Stone carving

Last updated
Stone carver carving stone, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, 1909. Stone sculptor at work.jpg
Stone carver carving stone, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, 1909.
The Kilmartin Stones in Scotland - a collection of ancient stone carved graveslabs Scotlandkilmartinstones.jpg
The Kilmartin Stones in Scotland - a collection of ancient stone carved graveslabs
Khazneh structure carved into a cliff in Petra southern Jordan Al Khazneh Petra edit 2 (cropped).jpg
Khazneh structure carved into a cliff in Petra southern Jordan

Stone carving is an activity where pieces of rough natural stone are shaped by the controlled removal of stone. Owing to the permanence of the material, stone work has survived which was created during our prehistory.

Rock (geology) A naturally occurring solid aggregate of one or more minerals or mineraloids

A rock is any naturally occurring solid mass or aggregate of minerals or mineraloid matter. It is categorized by the minerals included, its chemical composition and the way in which it is formed. Rocks are usually grouped into three main groups: igneous rocks, metamorphic rocks and sedimentary rocks. Rocks form the Earth's outer solid layer, the crust.

Human prehistory is the period between the use of the first stone tools c. 3.3 million years ago by hominins and the invention of writing systems. The earliest writing systems appeared c. 5,300 years ago, but it took thousands of years for writing to be widely adopted, and it was not used in some human cultures until the 19th century or even until the present. The end of prehistory therefore came at very different dates in different places, and the term is less often used in discussing societies where prehistory ended relatively recently.


Work carried out by paleolithic societies to create flint tools is more often referred to as knapping. Stone carving that is done to produce lettering is more often referred to as lettering. The process of removing stone from the earth is called mining or quarrying.

Paleolithic Human development over the last 10 million years

The Paleolithic or Palaeolithic, also called the Old Stone Age, is a period in human prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone tools that covers c. 99% of human technological prehistory. It extends from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins c. 3.3 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene c. 11,650 cal BP.

Knapping technique for shaping stone

Knapping is the shaping of flint, chert, obsidian or other conchoidal fracturing stone through the process of lithic reduction to manufacture stone tools, strikers for flintlock firearms, or to produce flat-faced stones for building or facing walls, and flushwork decoration. The original Germanic term "knopp" meant strike, shape, or work, so it could theoretically have referred equally well to making a statue or dice. Modern usage is more specific, referring almost exclusively to the hand-tool pressure-flaking process pictured.

Lettering creation of hand-drawn letters in graphic design and typography

In art, graphic design and typography, lettering refers to the creation of hand-drawn letters to apply to an object or surface. For car enthusiasts, lettering refers to decals attached to the outside paint or tires of their car.

Stone carving is one of the processes which may be used by an artist when creating a sculpture. The term also refers to the activity of masons in dressing stone blocks for use in architecture, building or civil engineering. It is also a phrase used by archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists to describe the activity involved in making some types of petroglyphs.

Artist person who creates, practises and/or demonstrates any art

An artist is a person engaged in an activity related to creating art, practicing the arts, or demonstrating an art. The common usage in both everyday speech and academic discourse is a practitioner in the visual arts only. The term is often used in the entertainment business, especially in a business context, for musicians and other performers. "Artiste" is a variant used in English only in this context; this use is becoming rare. Use of the term to describe writers, for example, is valid, but less common, and mostly restricted to contexts like criticism.

Sculpture Branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions

Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions. It is one of the plastic arts. Durable sculptural processes originally used carving and modelling, in stone, metal, ceramics, wood and other materials but, since Modernism, there has been an almost complete freedom of materials and process. A wide variety of materials may be worked by removal such as carving, assembled by welding or modelling, or molded or cast.

Architecture The product and the process of planning, designing and constructing buildings and other structures.

Architecture is both the process and the product of planning, designing, and constructing buildings or any other structures. Architectural works, in the material form of buildings, are often perceived as cultural symbols and as works of art. Historical civilizations are often identified with their surviving architectural achievements.


