Sculpting with Hand Tools – The Basics:
#4 The Payoff: Finishing with Sandpaper
Spring was pushing through the winter chill the other day. The sun was warm and steady. So we rolled up the garage door and moved our "studio" into the driveway.
This is an interesting exercise because we normally work in the relative isolation of the back yard, where passers-by seldom seek us out. But when we're working in the driveway, we see people walking dogs or taking the kids to the playground – and they see us. They often wave and smile, and every once in a while someone will express curiosity about what we're up to. We usually invite them to come and have a closer look and inevitably they end up asking questions. One of the most frequently asked is,
"How do you get the statues so shiny?"
Our answer? Sandpaper. (Many sculptors use power tools for finishing and polishing but we're determinedly primitive.) We tried steel wool on some of our early sculptures, but it tends to leave the surface lumpy and irregular, cutting through soft stone like butter and doing virtually nothing to the harder stone. Since most of the ribbons, seams and grain in stone are created by different types of rocks and minerals swirled or layered together – and they are all of different hardnesses – using steel wool can make quite a mess. A shiny mess, maybe, but a mess just the same, full of bumps and scratches.
I'm of two minds when it comes to finishing a sculpture.
On the one hand it's dirty and tedious. It almost inevitably stretches on for hours and even days longer than you expected. For every imperfection you remove, another is revealed. You are sure to uncover a wide variety of flaws you didn't know were there. There are chisel marks and tooth marks from the scutch, deep lines and ridges from the rasp. Channels and grooves that seemed smooth are actually quite wiggly and ragged. You realize that a section you intended to leave unfinished has all sorts of dings and scratches. You use dentist picks and tiny files to emphasize creases and grooves and get rid of small imperfections. On and on it goes, especially when you're struggling to preserve some of the colouration from the outer layer.
At this stage of the game, it's all about the colours and gradations. And this is the good part.
Whether you use power tools or sandpaper, you will now get a chance to experience the same sorts of revelations. As you hit the finer grits of sandpaper, the true colours start to emerge. You may have thought from the colour of the dust that the stone was grey or white or brown, but at this point in the process, you start to see that the impression of brownness was created from a mixture of dust from the cream coloured stone, the red stone and the black stone. When you hit 600 grit, you can start to see details in the grain. A swirl of pink here, a streak of orange there, a brown tint along the outer edge with dark green speckles. This is the point when you start to realize that certain parts of the stone are actually translucent and that the yellow colour seems to be coming from within the stone rather than the surface.
And as you start buffing with ultra-fine (1200 or 2000 grit) sandpaper, the stone starts to gleam and shine and all of the magic, the history and the beauty are exposed. What you thought was just a piece of rock is actually a 120 pound treasure from the earth; more akin to jewellery than to dirt. Your patience has paid off yet again.
Sculpting with Hand Tools – The Basics:
#1 Your First Sculptures
By Dale Sproule
When I started sculpting, I had a claw hammer, a set of four wood chisels and a big chunk of soapstone. I thought that was a good start – but I was wrong. There is one tool that is absolutely essential for any stone carver that I did not even know about. Do you know what that tool is?
If you guessed point chisel, give yourself a gold star. Out of all the chisels, a point chisel is the one least likely to split or break the stone in a catastrophic or unexpected way. Wood chisels are flat or blade chisels. If you hit any stone the wrong way or in the wrong spot with a flat chisel, it is like a wood splitter and it will often cleave the stone, breaking it in half or shearing off a large piece in a way you usually don’t expect and probably will not appreciate.
Point chisels are masonry tools – made for breaking stone in a very controlled way. If a mason wants to dig a hole into stone or concrete, he/she would use a point chisel. With a point chisel, the impact is spread out from a very tiny central point, which will generally chip rather than split a stone. Although splitting can occur when you’re using a point chisel, the effect is more like driving in a nail than hitting it with an axe.
The most effective way of using a point chisel for shaping is cutting lines about ½ deep in a crosshatch pattern and then using a flat chisel to smooth the crosshatched surface.
This is not a difficult or particularly time consuming process with most stones – depending on the hardness of the stone.
Talc is the softest known mineral. It’s the stuff talcum powder is made from – so you’re carving the same stuff you’d put on your baby’s bum. It doesn’t seem like much of a challenge, but you’d be surprised. Pure talc is 1 on the hardness scale and can be broken by almost any impact from almost any tool. It is not a great carving stone, although it is possible to create sculptures using files, rasps, rifflers and even knives. A finished sculpture made of talc can be easily damaged by scratching it with a fingernail (which is considered to be about 2.5 on the hardness scale).
