Stone Communal Urn/Ash Vault

We just completed construction of a communal urn. This large ash vault was commissioned by Trinity United Methodist Church in West Asheville.


I have to admit I was not familiar with the concept of a communal urn before the pastor of the church approached me. She had come across a brick structure at another church and wanted to commission something similar. I did not care for the brick urn, which was square and had a flat top. To me, it looked like a bear proof garbage can in a state park. Plus, we don’t work with brick!
My design is cylindrical. This reduces the interior volume, but a circle feels more appropriate to an artifact such as this, meant to celebrate the cycle of life. An early iteration of the design resembled an acorn, which was metaphoric, but too expensive.
The final shape resembles a cairn, a stack of stones usually found somewhere in the woods. They are sometimes used as way-finders, markers the show the path to follow. That seemed an apt metaphor as well. Artist Andy Goldsworthy has built many similar structures that he calls seeds. They are arresting structures that make one pause and reflect. Cairns are typically laid stone on stone, with no mortar. They aren’t usually hollow though. The urn is built of Tennessee sandstone with 9” thick mortared walls and a void within. The whole thing is 42” in diameter.

It got bigger when we built it!


The key design piece is a single piece of limestone located about halfway up the urn. We referred to it as “the donut” because of the opening in the center to allow the ashes to fall through. The stone features an inscription selected by the congregation. The inscription repeats twice. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” I had imagined some type of circular phrase that looped back onto itself, but couldn’t think of one!

Lettering carved into limestone ‘donut’ for the communal urn

I had a piece of Indiana limestone cut for me by Tennessee Marble Company. I chose limestone because it is relatively easy to carve. As it turns out, there are architectural details made from Indiana limestone in the church building itself. I decided to do the letter carving myself. I have dabbled with this in the past, but this was my largest project by far. It came out pretty well I think. Incised letters like this have more character than the sandblasted lettering most commonly seen today. I had a special table made to support the stone at chest height. I had a powerful lamp and a space heater nearby, so I was able to work on it throughout the winter. It took a long time!

The shop set up where I carved the lettering for the stone urn.

A Jerusalem Cross engraved into the limestone ‘donut’


Ashes have to get into the vault somehow. I had a couple of random blocks of the same kind of limestone that I used to create a portal. There’s a ramp cut into the big piece at the bottom. The ramp rests right on top of the engraved donut stone.
I ended up making THREE doors for this thing. I broke the first one drilling holes to fasten the locking mechanism in place. I made an exact copy of that (in a fraction of the time, since I had already figured it out first go round.) Then I decided to make the drawer handle out of stone rather than an added piece of steel hardware. The third and final iteration is all one stone with a small indentation underneath for grip. The door is heavy but will rarely be removed. I made a small mosaic on the backside of the door. A cross faces into the vault where ashes shall be interred. This watches over everyone’s remains. It also hides the hardware used to mount the locking mechanism.

The door/ramp/vault mechanism for the communal urn rests of the lettered limestone ‘donut.’

Small cross mosaic on the inside of the door for the communal urn.


The dome is not self-supporting, though we toyed with that idea. Just above the ramp, we put a single piece of stone to seal off the vault area. More than anything else, that prevented extra mortar from falling into the hole and reducing the volume of the vault. At one point I climbed into the cylinder to clean it out. Tight fit! So the dome stones all sit on that interior cap and the space is filled with mortar and chips. I admit that I got so focused on the donut and door that I didn’t think through the cap in enough detail. I like it but it took forever and I can imagine a better process and product for the next time.

Creepy, but it does show the depth of the thing.

It was a fun and challenging project and I like the results. It’s unlike anything I’d ever built before. Those are the most fun! And crazy-making!

The Vault / Communal Urn

We are prepping to finish the communal urn project for the Methodist Church in West Asheville. I have been working on a locking system for urn, so that only ashes are ever placed inside. This is my second door. I was drilling holes into the first, to anchor the lock hardware and a large chunk of the front corner popped off. I had a big dust mask on at the time, so the profanities were suitably muffled. This is the second door, though I am now considered a third door, with a built in handle, carved out of the stone. I think that would be sturdier and more durable than adding something made of steel. Still mulling that one over…

The door and locking system for the communal urn

I made this inverted bowl out of a piece of scrap as a cap to the urn. I found it surprisingly difficult to cut this simple shape. The urn door, cap, and engraved central stone are all Indiana limestone.

I made a hat for an urn

Pet Rocks

A ‘pet rock’ appears in a stone wall.

A previous client notified me recently that new creatures had started appearing in his stone wall. I am reminded of a fad from the 70’s (maybe) of pet rocks, which were smoothed beach stones painted with smiling faces. Painted and photographed by Tobias Van Buren.

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…