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Stone Workers


Quarry workers who extract block from a marble mine assemble prior to an arduous day of work. Makrana, Rajasthan, India


Stone Workers

Cathedral Workshops & Masons'Training

Quarry Workers




BuildingStone Walls

Drawing Multiplicities

Restoration Repositioning

Moving As Observation


Stone Workers

Stone workers find their place at the intersection of two separate approaches to knowledge. These approaches are like different points of view creating an extra dimension when they intersect. One of the two coordinates is the intimate relationship that the stone workers have with stone itself. Working with stone has its own rules; these are inherent in both the material and the process itself. Eventually the rules of action are so well known that they seem to become part of the stone worker's body. The worker does not just think, but thinks through his or her material. Thinking-through-stone respects such things as the way the stone cracks or its invisible grain; this way of thinking also respects the path that knowledge can take through the hands and into the mind.

The second coordinate consists of received or indirect knowledge. Here are two unlikely strands working as parallel rather than together. The first of theseis mytho-historical: both masons and sculptors trace their lineage back into history and feel themselves to be part of bigger families; stone workers in general are aware of their ancestors. The second is scientific: it is the totality of the knowledge that the geologists and chemists have uncovered. Geologists transport facts and theories concerning the earth into other minds, in particular to that of the stone worker. Most of this indirect information cannot be obtained through direct personal interaction.

These are two intertwined senses of history: the lineage of ancestral respect is part of the tradition of knowledge as passed down from generation to generation. It is different from the sense of time that we get from geologists. Geologists have an expansive sense of history that has nothing to do with historical personages, lineage or culture. Each of these strands, in its own way, creates a sense of belonging.


In the Ganapati Sthapati workshop in Mamallapuram a Tamil Nadu carver who comes from a long lineage of Sthapati (architect/sculptor) works on the detail of a temple goddess sculpture.A specialist itinerant granite carve points the surface of a block that will form part of a massive figure sculpture.


Some equivalent of these two intersecting paths exist wherever stone workers are found. Some European masons trace their history all the way back to Hiram, the designer-mason of King Solomon's Temple. In India we can find an exact parallel. The word sthapati means both sculptor and temple architect. Sthapati also happens to be the surname of Ganapati Sthapati, a distinguished temple-builder and sculptor (b.1927), who can trace his stone-working family back for over a thousand years.

When Ganapati Sthapati was younger he was recognized as one of the most accomplished stone carvers and temple architects in Mamallapuram. He succeeded his father as principal of the regional School of Architecture and Sculpture. This is aschool that trains young men and women in the Vastu Shastra tradition, which includes sculpture techniques, architecture, and ancient wisdom found in proportions and formal structure.

Ganapati Sthpati later set up his own architectural firm (actually a guild of craftsmen) through which he designed and built a 40.5-metre granite colossus of the poet and mystic Thiruvalluva. As an independent scholar he has noticed exact parallels between ancient Indian carving, measurements, architectural alignments and traditions and those in ancient Mayan buildings. He concludes that masons crossed the pacific in ancient times. The carving done in his workshop is distinguished from most of the other carving in the area by its sensitivity and responsiveness to the stone, above all by the shared association of carving with devotion.

A stone worker's sense of his own history can often feel familial. Geoff Butler is the foreman carver in the stone workshop at the York Minster Cathedral. He is very aware of his place in a succession to foremen going back to the 1870s, many of whose names and idiosyncrasies are still remembered. This is primarily an oral history, as it survives within the walls of the mason's lodge. Geoff began working at the stone workshop 40 years ago and absorbed this history from the man who trained him, who in turn was passing on the stories he had received.

The intersection of received and direct knowledge, where neither gives up its autonomy, creates a particularly charged place. Nothing can ever be complete even though much is shared because each coordinate partially includes and partially excludes the other. This intersection, a place that is able to hold contradictions in suspension, may be where stone art in the future will find its place.


Cathedral Workshops & Masons'Training

One of the main sources of stone work in the UK is the restoration of historic buildings. A cathedral is in constant need of repair because stone erodes, sometimes beyond all recognition. A combination of scholarship and detective work is needed to figure out what form some of the stones might have had. Exact measurements of the eroded stones are recorded and the space that the original stone took is carefully calculated. New templates are drawn up and new carvings are prepared to replace the eroded stone. Calculating precise measurements is easier now with new computer techniques that can photograph the face of any complex stone surface without perspectival distortion. Masons double-check their information by comparing the digital image with direct measurement.