Soapstones – which contain anywhere from 20 to 99% talc – can reach up to 4 on the Mohr’s Hardness Scale depending on the amount of talc they contain. On the softer stones, you may want to avoid chisels altogether, but when chisels are required, you will need a point chisel for shaping the stone.
Unexpected breaking and fracturing decreases with the hardness of the stone (this is not so true with very hard or crystalline stone). So a soapstone with (approx) 50% talc will usually be much more fun to work with than pure talc. Most stone is made of a mixture of different minerals – which accounts for its colour and hardness. Sculptors often use harder stones like serpentine - which ranges from 2.5 to 5.5 on the Moh’s scale – and marble (which is mostly calcite) usually ranges from 3 to 5. Granite – with a hardness starting at 6 – is too hard to work effectively with hand tools.
It is not unusual to encounter different hardnesses within the same stone, so if you’ve been bashing away on a dark green part of the stone and encounter a streak of light green or yellow, you may find that it becomes suddenly and dramatically harder. You’ll probably also find stone that is peppered with iron, for instance, which would likely give you flecks of very hard black stone surrounded by much softer cream coloured stone – making it very difficult to get a smooth surface when you’re finishing your sculpture.
These are all things you will likely encounter the longer you continue as a stone sculptor. And we’ll discuss all those things at some point in these pages.
Sculpting with Hand Tools – The Basics:
#2 The Toothed Chisel and the Scutch
”The Toothed Chisel and the Scutch” sounds like a children’s story, doesn’t it?
A chisel lived by himself on the edge of the quarry. He was very hardy and upstanding, but he had spent his whole life carving a statue of a beautiful princess. Carved from white marble, she was as stubborn as a stone can be, so the chisel’s six teeth had grown very dull. On his journey to the great whetstone, he came across the evil scutch!
As fun as that was, it’s time to abandon the metaphor. Hopefully you’re not here to hear fairy tales, you’re here to learn more about sculpting tools.
And so, what is a tooth chisel and why would you use one?
Tooth chisels combine many of the best qualities of flat chisels and point chisels. The “blade” width of a 6 tooth chisel would be about the same as a medium blade chisel – about an inch (2.5 centimetres). A point chisel breaks the stone, enabling you to cut deep grooves without worrying too much about cleaving a huge piece off of the rock. Tooth chisels are like point chisels with more than one point. They won’t cut much deeper than the depth of the teeth, which is usually about a millimeter. It will help you flatten, shape and texture on the surface of the stone, and if you use it in concert with a point chisel, you can use it to remove a great deal of surface stone very quickly.
I should probably dissemble here for a moment and point out that we are talking about stone-carving, so when I use the words “very quickly”, I am usually suggesting that you can shorten a job that would have taken you six hours down to three or four hours, or I may even be suggesting that a job that would otherwise take six days can be done in four. Stone-carving will teach you patience and perseverance.
At any rate, here’s an example of how you would use a point chisel and a toothed chisel together. Once you have roughed out the shape of your sculpture with your point chisel, a tooth chisel is the perfect tool to remove the high peaks and deep valleys. If you cut two parallel grooves in the stone with a point chisel, you should use a toothed chisel to get rid of the stone between the two channels. If you’re just getting into sculpting and don’t have many tools, you can use a flat chisel to do the job, but you would probably find a toothed chisel easier to use. If they were garden tools, a flat chisel would be a hoe and a toothed chisel would be more like a rake.
The main drawback of toothed chisels is that they are hard to sharpen without gradually removing the teeth. And since the prices range from 20 to 50 dollars, this can become a serious expense when you are working in harder stone.
This is where the scutch comes in. A scotch comb is a removable toothed chisel head. They are usually double sided. Some scotch combs have the same chisel on both sides, so that when one side gets dull, you just flip it around and use the other edge. When that edge gets dull, you throw it out. At 2 or 3 dollars per comb, that’s certainly less expensive than going through two $40 tooth chisels…although the scutch combs will also wear out much faster than the chisels – which are generally made of much better steel. Other scutch combs come with, for example, 4 teeth on one end and six on the other, so you basically get two tools instead of one. And as if that wasn’t enough, you can use the same combs on a instrument called a scutch hammer.
The scutch chisel and scutch hammer work much the same, removing surface stone in a very controlled way.
Which brings us to the other major way these multi-toothed instruments can be used. The rough surface a toothed chisel or scutch creates can be used as a texture when you are finishing your sculpture. By leaving one area rough or textured and polishing another area, you can create some very interesting effects.
