Tools & Techniques
Human beings were once thought to be unique because they were the only animals that used tools. Today it is known that birds and animals also use tools, so such a distinction cannot be made. What might still distinguish humans is a tendency to make one tool in order to make another tool.
The effort by which Homo Faber (the skilled wo/man) secures some of his raw material can be so far removed from the final achievement that there is no visual connection at all. Digging, then burning the red stones that are iron ore, then forging an impure clinker into useable metal, then shaping that metal into a plough or hoe that can be used to plant and harvest crops, then designing a different family of tools to husk, chop, transport and store the harvest, then finally cooking the food in a previously constructed skillet or pot. When the food is cooked a spoonful is removed to put into the mouth of a hungry child. The journey from red earth to hungry child is the kind of immense stretch that tools make possible.
To make one tool in order to make another tool takes mental flexibility that would not be needed to make two independent tools. It is of a different order when the final result has no resemblance to what one has begun with. Seeing beyond what is adjacent and evident expands a sense of time. A temporal element it enables a sequence of constructions. The tool is a link.
When a person picks up a hammer, the hand that holds the hammer suddenly becomes heavier than it was. To compensate for the extra weight all the other parts of the body must align themselves differently. The first grasp of the tool may destabilise, but soon every part of the body and every movement are called to respond to the altered situation. The process of integration is inclusive, establishing a consensus within the newly combined system.
When the tool requires a specific motion — a push or pull, an arc, a rotary movement — those actions become a continuous vector flowing through both the body and the tool. When a tool is in full use it is not an easy matter to say exactly where the tool ends. The whole body of the craftsman becomes a little like a flywheel or a pendulum. Tools use a shift in balance to overcome a situation that might otherwise be more resistant. Tools are ergogenic, which means that they enhance physical performance. The root of that word, ergon, (Greek for ‘work’) is also the root for energy. Tools do more than enhance work; they also amplify energy by re-positioning how it is set.
If the active part of the tool is relatively far from the body, the balance is maintained by extending another part of the body in an opposite direction. The relative position of the legs, their distance from each other, the muscles in the back, the facial expression, all get involved even in cases where they are far removed from the hand that holds the tool. Lightweight tools like tweezers also change the balance, but less obviously.
An action completed doesn’t exactly disappear. Something lingers. All actions, whether obviously or not, prepare for a subsequent action. A completed action has something of the sense of an interruption about it because it leaves a residue of potential.
Constructive actions release muscles in a way that exceeds what exercise can explain. The body activates, accommodates, and then reactivates on a different level. There is a sense memory left behind when an action passes through the body. It is as if an extra body has been created within the initiating body. This image of an action is the place where the craftsman’s body really exists. The deep contentment that craftsmen often feel in their work is probably the result of this. Whenever a similar action is performed it feels like coming home. Before an action begins, it is in some sense already successfully completed.
The satisfaction that results from the completed action doesn’t erase a feeling of challenge and engagement. In completion, engagement is more often intensified than mitigated. The challenge continues, but in different ways, because one action of a tool usually sets the stage for another action. The next action becomes ‘primed.’ Engagement, as anticipation, is unavoidable.
A tool can do more than link actions; it can also link understanding. Insights are a challenge because they, like tools, are agents of transformation. Rarely is the tool user committed to the original state of his material.
Tools place the worker outside the material even while part of the craftsman is embedded within the qualities of the material itself. This double geography might cooperate when the tool follows the flow of the material but there are also times when the tool is set up in opposition. As something ergogenic, a tool gives off to its user relatively more power. Regardless of whether action co-operates with the making or opposes it there is an imbalance that has been used to enhance its effectiveness. There is also an imbalance of power and this also must be compensated for, similar to the imbalance of weight. If the compensation is misdirected it can result in a blind imposition of will. Younger craftsmen sometimes speak of the pleasure they find in the struggle of will over matter. To listen to them it can sound like they are attracted to acts of invasion and dominance. Sometimes it can be exactly that; but more often it is an attempt to equalise energies, a process that is not always easy to explain.
The euphoria of a struggle with material is more common in youth than in old age but some part of the pleasure does continue as the craftsman ages. The ‘have-a-go’ push of youth disappears and resurfaces as the re-direction of energy. Skill is not absolute; it is progressive, often developing an ability to engage with some aspect of the material’s original state. In the hands of a master craftsman, the qualities that a raw material possesses are elements to be preserved even while they are being balanced to the specific grasp and action of the tool. The qualities of material, its softness, hardness, consistency, brittleness, flexibility, grain or crystalline structure are aligned with the qualities that the tool can deliver, its sharpness, speed, and force.
