Stone Inlay Process

Stone Inlay Process – Great Blue Heron

I’ve had this piece of stone at the shop for over a year. It was cut from a bench we installed in the Memorial Garden of First Baptist Church Asheville. I really liked the color and surface texture and was waiting for a project to suggest itself – and along came this blue heron stone inlay. I envisioned it becoming a Garden Guardian like Coyote, a piece we recently designed and installed in Atlanta.

Stone Inlay Process

The drawn pattern of the stone inlay

Soapstone is used to create the lines of the general shape, while a Sharpie is used for the exact contour. (Soapstone blows off when the grinder hits the rock, but the Sharpie stays in place.)

The Cutaway

The heron is a challenging shape. The point of the beak as well as the curve of the neck were both difficult to get just right, so I used pretty much every tool at my disposal. In order to use a small radius blade, I even got a little Dremel tile saw, which was a bit helpful, but overall lacked the needed power. I used a hammer and a very sharp lettering chisel to get the points as crisp as possible.

Stone inlay process

The stone cutaway

The Rubbing

Once the design is cut into the stone, I do a rubbing of sorts to get the contours on paper. I can remember doing this with my mom as a kid in the historic cemeteries of Rhode Island where I’m from. While never as exact as I want it to be, it’s usually pretty close. I drop my shapes onto this and then cut them out.

Stone Inlay Process

The shape rubbed on paper

Design Pattern

As you can see from the countless scribbles, I go through a lot of ideas. (And that’s after having drawn to design before I even started.) What looks good on paper and a small scale might not work in large scale. Due to the complex design of this project, after I cut it I had to reassemble it so I could figure out how the pieces fit together.

Stone Inlay Process

The drawn pattern. Note: nails only there to keep it from blowing away

Starting the Inlay

I knew I wanted the body and wings to be blue Bahia. This is a super expensive tile, but the color is astounding!

Stone Inlay Process

Starting the inlay with blue Bahia tile

The Heron’s Gray Neck

I think the scientist in me got a little too interested in biological accuracy. A great blue heron’s is more gray than blue, and I wanted to reflect that in the inlay. (And yes, I understand that even their wings aren’t that blue!) I switched from the blue Bahia tile to a gray stone for the neck. While I like the gray stone, I didn’t really like the effect.

Stone Inlay Process

The heron’s gray neck

The Finished Product

This is a little more like it. The body, neck, and head are all blue, while the beak is a particularly yellow type of travertine. The crest is black, and the legs are a marble from Tennessee.

Stone inlay process

The finished product

I had to cut the legs twice as the first ones were so snugly fit that a few grains of sand made a wedge between the legs and the stone, making it impossible to get them out without breaking them. I ended up cutting several of the stone of this finished stone inlay more than once.

Cobblestone Patio

The defining feature of my current project is a circular cobblestone patio in Asheville’s historic Montford neighborhood made of materials gathered by the homeowner over the last 30 years.

circular cobblestone patio

The homeowner spent fifteen years salvaging old cobblestones from around Asheville so we could make this circular patio space,

Colorful Cobblestones

The cobblestones are very diverse; I’ve found at least three distinct types of granite. They have all weathered differently and some are quite smooth from years of use as roads. Since there was a limited supply, I split most of them in half lengthwise. This effectively doubled my stone supply and added colors to the palette. While the top might be a granite grey, or green with algae, the bottom may be brown or orange, depending on the type of soil it has been sitting in for the last few decades. Once split, the inside of the stone also became a usable surface, always much brighter and sparkly than the weathered outside. A couple of the stones actually have old paint on them, from their days as roadways. As a result the cobblestone patio is quite colorful.

Cutting Cobblestones

I have tried every different way I know to cut stone and have found the most efficient and neatest way to split the cobbles is using a type of chisel called a hand tracer. I scribe a line all the way around and around the cobble until it splits in two. The grain of granite is ideal for this type of technique; it’s very hard, dense stone, but it responds predictably to the chisel’s persuasion. The local metamorphic stones are less cooperative. I start out lightly, making sure the line is fairly straight and well established before I really lay into the stone. Once I get going, I can hear the stone starting to split, and I ease up, paying more attention to the places where it still sounds solid. A sharp chisel is a huge asset and I have been bringing the hand tracer home every night for a run over the bench grinder.

Cutting A Stone Circle

I used the hand tracer to remove large chunks of the center stone, a circle cut from a another salvaged piece of granite. I didn’t have a compass large enough to draw a circle on the stone, so I made one with roofing felt, a nail and some soapstone. I traced the circle on a piece of roofing felt and then laid that template over the stone.

Once I had the basic shape of the circle cut, I switched to my smaller, sharper chisels, which give me more control, to hone a more accurate shape. Though the patio needs one more ring to be completed, I dropped the circle stone in the center on Friday afternoon, to check the fit. The whole cobblestone patio makes me think of a flower.


New Wall

I’ve started a new wall just outside of downtown Asheville, at a doctor’s office. A circular drystone wall will surround a maple tree and create a new planting bed. It’s a fun challenge building on this tight a radius. I made a template of the curve out of roofing felt that I use to make sure the stones I am preparing to lay will fit into the circle.

