-powered lapidary arbor to accomplish this.

If you are faced with carving a larger, harder stone, I find that a right-angle grinder, preferably with a water-feed running through the central shaft, has a lot to be said for it. First attack the stone with a 4½″ diamond sawblade, make parallel cuts and break out the waste, then use a diamond cup wheel for rough grinding. After that there are velcro-backed diamond sanding pads that will take large simple and compound curves all the way to polish.

Smaller bits with diamond grit plated onto their surfaces have come down considerably in price of late, and can help get into small places. To polish in these complicated areas, maple or phenolic plastic rods are turned to appropriate shapes, then charged with diamond compound and some grease; olive oil paste is best, but petroleum jelly works. A few drops of mineral oil help keep heat from building up. Dremel tools have a very limited usefulness. Flexible shaft (Foredom, etc.) tools are better, but are still mostly used for very small (fist-size and smaller) work. They are excellent for gemstone carving. But diamond is the way to go—silicon carbide is distinctly second-best.

by Andrew Werby