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.

Radial Steps in the Newspaper

I spent most of the winter in the historical Montford district of Asheville, building a set of radial stone steps, three big columns and some drystone retaining walls. The house is featured on a tour from HandMade: The Western North Carolina Craft, Architecture & Design Expo taking place June 25-26 at the N.C. Arboretum. The Asheville Citizen-Times ran a story on the house that featured an image of the steps and mentions of Hammerhead and its marbles!

Bench Class

A couple of weekends ago, I led a workshop at the NC Arboretum on building stone benches. First thing in the morning we studied images of various benches, stone-cutting techniques and ways to move heavy objects safely and with relative ease. Safety was a recurring theme throughout the day. After the classroom presentation, we went outside and built a free-standing bench, a style I call castle-block for the big chunks of stone that make up the supports. The bench we built is now a permanent fixture at the Arboretum, a rest station along one of the trails.


To facilitate ease of movement, we cut the big stone down in the back of my truck. In this image, Ronnie is using a star bit chisel to notch shallow guide holes in the top of the stone. This gives the drill bit a place to sit, reducing the likelihood of the bit bouncing around and scarring the stone.


Everyone got a chance to use the drill and work at cutting stone. Here Judy leans into the drill to get the proper placement.

Since our cut edges were going to be exposed, we took some time to clean up the drill holes. Here Carol is using a handset chisel to knock off the cut edge of the bench stone. We put the cut edge to the back of the bench, less visible to passers-by.

We spent some time doing bench math, designing everything so that it would be the proper height and balanced as a structure and as an aesthetic object. Here Carol measures the thickness of the slab, the starting point for figuring out the math. I handed out the following worksheet to guide the design and layout process.

By cutting it in the back of truck, we made the stone more manageable, but it was still a heavy chunk. Jason uses a rock bar to move the stone from the pallet onto the ramps we have set up. Using 2″ by 12″ pressured treated lumber as ramps, we slid the stone down to waiting blocks and from there into place.

We used mortar to set the bench. This design can be done dry, but the mortar reduces the risk of movement, particularly since the bench is in a public place.

We all felt good as we finished up. The bench looked great and we had built it efficiently and safely. It felt good to be leaving something cool and useful for everyone to enjoy. Tre and Ronnie test drive the bench and pronounce it good.

Column Theory: Stone Mailbox Vault

Stone Mailbox Vault

Last week I spent a good bit of time creating this structure within the column to house the biggest mailbox I think I’ve ever seen. I cut these quoins from step slabs, using petty much every technique I know how to tim them down. The cut-off saw was too loud and dusty and the line would wander over the full 36″ of the stone. Using the hand tracer chisel worked, but was really only efficient when I was cutting the shortest lines. Eventually I settled on cutting a clean line at each edge with the small grinder and then using feathers and wedges to cut the rest. This allowed me to keep my quoins fairly symmetric, but let me go more quickly than I would with chisels alone or even using the saw. Perhaps someday I will do a time trial to see which is faster, though I suspect the old school wedges (and an electric hammer drill of course) are faster than my Stihl saw with a diamond blade on it. Feathers are more fun too.

Stone Mailbox Vault

This is a detail of the armature that I am building the columns around. This is intended to provide a place for the wooden cross pieces to be hung and held away from the stone work. By doing this, the wood is more easily maintained and switched out as needed. It also protects the stonework, by reducing the chance that the wood will soak up a bunch of water and hold it against the mortar. Whenever wood juts into stone work, it inevitably creates a weak spot in the stone structure. This armature design also provides a place where I can mount my corners template, a piece of plywood with string stretched plumb to the footer. I got this idea from Fred Lashley; I don’t know if she invented it or adapted it from some other source.


A banker is a mason’s work table. You can’t see from this angle, but this table is minutes away from falling over; it has a significant, persistent lean. That’s a chunk of Arkansas Hackett sitting on the corner.

Spring 2010 Classes at the Arboretum

The new class schedule for the North Carolina Arboretum was recently announced. I am leading three stonework classes this spring. DIY Flagstone Paths & Patios will be offered twice, on Saturday April 10th and on Friday April 16th. In the morning session, we discuss the basics of drystone flagging: necessary site prep, the principles of good structure and varying joinery styles. In the afternoon we go outside to the stone classroom and practice the essential skills: moving stone safely, shaping individual pieces and leveling the patio.

I am offering a brand new class this spring, called Stonework Special Projects: Making a Bench on Saturday May 15th. In the morning we will discuss the design and structural issues of building a stone bench. In the afternoon we will build a freestanding bench ourselves. Topics of note including cutting stone with feathers and wedges and how to move large stones safely.