This weekend we had our stone letter carving workshop taught by Stephen Watts. On the Friday, before the course, we had the interesting task of picking our slate at the Burlington Slate Quarry. The fabulously thrifty option is picking through the off cuts, which are all in great condition, in a variety of colours and sizes. The quarry yard was stacked with thousands of pieces, turning what had once been a field into a strange environment of geometry and grey mud. Our car was weighed upon entry to the quarry and upon exit to determine how much slate we had collected. We were charged by 10 kg increments, we left with between 10 and 20 kg of slate.
On Saturday, we began with a short introduction to the foundations of lettering which was based on the roman alphabet. Stephen candidly explained the foundations of the shapes of our A B C which has its roots within the Fibonacci sequence.
Beautifully illustrated examples of roman letters with geometric overlays showing the relationship with the golden rectangle, square and well positioned circles. Stephen explained the origins and guilds of stone letter carvers whilst referring to the precise and elegant work of Tom Perkins.
It seems that any stone letter carver worth his salt has studied the finer points of typography, so this is where we began our lesson. First we learnt about weight of a letter – the thickness of the vertical stroke, angle – how much of a lean the letter has…in layman terms: it’s the italics! Finally, the balance – the ratio of thickness of the vertical stroke to the horizontal stroke. Most lettering is 1:6 and 1:10. This along with the spacing between the letters is considered the architecture of typography and can be used to design or ‘read’ the characteristics of the type font.
We experimented with lettering, letting our pencils loosely create shapes. To start off, I picked the word ‘flow’ and wrote it out with slight variations in the weight, angle and balance to see what I liked best. Then I had a look at writing it in the classic roman type before making some final touches as inspired by Tom Perkins’ renowned style.
Letter carving takes time to perfect and Stephen encouraged us to pick short words so we could have the opportunity to perfect one piece over the weekend. I chose the word ‘TRUST’ and Tom went for the ambitiously lengthy choice of ‘Laya Point Permaculture’!
We used high quality chisels made by Tiranti to cut into the stone. They were some of the same chisels which Stephen’s grandfather had used as a professional stone letter carver. Although they were a little rusty they sharpened up quickly on the whetstone. Stephen also brought with him some new tungsten carbide tipped chisels as a comparison. With their tempered steel tips they are harder than the traditional stone letter carving chisels – great for carving into older, hardened rock.
After we had chosen our slate from the assorted mix that we found at the quarry, we drew our well planed letters onto the slate with white pencils. We secured the slate to the table with clamps and positioned our stone on a piece of cardboard to prevent it cracking under the pressure of the clamp. We were now ready to carve!
Then the exciting first bite of the chisel into the stone was expertly demonstrated by Stephen. Each of us began to trace the first cuts down the centre of our letters, slowing chasing the line with our chisels. Slowly the v-cut shape formed as we ran our chisels down each side of the line. It was working! We quickly fell into the pattern of chopping (a harder strike of the chisel with the mallet to take off more stone) and chasing (gently guiding the chisel along the slate). A steady percussion filled the school.
By the end of the second day we had mostly completed our slate carvings. I still have the ‘S’ and ‘T’ to finish and then a little more refining and sharpening of the edges of each letter. But overall, I am really pleased with the outcome. It was deeply satisfying spending the whole day carefully meditating over the stone with my chisel. The word which I chose, ‘TRUST’, felt embedded in my thoughts just like the effect of a mantra, as Stephen had suggested earlier.
Overall, I can say I’m hooked on stone letter carving and have just ordered my first tiranti chisel and mallet online. The satisfaction that came from this workshop was immense – from the pleasure of drawing the balanced and well thought out letters to the meditative chipping away of the stone. To summarise in Stephen’s words, ”There is something moving and satisfying about knowing that what you have carved will still be read by people hundreds of years from now.”