The earliest known works of representational art are stone carvings. Often marks carved into rock or petroglyphs will survive where painted work will not. Prehistoric Venus figurines such as the Venus of Berekhat Ram may be as old as 800,000 years[ citation needed ], and are carved in stones such as tuff and limestone.

Venus figurines

A Venus figurine is any Upper Paleolithic statuette portraying a woman, with fewer sculptures depicting men or figures of uncertain sex, and those in relief or engraved on rock or stones are often discussed together. Most have been unearthed in Europe, but others have been found as far away as Siberia, extending their distribution across much of Eurasia, although with many gaps, such as the Mediterranean outside Italy.

Venus of Berekhat Ram sculpture

The Venus of Berekhat Ram is a pebble found at Berekhat Ram on the Golan Heights in the summer of 1981 by archaeologist N. Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. An article by Goren-Inbar and S. Peltz (1995) claims it has been modified to represent a female human figure, identifying it as a possible artifact made by Homo erectus of the later Acheulean, in the early Middle Paleolithic. The term "Venus" follows the convention for labelling the unrelated Venus figurines of the Upper Paleolithic. The claim is contested.

These earliest examples of the stone carving are the result of hitting or scratching a softer stone with a harder one, although sometimes more resilient materials such as antlers are known to have been used for relatively soft stone. Another early technique was to use an abrasive that was rubbed on the stone to remove the unwanted area. Prior to the discovery of steel by any culture, all stone carving was carried out by using an abrasion technique, following rough hewing of the stone block using hammers. The reason for this is that bronze, the hardest available metal until steel, is not hard enough to work any but the softest stone. The Ancient Greeks used the ductility of bronze to trap small granules of carborundum, that are naturally occurring on the island of Milos, thus making a very efficient file for abrading the stone.

Steel alloy made by combining iron and other elements

Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, and sometimes other elements. Because of its high tensile strength and low cost, it is a major component used in buildings, infrastructure, tools, ships, automobiles, machines, appliances, and weapons.

Bronze metal alloy

Bronze is a 80+% copper alloy and 90+% copper&tin alloy with often the addition of other metals, such as aluminium, manganese, nickel or zinc, and sometimes non-metals or metalloids such as arsenic, phosphorus or silicon. These additions produce a range of alloys that may be harder than copper alone, or have other useful properties, such as stiffness, ductility, or machinability.

Hardness is a measure of the resistance to localized plastic deformation induced by either mechanical indentation or abrasion. Some materials are harder than others. Macroscopic hardness is generally characterized by strong intermolecular bonds, but the behavior of solid materials under force is complex; therefore, there are different measurements of hardness: scratch hardness, indentation hardness, and rebound hardness.

The development of iron made possible stone carving tools, such as chisels, drills and saws made from steel, that were capable of being hardened and tempered to a state hard enough to cut stone without deforming, while not being so brittle as to shatter. Carving tools have changed little since then.

Iron Chemical element with atomic number 26

Iron is a chemical element with symbol Fe and atomic number 26. It is a metal, that belongs to the first transition series and group 8 of the periodic table. It is by mass the most common element on Earth, forming much of Earth's outer and inner core. It is the fourth most common element in the Earth's crust.

Tempering (metallurgy) metallurgy

Tempering is a process of heat treating, which is used to increase the toughness of iron-based alloys. Tempering is usually performed after hardening, to reduce some of the excess hardness, and is done by heating the metal to some temperature below the critical point for a certain period of time, then allowing it to cool in still air. The exact temperature determines the amount of hardness removed, and depends on both the specific composition of the alloy and on the desired properties in the finished product. For instance, very hard tools are often tempered at low temperatures, while springs are tempered at much higher temperatures.

Modern, industrial, large quantity techniques still rely heavily on abrasion to cut and remove stone, although at a significantly faster rate with processes such as water erosion and diamond saw cutting.

One modern stone carving technique uses a new process: The technique of applying sudden high temperature to the surface. The expansion of the top surface due to the sudden increase in temperature causes it to break away. On a small scale, Oxy-acetylene torches are used. On an industrial scale, lasers are used. On a massive scale, carvings such as the Crazy Horse Memorial carved from the Harney Peak granite of Mount Rushmore and the Confederate Memorial Park in Albany, Georgia are produced using jet heat torches.