Tools are about the redistribution of weight. While a system is in motion it is sometimes unclear where the weight actually is. One thing is put out of balance so that the action of re-stabilisation invigorates the system. This is true whether the tool is a hammer, a baseball bat, or a golf club. David Wolk, a dedicated golfer notes: “All the weight is in the head of the club. It is not in the shaft at all but if we pick up a golf club it doesn’t feel like this. When you pick up a golf club it feels as if the entire club has a weight, there is weight to the club. A Golf club without a head is shocking, it feels strange”
It is relatively easy to see how a tool interacts with the body. It is more difficult to see how tools relate to and interact with the mind. Indeed, tool use sometimes appears to have the curious ability circumvent the mind. The activation of a mental state is subtle enough that it is best observed indirectly, by watching what gets changed. Ruth Benedict, an anthropologist, believed that different cultures select specific characteristics from a full spectrum of human traits to either encourage or inhibit. Tools do something similar. Not only are there actions that an individual tool leaves aside, there are also parts of a tool that are not used in any direct way. This is easiest to see in saws and files where the two ends stay sharp long after the middle has been worn smooth. Although not exactly necessary for carving some chisels have long shafts while others have very short ones. Presumably what is not used has some effect on what is used.
The principle of shifting the balance in such a way that it forces a later stabilization can be found in every situation when something is displaced or deferred. It is the principle at work when we stay up too late in order to meet a deadline; it appears in deferred gratification, it operates in all forms of magic whether classic or illusory, it can be found in education, in love, even in the pendulum of a clock. On the darker side it is the principle at work in drugs or alcohol. Prescription medicine also challenges one part of the body to give healing an advantage somewhere else. Nearly every kind of thrill seeking — from provoking an argument to climbing a mountain —involves shifting energies from one place to another. Tools shape the world, but they also give shape to our experience. Every tool is about selective emphasis. This is why Ruth Benedict’s observation about cultures is also appropriate here, because a tool amplifies some things, and reduces other things.
Whenever forces are rearranged, shadows or imbalances can be created. Energy is intensified for a short period but when everything is over this has to be compensated for with extra sleep or a hangover. Energy has been borrowed from the future and must be repaid. A tool doesn’t just realign the balance of the human body; it also rearranges the relative proportions of the world. It interferes with the given order. It can be as dangerous as stealing fire.
Why is it that one tool will feel comfortable in the hand and another will not? That comfort must have to do with the way the distance between the tool and the craftsman disappears. The specifics of the tool — its shape, the material it is made from, the temperature, weight, balance — can occasionally merge so completely with the body that the tool becomes invisible. All the adjustments are seamless. The connection fully engages like in the perfect meshing of different gears.
The hand itself is also a tool, and like other tools, it is a link. A naked hand is excellent at grasping but hopeless at hammering. The moment a hammer is picked up it simultaneously expands and narrows the hand’s capabilities. The generalist nature of the hand is narrowed into the specialist outlook of the tool.
There is a part of every tool that is invisible. The physical substance of a tool is surrounded by the invisible shape of its potential; this implied goal cannot be seen directly. A tool possesses a kind of gravity and it is known mostly by the effect it has on other things it touches. We know of the existence of this potential even before an action is finished. Some tools determine the results so effectively that shapes and residual marks can be read backwards. We can know something about the process by the traces the tool leaves behind.
There are tools made for working in clay that determine the sculptural form regardless of the skill of the practitioner. They automatically produce curves that, for instance, evoke some of Henry Moore’s sculptures. Such potentials are expansions of a tool, but they are also its limits. A sledgehammer implies an action that is different from a tacking hammer. A screwdriver implies rotation; a pair of pliers includes its pinch.
A strange deformation happens when a tool is applied to a task for which it was never designed. There is created a kind of double exposure. This ability to exceed a predetermined existence is also part of a tool’s potential but it is one that is less predictable. It can lead to some interesting results but the outcome is not always successful.
Some tools perform in little duets. The blacksmith’s hammer works so well with the anvil that together they become a third tool. A blacksmith’s tongs hold (or in some cases cradle) a bit of hot metal while it is being worked on. The rapid spinning of the lathe creates a static point despite the fact that it is in motion because all action occurs at a single place in space. Tools often work together, privileging a point of intersection. That is the point where they co-mingle, and a transformation occurs. The intersection of a craftsman with his tools is also a moment of transformation. A craftsman’s tools become essential to his identity. Whenever a craftsman is separated from his tools he starts to feel as if he is someone else. He probably is. ‘Craftsmen know their tools’ it is said, but that is only part of the story. A more expansive word than ‘know’ would help here. Craftsmen also know the relationships between their tools and the material they are working with. Craftsmen become sensitive to response, and how it might change as the situation changes. One thing that changes the situation is when a power tool replaces a hand tool.