Modelled in clay these full size gargoyles will be function as scale models for mason who will carve the images in limestone. The carvings will be built into Gloucester Cathedral, England.In the Karmenskola Masonry School young students initially learn to carve limestone by hand using tools and bankers that support the stones. The bankers reputedly date back to Roman times.


Cathedral workshops can be credited with both preserving and rediscovering stone working skills. Stone teaches the mason; tool use and sequences can be worked out by looking at work from the past. In Gloucester Cathedral, Master Mason Pascal Mychalysin noticed how often the stone axe was used in the past and is attempting to reintroduce the it in restoration work. He is searching for appropriate replacements of gargoyles by first modelling them in clay, and then carving them in stone.

The sense of devotion is evident in cathedral workshops too: even when it is not articulated, it is manifested in many small ways. The deep seriousness does not exclude playful moments. Sometimes when a face needs to be put onto a carving that has eroded beyond any hope of reconstructing the original, the masons will depict someone they know, perhaps an annoying bureaucrat, or a respected colleague. As long as it is appropriate to the original meaning of the carving, this strategy is entirely in the spirit of the original masons.

Under the guild system, which dominated stone working education in the Middle Ages, a young person would spend seven years in bonded apprenticeship. As soon as apprentices got their freedom they would spend a year or more moving from place to place. They were, in fact, designing their own education seeking to learn as much as they could through a sequence of masters with other approaches and options. This was probably formulated because masons in earlier times had often moved from country to country looking for work and was discovered how such travels broadened and enriched their skills. This spirit of a self-directed education is characteristic of a number of British sculptors who began their careers by working in cathedral restoration. They were seeking skills beyond those that art schools could provide.

The apprenticeship and journeyman structure that existed in the past is now gone. A stonemason's education today is likely to begin in a trade school instead of through any kind of formal apprenticeship. Now, in more conventional classrooms, a student learns theoretical knowledge such as drafting and reading architectural specifications. Desk learning is integrated with hands-on work. On leaving such training the young masons are able to work in numerous private masonry firms. A few young masons hunger for something else and seek jobs on cathedral restorations. When they are lucky enough to work on cathedrals from different time periods, these masons become expert in the nuances of architectural history. In the UK there are nine workshops attached to heritage cathedrals. The managements of several of these cathedral workshops are joining together to establish the Cathedral Workshop Fellowship to trainmasons in the particular issues, and rigour, required for important restoration projects. In this four-year course the student learns carving, masonry, setting out, architecture and conservation. The stated aim of the Cathedral Workshop Fellowship is to produce the best masons in Europe. For this kind of work that invariably means the best masons in the world.

Most of the restoration work done on the cathedrals is by 'banker masons'. These masons work inside workshops on individual workbenches or platforms (called bankers) and specialize in using templates to carve stones to replace eroded architectural masonry. Bankers are usually made of stone, wood or cement blocks. A beautifully simple design is in use at the Karmenoklesarka Skola, where young masons are being trained in Croatia. Here, barrels are filled with stone rubble that both cushions the stone and can hold it at any angle. This design is unchanged since the time of the Romans. The first task of the apprentice mason is to make a flat surface. This trains the eye as well as the hand and is considered the foundation on which all subsequent work is based.


A good example of building with limestone mortar. St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney, Scotland.Trowels and spatula for lime-bed mortaring and pointing around stone.


Very specific skills are needed by the 'fixermasons' who specialize in fitting there placement stones into the original place in the building. They have tools unique to them and are experts in using lifting tackle. Fixer masons need also to know about lime mortars and grouts, and how to balance the mortar with the hardness of the stone. If it is too hard, as cement is, the stone erodes more quickly. Mortar ingredients varied from place to place. Some medieval masons are reported to have included egg whites. The recipe used in StMagnus Cathedral in the Orkney Islands combines one part red quarry dust, one part blue-grey quart dust, one part sand and one part lime. The stones are kept covered while the mortar cures.