Stone sculpture

The Tang Dynasty Leshan Giant Buddha, near Leshan in Sichuan province, China. Construction began in 713, and was completed in 803. It is the largest stone-carved Buddha in the world. Leshan Buddha Statue View.JPG
The Tang Dynasty Leshan Giant Buddha, near Leshan in Sichuan province, China. Construction began in 713, and was completed in 803. It is the largest stone-carved Buddha in the world.
Bas-Relief, late 19th century CE. Limestone. Brooklyn Museum Relief, late 19th century Limestone.jpg
Bas-Relief, late 19th century CE. Limestone. Brooklyn Museum

Carving stone into sculpture is an activity older than civilization itself. Prehistoric sculptures were usually human forms, such as the Venus of Willendorf and the faceless statues of the Cycladic cultures. Later cultures devised animal, human-animal and abstract forms in stone. The earliest cultures used abrasive techniques, and modern technology employs pneumatic hammers and other devices. But for most of human history, sculptors used hammer and chisel as the basic tools for carving stone.

The process begins with the selection of a stone for carving. Some artists use the stone itself as inspiration; the Renaissance artist Michelangelo claimed that his job was to free the human form trapped inside the block. Other artists begin with a form already in mind and find a stone to complement their vision. The sculptor may begin by forming a model in clay or wax, sketching the form of the statue on paper or drawing a general outline of the statue on the stone itself.

When ready to carve, the artist usually begins by knocking off large portions of unwanted stone. This is the "roughing out" stage of the sculpting process. For this task they may select a point chisel, which is a long, hefty piece of steel with a point at one end and a broad striking surface at the other. A pitching tool may also be used at this early stage; which is a wedge-shaped chisel with a broad, flat edge. The pitching tool is useful for splitting the stone and removing large, unwanted chunks. Those two chisels are used in combination with a masons driving hammer.

Once the general shape of the statue has been determined, the sculptor uses other tools to refine the figure. A toothed chisel or claw chisel has multiple gouging surfaces which create parallel lines in the stone. These tools are generally used to add texture to the figure. An artist might mark out specific lines by using calipers to measure an area of stone to be addressed, and marking the removal area with pencil, charcoal or chalk. The stone carver generally uses a shallower stroke at this point in the process, usually in combination with a wooden mallet.

Eventually the sculptor has changed the stone from a rough block into the general shape of the finished statue. Tools called rasps and rifflers are then used to enhance the shape into its final form. A rasp is a flat, steel tool with a coarse surface. The sculptor uses broad, sweeping strokes to remove excess stone as small chips or dust. A riffler is a smaller variation of the rasp, which can be used to create details such as folds of clothing or locks of hair.

The final stage of the carving process is polishing. Sandpaper can be used as a first step in the polishing process, or sand cloth. Emery, a stone that is harder and rougher than the sculpture media, is also used in the finishing process. This abrading, or wearing away, brings out the color of the stone, reveals patterns in the surface and adds a sheen. Tin and iron oxides are often used to give the stone a highly reflective exterior.

Sculptures can be carved via either the direct or the indirect carving method. Indirect carving is a way of carving by using an accurate clay, wax or plaster model, which is then copied with the use of a compass or proportional dividers [1] or a pointing machine. The direct carving method is a way of carving in a more intuitive way, without first making an elaborate model. Sometimes a sketch on paper or a rough clay draft is made.

Stone carving considerations

'Arabic' style carving on ashlar building blocks, Beith, Scotland Arabic style ashlar.JPG
'Arabic' style carving on ashlar building blocks, Beith, Scotland

Stone has been used for carving since ancient times for many reasons. Most types of stone are easier to find than metal ores, which have to be mined and smelted. Stone can be dug from the surface and carved with hand tools. Stone is more durable than wood, and carvings in stone last much longer than wooden artifacts. Stone comes in many varieties and artists have abundant choices in color, quality and relative hardness.