The sculptor B.Amore spoke of how the working relationship changes when hand tools are switched for power tools. She observed that a craftsman actually ‘rides’ a power tool and this requires a different set of skills. When a person is attached to a power tool the material becomes a kind of landscape through which the craftsman passes. Work happens within the context of immersion. Different things can be known.
Tools mimic larger geological processes— abrasion, impact, and compression. Tools can be agents of observation as they isolate, miniaturize and combine some of these bigger processes. Sometimes detailed knowledge of tools can help to read larger geological clues. Chisels fracture but they also might cut or scoop. Hammers bash or shatter, and sometimes-repeated small taps can smooth out unevenness. Abrasives either erode or polish and protect. A familiarity with tools and the ability to recognise the marks that individual tools make can enhance the scholarly speculations in such disciplines as art history, archeology, anthropology, philosophy, or sociology. Such knowledge can deepen the appreciation not only of individual objects but also of the processes that envelope them. By observing the result it is sometimes possible to identify processes, sequences, parallels and context.
Tools can embody more subtle principles, even a kind of ‘life.’ Look at the following description of character, control, and intrinsic spirit as Peter Voulkos discusses using a potter’s wheel: “When you are experimenting on the wheel there are a lot of things you cannot explain. You just say to yourself, the form will find its way – it always does.” This echoes Mother Ann Lee, the founder of the Shakers who said: “Every force evolves a form.”
The bond that can be established with material is an intimate one. Over and over again artists and craftsmen will use surprisingly similar expressions. They say that a material ‘speaks’ to them, or even that a specific stone or other material seems to ‘choose’ them. Frequently craftsmen say that they are able to ‘think’ like their material.
The extremely practical world of the craftsman is alive with residual animistic qualities. The craftsman recognizes that within him there is a listener who hears the message and then responds. People are cautioned against reading inappropriate emotions into an inanimate world, but what is inappropriate? The link with material is so intense that to describe it as neutral stuff seems inaccurate. Very similar phrases keep appearing, probably because there is an exact experience that cannot be accurately portrayed in mechanistic terms.
There has always been difficulty in deciding exactly what ‘mind’ is. For the functioning craftsman it may not matter. Even when mind is not defined it is able to steer the results. The craftsman proceeds with an unacknowledged assumption that whatever is at work, it is something broader than what can be encompassed by how the word is commonly used. Perhaps there is a hint of Panpsychism here; the school of thought that proposes that ‘mind’ may be found in areas that are usually considered to be insensate or inanimate.
The themes raised by STONE project seem to be right in the middle of questions about the interaction of tool, craftsman, and material. A project that focuses on tool use (like STONE project) inevitably has to consider intention and subtleties of use. If we include the related issue of tactility (another area of interest identified in STONE project) it unites all the issues of input and information gathering. And if we want to look at tacit skills (again an issue in STONE project) we have to explore whether awareness as it is commonly understood is required for effective action. Culture may be the supreme tacit construction, but a subset of this immense subject is the world of tools, skill, craft and education. Some aspect of tool use appears in any part of nature that is used and not just observed.
There is still much to be explored in the relationship between tools and thought. Many thinkers have considered and concluded that place has an effect on thought. If this is so then action must have even more influence on thought than does place, and also offers a wider means of egress. Tools shape thoughts not unlike material by creating a morphic space within which the imagination can work. Tools are also a means of focus. All forms of focus are amplifications and intensifications. Tools both amplify and condense, often at the same time. They concentrate energy into a smaller area to expand its reach.
If specific tools function within specific forms it is likely that some things can only happen under the influence of these character-transferring tools. Tools shape the world, but they also give shape to our experience much like a belief system. This can be seen in action. Because the computer’s effects on human beings has happened over such a short time its effects can be seen more clearly than if it had taken generations. A computer is just a tool. We can take computers to be representative of what tools do in general. Tools do more than just shape our thoughts; they shape the very process of thinking.
Control is easier in small clearly defined areas. This is where tools come into their own. The bigger the issue, the less possible it is to rearrange the world. If the context is big enough, there is little choice but to adjust. Craftsmen who can take the hint will learn the ways of the material and then align their skill to it. Words from the I-Ching seem to describe the most skilled craftsmen: … if he acts after nature, he follows the energy of nature; if he acts before nature, nature does not contradict him. The ideal craftsman is so aware of the way the world functions that it is impossible to separate it from his being. He doesn’t avoid mistakes through restraint, denial or imposed will but because every potential in the process has been internalised. We are reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of the saint: “The saint is saint, not because he is “good,” but because he is transparent for something that is more than he himself is.”
