The Payoff: Finishing with Sandpaper

by DLSproule

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.