Soft stone such as chalk, soapstone, pumice and Tufa can be easily carved with found items such as harder stone or in the case of chalk even the fingernail. Limestones and marbles can be worked using abrasives and simple iron tools. Granite, basalt and some metamorphic stone is difficult to carve even with iron or steel tools; usually tungsten carbide tipped tools are used, although abrasives still work well. Modern techniques often use abrasives attached to machine tools to cut the stone.

Precious and semi-precious gemstones are also carved into delicate shapes for jewellery or larger items, and polished; this is sometimes referred to as lapidary, although strictly speaking lapidary refers to cutting and polishing alone.

When worked, some stones release dust that can damage lungs (silica crystals are usually to blame), so a respirator is sometimes needed.

Stone shaping and tools

Basic stone carving tools fall into five categories:

More advanced processes, such as laser cutting and jet torches, use sudden high temperature with a combination of cooling water to spall flakes of stone. Other modern processes may involve diamond-wire machines or other large scale production equipment to remove large sections of undesired stone.

The use of chisels for stone carving is possible in several ways. Two are:

There are many types and styles of stone carving tools, each carver will decide for themselves which tools to use. Traditionalists might use hand tools only.

Powered pneumatic hammers make the hard work easier. Progress on shaping stone is faster with pneumatic carving tools. Air hammers (such as Cuturi) place many thousands of impacts per minute upon the end of the tool, which would usually be manufactured or modified to suit the purpose. This type of tool creates the ability to 'shave' the stone, providing a smooth and consistent stroke, allowing for larger surfaces to be worked.

Among modern tool types, there are two main stone carving chisels:

See also

Related Research Articles

Engraving practice of incising a design on to a hard, usually flat surface, by cutting grooves into it

Engraving is the practice of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it with a burin. The result may be a decorated object in itself, as when silver, gold, steel, or glass are engraved, or may provide an intaglio printing plate, of copper or another metal, for printing images on paper as prints or illustrations; these images are also called "engravings". Engraving is one of the oldest and most important techniques in printmaking. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing and is not covered in this article.

Chisel tool for cutting and carving wood, stone, metal, etc.

A chisel is a tool with a characteristically shaped cutting edge of blade on its end, for carving or cutting a hard material such as wood, stone, or metal by hand, struck with a mallet, or mechanical power. The handle and blade of some types of chisel are made of metal or of wood with a sharp edge in it.

Blacksmith person who creates wrought iron or steel products by forging, hammering, bending, and cutting

A blacksmith is a metalsmith who creates objects from wrought iron or steel by forging the metal, using tools to hammer, bend, and cut. Blacksmiths produce objects such as gates, grilles, railings, light fixtures, furniture, sculpture, tools, agricultural implements, decorative and religious items, cooking utensils and weapons.

Marble sculpture art of creating three-dimensional forms from marble

Marble sculpture is the art of creating three-dimensional forms from marble. Sculpture is among the oldest of the arts. Even before painting cave walls, early humans fashioned shapes from stone. From these beginnings, artifacts have evolved to their current complexity.

Stonemasonry The craft of creating buildings, structures, and sculpture using stone

Stonemasonry or stonecraft is the creation of buildings, structures, and sculpture using stone as the primary material. It is one of the oldest activities and professions in human history. Many of the long-lasting, ancient shelters, temples, monuments, artifacts, fortifications, roads, bridges, and entire cities were built of stone. Famous works of stonemasonry include the Egyptian Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Cusco's Incan Wall, Easter Island's statues, Angkor Wat, Borobudur, Tihuanaco, Tenochtitlan, Persepolis, the Parthenon, Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, Chartres Cathedral, and Pumapunku.

Wood carving form of working wood by means of a cutting tool

Wood carving is a form of woodworking by means of a cutting tool (knife) in one hand or a chisel by two hands or with one hand on a chisel and one hand on a mallet, resulting in a wooden figure or figurine, or in the sculptural ornamentation of a wooden object. The phrase may also refer to the finished product, from individual sculptures to hand-worked mouldings composing part of a tracery.

