As a restorer and sculptor, I have had the privilege of working on many objects and artifacts made from differing varieties of decorative stone.
I am particularly impressed by the masterpieces of the Renaissance and the classical world. The range of designs and use of materials, styles and periods never fail to amaze. I wish to understand more deeply the processes of manufacture and the disciplines involved, both on an historical level, and as a practical application for modern buildings today.
There is both consistency and unpredictability in all forms of natural stone. This makes stone a difficult yet wonderful material with which to work.
Modern machinery and diamond tooling can aid the mason and craftsman in his work in this age, but nevertheless, it is an arduous profession, and there are many obstacles to overcome. Naturally occurring faults and fractures in a stone can render a costly sculpture useless.
Cost and procurement can be difficult, with many original quarries and mines lost in history or exhausted. In fact, some marbles are an essential commodity in the export market of an entire country. The price of once common, inexpensive stone can now be measured and paid for by the gram, in some cases, affording it semi-precious status. The Derbyshire mineral ‘Blue-John’, for example, can fetch hundreds of pounds per kilo in the decorative stone trade, but was once shipped by the ton to steel works in the Second World War to be used as flux in the metal’s production.
The outcome of a commission can never be guaranteed. Mistakes in the manufacturing process can lead to a piece of work being rejected and installation can be extremely difficult, with little margin for error. Reproduction of colour, size or the quality of a stone, or the longevity of a quarry cannot be assured. Although technological advances mean that simply sawing a metre cubed block, for instance, can now take minutes on an industrial saw, as opposed to days in the pre-industrial age, the dangers of working this material cannot be exaggerated, both in the past and the present. Fatal lung diseases, dangers in the quarry from falling blocks, and heavy machinery are a serious risk for anyone undertaking stone work.
Vibration-induced white finger, or Raynaud’s disease, where blood vessels, nerves, muscles and joints become permanently damaged and the fingers become white is particularly noticeable in cold conditions, and is extremely painful. This can and does continue to affect many masons, from continuous use of hand-held machinery, such as pneumatic power tools, air hammers or angle grinders. Some stones, such as malachite can be very toxic if the dust is breathed into the lungs or swallowed, as it contains copper sulphate which is highly toxic, and unless expensive dust extraction equipment is available, or air-fed masks, then a standard disposable mask will not suffice as protection.
Developing countries often afford little or no protection for stone workers, who can be employed under appalling conditions. Equally, where cost is a factor, many self-employed workers or small businesses in the developed world cannot afford adequate protection from toxic dusts produced by carving, sawing and grinding. Machinery is very costly, running into thousands of pounds for a small stone saw. The working methods thus in some workshops can remain almost primitive, but often these methods are as extremely effective as they have been for thousands of years. Indeed, in my own experienceof sculpture, it is more satisfying to use simple hand tooling to produce a work almost in its entirety.
These negative points of the working of stone are still outweighed by the positive experience. The sound of the ‘masons’ knock’ ringing through a workshop or stone yard is a fascinating, inspiring and rhythmical sound as mallet strikes chisel and chisel cuts stone. When a block of rough and weathered, dull stone is cleaned, cut and polished, a beauty long-forgotten is revealed.
The challenge of working different kinds of stone, and almost conquering them in some cases, can afford much satisfaction to an artisan.
The second part of this writing on decorative stone work and architectural ornamentation can be found here.
Please visit www.hurleymarble.co.uk for examples of my decorative stonework and architectural ornamentation.