1 kerning (n.)
Kerning is the spacing of the individual letters, which I draw on tracing paper before the carving begins. There are certain rules that help (such as that rounded letters should drift slightly above and below the top and bottom guidelines), but the aim is harmony and evenness, all judged by eye.
2 pouncing (n.)
This describes the stage when, after perfecting a design on paper, I transfer it onto the slate by placing a layer of carbon paper beneath the trace and redrawing each letter using a hard pencil or ballpoint pen.
3 dummy (n.)
A small, round-headed mallet, which I hold in my right hand (I’m right-handed) to tap the end of the tungsten-tipped chisel, which I hold in my left. I use the same chisel for all my work and have to sharpen it about once during a job. The sound and feel of the round edge of the dummy hitting the flatter end of the chisel guides me as I’m working. A good, clean tap sound is the goal—it mimics the similar dynamics of a (round) tennis ball being hit by a (flat) tennis racket with that satisfying thwack after a good stroke. The aim is to hit the chisel bang on at 180 degrees, that is, exactly in the direction the chisel is going.
4 chase, chop (v.)
Once the letters are clearly visible on the slate, I begin by cutting all the thinnest strokes of the first letter, then moving on to the thicker strokes, usually the verticals or diagonals (see ping off, below, for the reason). I start at the bottom center of the stem (the thicker verticals of the letters), using the corner of the chisel to chase the length of the stem from bottom to top. Now that a rough gouge has been cut through the center of the letter, I proceed up the stem in a series of steps, chopping directly into—not along—the side of the cut with three or four purposeful taps each time.
5 V-cut (n.)
The ideal letter should have a 90-degree depth in all areas. If that angle varies at all, the shadows within the letters will vary when the light falls on them, resulting in an ungainly and messy appearance. I test this by using the corner of my chisel as an inverse set square, checking the angles regularly.
6 roll, flick (v.)
Rolling is one of the more satisfying carving techniques; as I chase up the middle of the letter’s stem and reach the serif, I do a stop-and-rotate motion to neatly carve out the serif. Once the roll is complete, the chisel ends up in the valley of the serif. A small flick of the tip removes any compressed dust around this fine, delicate area. A beautiful sharp serif should be the result.
7 donk (n.)
I use my ears as well as my eyes and arms in carving stone. As the chisel is tapped along a letter, each tap can make a different sound—a hollow echo, which is good, or a muffled donk, which is bad. If I dig the chisel in too deep and it refuses to move forward—being effectively stuck—I get that deadly donk, usually resulting in part of the letter flying off as a large chip. That moment turns all carvers to stone. To deal with such mistakes I either move on and forget it, or try to repair it by thickening everything up a little.
8 ping off (v.)
Another feared pitfall for the letter carver is the area where two strokes meet—say, the bottom of the bowl and the stem of a P—where there should be a clean, sharp corner. This is achieved by carving the thin stroke first, then swallowing it up in the thicker one. If this were done the other way round, the junction at the corner would be vulnerable—it’s just not strong enough—and could easily ping off, another stone carver’s nightmare.
9 finger curl (n.)
This is a technique I discovered where I can effectively control the chisel with four fingers alone. As I turn a sharp corner, instead of laboriously moving my whole arm and body around, I can simply curl my fingers around the chisel, thus performing a move of such dexterity I could easily win a gold medal in the letter-carving Olympics.
10 flood (v.)
Once the carving is done and I’ve blown all the dust off, I paint the inside of the letters. To do this I have to flood the whole carved area in an off-white enamel paint (some use red or gold, but I prefer white), applied quite roughly. It is an alarming moment; all the meticulous detail suddenly disappears and the surface looks terrible. I have to be careful not to apply the paint too thickly or the hallowed sharpness of the V-cut may be diminished. Once the paint has dried, I rub the surface of the stone with fine wet and dry sandpaper to remove the excess paint and win back my perfectly carved letters.—PATRICK COLLINGWOOD
Patrick Collingwood is an architecture student at Cooper Union in New York City. As well as carving stone, he has designed furniture and fixtures for art exhibitions and costume designs. He also makes architectural models.