Starting the Communal Urn

Getting started on the communal urn.

We started the Communal Urn this week, pouring a footer and starting the stonework. It will be a while before we go back to it; the next major step is to install the inscription stone, which I’m working on, but will take me a long time to complete. This is the main body of the vault, which is made of sandstone from Tennessee. To expedite the process, we prepared the stones before we arrived, shaping them the contour of the vault, which is 42″ in diameter. We are using a piece of rebar in the center to get the radius right, though two hours into fussing with all measuring I realized there was a shortcut I could have employed that would have made it all soooo much easier. Next time! We’re using the green foam as a template for the ‘donut’- the limestone piece that will have the inscription in it. The highest stone on the back of the vault (also called ‘the well’, ‘the turret’, and ‘the silo’ today) indicated finished height of this section and where the ‘donut’ will rest.

Getting started on the communal urn. The green foam is a template for the inscription stone.

The Donut

The centerpiece of the communal urn on the carving table

This odd arrangement is what we’re calling ‘The Donut’- a large circular bit of limestone that will be the centerpiece of the communal urn we’re building for a local Methodist church. The stone is on a massive table that Rogers & Son Welding built for me. It’s about 54″ tall, so I can chisel the lettering in at a comfortable height. The only problem with the table is that is vibrates in response to the impact of my hammering. That’s what the bucket hanging from the center is for. I got the idea from an episode of NOVA about how skyscrapers deal with high winds. It’s a version of a harmonic dampener; basically it absorbs some measure of the vibrations. It’s not especially well-engineered; it is literally just a bucket hanging from a rope, but it works.

New Garden Guardians

Garden Guardian stone inlays of fox kits

I recently traveled down to Alpharetta- a suburb of Atlanta- to install these two Garden Guardians. That’s what I call my freestanding stone inlay pieces. This client has the first one I ever made, a coyote mounted into a slab of Tennessee sandstone. It’s interesting to me to see how the concept and my execution has evolved over time. I don’t get to make a lot of these, but they are fun and challenging.

A Garden Guardian of a coyote.

The fox kits are mounted into slabs of Pennsylvania bluestone that have been thermally treated. They are heated at with an oxyacetylene torch which makes the surface crackle and pop leaving a very consistent texture. The red stone is known as Breccia Pernice and originates from Italy. If you look at the ‘downward kit’ piece, you might notice at the right hand edge that you can see the circular drill marks from when they quarried the bluestone. I like it when I get to utilize a form like that in a piece.

A Garden Guardian stone inlay of a playful fox kit

A Garden Guardian stone inlay of a sleeping fox kit

Communal Urn/Vault Opening

Communal Urn Vault Opening work in progress- showing door sliding out

I’ve been working on the Communal Urn/Vault a bit at the shop. These images show progress on the vault opening- how the ashes will be placed into the urn. This assembly will rest on the ‘donut’ with the inscription. I’m using Indiana limestone for this part of the urn. It is really workable, which will really help me when it comes time to do the lettering. There are also architectural elements in the structure of the church- a Methodist congregation in West Asheville- carved on the same stone.

Communal Urn Vault Opening work in progress- showing door sliding out

The big stone at the bottom will have a ramp cut into it, that will direct the ashes down. The door will have a handle so that it can be removed. Right now I think it may still be a bit too heavy for comfort, but I’m going to finish the rough assembly before I remove anymore material from the back of it. It still needs a lintel- a stone that crosses over the door. It will be the same width as the bottom stone- where the ramp will be.

The Stone Vault, A Communal Urn

A shop presentation of the Communal Urn, a stone vault in process.

Last Friday, I hosted a client at my shop to discuss an unusual project I am working on. A local church has commissioned me to create a communal urn, a stone vault for the cremated remains of members of their congregation. I am drawn to these types of unusual projects and I’m grateful that such work finds me.

I set up my “presentation“ in the lower shop – the same place I hosted last fall’s studio tour. In fact, in the background of the picture you can see “The Boy With Antlers“ mosaic, which has been hanging there for almost a year now.

To the middle left of the photo is a full-scale print out of the vault. It’s just over 4 feet tall and 42 inches across. I am a big fan of full scale templates, at least when contemplating something new or unusual. It’s easier to critique the design at full size. About halfway up the urn there is an inscription, noted in my drawing with scribbles. While the exact quote has not been completely nailed down yet, the basic concept is that the inscription is in a single piece of stone, which I am calling the donut. I’ve already had that piece fabricated by my friends at Tennessee Marble Company. It’s resting on the pallet just behind the poster. The donut hole has been cut out; the Styrofoam was to prevent it from moving during transit. Originally a scrap piece, I believe the donut hole will now factor into the completed vault, possibly as the cap.