An abrasive is a material, often a mineral, that is used to shape or finish a workpiece through rubbing which leads to part of the workpiece being worn away by friction. While finishing a material often means polishing it to gain a smooth, reflective surface, the process can also involve roughening as in satin, matte or beaded finishes. In short, the ceramics which are used to cut, grind and polish other softer materials are known as abrasives.

Machining process in which a piece of raw material is cut into a desired final shape and size by a controlled material-removal process; manufacturing process

Machining is any of various processes in which a piece of raw material is cut into a desired final shape and size by a controlled material-removal process. The processes that have this common theme, controlled material removal, are today collectively known as subtractive manufacturing, in distinction from processes of controlled material addition, which are known as additive manufacturing. Exactly what the "controlled" part of the definition implies can vary, but it almost always implies the use of machine tools.

Repoussé and chasing metalworking technique in which a malleable metal is ornamented or shaped by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief

Repoussé[ʁəpuse](listen) or repoussage[ʁəpusaʒ](listen) refer to a metalworking technique in which a malleable metal is shaped by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief. Chasing, chased work, or embossing refer to a similar technique, in which the piece is hammered on the front side, sinking the metal. The two techniques are often used in conjunction.

Gemcutter profession

A gemcutter is a person who cuts, shapes, and polishes natural and synthetic gemstones. In historical use it usually refers to an artist who made hardstone carvings or engraved gems, a branch of miniature sculpture or ornament in gemstone.

This page describe terms and jargon related to sculpture and sculpting.

Sword making, historically, has been the work of specialized smiths or metalworkers called bladesmiths or swordsmiths. Swords have been made of different materials over the centuries, with a variety of tools and techniques. While there are many criteria for evaluating a sword, generally the four key criteria are hardness, strength, flexibility and balance. Early swords were made of copper, which bends easily. Bronze swords were stronger; by varying the amount of tin in the alloy, a smith could make various parts of the sword harder or tougher to suit the demands of combat service. The Roman gladius was an early example of swords forged from blooms of steel.

Air hammer (fabrication) pneumatic hand tool

An air hammer, also known as an air chisel, is a pneumatic hand tool used to carve in stone, and to break or cut metal objects apart. It is designed to accept different tools depending on the required function.

Japanese carpentry

Japanese carpentry is carpentry in Japan.

Sharpening stone Abrasive slab used to sharpen tools

Sharpening stones, water stones or whetstones are used to sharpen the edges of steel tools and implements through grinding and honing.

Sharpening activity

Sharpening is the process of creating or refining a sharp edge of appropriate shape on a tool or implement designed for cutting. Sharpening is done by grinding away material on the implement with an abrasive substance harder than the material of the implement, followed sometimes by processes to polish the sharp surface to increase smoothness and to correct small mechanical deformations without regrinding.

Bush hammer A masonry tool used to texturize stone and concrete

A bush hammer is a masonry tool used to texturize stone and concrete. Bush hammers exist in many forms, from simple hand-held hammers to large electric machines, but the basic functional property of the tool is always the same – a grid of conical or pyramidal points at the end of a large metal slug. The repeated impact of these points into stone or concrete creates a rough, pockmarked texture that resembles naturally weathered rock. They can help to increase bonding effectiveness when applying new concrete to an existing concrete surface by increasing the surface area of the bonding zone.

Polishing (metalworking) finishing processes for smoothing a workpieces surface using an abrasive and a work wheel or a leather strop

Polishing and buffing are finishing processes for smoothing a workpiece's surface using an abrasive and a work wheel or a leather strop. Technically polishing refers to processes that use an abrasive that is glued to the work wheel, while buffing uses a loose abrasive applied to the work wheel. Polishing is a more aggressive process while buffing is less harsh, which leads to a smoother, brighter finish. A common misconception is that a polished surface has a mirror bright finish, however most mirror bright finishes are actually buffed.

This glossary of woodworking lists a number of specialized terms and concepts used in woodworking, carpentry, and related disciplines.

Stone sculpture

A stone sculpture is an object made of stone which has been carved or assembled to form a visually interesting three-dimensional shape.


  1. Hoffman, Malvina (1939). Sculpture Inside and Out. New York: Bonanza Books. p. 235.