Watching a Sculptor

The red angel I had admired that first night was out of sight, draped for protection in old flannel shirts and put away in a corner. Most of the men were cutting stones for buildings—cornices and mouldings. Only one was chipping a block of white marble and now and then stopping to take measurements from a little statue of a saint that stood on a table beside him. I went over to watch him.


He worked with the rhythm of a machine and and brought his chisel down very violently onto the stone. The word “carving” surely seemed like the wrong one. The man—Jacinto as I knew him later—was hammering a pointed chisel like a giant nail or a big iron pencil onto the block of stone and making little chips or splinters fly out all over the place. Sr. Pons the marbler and I had used a similar chisel at first to gouge out the marble of our ashtray and already then I wondered whether there didn’t exist a better one. All the carving I had ever seen was done with a knife. People carved the Sunday roast. They carved their sweetheart’s name on the birch tree. Even the whittler carved his figures in wood with his pocket-knife. Shouldn’t they have called sculpting “chipping”? Was that really the best tool human ingenuity could come up with? Shouldn’t there be a faster and a more precise way to carve stone? The little chips like sharp moths that flew out of the block were very irregular. And once they were out, the surface of the marble was just as rough as before. The only sign of any method, any technique to the chipping, were the little parallel grooves or furrows the chisel left behind, so that the worked area looked like a miniature ploughed field. Fernando and the other workmen were slamming into their blocks or shaving them with air-hammers. Why didn’t Jacinto use one of them?

How to carve stone

There are few mysteries about stone-carving technique—or none at all until the Renaissance. It is known how the Egyptians worked—there are unfinished as well as finished works of theirs—and we have their tools. They are the same as ours, though made of bronze, which seems to be a terrible handicap*. Even the tip of a tempered iron tool flattens or buckles after a few minutes’ work on a hard marble. And the Egyptians often sculpted basalt, granite, and diorite—the hardest rocks there are. The Greeks forged their tools in iron but used the same ones. These are of only four kinds —fewer than in any other craft. That is one of the beauties of stone carving: there is less instrumental support than in any other art. You carve directly with your hands, almost.

In the last century there were two revolutions in stone cutting technique: the air hammer and the disk saw. And lately there has been another: the computer. But the same four tools are still used:
One is flat like a screwdriver; another has teeth like a worn-down fork; a third has a rounded tip like a finger-nail; and the fourth one, that does the heaviest duty, is pointed like a pencil.

These tools, shown here for illustration, are sold at the following site.

To help you measure, there are beautiful iron calipers of all sizes: the biggest in the set might be as large as the arch of a church door.
There are plain iron rulers, T-squares, and squarish hammers, some with teeth.
In addition, you will need files and abrasive powder or sandpaper for polishing. In the past, pumice stone was used for the same purpose.

How do you use these simple tools?


Sixty or eighty years ago sculptors and stone-cutters started using a small air hammer. It is not like the big, heavy ones you see them using to open a hole in the street, though the principle is the same: air-pressure substitutes the old hammer blow with a steady vibration.

The pneumatic hammer the sculptors use is a small, hollow cylinder half a foot long that feels pleasingly heavy in your hands without causing tiredness. The air from the compressor comes in through a rubber tube at one end. You can regulate the force of the air, and so of the hammer, with a little valve on the tube. More or less, the whole thing looks like a garden hose with its nozzle (the cylinder-hammer).
Air hammers of all kinds “drive” or vibrate drills or bits. This little sculptor’s hammer works with the same old tools sculptors have always used. How?

Inside the cylinder a piece of iron vibrates: that is its “hammer”. You choose a chisel, the claw chisel, for instance, and stick it into—back it into—the vibrating cylinder until it touches that buzzing piece of iron and vibrates too. Now your chisel is a hammer. Hold it to your stone and it cuts right in and shaves little chips away. It’s that simple. Nowadays a sculptor at his statue might look like a barber shaving over the head of his customer with an electric clipper with its long cord—in this case, the long air tube. When I saw Fernando that first evening, lying as he was on the enormous stone drum of a capital he was carving, the air-hose was wrapped around him like a snake.

800px-afzaat_met_vaste_moet_voor_montan_-_unknown_-_20365138_-_rce Using the pneumatic hammer to drive the chisel. (Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands.
Attribution: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed)

Using an air hammer is easy—you get the hang of it right away. And it does make the second stage of sculpting easier and quicker. Though not the first stage. Why?

Because it can’t drive the pointed chisel, which needs heavy blows to work. And the pointed chisel is still the best tool for removing big areas of excess stone from the block. At maximum vibration the air-hammer driving a big claw chisel can throw out a lot of chips but it is no longer very manageable and so the good old pointed chisel is still preferred. Having seen this air-hammer of Fernando’s, I was surprised to find that first day when all the men were at work that half of them were swinging hammers at their chisels. They were at the first stage of their job—that was the reason.

Next: The Pointing Machine

See I Saw Michelangelo Carve

* See this post on Ancient Egyptian carving methods.

This entry was posted in art, Michelangelo, sculpture, talla del mármol and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Watching a Sculptor

  1. Pingback: First Morning in the Stoneyard | Fernando's Stoneyard

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