By guiding a toothed chisel across the surface, tapping very lightly with a hammer, you can create narrow parallel grooves that resemble hair or fabric. A scutch hammer can create more random textures – a feathered effect if you glance the comb over the surface and a dotted effect when you strike the stone directly. Through experimentation and practice you can learn to create striking and very expert looking textures on your sculptures.
The two examples to the left show the effect you can get with a toothed or scutch chisel and the two examples on the right show effects that can be created with a scutch hammer.
At the end of a long day of sculpting, chances are you feel very satisfied, and too tired to read anything more complicated than a children’s story. Which brings us back to our fairy tale… or not.
Sculpting with Hand Tools – The Basics:
#3 Files, Rasps and Rifflers
Once you have used the points chisels and toothed chisels to shape the stone and the flat chisels to even out the surface, it may be time to move onto the abrasive tools. Then again, it may not.
Moving to the next stage too quickly is a mistake that lots of sculptors make, because the process of sculpting takes so long that almost everyone reaches the point of wanting to be finished. Once the basic shaping is done, the next step is to make the surface smoother. You need to get rid of all the bumps and grooves and bruises without introducing new ones. During this stage, the sculptor needs to slow down and be more careful. If you use a flat chisel that's too small, it may actually dig unintended channels in the stone. If you come too close to a perpendicular surface, you may dent it or dig into it accidentally. If you hold the chisel at a 60 degree angle when you should have been holding it at a 30 degree angle, you can bruise the stone by creating a deep chip or pulverizing several layers of stone as if you'd actually hit it with the hammer rather than the blade of the chisel. You can avoid the vast majority of potential errors by simply slowing down and being more careful.
The more quickly and easily the shaping stage has gone, the less patient you may be when you reach the first stage of smoothing. As you slow down, it often feels like your progress has slowed to a crawl. This is an illusion, you're just making a different "kind" of progress. If you rush this stage, it will take extra time to fix whatever mistakes you make by trying to hurry through it.
And when progress starts to slow, many beginning sculptors assume that it's time to move to the filing stage. That too can be a mistake, but frankly, it depends on the stone. Some stones that were hard enough to dull your chisels after a few swings of the hammer actually respond very well to rasping and filing. Other stone is so resistant to abrading tools that you'd might as well be rubbing it with a piece of cloth. These are judgment calls that you need to make when you're working on your sculpture and you only get really good at it after you've done a dozen or more sculptures. Some stone is very hard, but chips and breaks easily and unexpectedly – which may force you into using files and rasps sooner than you would like. Your end goal is usually to have at least a few highly polished areas, even if much of the stone is left rough or textured.
This is where sculpting classes come in really handy, because you have someone with more experience who can answer these questions for you. Is it time to start filing? Is it time to start sanding? It can be hard to tell. I have seen sculptures that are almost unscathed by coarse steel rasps but that respond very well to diamond rasps with much harder cutting surfaces. So don't be afraid to experiment at this stage. Try different tools until you find one that works. Once again, this is often easier when you are taking sculpture classes and they provide access to a wide variety of tools.
This would probably be a good time to describe the tools, so you know whether it's a file, rasp or riffler that you're using.
File: a steel hand tool with small, sharp, straight cut teeth that are angled and extend across the width of the metal surface. Double-cut files are cross-hatched with blades angled two different directions. Files may be have two wide flat surfaces or they could be triangular or round. Some are flat on one side and convex on the other. If the teeth are large and far apart, it is coarse and leaves a fairly rough surface. As the teeth get smaller and closer together it creates a smoother surface.
Rasp: a type of file with individual teeth used for wood and stone work. Wood rasps have pointy teeth and stone rasps have rounder teeth that don't get dull as quickly. They are often very coarse and leave tiny cut marks on the material you are working on. The teeth do not usually go from edge to edge on the cutting surface. The teeth can be densely packed or widely spaced.
Riffler: a type of rasp with different shaped cutting surfaces. Rifflers often have different spoon or knife shaped cutting surfaces on each end. They are good for detail work and for creating specific effects in certain areas.
Tungsten carbide steel rasps stay sharper and last longer than regular tool or carbon steel rasps. Diamond rasps and rifflers often have finer grain, like 50 or 100 grade sandpaper. While these don't cut deeply, they often remove material very quickly as don't get dull as easily.
Chances are you'll be filing and rasping for days before you get to the sandpaper stage. So it's worth taking the time to find the best tools for the job. Some soapstones and serpentines contain harmful materials like uranium or asbestos, and even if they don't, breathing in any kind of stone dust is simply not healthy. So always wear some kind of dust mask when you are rasping and sanding your sculptures.