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.

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.

Schwag: T-shirts

Hammerhead Stoneworks T-shirt logo

Hammerhead T-shirt logo


I just picked up my first T-shirts. They are white Gildan brand with this design on the chest. I have a few extra so if you are interested in acquiring one, send me a note and please include your size. Gildan brand tend to run large. I’m going to sell them for 15USD, shipping included to the continental United States. Shipping elsewhere will cost more. We can swap shirts too, if you’ve got something cool. Drop me a line at

Bluestone Fabrication: Making the 9-Story Patio

Bluestone Fabrication

The first designs were pencil lines on paper, as I tried to create shapes and fill the space in a balanced way. The pencil sketches were on an approximate scale. Once I had a design I liked and the clients had approved, I created the drawing above in Adobe Illustrator. I made it full scale, which means the document itself, if I could print it on a single sheet, would be exactly the size of the patio, five feet deep and almost twenty feet long. The biggest challenge was keeping the arced lines smooth. I freehanded each line, but found several shortcuts to eliminating the bumps and bounces of my hand drawn lines. I use a Wacom drawing tablet, which helps a whole lot.

You might notice that the numbering scheme is also a lettering scheme- I substantially changed the design halfway through and couldn’t start my sequencing all over again.

Since I don’t have access to a large enough printer, I had to cut the document into pieces. I outputted a couple dozen PDF files that had a shape or two on them. I twisted and turned the original document to reduce how many prints I needed. It was still a huge roll of prints. I had them done at Henco Reprographics, far and away the best printers in town. I cut each shape out, a few at a time because it proved to be so tedious. As it turned out, making the templates was just as time consuming and considerably less fun than making the stones. Though it was less dusty.

I transferred the paper shapes onto fifteen pound roofing felt. It’s considerably more durable than paper and waterproof. I fastened the paper to the felt with masking tape, to make sure my shapes didn’t morph during the cutting. Using felt for the templates was an idea I borrowed from fellow Stone Foundation member Karl Opanowicz. It worked perfectly and withstood all the abuse I could mete out.

Most of the stones had at least one straight side, which is where I started my cuts. I had to place the templates quite precisely as they barely fit on the stones. As it was, I purchased over three tons of material to find these 27 stones. There are only a couple of stones left over big enough to be cut for this design, most of which were rejected for being boring. This stone, the thickest of all of them, is sitting on the table of my Achilli bridge saw.

The Achilli bridge saw is a job site granite fabrication tool. It can support a 14 inch diamond blade and has a recirculating pump in the table reservoir that sprays water onto the blade, keeping it cool and knocking down the dust. The bluestone was so soft that I could plunge cut it, meaning I didn’t have to make multiple passes. It zipped right through.

Bluestone Fabrication
After the straight lines were cut I moved onto the arcs. I traced these lines with a piece of soapstone. It’s more durable than pencil lines, but can be washed off as desired. The wax crayons carpenters use leave permanent markings on stone. From this picture you can see how close I am to the edge of the slab.

I used a five inch Makita variable speed grinder for the curved cuts. In this image it’s outfitted with a 4 1/2 inch blade and the grip is on the wrong side; this was an early stone in my learning curve. Matt of Rockstar Marble and Granite set me on the right course by switching me to a five inch blade and swapping the grip around. I faced the blade away from me and dragged it from left to right, sending the spray of dust away from me. By holding the grinder straight up and down I was able to get very clean and deep cuts, though I had to flip several stones to finish the job. What a delightful mess.

Bluestone Fabrication

I used a cup wheel to grind off any excess along the edges of stones. While the sides aren’t visible, the tolerances between the stones are so tight, there’s no room for any extra material. During installation on site, I also used a zero tolerance wheel, another granite fabrication tool, to fix shapes and tighten the joints. These are both fairly aggressive tools and I was able to rip my way through the excess without too much trouble.

Bluestone Fabrication

Rough draft at the shop

Towards the end of the bluestone fabrication I laid it all out at my workshop. I didn’t fuss too much with the joints while I was fabricating it, figuring that there would be a lot to do on site to get it exactly right. It would have been hard to get them exactly right at the shop because the stones were varying thicknesses placed on a level surface. A slight discrepancy in level can change the way two stones interact. Most of the stones needed at least some attention to snug in the way that I wanted. The stone fabricated above- number 9- is visible at the bottom left of this image. On the patio, it partly spans the doorway, one of the reasons I chose such a thick slab.

Bluestone Fabrication

Ready to go