More than grout is needed to anchor some stones to each another. Iron or woodfixings can crack the stone if they get wet and expand or rust. In the past this caused many restoration problems. In an attempt to avoid the effects of humidity on their fastenings, contemporary masons use stainless steel. Their predecessors sometimes used seashells, which are chemically similar to limestone, or molten lead poured into carved keys linking two stones.

Keeping humidity out of stone is a problem. The purpose of buildings is to shed water, but even if the main walls stay relatively dry, wind-blown rain or humidity from the air will be absorbed into limestone. Stone breathes. A limestone cathedral might weigh many more tons on a wet day than on a dry one.


Quarry Workers

Before electric lighting, the experience of the underground worker was very different from the experience of the workers in open-pit quarries above. Outdoor workers were limited by the amount of daylight and the weather. Larger stones tended to have been quarried outside.


A limestone mine with metal straps bolted to the matrix to prevent movement and slippage.Archive photography of a granite mine. Vermont, USA


Underground quarries got darker and darker as the tunnel receded from the cave entrance. The temperature underground never gets cold but it never gets warm either, always hovering around 12 degrees Celsius. Until a little more than a hundred years ago underground workers would have worked in near darkness, their only light coming from meagre oil lamps. Of the many hazards of working in darkness one of the worst was 'quarryman blindness'. Year after year of working in poor lightning slowly and irredeemably damaged their sight. Those who survived beyond 30 years could be completely blind.

Getting accurately paid for the work done was a problem that needed to be solved. Each block that the underground worker cut free would receive an individual mark. Blocks with each signature could then be counted. Quarry marks are signatures of the craftsman but also 'signatures of exit' as the stone leaves the quarry. Mason and quarry marks both signs of transition left on the stone as it passes to a new phase. These marks did more than claim credit for the work done. They were also signs that that worker accepted responsibility for the quality of the work. Such 'signatures' preceded signature use in other aspects of the culture.



Although blacksmiths do not work directly with stone, stone working would be almost unthinkable without them. In that sense blacksmiths are stone workers too. They make the hammers, chisels, pry bars and chains without which most stone could be neither carved nor moved. And they sharpen chisels, again and again.


A pile of newly re-pointed and re-tempered granite points.Indian blacksmiths constantly make and resharpen and temper the carving tools of the stone craftsmen. When working with granite each fire-sharpened steel tool lasts for 3-5 minutes only. San Marga Temple workshop, Peenya, India


In Mamallapuram, granite is carved with short fire-sharpened chisels that only last three to five minutes. In these workshops the blacksmith is busy nearly the entire time the carver is busy. Each chisel is sharpened then tempered to the right hardness for the stone that is being carved. The place where the hammer hits has to be tempered differently from than the point carving the stone. Hammers too often have two tempers. Tempering is an exact science yet most blacksmiths work intuitively, guided by experience and the change of colours that the metal goes through as it changes temperature.

An individual mason is likely to have simple blacksmith skills. Specialized blacksmiths accompany itinerant masons in order to maintain tools. This can mean improvising a forge under less than ideal circumstances. In China, a temporary forge might be made by digging into the earth and hooking up a temporary blower.



There are several ways that a craftsman is able to increase productivity, to amplify what is possible in size, or in amount, or in what can be achieved in the time allotted. Tools are the most common amplifiers. They use the energy in the body of the craftsman to get more work done than would bepossible without a tool. With power tools of course, the energy comes from elsewhere — electricity, compressed air or waterpower. When an artist employs a technician to achieve work that is also the application of energy from an external source.

In the two cities of Carrara and Pietrasanta there are over 100 workshops that fabricate objects out of the local marble – a concentration of stone-working skills unequalled anywhere in the world. These workshops are called 'laboratori di scultura.' These 'laboratories' have fabricated sculptures for many of the world's major artists, among which number Henry Moore, Jacques Lipchitz, Jack Zajac, Cesar, Francesco Zúñiga, Alfredo Cardenas, Max Bill, AntoinePoncet, Jean-Robert Ipoustéguy, Louise Bourgeois, Fernando Botero, Niki deSaint-Phalle, Gina Lollobrigida, Barry Flanagan, Richard Erdman, Manuel Neri, Anne and Patrick Poirier, Walter Dusenbery, Luigi Ontani, Ben Vautier, Marc Quinn, Jeff Koons, Mona Hatoum and many others.