To the right there is a pallet of Tenneessee sandstone. You can’t really tell from this picture, but those pieces have a 21 inch radius on them. Those will make up the body of the vault. We have been making these pieces here and there at the shop, when we have a few idle moments. We’ll need a bunch more, but it’s a good start.

In the background, stretched out on the floor is a poster with the possible inscription laid out in multiple typefaces. It’s 11 feet long! That’s a lot a letter carving. In the foreground are some samples and even a comparison between sandblasting and letter carving. I’m excited that they are going to let me carve the inscription. I am not a super skilled letter carver, but it just seems appropriate in this context for this inscription to be done by hand. This will make me a better letter carver. Or completely insane.

Stone Inlay Techniques on Asheville School Crest Medallion

This is the site of our current project, a gathering space at Asheville School. The school crest will be located in the center of the patio.

Our current project has us building a gathering space at Asheville School. The patio will be the centerpiece of the Bement Garden. We are collaborating with Mardi Letson of Gardens By Mardi on this project.

The medallion is five feet across. The Sharpie lines indicate the inlay locations.

We are building a stone medallion that depicts the school’s crest for the center of the patio. There are symbols throughout the crest that will be inlaid into the patio stone. Some are fairly straightfoward- others are quite tricky.

The most challenging part of doing inlay in stone is removing the material where the inlay is supposed to go. The following video walks through the process and the tools I use.

Grinder lines cut into stone for major stock removal.

I used both of the grinders in the video to create the outer border of the design and cut a cross hatch pattern into the stone. This allows for easier stock removal.

Hand hammer and chisel to remove the vast majority of the stone. Must be careful to not damage edges doing this.

Hand hammer and chisel were used to get out the vast majority of the stock. This is very effective in wide open areas- like the center- but not wise near the edges or in tight spaces.

I’ve removed what I could by hand chisel and grinder. Ready to tackle it with the pneumatic chisel.

I use a pneumatic chisel- made by Trow and Holden Company of Barre, Vermont- to work close to the edges. This is not necessarily a delicate tool- it’s really just a mini jackhammer- but it is more efficient than doing it by hand. I can regulate the air flow to control the strength of the chisel blows. Really though, the key is in the angle of attack. Work away from the edges of the design and away from the top of the stone.

The tree pattern space after finishing up with the pneumatic chisel.

I try to take out a half an inch of stock when doing an inlay.

I try to take out about a half inch of depth. This allows room for a stone tile- generally 3/8″ thick- and a bed of thinset tile mortar.

A mosaic tree inlay in a piece of bluestone

It fits! Some detail work on the mosaic and it’s ready for thinset. A bunch more to do!

Magician’s Staff

I recently hosted a family at my shop as part of a mosaic design process. More on that later. While they were there, I gave the two daughters, aged five and eight, a couple of colorful scraps of stones I had. They liked the rich color of the Blue Macaubas marble from Brazil. I had some small diamonds of it left over from the Dragon Family mosaic. We tested the blue as a highlight to the green dragon scales, but decided it just didn’t quite work.

A couple days later, while on site to work on the project, the girls showed me the magician’s staff they had made with the blue diamond. This super cool piece reinforces my strong belief that if you give kids art supplies, they’ll make amazing things. They played in the yard with the staff the whole day while we worked.

A scrap of blue marble is transformed…

Stone Mosaic Memorial Wall Hangings

Stone Mosaic Memorial Wall Hangings

I was contacted by a local couple who just recently lost two dear friends. These stone mosaic wall hangings were created in memory of their lost loved ones.

Stone Mosaic Memorial Wall Hangings


Click here to see other stone memorials we’ve completed.

Stream Path Stone Mosaic

Stream Path Stone Mosaic

The North Carolina Arboretum commissioned Hammerhead to design and build a stone mosaic in their stream garden. The stream garden is located immediately adjacent to the Arboretum’s signature quilt garden. The Stream Path stone mosaic was fabricated at the shop and installed onsite.


For the rapids section of the mosaic, the branches are made of Tennessee sandstone and often correspond with drops in elevation in the stream, to create visual interest and to enhance the sound of the water moving. Kind of like a real branch or log fallen across a stream…

I used a Dremel rotary tool to engrave this mayfly into one of the background stones near the frog in the stream path.

A fun detail of me working under the bridge is that you can see the ‘map’ on the wall. It was a handy reference to have. It shows all the stones and their positions.

Stream Path Stone Mosaic

The map is also pictured here on the level across the stream while Jonathan works.

Process shots from the shop of stone crayfish and the trout chasing minnows.

After fabrication comes transportation. Here is the trout as well as part of the background stacked up in the back of the truck.

Top Ten Stonework Photos

Top Ten Stonework Photos

Photographs are an important part of my stonework. They are essential tools in sharing my work with others. A strong portfolio drives business.

Photographs are part of my process as well. I take pictures throughout a project. Studying them later- that same day, or months on- helps me troubleshoot problems and see where potential lies. They show flaws and places to grow as well as the tiny little details that make all the difference.

