How to Carve a Figure in Marble

Let’s say you have a block of marble set up before you on a table or bench. And beside it sits your model—a clay model, for instance.

slobodkin1a

The first thing you do is measure to see if your marble block is big enough. Draw the outline of your model on the block itself with chalk or a crayon—on the front and on one of the sides (the front and the side view)—and see how it fits. Measure with a compass or just a ruler.

The next step—the first part of the actual carving—is to eliminate those areas of the block that you won’t need—that have nothing to do with your figure and are obviously in the way. If they are big areas, you can just start whacking away at them with a hammer.

If a hammer doesn’t get you anywhere you can already begin to use the pointed chisel—a big thick one.

slobodkin2

Hold its point to the block and strike it with your hammer. If you held the chisel at an angle to the block instead of straight down, a little splinter or chip ought to fly up and sail across the yard. Isn’t that a
ridiculus mus after such a blow? And at this rate won’t it take forever to eliminate all the fat around your statue?
Yes, depending on what you mean by forever.

And so you begin to “carve”—that is, to chip. Little by little—a chip at a time—you get rid of all the stone on the outside of your projected figure, on the outside of that chalk line you drew.

slobodkin4

When all the unwanted marble is gone, you can put the pointed chisel away and take up the second great tool—the fork-chisel or claw-chisel. That is the real sculptor’s tool, the one that will give you the feeling of “carving”. Your block is now roughly the same size and shape as your model but its surface is very rugged. The claw-chisel levels that rough surface, pushes down all the peaks or crests and leaves behind fine, shallow, parallel grooves that give your figure a wonderful “work in progress” look.

slobodkin4a

They remind you of the cross-hatching in some ink-drawings or maybe you think of Michelangelo’s
Slaves in the Accademia in Florence.

michelangelo slave face

The Master himself stopped here as far as tools go. After the
David he never again used the flat chisel, which leaves the marble surface absolutely smooth. He thought the striations or little grooves the claw chisel makes gave greater life to the surface of his figures.

Though so far we have been talking about only two kinds of tools—the pointed and the claw chisel—understand that you will use various sizes of each.

slobodkin5

You might start out chipping with a pointed chisel as big around as the neck of a wine bottle and finish chipping with one no thicker than a pencil. The same goes for the claw chisels, which come in all sizes. Michelangelo “finished” the details of his figures, such as the eyelids and the wings of noses and fingernails and so on, with very fine claw chisels. Most people—and he himself when he started out—would carve those with a fine flat chisel.

The fourth kind of chisel has a curved tip, curved like a fingernail. You use it in places where the flat chisel doesn’t fit because of its squareness.

Your statue is now carved. Probably you will want to polish it. Use files first, then take some rough sandpaper and start sanding. That rough sandpaper will take out the big digs in your surface but also scratch it all over. The next size sandpaper, a finer size, will take away the scratches the first one made—but that too will leave scratches. To get the surface faultlessly smooth—like glass or porcelain—you will need at least five or six sizes of sandpaper. The last ones are used with water. You can also grind up a pumice stone and make a froth of that. Some recesses are so hard to reach with your fingers—your aching fingers—that you will have to move the pulverized pumice around with a bamboo stick. Bamboo doesn’t scratch marble.

And that is all. Sculpting is simple and straightforward—no workshop secrets such as painting is full of, with its pigments and varnishes and transparent and opaque layers.

slobodkin6

My illustrations are taken from Louis Slobodkin’s excellent book Sculpture. Principles and Practice, published by Dover publications, New York, 1949, and later editions. It is the best, most entertaining introduction to sculpture practice that I know.

This post was originally published on October 8, 2007.

Read about the carving and the polychroming of a seventeenth-century wooden figure, and watch a fascinating video here.

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22 Responses to How to Carve a Figure in Marble

  1. wpm1955 says:

    I’ve never carved anything, or attempted to, but I thought this was a very interesting description of how it’s done! I definitely learned something.

    “Madame Monet”
    Writing, Painting, Music and Wine
    winewriter.wordpress.com

  2. jonmac says:

    Well, I’ve modeled with clay. . . . seemed sort of easy..patience greatest thing to over come.
    I write and play music…so I understand patience there…
    I was up Marble, Colorado way..and picked up some pieces of Marble ranging from a little bigger than a soft ball up to a cubic foot….
    I did a faux chess board on my dining table…and always thought it need some chess pieces….
    Pieces I took home seemed to be crack free….Anyway, I decided to look on line for pointers…. as everyone has left for the week..and I am free to carve!
    Thanks for your site, as I got some tips on tool selection. . . .and stone hardness
    Jon

  3. 100swallows says:

    Good luck with your carving, jonmac.
    You know, if you are going to start with such small pieces, it would be better to use files, not the other tools, and soft stone, not hard marble. Why? How are you going to hold the little rocks still while you hammer on them? They’re going to slide all over. If they are as big as a small book you can secure them to a board (nail some small blocks of wood next to them) or better, glue them to a flat slab of marble with plaster. Sink them into the plaster while it’s soft and glue some smaller stones up against them with more plaster. But then you’ll have to hammer gently and use fine chisels. Sounds to me too hard and not worth it.

    There are all kinds of marble. The softest is alabaster. You can carve that with files and by pushing the chisels with your hand (no hammer). There are very soft sandstones too. I hope those chess figures you have imagined aren’t too detailed or you’re going to get discouraged. Try some simple shapes—Brancusi-style.