This way of looking at things puts learning itself into a different light. The whole process of education then needs to be approached differently. Learning can no longer be a training in rules and formulae, because it is no longer concerned with conforming to an imposed norm. How does one learn to listen so carefully and watch so intently that when effort needs to be applied it does not distort the best of what is given? The craftsman’s choice is to have no choice. Anticipation is about alignment with what is likely to happen anyway.
The use of irony is a deflection best reserved for another time and must not to be confused with humor or insight. At this point the only thing that needs to be said is that it is risky. It may initially be seen as a comment, but it does not stay there. It releases attitude but not hope, which stays firmly hidden. Irony needs extraordinary skill because it can only rarely succeed.
"People often try to substitute criteria for the activity of distinguishing essentials and accidentals. An essay may be judged to be good because of the journal in which it is published; a painting or building is praised because it costs a lot of money; an achievement is deemed good because certain people say it is. The use of criteria is an evasion of the responsibility to think. We must rely on criteria in many areas because we cannot become expert in everything, but if we have any responsibility for making a judgment in a particular domain, if our evaluation and decision make a difference, we are obliged to know enough about the matter, and to take sufficient pains to let the essentials of the issue assert themselves in our minds."
— Robert Sokolowsky, Presence and Absence, 1978
The most dangerous risk to craftsmanship at the moment is not irony or a break in lineage but the growth of what has been called ‘deskilling.’ This is the process in which skilled labor and knowledge is eliminated by technologies that can be operated by less skilled or even completely unskilled workers. The Wheelwrights Shop details how things were already drifting in this direction over a hundred years ago. Deskilling may have crept into education, where the idea of a fungible student or even a fungible teaching staff is taking hold. A protocol is an artificial skill that guarantees a level of functional competence regardless of the situation. It goes hand and hand with standardised procedures and products. More and more protocol is being substituted for flexible response. Gresham’s law seems to be establishing the structure on which other things are being built.
"The phrase “workmanship of risk” means that at any moment, whether through inattention, or inexperience, or accident, the workmanship is liable to ruin the job. It is in opposition to the “workmanship of certainty,” in which the quality of the result is predetermined and beyond the control of the operative. These are incisive concepts that cut through much of the confusion generated by such multivalent terms as craftsmanship, quality-production, hand-made, and skill."
John Kelsey, Introduction to The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye
The appeal of what David Pye calls the “Workmanship of Certainty” is probably irresistible in a risk-averse culture. This means that education, which is messy, is replaced by the clean certainty of production. The result is that education is pushed aside by training as set standards replace a vision of education as search and investigation.
Most of the techniques of carving (splitting, chipping, or sanding) are forms of controlled breakage. Skill has to do with removing just the right amount from just the right place. Each stone will chip differently according to its internal structure and the angle of the chisel. For every desired action there is a precise direction that the chisel must to be pointed. Freshly quarried stone may behave differently. It is commonly said that a ‘new’ stone is softer because it is full of ‘quarry sap.’ The metaphor of sap originates in the ancient belief that stone is alive and nourished like animals or plants. Roman travertine, a stone that weathers better than many apparently tougher stones, is said to be so soft before seasoning that it can be cut with a spade. Few stones can be worked that easily and some are so intransigent that in order to shape them one must learn to identify and exploit their vulnerabilities. Not many stones are completely uniform and instead are peppered with weaker areas. A blow of identical force to different stones might give a different result; a careless blow on an unsuspected weak spot can transform a minor event into a disaster. Identifying a stone’s vulnerabilities is a particularly useful skill to have if the weaknesses endanger a stone’s integrity. Carving in such a case proceeds from a different premise. The stone is carved so that any vulnerability will stay hidden, shaped so carefully that the weaknesses stay asleep.
Stone carving tools can be divided into three main groups: two of these groups are involved in shaping the stone and employ the principles of impact and erosion. The third group is concerned with measuring.
The impact tools include hammers alone or in combination with chisels. Stone axes combines the functions of hammer and chisel into a single tool. Any of the shaped cutting edges common to chisels — the point, claw or tooth, buchard, etc — can all be incorporated into a single axe head.
Carving with a hammer and chisel is a classic division of labour. One hand weilds the hammer that drives energy through the chisel into the stone, the force gently adjusted to the needs of the moment. The other hand guides the chisel, directing its angle and adjusting its position on the stone. The guiding hand repeatedly releases and restores contact between the chisel and the stone, allowing for multiple tiny adjustments.
The essence of the impact tools in stone carving is controlled breakage. For abrasive tools it is erosion. It is possible to shape a stone with abrasion alone, but today abrasion is most likely found being used in the finishing phases, just before the work on a stone is completed.
