Basics about Sculpting

Contents of this page:


Aspects of ‘Sculpture’

Different types of sculptures

What we can learn from a sundial

Sculpting process and tools (with photos)

Stones used for carving



Aspects of ‘Sculpture’:

A sculpture is a three-dimensional object that discloses shaded and lighted areas when exposed to light and thus reveals its shape. In the absence of light, a sculpture can also be appreciated with the sense of touch.

The surface of a sculpture can have different finishes. These can be smooth, granular, rough, dull, shiny (reflective), etc. The surface texture is of great importance for the appearance of the sculpture.

The color of a sculpture has an equally great importance. It will express a certain mood, and it can strengthen the effect of light and shade (light color) or diminish the light-shade-contrasts (dark stone).

To best explore the relationship of shape and light, move a single light source around a sculpture and study its changing appearance. Do these studies with white and with black objects and include different surface textures into these investigations.


Different types of sculptures:

1.) Relief: like a painting, the relief is viewed from a frontal direction. It is not fully three dimensional. Often, this type of sculpture is used to be installed on a wall. Different kinds of reliefs are:

The sunken relief is carved into the surface of the stone, leaving the surrounding surface untouched and higher than the sunken relief itself. To create for example a fish as a sunken relief, you scratch its shape into the stone. 

The raised relief, half relief and bas-relief are all similar. In these cases, stone has been removed around the sculpted object, allowing for more detail and depth of the sculpted shape. But it still is not fully three-dimensional. The background of the sculpted shape remains a plate of stone. To create a fish as a raised relief, you remove the stone around the fish and shape the remaining, protruding part of the stone like a fish. Reliefs can become quite complex. When installing a relief, it is important to consider how and at what times of the day light will fall on it.

2.) A full round sculpture is viewed from all sides. Its back is just as much worked out as its front. This type of sculpture can be installed freestanding. To create a fish as a full-round sculpture, you peel it out of the stone like an onion. This is a very time-consuming process.


What we can learn from a sundial:

A sundial can be understood as a sculpture designed to indicate the position of the source of light (sun) by creating a shadow.

Early sundials were upright poles and indicated the position of the sun by the direction and length of their shadow. Modern sundials worked entirely with the direction of the sun, casting a shadow from a gnomon onto a specifically calculated dial. Observing a sundial can help placing a sculpture to it’s greatest effect. The sundial teaches us: the impact of sunlight on a three-dimensional object is predictable!

A sculpture changes its appearance during the day. Looking at it from the west at 6 o’clock in the morning, you will only see its silhouette against the rising sun. Looking at it from the some place at noon, you will see rich contrasts and sharply defined lines. In the late afternoon, the light will illuminate it very evenly, and it could appear ghostly or maybe just dull.

For a relief to come to live and achieve great visual depth, it is important to place it in a way that the light strikes it at a low angle. Therefore, relieves that are installed flat on the ground usually look best in the morning and evening. A relief installed on a south wall would have better shade lines in the morning and evening, The shadows would be weakest when the low winter sun strikes it almost frontal.


Sculpting process and tools:

Sketch your idea in black & white on paper, transform your sketch to the surface of the stone. In the beginning, avoid tight angles and intricate designs. Start with a rough shape and refine it later. Leave enough space for corrections. When carving a relief, don’t come too close to the edges to avoid unwanted breakage.

And never forget to wear your goggles and a dust mask! A glove on the hand that holds the chisel is also recommended. 

Usually, the most important tools to use on a sculpture are a chisel and a hammer or mallet to strike it.

A wooden mallet is easier to use than a hammer because it is wider and therefore eliminates quite a number of miss-hits that go on the sculptors hands instead of the chisel. Chisels for use with wooden mallets have a widened head.

These tools are suitable for softer stones such as limestone.

Many sculptors prefer using soft iron hammers. The chisels for use with iron hammers are not widened on the head. 

Compared to working with a wooden mallet, the impact is greater and carving goes faster, especially in medium-hard stone such as marble.


These very heavy and thick steel chisels have carbide tips. They are not very sharp and don't really carve the stone but crack it or chip it. These tools are used for granite and other very hard stone.

When you strike the stone, chips and dust will fly! Therefore always use safety goggles and possibly also dust masks. A pair of gloves is also recommended.

The pointed chisel is the most effective tool for roughing out. It is used to outline the shapes and to remove large amounts of stone. For that purpose, crisscrossing lines are carved into the area to be removed. Finer points are also used for detail work in the finishing process.

 from left to right:

flat chisel, tooth chisel, pointed chisel

 Long-handled tools are easier to control and less tiring than short tools

A toothed chisel is used in the first step of refining the rough shape. It leaves characteristic traces that can give a rustic look to a stone surface.
A flat chisel further refines the surface. It is the last chisel used in the carving process and leaves a fine texture on the stone, consisting of fine lines parallel with the edge of the chisel. From a little distance, this texture appears velvety.
A bush hammer looks like a meat hammer and is an old fashioned tool used to texture the stone surface. It leaves a characteristic rough finish that has a rustic look to it. A very fine bush hammer would create a surface that appears granular.

The bush hammer in the back has an exchangeable carbide head



Small Diamond bits are perfect to carve details and smooth out an area. They are used with rotating tools. These tools create a lot of dust. To diminish the dust, I spray water on the work piece. I use a pneumatic grinder (below) to avoid electrical shock when working with water. 
Scrapers and pieces of grinding stone are used to smooth out the stone surface where needed. Wet-application sanding paper is also very effective.


Electric Angle grinders with diamond blades are useful to cut deep into the stone and to remove large chunks. However, these tools create dark clouds of dust that get out of control and settle between teeth, on eyes and in lungs.

 I use a pneumatic angle grinder (on the left) to be able to use water without risking electric shock.

To diminish dust, I attached a hose that ends in a copper pipe and sprays water on the working blade. I also wear a dust mask with a special particle filter for silica dust when working with granit.

This angle grinder needs a lot of power. The two-stage compressor on the right is just barely able to run it.


Stones used for carving:

Limestone, such as Indiana Limestone, is a medium soft stone with a granular texture and pleasant compactness. It is an ideal carving stone for many kinds of work, but it does not allow for very fine details and can not be polished. The tools mentioned above all work well with limestone.

Bluestone, a finely grained sandstone from Pennsylvania, is slightly harder than limestone and less compact, but more layered. It might look more natural in color and texture, especially if natural surfaces are left untouched, but the risk that a whole layer splits off during work is quite high and makes it risky to work with.

Marble is harder to work than limestone and bluestone, but it allows for the finest details and also can be polished.

Granite is very hard to work. The roughing out consists of splitting off chunks rather than carving it with a chisel. Any removal with hand tools can be a torture, even when using expensive carbide-tipped tools! It is very hard, compact, heavy and durable and can be polished to a high gloss.

Alabaster is an ideal stone for small-scale carving and especially useful for beginners. It is easy to shape even with a rasp, and can be polished with little effort. However, it is not easy to find and the more colorful varieties are quite expensive.

Soap stone is very soft and also a good beginner material, but like alabaster expensive to purchase. Sometimes soap stone crumbles and it also scratches and breaks easily.

Tumbled river rock can sometimes be found in sand pits. They are usually very hard and should be left for the well-equipped expert.

 Weathered field stone, here in New England, usually consists of granite or basalt. Although the surface might be somewhat soft from weathering, the core will be just as hard and difficult to carve as river rock.



Sculpting with


Painting with


Shaping the Earth



Directions Contact


Please ask for our permission if you would like to use any of our photos, graphics or text!