    Maybe you should hold off on the chess figures for now and start on the biggest piece you brought home. Fix that to a slab of marble with plaster too if it jumps while you hammer on it. Draw the outline (profile) of some totem head on it or anything simple and start chipping. Or start right away with the claw-chisel. Of course now that marble of yours has souvenir value for you and you will have high hopes for it, which is a pity. Don’t be afraid to split it or lose it altogether. Marble isn’t all THAT expensive. Check into suppliers in your area and go see all the cool stones there are.

  4. Teewscevy says:

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  5. jhsoni says:

    dar frnd i want person in gujarat india who cna careve half face in marble craving . My brother captian in army has secrified his lifein defeance of nation & iwant to put his half face statues in marble carving.In 1.5 x 3 feet size mable having 4 inch thickess i want to carve face of my brother. no money cost problem. plz send me adress who will ptepare this type of tuing. ths
    jhsoni india, ahmedabad city, gujarat state

    • 100swallows says:

      jhsoni: Type “portrait busts” in Google search and you will find several sculptors who make busts. You can see samples of their work and decide which you like. Write to them. Can’t you find one in your city?

  6. Ken Januski says:

    I never realized sculpting marble was so easy. Just kidding! I know how dangerous it is to ‘joke’ online or in emails so let me say again that I am just kidding.

    I never would have thought of saying any such thing except that Swallows’, and Slobodkin’s, exposition makes it seem so straightforward. Do this, then do that. There was one student in graduate school with me at Berkeley who carved. I didn’t know him well but he seemed to take forever to get anything done on his work. I don’t say this as a criticism. But it convinced me that sculpting marble or whatever hard stone he used, was not like working in any medium that I was familiar with. You really need to be patient and devote a tremendous amount of time to it. It makes Michelangelo’s, or Bernini’s, accomplishments all the more amazing.

    You’ve mentioned Slobodkin many times before Swallows but I was unfamiliar with him. Now I see that he published with Dover, who seemed to publish some of the most practical books ever published. I don’t see myself taking up sculpture any time soon but if I were to do so I’m sure I’d pick up this book to start with.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: I knew you were kidding. I’m glad sculpting looks easy here—that was my aim. It’s true: the whole business is slow and though every day you return to the figure it is easy to get excited about it again, the long work on that single piece means you are NOT creating the half dozen (or hundred) others you imagine. What if Michelangelo had not painted. He might have finished twenty instead of twelve works in his life. And he had all those other figures, the ones he painted, in his head!
      Slobodkin is a good writer as well as a sculptor. In fact, he is a better writer.

  7. Rich says:

    Fine insight into the métier. Especially if one’s never done it – like me. Heavy stone work it is, and seems to have something in common with light-as-a-butterfly watercolor:
    Almost impossible to correct mistakes.

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: You’re funny. In fact, some mistakes can be corrected because you work so slowly. Modern glues can put back a broken-off piece and a mixture of glue and marble dust of the same color can fill in holes and wayward chisel digs. Somewhere I have a post on some of Michelangelo’s corrections. They themselves are often ingenious. The sculptor has to keep creating as he goes, which includes solving problems.

  8. erikatakacs says:

    Straightforward–maybe. Easy–not. Nothing in art that looks easy, is easy. But the post sure makes one want to try stonecarving.
    That should be an interesting read about Michelangelo’s corrections, Swallows.

  9. Anonymous says:

    where do you get those chisels? I’ve looked all over my town and even to order them I cant find much..

  10. Anonymous says:

    Just a pointer for folks looking to start working in marble. You can get free marble or cheap marble if you talk to folks who do monument work for a living, they often get contracts to replace old marble headstones with granite. I have gotten a number of headstones, the only thing they ask is that I remove the names from the stones before I do anything with them. The only problem with this is the stone is usually 2 to 4 inches wide so you are limited in what you can do with it but it is a nice opportunity to work with marble to see how you like it.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hello,
    I am a student of art school. When we finish it, we have to do graduation work. I really want to make a sculpture from marble, but I don’t know where I should find marble, because there is no carrara marble or something like that in Lithuania, where I live. And if Ibuy a marble from other country it will cost pretty much. I don’t know what to do. Could you help?

    Thanks (:

    • 100swallows says:

      Anonymous: Did you check with the cemetery people? Much cemetery statuary is made of artificial stone but tombstones are still blocks of marble and granite, at least in many places, and those suppliers will know where to get stones. There are innumerable kinds of stones and I can’t believe there is no quarry in Lithuania. If you can’t find real marble, try another stone (not granite, which is too hard). Carrara is the old convention (cemetery art used to be that almost exclusively) but at least here in Spain there are dozens of excellent marbles for figures. Sandstone is a good one to start with because it is easy to carve.
      If you can find a sympathetic sculptor, he will also tell you where he gets his stones. My first search led me to a dealer in abrasives and drills and airhammers. He sold to all the sculptors. Maybe you can find the company that restores stone monuments for your city. They might even give you a free piece of marble (too small for them, just right for you).

  12. Chayan Ray says:

    Great insight!
    I recently went to Rome and saw some of the greatest sculptures that man has ever created….it was such an overwhelming feeling altogether!
    I paint and do sketches in my free time but could never figure out how a sculpture is done. Painting is so much easier to try! But I want to do a stone carving someday soon…all I need is some self motivation and belief…Probably a classic Audrey Hepburn pose- high hopes! I know :)
    I am from Calcutta, India

  13. Efficacio Sculpere says:

    Hey….I want to carve marble….where in the USA are there quarries that sell blocks for carvers? I keep getting tile suppliers. Thanks…..

  14. Efficacio Sculpere says:

    For that matter…..any carving stone will do until I get good at it

  15. Jon says:

    I am looking for a place to buy blocks of stone. I am having a very tough time finding anything. If you know where I could get marble, soapstone, calcite or anything please email me jonjr23@gmail.con

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