The boys came to visit me the other day.

To get a perfect circle around the tree I rigged up this system of strings, spray paint and a level. The level is tied to the paint wand, ensuring that I keep it plumb as I go around the tree. The trunk isn’t a perfect circle, but it seems that the loop of line I used at that end smoothed out the tree’s contours. I stand back frequently to make sure the wall is staying true and so far it’s been fine.

Saluda Stone Walkway Steps

Saluda Stone Walkway Steps

Saluda Stone Walkway Steps
I just completed a project in Saluda, North Carolina today. The home was built some time in the 70’s and the existing concrete steps were broken down and needed replacing. New stone walkways were in order as well. I built most of the new walkways over the existing sidewalks, dry laid on a pea gravel bed. The image above shows the new steps; the image below shows the area before we got started. Note the awkward spacing of the original steps; it was hard to hit your stride walking them.

Saluda Stone Walkways & Steps

Saluda Stone Walkway Steps

Saluda Stone Walkway Steps

Saluda Stone Walkway Steps
The brick pathways wrap around the house, from the formal front entrance (shown above) to the opposite side of the house, which receives most of the traffic.

This short stretch of concrete was poured recently and broke up quite easily under the jackhammer assault. Most of the sidewalks were poured when the house was built and were a pain to break up. They crumbled into dust and would absorb the jackhammer’s impact. It didn’t help that they were up to nine inches thick.

Gainesville Public Art: Setting up shop & getting started

One of the great joys of getting ready for the Gainesville art project was tooling up. In addition to a wonderland of new blades and grinding wheels, I got another grinder and a tile saw that I can equip with a contour wheel- a cup shaped diamond blade used for cutting radii. And for all the tool sellers I found on-line, the grinder was $20 cheaper from Amazon and offered free shipping.

Templates are essential for efficient production. My friends at Henco Reprographics print these for me. This sheet shows the actual length of the patio and is over fifteen feet long. This sheet is the first of nine big templates I’ll need.

I cut the templates with pattern shears, three blade scissors that remove a thin strip (5/64th of an inch) of paper as they cut. These shears are used for creating templates for making stained glass with lead came. The thin strip of paper is equal to the thickness of the lead, keeping the pattern consistent with the original pattern, also called a cartoon. The thin strip of paper is the width of my joints.


I have rented a temporary shop for this project. It’s the first time I’ve ever had my own shop and I love it. I built a sandbox (filled with pea gravel really) to lay the patio as I cut it. By leveling as I go, I can detail the fits between the stones so that there’s a minimum of fuss and time spent when I venture to Florida to install it.


The first three stones, done and dusty.


This is an idea I floated for center of the landing inside the house, where the zipper walkway terminates. It’s a 24″ by 24″ slab with a six by six square knocked out of the center. That’s a piece of dalle de verre, a super-thick, richly colored stained glass inset into the small square. We’re going to use pebbles instead of the glass, but I liked this mock-up a lot. With a glass like this though, it really needs a light radiating through it, as in this image. I’m afraid that lit from above, it would appear too dull.

I’ve been working my way through a rounded corner, where the zipper walkway meets the driveway, at the big steps. The following images represent three phases of the process. First, I laid out the shape in pebbles and took some pictures. This helps me get a visual sense of what’s going on. Second, I made templates out of roofing felt. The radius is elliptical, and so all of the templating was done freehand. The next phase has me fitting the stones one-by-one. As each stone goes in, I revisit the templates, to see if I need to make adjustments.



Today I worked on the landing inside the house. The lighting is poor, hence the blurry image quality, but you can still get a sense of what’s happening in the space. To the front of the image are the big, super-tight steps I laid a while back. To the right is the doorway and the zipper walkway, currently protected by some chipboard. The level hides the cut-out in the center stone, visible at the top of the blog. This section- inside the house- is mortared. I wish it was in gravel, like the walkway outside, but I didn’t want anyone to think I was losing my mind. Really though, it makes great sense. The stones are 2 1/4″ thick and are butted up so close to each other that there’s no risk of movement. And everything has a solid frame around it, preventing the gravel from squishing out.


I left the house Tuesday slightly unprepared. Allie had to stop by and deliver: a sweater, a sweatshirt, long johns, camera, cell phone charger and thirty-five smiles. He liked the gravel in the little boxes.


I am cutting a mouse-hole in this thick slab of Tennessee Crab Orchard for a downspout to pass through. I’m excited because this is the first time I ever busted out the compass to bring to work.

I start by very carefully scribing a line with the grinder. This traces just inside the pencil line and will be my guide, to make sure I don’t cut away more than I need.

I run the big cut-off saw just to get my knockouts started. It’s too small an area to do much else with this saw.

On to the hammer and chisels, mixed with lots of kerfing with the grinder. The opening is going to be 4 1/2″ in diameter, which is the same dimensions as the blade on my grinder. You may be able to see places where I kerfed parallel to the top of the stone, as well as the more obvious up and down cuts. The blade binds quickly when I go parallel, but even shallow cuts help me remove material close to the inside of the opening.


Stone Carving

Stone Carving

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.

Stone Carving

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.

Stone Carving