Measuring tools are used at some point in every stage of the working process. In the quarry measuring determines the likely dimensions of the stone and matches that to the needs of the client. Measuring also allows the quarryman to calculate the weight of the stone. The square, compass, spirit level, straight edge and template find their use during the shaping of the stone. Measurement is important during work on the internal proportions and intervals in the carving. It is also needed while positioning the sculpture on the land.
Stones were the first hammers. Most hammers were selected for practical reasons like a convenient fit in the hand or appropriate hardness. Generally a harder material is used to work a softer material; otherwise the tool itself might be consumed first. Archaeologists can distinguish ancient hammer stones from naturally formed pebbles because of where they were discovered and evidence of wear. Some hammer stones were given spiritual significance.
Ancient ceremonial jade axes are relatively common. They were probably valuable from the very beginning because jade is rare, working it is difficult and people cared enough about these objects to carry them great distances from the sources of the stone. In his book The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis Williams described the round quarts hammer stones used by southwestern Native Americans. Quarts stones possess triboluminescence, which means that they produce flashes of light in their interiors when rubbed together. This was particularly effective in dark spaces. This does not necessarily happen when they are used as hammers, but it is felt, then that strange quality by itself might have been enough to confer spiritual significance onto quartz hammer stones. In some cases pairs of quarts pebbles are still referred to as “lightning stones’ or “lucky stones.” These are ‘power tools’ of a different sort than the way we use the term today.
Since those first stones were used hammers have evolved into an extraordinary variety of shapes and sizes. They can be found all around us but in forms as unlike each other as golf clubs are from car pistons.
Most contemporary power tools are versions of what already existed as hand tools amplified by energy coming from another source. The pneumatic, or air hammers are one of the few distinct changes to be introduced as a power tool. Although many power tools are based on rotary motions, air hammers break the pattern by making use of a repeating piston cylinder. The air hammer carves with many tiny blows rather than a few big ones: force is replaced with velocity and quantity. The air hammer is capable of making very long smooth lines. An air hammer has more in common with the inside of a car engine than it does to the swing of a traditional hand-held hammer. The same principle, but on a more brutal scale, is used by the jack-hammers that break up the pavements on the streets.
A wooden mallet is frequently used in carving soft stone or wood. Wood will not deform the striking end of a metal tool, as most metal hammers would, and it also softens the force available to drive the cutting edge. There is also a different ‘spring’. Plastic mallets made of nylon, polycarbonate, or polystyrene are increasingly used by carvers for similar reasons.
Beedle mallet, a large wooden mallet with a circular pine head, and rounded edges. The head is about 18 inches to 15 inches in diameter and its handle about 3 feet (0.91 m) long. It is used by paviours for punning paving stones into position when bedding the stones into a sand base.
Split head mallets have removable faces that can be adapted to whatever is appropriate for the job. These are a kind of hybrid tool, similar to some stone axes, combining the uses of chisel, bush hammer, or stone axe.
The hammers with metal heads come in several forms: the shape of the metal might be rectangular, or curved to mimic the swing of the hammer, or round resembling the wooden mallets (but much smaller because wooden mallets need to be comparatively larger in order to have enough weight.)
The length of the hammer handles varies as well. Many carving hammers have short handles, keeping the weight and the action well concentrated. American granite carving handles have long handles that get thinner near the head. This gives a slight whiplash movement that increases the sharpness of the blow. Japanese hammers can extend this principle even further as they are fitted with even longer natural twig handles, giving the Japanese hammer its characteristic spring and sharp impact.
A hammer cannot be made unless another hammer exists, the blacksmith needs one hammer in order to make another one.
A chisel is a tool of focus. It is able to condense the entire force of the blow into a single point. An un-tempered chisel might actually be softer than the stone. Tempering makes it harder. If the chisel and the stone have almost the same durability, then the angle and delivery of impact becomes particularly important. Learning what angles to employ in specific situations has been a relevant skill since even before metal tools.
The granite carved in Mamallapuram is quite hard in relation to the fire-sharpened chisels that are used there. Constant repair and re-tempering of the chisel is needed. The blacksmiths are busy nearly the entire time the carvers are working. In the workshop of Dr Ganapati Sthapati one of their sculptured figures will take eight months to complete. The chisels last only three to five minutes before they need to be re-sharpened. That means thirty thousand chisels are used on each figure.
(If a sculpture takes 8 months (about 250 days), and a chisel lasts 4 minutes then at 15 per hour x 8 hours = 120 chisels re-sharpened per day x 250 days = 30,000.)
Chisels are sometimes made from whatever steel is available. Car and truck springs are valuable because they provide good quality steel for chisels. Chisels have also been made out of rebar, the kind of steel reinforcement meant to be embedded in cast cement.
