Carving stone is not the most technically advanced process, though I’m sure some maker of diamond wire technology would disagree. It is, you see, all about knocking bits off. Anyone can do it. At its simplest you just take a bit of stone and hit it with something harder and voila, the stone is carved.
Where it gets interesting is when you become focused enough to know exactly which bit you want to knock off. A skill that in itself is possibly harder to learn than the act of carving.
Assuming you know what has to go, in all likelihood you will want to be fairly precise about where that split between ‘staying on’ and ‘coming off’ ends up.
The ways we use to do this haven’t changed much since Scopas or even his Cycladic forebears. Of course the Greeks and the Egyptians before them didn’t have much in the way of stuff harder than stone, well actually they did, but it only came in the form of dust, silicone carbide dust.
So they would have done their best with rocks to get a very rough shape and then got down to grinding away the rough bits with dust, sanding for days, until they had got to the plane in the stone that was just begging to become flesh or cloth or hair.
I don’t mean to make them sound ignorant, far from it, they knew that the hardest metal that they had was wasted making bronze chisels. What is more they knew that silicone carbide would stick in a softer metal like copper and make a file, or a drill.
Then someone discovered how to make steel and eventually it became plentiful enough for it to be used for things that didn’t involve killing people. The masons must have known exactly what to do, flatten the end of a bar to just the right angle so that it cuts, harden it, then soften it just enough so that the tip isn’t brittle. Nothing much has changed since then.
But that is only half of the story. It is the story of removing just what you want removed, no more, no less. The masons stroke, hit straight down, as if into the stone, shatters towards the nearest edge. It is like eroding away at a cliff face from above, so you are always working back from the edge. With this stroke you can take a block down to a figure, provided you leave it wearing a thick allover anorak.
The carvers stroke, more familiar to woodworkers, uses the chisel like a blade, to cut in the direction of the hit. This is what you use to remove the anorak, it can be taken right to the finished surface of the skin. After that, if you wish you can emulate the ancients and get out your abrasives to polish the skin to a shine. Of course you can cheat with the shine and use wax but it won't last very long. The French understood that a surface polished Sans Cire would become our ‘Sincere’ or real surface.
It was Eric Gill who first noticed the difference between the two strokes and spoke it. Before then everyone just did it instinctively. And I would dare to suggest that that instinct is still the most precious tool for carving stone, knowing when you can move a lot of stone, and when to stop, so that the shock doesn’t fracture that beautiful surface, once you get to it with your fine chisels and the carvers stroke.
If you have never tried carving stone, you could do worse than to have a go. Forget any clumsy bashing that you may have done on brick, it bears no resemblance. It is an intuitive process. Strangely the stone begins to work with you, it gets less hard, you get braver, until you only want to work the densest stone in pieces measured in tonnes.
Before long you realise that you can read it, which way it laid while it was formed, where its faults are concealed, how thin it will bear to get. You will learn to feel the presence of something that is ancient yet is still strangely alive, that actually greets you in the morning with the dew of its own sweat. That the faint smell of diesel that freshly quarried limestone breathes is still the smell of the sea creatures trapped as though it was last week, now contained as fossils.
Not the most technically advanced process, but one that is so basic that it gives you plenty of time to ponder into the past, and by association into the future. On the other hand, should you want it to be technically advanced there are air tools, grinders, and water erosion tools, but you wont get to know stone.