When a co-ordinate is located on the plaster maquette, the cross-arm and Pointing Machine which is located on fixed 'mother points' is then moved to identically located 'mother points' on a stone to enable the exact transferance and copying of maquette points. David Bampton-Greene taking caliper measurements from a Kilkenny limestone carving he is executing for Peter Randall-Page.


The use of sculptural assistants has been common throughout history, but in the past they worked closely beside the master. Assistants working at distant became popular with the widespread use of the pointing machine. This new technology emerged in the late-eighteenth century and allowed accurate copies to be made without the artist being on hand all the time. The introduction of the pointing machine lowered the threshold of skill and experience that was needed to get started. By expanding the field of potential stone fabricators, this was a significant amplification.

Sometimes a single assistant will form a close working relationship with one sculptor. Such is the case with David Brampton-Greene who has collaborated with PeterRandall-Page for many years. Such collaboration lasts many years and is dependent on mutual respect and understanding. Both Randall-Page and Brampton-Greene are skilled carvers, sometimes passing work back and forth between them. Carlos Lizariturry carved the stonework of Eduardo Chillida entirely on his own. Chillida was an artist who worked in many materials although not primarily in stone. Every one of these working relationships is different. The assistant is frequently asked role is to be something of an inventor, figuring out new ways to accomplish what is needed. New techniques invented by the assistant become part of the art and expand the work. Sometimes one technician will work for several artists within a relatively narrow geographic area, as happens in Sao Paulo. In the Juan Fraga workshop in Mexico City a number of different craftsmen work for a single artist, the Mexican sculptor Jorge Yazpik

Whether one technician works with one artist, or many technicians work with one artist, or one technician works for many artists, the relationship between the worker and the stone changes with the use of power tools. Carving with chisels is about controlled breakage. Power tools are about steering. In China today, and to a lesser degree elsewhere, a huge amount of carving is being done with grinders. The regular rhythmic sound of hammer and chisel is replaced by the whine of grinders. Grinders are essentially an abrasive technique. They increase the dust but decrease accidental breakage.

When power tools are first introduced they seem to be violent and rough, producing obviously inferior results. This was the case early on when grinders began to migrate from finishing to actual carving. Slowly with increased familiarity workers are learning what can be done with this new tool. In the hands of a true craftworker delicate and sensitive work can be achieved. Some workers achieve a dexterity that verges on gentleness. The grinder amplifies the amount of work that can be done as well as increasing the possible work force.


The sculptor Barry X Ball uses digital technology to carve his sculptures.This sophisticated robot carves the most intricate detail imagineable. The robot's vertical and horizontal carving moves  are determined by information relayed from computerised data.  Cararra workshop, Italy.


Computer carving machines are a version of the pointing machine in the sense that they transfer a model to stone indirectly through a machine by marking points and depths. Computer carving combines several existing approaches in order to produce work with an exceptionally high degree of precision. A carving machine seems very slow, especially when a carving is beginning because it carves at the same rate throughout the process. Where a human carver might be taking off larger chunks of stone, a carving machine is more methodical. A human carver will get tired but a machine can continue to work twenty-four hours a day. It is estimated that such a machine can carve in three months what a person could do in one year.

Computer-driven carving machines can work from a numerical programme without ever having a model. If this is an advantage it has yet to be exploited. Most computer-aided carving still begins by laser scanning a pre-existing three-dimensional model. The programme for the five-axis milling machine will reproduce this model in any scale desired. The machine does not chip away the stone as in conventional carving but instead it drills, cuts and grinds. The advantage of grinding is that it can use stone with banding, inclusions, flaws and voids that could not possibly be carved by chipping. Barry X. Ball takes advantage of what the machine can do by taking a normal image, a face, for instance, and elongating it on the computer (like the old-fashioned technique of copying something from a square onto a rectangular grid.) He uses stones that would be almost impossible to carve by hand because of holes or banding would distract the eye from accurately reading the form. Once a machine is programmed to carve an object, it does not change and equivocate as a human would. A machine does not get distracted.