Inserting tungsten carbide tips into the carving end of the chisels is a practice that has spread throughout carving communities worldwide, though still rare in India in part because of tradition and in part because carbide is so expensive. Only small pieces of carbide are put in the tips of chisels, in a system not unlike the ancient chisels that attached a hard stone into a shaft of wood or copper.
The pitching tool is a unique and useful chisel. Its cutting surface is angled slightly so that when the tool is held against the stone, the lower edge touches the stone but not the upper part until it is struck with the hammer. It is used for accurately taking off larger chips. Within the family of chisels it is an effective curiosity. Lenore Thomas Straus described it this way: “Even the cutting edge looks wrong. The quarter-inch thickness of its broad blade is beveled to an angle that seems to contradict its own direction.”
Bushing tools are waffle-shaped chisels that are used perpendicular to the stone. They essentially bruise the stone into a smooth and more integrated surface. In feather and splitters the chisels do not actually touch the stone. These wedges are fitted between little divided ‘coats’ that are inserted into previously prepared holes in the stone.
In skilled hands the stone axe can do much the same work that can be done by hammer and chisel. Both methods are apt to show the signatures of both the tool and the ‘handwriting’ of the individual practitioner.
The axe can be very effective as a facing tool. It naturally creates short chop marks, that can sometimes result in a broken surface as if each stroke is the residual evidence of a single ‘breath.’ In skilled hands, however, and when necessary these markings can nearly disappear and the surface can look so smooth that they seem to have been planned. Sometimes a finger is held against the axe head to align it precisely and guide it in delicate work. The action of an axe tends to be toward the vertical, due to the way it is used.
Axes were used extensively in building of European cathedrals, and then fell out of fashion. The axe is perfect for limestone but is not often used for marble. As marble gained in prominence, the use of the axe began to decline. Except with granite (as use which is found mostly in the United States) the use of the axe has become rare. Work on granite with a stone axe leaves no characteristic marks and in a finished stone it is nearly impossible to distinguish from work done with a hammer and chisel.
The stone axe evolved from quarrying axes. Their use followed the stone. After the blocks were freed from the earth axes shaped the stones before transport. The axe was picked up again by the mason when the stones were prepared for construction. In fact the axe was a regular mason’s tool from before the Romans until long into the middle ages.
The history of the stone axe is almost invisible despite its widespread use in the past. Very little mention is made of the stone axe in any literature. Diderot did not illustrate axe work in his famous book even though the tradition was still important at the time he made his compilation. In recent years the axe is being used more frequently in the restoration of cathedrals largely because Pascal Mychalysin, the chief mason for the restoration of the cathedral in Gloucester is trying to re-introduce its use. Gloucester is part of the Seven Cathedral Trust, a unified effort to help promote knowledgeable restoration and competent craftsmen.
Even when the axe began to fall out of use by European masons it continued to be used in quarrying. We learned from a retired quarryman on Portland Island that until recently the quarry team tried to pair left and right handed workers so that they could stand on opposite sides of the stone and ‘face’ the stone more evenly and quickly.
Most quarrying axes have now been replaced by other methods but on this website there is a film from Japan showing how the axe is used to cut a block of stone out of the rocks matrix. The quarrying axe is also still being used in parts of Turkey
In the beginning one stone was used to shape another - a form of carving where each stone wears the other away. Reciprocal erosion is not unusual with abrasion: abrasive tools are expected to wear out. Today it is rare that abrasion actually shapes the stone. Instead it is called into action to finish stones after they have been worked with other tools. Never-the-less abrasion is a form of carving but to see this clearly the vatly different scale has to be overlooked: ‘hammers’ in most abrasions are tiny, sometimes mere grains of sand.
Sawing stone is also a form of abrasion. Sometimes it is the hardened teeth of the saw itself that wears a channel, other times the teeth push sand back and forth and the sand does the work. A twisted wire or string embedded with grit or diamond dust is essentially the same principle. A drill is a saw that stays in the same place. The cutting force is rotational rather than linear. Early carving used loose sand and spinning hollow reeds. Later drills used embedded abrasives, sometimes combined with impact sandblasting, a kind of exuberant impact abrasion, can be used to make lettering of shallow stencil based carving. Sand is relatively common and since ancient times different deposits of sand were found to have differences that could be chosen for their cutting potential. Natural deposits of emory, pumice or carborundum were valuable to early stone work. Commercially available abrasive sands have been traditionally sorted by color: Black sand is corundum or emery; Yellow sand is quartz and Red sand is garnet.
Files, rasps or rifflers are all used to adjust the stone. Metal tools have become popular for abrasion especially since they can be embedded with nuggets of still harder material. Scrapers, like the others are pieces of metal cut with edges that grate the stone.
