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April 28, 2004 8:44 AM CDT

Working With a Stone Carver


A stone carver can provide a unique, added value to many masonry projects. A hand-carved stone fireplace, keystone, family crest, door surround, ornamental panel or fountain can add that sense of individuality and style that truly highlights a home or building. Stone carvings can also be a focal point that enhances and emphasizes the quality and craftsmanship of masonry.

While stone carving has almost been in existence since the dawn of humankind, it is not a lost art. There are many skilled stone carvers in North America, continuing the old traditions by applying their skills to both traditional and contemporary design.

Many of the carvers in the United States have come together to form the Stone Carvers Guild ( The Guild is a not-for-profit association that is working to maintain the traditions and skills of the trade, and ensure that carved stone will continue to play an important role in our built environment throughout the 21st century and beyond. All of the Guild members have many years of carving experience and draw upon each other for support, sharing ideas, techniques and resources.

While some of the carvers focus on clients in their local area, most serve clients all over the country and can easily coordinate with the mason contractor on design, measurements and installation.

The Process
There are several stages in working with a carver, and it is generally best to involve the carver very early in the planning. In my experience, the carver can often suggest things that you, the client or architect didn't consider before. These modifications may give a better result while holding costs down, speeding up the project and ensuring that the installation goes smoothly.

In the initial discussions you will look at the carver's work and experience, and the carver will need to understand your project. Next will come design and pricing, then shop drawings and ordering of the stone. When the stone arrives at the carver's shop the process of carving will begin. The final stages are delivery and installation.

In the initial phase, the carver will want to know about the style, choice of material, budget, schedule and practicality of the project. Information about the design and scale of the room or building will be helpful. Other questions that may arise include such things as:

  • Do you want an old, rustic look or a crisp, modern look?

  • What type of lighting will illuminate the work (natural or man-made)?

  • If the work is on the exterior, is it facing north where there will be limited light and shadow?

  • Will the walls be light or dark?

  • Will the foundation support a lot of weight, or should the stone be cut thin to minimize the load?

  • Will it be in a harsh or mild climate?

  • Will it be viewed from close-up, far away or both?

  • If you are considering a fireplace, what are the dimensions of the firebox and the wall? Is it wood burning or gas?

If you have pictures of work that appeals to your client, bring them along to help the carver understand your client's taste and the style of the project.

Carvers will need precise measurements, and they want to understand how the stone will be anchored into the wall so they can shape and carve it appropriately. Let them know if anchor slots or holes need to be precut or if you will cut them on the job. Discuss the type of stone and the source of the stone; different grades of the same type of stone may carve very differently even though they are similar from a masonry standpoint.

Most of all, take advantage of your carver's expertise and experience.

The total cost of a carving is determined by the amount of time required to execute it and the price of the particular stone that has been selected. If the project is simple and straightforward, the carver can probably price it based on your initial discussions. In other cases it can take a good bit of design work, development drawings and models before the carver can calculate the cost of stone and the carving time required.

Stone carvers can design the work to your specifications or work directly from your plans. Discuss who will do that design work: the carver, designer or architect. If the carver is doing that work, a design fee may be required.

Custom hand-carving is not a fast process. The earlier in your project you begin talking with a carver (or carvers) the easier things will go. The process of creating a new carving involves many steps. Once the design is determined and the type of stone selected, the carver will prepare shop drawings, job tickets (which detail how each piece of stone needs to be cut and shaped), templates or patterns, and sometimes models.

Also, even when working from finished drawings prepared by an architect, the carver will need to translate those into shop drawings and make sure the thickness and sizes of each pieces is appropriate for the particular type of stone and application.

Once everything has been designed and confirmed, the stone is selected and ordered, generally custom-cut to size, from a stone mill.

When the stone blocks arrive at the carver's shop, the design will be laid out on each piece using the templates and job tickets. Most of the carving is done with either small, handheld, pneumatic hammers or chisels. Saws and drills may be used to rough out the block. There are many different textures and surface treatments possible that can create a richer, more alive effect. Some types of stone take a polish; others will be taken to a chiseled or sanded texture.

Hand-carved vs. Cast Stone
Don't let your clients be confused between hand-carved stone and manufactured cast stone. It is often necessary to educate them on the differences.

Cast stone is a standard manufactured product. A mold is made, and a cement and stone dust mixture is poured into the mold. Although cast stone can be more economical and a quicker process, the manufactured product can be a bit visually "flat" because ? at best ? they can only mimic the qualities of an original piece. While cast stone has its place in the masonry industry, many customers will prefer a more upscale approach.

Natural stone has a visual quality and texture that comes from the carver's understanding of the material, the forms and the effect of light and shadow. It is alive. Each piece is a unique expression of the style and design demanded by the client and the skill and craftsmanship of the carver, and therefore reflects the quality and care that the contractor puts into the entire project.

Also, due to the nature of hand carving, the mason contractor can specify exactly what is required. A carver won't be thrown off if you request 1/8" joints or unusual shapes or sizes.

Very few architects, designers or builders are accustomed to working with carvers. Stone carvers can really exceed the client's expectations, add an elegant touch and be an added bonus to any mason contractor's team.

About the Author

Walter S. Arnold is a stone carver and sculptor based in the Chicago area. He apprenticed in Italy and worked for five years on the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., before establishing his own studio in 1985. He has also served as president of the Stone Carvers Guild, a non-profit trade association dedicated to promoting the art and craft of professional stone carving. His web site is


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