It is not clear when sculptors began to be considered as separate from the mason carvers. In the struggle to elevate art to a profession rather than a trade, an attempt was made to separate craft from art. When the pointing machine came into general use, it further widened the professional gap. Sculptors stayed away from anything so dusty or exhausting as carving, while assistants worked from the master's model to produce the work in stone.


Glass of milk by Felipe Cohen, BrazilButtercup by Jean-Francois Demeure


Some sculptors today are trying different ways to squeeze extra meaning out of the stone. One way is by linking stone with other materials. Artists have combined stone with sulphur, salt, butter, milk - all of which are evocative materials. They have anointed carvings with oil echoing the spiritual and cultural treatment of stone in the East. When stone is combined with plaster, a material that was once stone, it plays with two states of the same matter. Stones sourced from a specific identifiable place, or reusing a stone with a history, can add layers of meaning because of the material's connection to a wider geography or an earlier situation. New ways of thinking about stone are still being found.


Building Stone Walls

The relationship between stone and the mortar is basic: every ingredient that makes mortar was once stone. Balance and compatibility are the qualities needed when adjusting the mortar to the hardness of the stones being used. Not all stone constructions uses mortar. Some extraordinary walls are built with no mortar at all. The famous Inca walls at Sacsayhuaman and Machu Picchu are made with shaped interlocking stones, carefully trimmed to snuggle up to each other. Their design is credited with resisting centuries of earthquakes. Not everyone can build such walls. Tetsuroh Tanabe in Japan is one of the few contemporary masons building similar walls. A more extreme, and more critical, version of the same principle is used in the interlocking bases of lighthouses on the westcoast of Scotland. Granite blocks are carved so that they can interlock both vertically and horizontally and are thus able to resist the normal sea and the occasional storm with 90-foot waves.


A contemporary version of an ancient earthquake-resistant wall building technique. Japanese stone mason Tetsuroh Tanabe has shaped the stones to interlock with each other. Matsue, Japan In the north-east of Scotland a few impressive flagstone stock walls and field divisions still exist. This easily split, locally sourced material provided shelter and was long lasting. Caithness, Scotland


Instead of shaping each stone to interlock, many walls are built using only available stone of random shapes. This seemingly simple process requires more skill than many other stone working processes. It is also one of the few human skills that has been practiced nearly unchanged since prehistory.

Mortar-free constructions anywhere in the world follow the same building. The structure of support in a dry stone wall is one of invisible efficiency. No stone is independent in a stone wall, each stone is held in place by a network of neighbouring stones and in turn is held in place by others. When using found stone the skilled waller learns to quickly judge the weight and shape of eachstone. This is clearly a developed skill based on assessment and response. Although somewhat less than interlocking shaped stone constructions, these random stonewalls also have an elasticity that walls made with mortar do not have. A successful dry stone wall can last for centuries without maintenance and yet it is not always possible to see in a new wall whether that particular wall will be long-lived. A single point where the balance is not perfect, or where water and ice may weaken a link, can make the entire wall vulnerable.

Every type of stone construction has its own character, almost like a social construction. Most stones in a cathedral, for instance, will have roughly the same geological age. They will have come either from the same quarry, or the blocks used will have been matched according to similar qualities. A dry wall, in contrast, is a pluralist structure. Stones will have come from widely different time periods. Glacial rocks may have brought stones from great distances. Diverse age and geography come together for a single purpose. As a wall they must all work together.


Drawing Multiplicities

Observational drawing, like carving, is an act of progressive seeing. With each line drawn or each layer carved away it is possible to see what had not been evident before. Drawing and carving are parallel skills.

When lines are drawn on the stone they serve a different purpose from independent drawing. Such functional drawing is often invisible and frequently overlooked. Stone can be a wonderful ground; lines drawn on stone are especially beautiful, but their beauty is usually ephemeral. A drawing on stone only lingers for a while. Soon both the drawn line and its ground are carved away and new lines are drawn. Drawing's role is to lead the carving or to project relationships onto the mass of stone, enabling the sculptor to visualize form. A drawn line circling the stone is one of the few times a drawing is literally three-dimensional. If the sum of all the lines drawn over the course of a sculpture could be saved they would record a history of responsive thinking as it occurred while making.