The various devices used to measure the stone allow the stone to be visualised, and adapted to fit its eventual location.
The straight edge is not only for drawing straight lines, it also used by the mason to test for flatness— the most useful straight edges have a beveled edge, because the narrow edge makes it easier to spot any inaccuracy.
The blade can be adjusted and locked into virtually any angle. Once the shape is made, this tool can be used repeatedly to test the bevel on several carved stones for alignment and accuracy.
A tool that confirms or corrects a right angle. With an L-square a block can be squared up as an aslar or to prepare the stone for easier use of templates.
The Spirit Level and Plumb Line
Both the level and plumb line use natural forces to determine the horizontal and vertical axes: the surface water flattens, and the gravitational pull on a suspended weight will make it hang straight. No doubt the Cartesian co-ordinates were inspired by these two principles.
Templates involve a specific thinking in which two-dimensional silhouettes are projected in order to create three-dimensional forms. Multiple templates require skills of visualisation and translation as the carver moves the form into deeper space.
Calipers can be used with great skill to measure or divide a stone into equal parts. Calipers are also used to enlarge a sculpture from a maquette or on occasion to reduce it. A ‘master line’ is established on a maquette to serve as a constant reference point for all subsequent measurement. An equivalent line is established on or in the stone that is going to be carved.
The Pointing Machine
The pointing machine was invented in France in the mid 18th century although it is likely that the Greeks had a similar devise. For ancient Greeks stone had no intrinsic value. It was used as a secondary material and for copies. We know the existence of bronze sculptures long ago destroyed only because the stone copies that were made still exist.
The introduction of the pointing machine changed the nature of stone work in many respects. By the late 19th century stone once again became an imitative material. Carvers with less experience or innate skill could produce reasonable results.
The pointing machine is a three dimensional pantograph able to reproduce points proportional between smaller and larger models. In its simplest form the pointing machine was a movable cross-shaped armature with three sharp points – two on the cross beam and one on the vertical with a hook to hang over the top of a block of stone.
To keep the work accurate and resist wear on the maquette, three places are prepared with small metal plates – usually indented to precisely anchor the contraption.
In its simplest form the carving is based on a full size model and the measurements are transferred one to one. Enlarging and reducing require slightly different tools. Different methods can be used but the principle is to enlarge or reduce each measurement proportionally.
Like all tools, the pointing machine embodies a particular principle of action. Establishing strategic points into which the work nestles is an application that can be applied elsewhere and in other approaches to working, such as drawing, surveying or carpentry. The principle of certain points in one place that correspond to points somewhere else is also one of the ideas of metaphysics. In the Pointing Machine, speculation becomes practical.
The pointing machine is used at least three times in the completion of a sculpture. The three stages can be summarised this way:
Stage one: Pre-pointing or primary blocking
Holes are drilled or the marble carved away to the depths indicated. To allow for a margin of error, the rough form is established approximately 3 cm (or 1 inch) larger than the finished sculpture. The first points of reference are at the highest relief points. Points have to be placed as needed, but for a 1,50 m — or 6 foot — block of marble the points might be about 15 cm —or 6 inches— apart.
Stage two: The pointing itself
The entire sculpture is now brought within about 1 cm — a third of an inch— of the finished form. The proximity of the points depends on the detail of the areas being carved. Something like an ear or delicate foliage might need many points, a fairly uniform area needs fewer.
Stage three: Details
The work is finished and polished. The pointing machine can be also be used at this stage, especially for extremely delicate areas. Parts of a face, for instance, might need many points quite close together.
The pointing machine uses a principle that is also at the heart of contemporary animation techniques, specifically motion capture. In motion capture specific facial movement markers are established and then tracked. There are apparently 70 poses of the human face that can be mapped and used in surface capture. The face can also be carved up into smaller components, a kind of map that is composed of hundreds of composite polygons looking as if the surface is composed of a net that adjusts itself to changing positions. Once mapped, transposing data onto another mode is relatively simple. The use of this technology is particularly helpful for research into dance and animation,
Digital stone carving is another variation of this principle. Like the simple pointing machine, points are established and these points then guide the carving. The apparently modern is in reality only an old technique.
Some quarries produce ‘dimensional’ stone in large blocks. Other quarries immediately break up the stone for use in roads or as filler. The quarries that produce dimensional stone may even try to salvage the residue. To be useful, the stone needs to be sorted by size. Essentially the stone is passed through large sieves. This is the primary quarrying technique in sand quarries, and a secondary technique in quarries harvesting dimensional blocks.
Granite residue, after it is graded, is used for roads and building, or as aggregate. Granite dust is sometimes used as soil conditioner. Marble and limestone residue has many different uses depending on its purity. It can be ground up and used for medicine, toothpaste, food additives, or filler for paint. Lime has many other uses.
