Over the last couple of weeks, I have been playing with letter carving and relief sculpting. It’s all brand new to me. For all the times I’ve struck a chisel with a hammer, this is a completely different set of rules. It’s a lot more tap-tap and a lot less thunk-thunk.
The first thing I did was carved a word into a piece of scrap marble, a failed vanity top. Not realizing that the purist letter carver would draft the letters themselves, I borrowed a typeface from my computer. I purchased a marble lettering chisel from Trow and Holden to go with a dummy (lettering mallet) I already had. I watched an on-line documentary about the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island. It wasn’t a how-to video exactly, but it showed them at work; it gave me an idea of what I ought to do. I traced the word on with carbon paper and a nail and went to work.
I loved the experience of it. Each movement is important. In the serifs, I got so close to the stone, to see each little grain release and fly away. I have always loved the intense focus that my more sculptural pieces afford, when I’m locked up in goggles, a respirator and ear protection, with some grinder or saw screaming away. It’s a very pure type of isolation. This was much the same, only much quieter, and by my own hand.
I sent that stone to a friend as a gift and have moved onto a new project. A small version of a traditional death’s head, as would appear at the top of an old grave marker. Winged skulls are cool. I acquired a new chisel halfway through this. A book on stone letter carving suggested a brand called Univers, which is apparently only available in the UK. I did find one stateside supplier, John Neal Bookseller, who cater to the calligraphy, bookbinding and lettering arts community. They rule. The new chisel is carbide and it really bites into the stone; it’s way more effective than the soft chisel that I started with, but much easier to make mistakes. One of the great gifts that a career in stone affords me is the opportunity to always be learning.
This shows it just as I am getting started. That’s the lettering chisel from Trow & Holden. I use the carbide scribe to trace the lines to help get a bite.