Photographs act as my memory. I don’t have any stonework of my own. Much of my work is hidden in backyards and hard to get to. My archives- a disorganized mess of over 20,000 images- help me see what I’ve done. This helps me keep things in perspective; in the depths of winter it’s a nice reminder that the weather will someday break and we can get back to making things.

What follows are my favorite ten images from the first ten years of Hammerhead Stoneworks. These are not the best pictures or the ones that make up the strongest portfolio. These are the photographs that speak to me of the process and the materials and why I love what I do. Click on the titles to read the story behind each of the top ten stonework photos.

John’s Exploded Mosaic

Top Ten Stonework Photos

This might be my favorite image of the last ten years. It’s a memorial mosaic I made, resting in the back of my truck ready to be brought to Riverside Cemetery for installation. There’s something about the exploded, expanded view that I really enjoy. It doesn’t hurt that it’s in the back of my favorite old truck, which now rests dead in the driveway. Residual bright blue spray paint pokes through seams. The name plate at the bottom was carved by me. It’s not at all expertly done done but I was proud of the accomplishment. The family decided to add the dates of John’s birth and death, which wouldn’t fit on this piece. I cut a new stone and had it engraved. I may still have that nameplate somewhere at the shop.

Feathers & Floors

Top Ten Stonework Photos

Twenty years ago Kristin I took an off-season trip to Italy. I had just started stone work and was mesmerized by the craft on display throughout the country. The floors in Venice, especially at Basilica San Marco, were breathtaking and completely changed the way I thought about stone. Their color palettes were bold and clashing, their patterns chaotic and busy, and yet the end result was endlessly fascinating and beautiful. My pursuit of mosaic goes back to the moment I first saw those floors. This small section of the Phoenix Rising mosaic reminds me of those floors. It is a thread- however modest it might be–that connects my humble pursuits to the master craftsman of that bygone age.


Top Ten Stonework Photos

When I take pictures of my work for my portfolio, I always have to be reminded to show the contacts surrounding the finished piece. Future customers want to see how the wall interacts with the landscape. They want to see how the patio looks with tables and chairs. But I am always drawn to the close-ups, to the images that explore the stone and the stone alone.

This particular image is from my first public art commission”The Blue Spiral” in Gainesville Florida. This shot was taken in the shop during the fabrication process. I love the textures in the tight lines. In this image I saw the potential of the idea being realized.


I made a mosaic for the North Carolina Arboretum. It lines the floor of a water feature and includes native species like this bullfrog. As is often the case, my favorite photograph is early in the process, when I recognize that the idea will work. I love the colors here. Most of the stone is regional and in its natural state. The tympanic membrane is a highly polished scrap of marble salvaged from a company that makes countertops.

GreenMan at Rest
Top Ten Stonework Photos

There are so many better pictures of the GreenMan mosaic, Hammerhead’s first large scale wall piece, but this is a favorite. I took this picture at the shop, while we were fabricating. The whole face is there except the eyes, which went through several iterations before I got them right. Even without the eyes, I could tell that this was going to work. This was a crazy time for Hammerhead; GreenMan was built on top of the labyrinth at our shop.

Little Men

Top Ten Stonework Photos

This is a sentimental choice. I don’t love this wall- one of my first- but I do love those little dudes, who are not so little anymore.

Marbles Inlaid

Another shop shot, another moment when a weird idea came together. I had tried prototypes of this idea before, with limited success. Prototypes aren’t supposed to work, I guess. They’re give you the info you need for when you convince a customer to let you build something crazy, like a bench that’s supposed to look like it’s balanced on a bed of marbles.

Alien Landing Pad

Top Ten Stonework Photos

There’s not even any stone in this picture, but I still love it and wanted to include it in the top ten stonework photos. It’s the layout of a hexagonal folly that we built for clients in Biltmore Forest. When we were done, they were married there. I like the vivid colors. I discovered the secret to laying out a hexagon on Wikipedia. It involved aligning the centers of three circles with identical radii. The points where the circles kiss each other become the corners of the hexagon- whose sides will be the same as the radius used. This very simple and practical approach to geometry spurred an ongoing fascination with old school Islamic tile mosaics which are incredibly complex and are designed with only a compass and a straight line.

Labyrinth With Red Leaves

This one soothes me. It’s really the only portfolio-ish shot amongst the top ten stonework photos. It’s been my desktop wallpaper for months now.

Worshop Pegboard

Order is fleeting; chaos always wins. This was taken the day we hung pegboard in the shop. It’s been a mess ever since.

Bonus Image: Hovering Stone

Jonathan Frederick took this shot of me as we were installing 3000 pound chunks of granite at the entrance to the labyrinth. Bodie is running the crane as I escort the big guy to its new home.