Carved graffiti on white marble from a mine near Carrara, Italy A mason's carving guidelines drawn on granite. St Marga Temple Workshop, Peenya, India


It may be a stretch to call graffiti the work of stone workers but with the possible exception of a random stone altered to make a better tool, scratching into rock is probably older than any other human actions done to or on stone. Many prehistoric cave paintings are actually painted over engraved lines. The carving apparently came first. The carving may have led the drawing rather than the other way around.

One person's mark seems to provoke another. Graffiti is found all over the world. On the Orkney Islands there is an ancient chambered cairn called Maes Howe where Viking graffiti has been preserved. Graffiti has been found scribbled over prehistoric cave art and on the walls of Egyptian temples, including on the Temple of Dendon, which has been moved and reconstructed in New York's Metropolitan Museum. Explorers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were especially fond of leaving reminders, usually their names and a date. It is very much like footnoting a visit. In places of natural beauty like cliffs and waterfalls we are likely to find the carved initials of past visitors.


Restoration Repositioning

Restoration is about keeping faith with another time. In Burgundy, about 100 miles southeast of Paris, is the Château de Guédelon, a project of this century using only the building tools and techniques of the thirteenth century. Cathedral restorations are just as disciplined even if they use modern tools. The aim of both is to assure that any work completed has the spirit and voice of another time. The discipline of keeping a single voice is a skill that may be as important as it is difficult. In China there is an entire village dedicated to making fake stone antiques. Hundreds of miles away other workers are using grinders to produce fake scholarstones. There is a relationship here to restoration but the lineage is skewed and the intent is different.


Moving As Observation

When a stone is extracted from the earth, it begins a journey during which it is passed from one worker's hands to another's. At each transition the stone changes either shape or position. Each worker in the chain applies skills that complement the work that has come before and prepares the stone for the next step.


A full-slew excavator frees a freshly cut block of marble from the quarry matrix and topples it onto a block of rubble to cushion the fall. Henraux quarry, Pietrasanta, Italy Annual re-enactment of the traditional method of lowering blocks of marble down the mountain from the quarries to accessible wagon-loading bays. La Lizzatura worked in well co-ordinated teams uncoilIng loops of rope from fixed pegs dowelled into the rock matrix. Via a system of wooden sledges and rollers they gradually lowered the large blocks of marble.  Carrara , Italy.


It may be a long journey that begins when a piece of stone is split free from the earth. After a block is created and dislodged it is urgent that it be moved out of the way so the next block can be freed. Quarry maintenance is an important part of stone work. Off-cuts can soon accumulate until they are in the way and dangerous. Off-cuts and rubble can be graded into piles because their size determines their destination. Some quarry rubble stays near to where it was extracted, used to cushion large stone blocks as they fall after being cut free, or to make uneven ground level.

It is not unusual for blocks to be prepared near the quarry to the exact specifications of the client. The sculptor may also rough out a stone in the quarry, beginning work before the stone is moved to the studio. The idea formost of this work is to reduce the weight in preparation for further transport. Moving stone is difficult and no more weight is moved than necessary.

Shifting large blocks of stone requires specialist skills. If the stone needs to be hoisted from below ground, riggers and crane operators will be involved. In Carrara the problem is different. The quarries are actually high in the mountain so the stones have to come down rather than go up. Sliding heavy stones down mountainslopes is treacherous and takes the collective skills of a group of workers called the lizzaratori. Here, as in many stone working jobs, worker cooperation is essential.

From the quarry the stone is passed onto a series of specialized workers. Stones are faced, carved, turned on a lathe, polished, and so forth. After each step the stone is moved again.

In the summer of 2009 STONE project sponsored a large carving event, called Milestone, where many of the techniques of the stone workers could be seen in person. Stones were split, hand and power tools were used, and heavy stones were moved and turned. There was a public demonstration of blacksmith techniques that compared Japanese and European traditions. The audience could watch the workers performing many actions, inventing solutions to problems, and regularly helping each other. Observation amplifies understanding. Cooperation and sharing information is a stone working technique. The audience, by watching, became part of the process.

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