Stone is heavy, and moving it is not a simple matter. Large heavy weights can be moved by putting rollers, round tubes or pipes under the stone. A very heavy stone can be pushed with relative ease on rollers. Stones can also be moved on sled, skid or ‘stone boat.’ A block and tackle, or ‘come-along’ can help to pull a stone along. The strain on the cable can be intense. To minimise risk of injury due to cable snap-back, a blanket, tarp or a coat can be thrown over the strained line to absorb any suddenly released tension force.
Once a year in Carrara an ancient technique called Lizzatura is reenacted. Lizzatura is a preindustrial technique in which large blocks of stone down from the mountain. Stone Project planned its research visit to coincide with this event, which can be seen on film.
Stone can be lifted using jacks for small elevations or a hoist such as a gantry or crane for bigger open lifts. A gantry is an A - or H- shaped frame equipped with pulleys. A gantry will allow slow and careful lifting. There are different ways of rigging the stone to a gantry or crane. Often slings are used but there are other options, such as a device called a Split Pin Lewis.
Fork lifts and pallet movers are recent tools that have been adapted to stone use.
Once a year in Carrara an ancient technique called Lizzatura is reenacted. Lizzatura is a preindustrial technique in which large blocks of stone are carried down from the mountain. Stone Project planned its research visit to coincide with this event, which can be seen on film.
Cushioning and Transportation
Stone, as tough as it appears to be, has the unfortunate combination of being both heavy and fragile. Throughout its life cycle it needs to be cushioned again and again in different ways.
When a large block is split from the edge of the quarry its fall is softened by rubble that had been piled under the projected place of impact. This doesn’t always stop cracks but it reduces the possibility considerably. Various other devices perform similar roles. Large inflated ‘pillows’ in thin metal are also used.
When a smaller stone is carved it is elevated to a convenient height by putting it on a banker, which is an elevated solid work table. It is usually made of wood, because wood has a natural cushioning effect. Occasionally an extra bit of carpet is put on top to further cushion and keep the stone in place. In Croatia the bankers were wooden barrels filled with stone chips. This elegant and efficiently designed banker has been used without interruption since Roman times.
After the stone is placed on top of the banker, it might need to be supported again with small sandbags or wedges. These are positioned according to the vulnerabilities of the stone. If force is applied to unsupported stone it is more likely to break.
Transporting heavy and fragile objects present unique challenges. Sometimes stone is packed in sturdy crates surrounded by woodchips or straw. Styrofoam ‘peanuts’ that are commonly used today for packing lighter objects are not practical for stone because they will flatten under the weight of moving stone.
Larger objects can be strapped to pallets and surrounded with a protective cage. Allowing part of the stone to be seen seems to add additional protection because the worker moving the crate is reminded of its fragility.
Sandstone and limestone absorb water. A stone actually breathes as it holds and releases water from the air or rain. Iron fittings were used to anchor stone together but it was not a good idea because in a stone that might be damp, iron can rust and expand. If it does it can crack the stone. Wood like iron also expands when it absorbs water. In fact in ancient times wood wedges were driven into cracks then wetted so that they would swell and crack open the stone.
Sea shells because they are calcium like limestone seemed to be a logical way to fix stone. Lead was sometimes used by being poured into prepared spaces in a molten state and then left to cool, anchoring the stone.
Orderly Storing of tools
A craftsman likes to store the tools in an orderly way because it is a pleasure to look at them. Tools do sometimes seem to have a talismanic or fetishistic aspect. Beyond aesthetic pleasure or psychological thrill, there are solid advantages to orderly tools. To be able to quickly find a working tool in a moment of need is the only way to estimate how long a job will take. Time spent looking for misplaced tools is really misspent. Tools in clean working order can lead to speedy application and predictable results.
‘Rift’ and ‘Grain’ are the easiest and second easiest directions in which to ‘part’ (i.e. split) stone. In most granite deposits one is vertical, or nearly so, and the other is horizontal or nearly so. Rift is parallel to the mica plates and is the direction of predominant feldspar cleavage. The direction at right angles to the rift and grain is called the ‘hardway’ for obvious reasons. It splits with great difficulty so the term is exactly descriptive.
Stone that is not split with approximately equal mass on either side of the intended split is likely to curve out at the bottom rather than splitting straight through the stone.
The introduction of saws increased the production of stone for tiling, cladding, and other veneer-type uses, but it uses a different approach to get there. A saw is basically a tool of abrasion. It can ignore the natural vulnerabilities of the stone. Some stone work still relies predominantly on splitting for its production, slate for instance.
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