Getting Started with Stone Carving

Published on April 27, 2015

Today’s pond customer will often look to his installer for landscaping and surrounding decorations to complement his new water feature. In the past, many installers have allowed these valuable supplemental sales to pass them by. Some of those who have made the foray into this business have limited themselves to providing plants, gazing globes, ceramic/resin vases, et cetera. I would like to present another possible, and highly profitable, alternative to consider.

Stone carvings can be a highly unique addition to a water feature or the surrounding

A Carved stone set above landscaping. (Click image to expand)
A Carved stone set above landscaping. (Click image to expand)

area. They can be incorporated into small backyard ponds and can even be plumbed so water flows from them. Freestanding carvings can be placed by themselves as a focal point or in groupings with other rocks. A carved stone is a one-of-a-kind creation for your customer, and since each one will be unique, it can command prices far above the usual decor.

Over 15 years ago, Graystone Creations began offering carved stone fountains and stone sculptures to consumers and businesses across South Florida. More than once we were called in to add a carving to a newly built water feature. With no competitors around, pricing was high and jobs often yielded fees of several hundred dollars an hour. Some would have you believe that working with stone requires years of specialized training. Perhaps for museum quality pieces, that may be true. For our purposes, having a little creativity (pond installers have tons of that) and a few simple tools can result in some pretty happy customers and a landscape uncluttered by mass-marketed decorations.

Selecting the Stone

Over the years I have worked with many types of stones, including marble, granite, soapstone, composite (concrete-type mix), alabaster, limestone, coral and lava rock.

Bottom: A 5-foot sculpted pond fountain.  (Click image to expand)
A 5-foot sculpted pond fountain.

The best types of stones for detailed projects are the softer stones like soapstone, alabaster and limestone. They allow for detail work while the softness helps reduce accidental breakage. However, for this story I’ll be discussing lava rock due to its incredible compatibility with water features. It has a low price, is available in every market, is lightweight and can easily be shaped into natural-looking carvings. In fact, lava rock is so easy to carve that after a few dozen pieces, I found I could rough out a small- to medium-size fountain or free-standing stone in less than 15 minutes. Of course, that may be something you opt not to do in front of the customer paying several hundred to a thousand dollars.

Lava rock is available at most stoneyards and even major hardware stores during the season. It is also called feather rock in many places. Most of these rocks I have worked with come from the Sierra Nevada mountains. The best of these rocks for carving will be light gray in color. If you come across black lava rock, it is great for decorations but horrible for carving. You will notice the high silica content in it. These shiny flakes are basically glass and super-sharp. Trying to carve one of these will result in shattering over and over.

[box]SAFETY NOTE: A heavy-duty pair of gloves is in order. Even the toughest hands can be quickly torn to shreds when handling this material. Eye protection is a must, and I strongly recommend a mask when drilling or grinding into it.[/box]

When selecting stones it may be helpful to pick out several different unique shapes. Feather rock can come in sizes from about a foot tall to over 8 feet. It comes in so many wonderful shapes and is perfect for carvings of oriental pagodas, Roman archways, medieval castles and freeform shapes. Veins of lava through this volcanic ash stone are a common occurrence and can really add to the beauty of the finished sculpture.
 When selecting the rock, try to envision what types of shapes you can carve it into. I call it “talking to the rocks” as I move them around in different positions and angles so I can determine what each one will be. Remember that your finished carving is already there inside each stone. Your job is simply to remove the stone that is not needed.

Ready, Set, Carve!

Once the rock for a carving has been selected you will first need to flatten the bottom so it sits firmly on the ground, pad or basin. This is where the hand axe will be used on larger stones. Watch how you swing the axe, and never swing it toward yourself. A large chisel and hammer can also be used for slower but more accurate removal. Once the rough material has been removed and the bottom made relatively flat, you can move to your large steel rasps to smooth out the rest.

Top: A carved stone castle patio fountain. (Click Image to Expand)
A carved stone castle patio fountain.

After your stone can sit flat and is not in danger of tipping over, it is time to carve the face of the stone. Having decided on the basic design of your carving, you will start removing unwanted stone using the larger chisels and hammer (or the carbide saw if the stone is soft enough.). Most carvers prefer to start at the top and work their way down. Rough out the shape and remember that it’s fine to alter the design as you go along. You may encounter a hidden vein that you wish to highlight, or you may have a brilliant new idea once you’ve started. When sculpting it is typical to allow the stone to take on a life of its own. A stone carver can get a feel for the project as he works with the stone and adjust the design as needed.

The smaller chisels are used once the rough form is achieved. These smaller chisels allow you to carve in finer details and take off some of the rougher edges that the larger tools left behind. If carving a structure, the small chisel can create the detail that really makes it stand out. The rasps are also used at this point for smoothing out flat areas or giving the stone face a smoother, more finished look.

If your carving will be a natural, free-form shape, consider using a drill or chisels and point to gouge a large hole or holes all the way through the rock. By allowing light to flow through your carving, you add another dimension to it with the highlighting. You can also use the drill bits to carve pockets into the stone, perfect for small plants. These plants will add color to the finished artwork and help integrate it with any surrounding landscaping.

Stone and Water

Carving a large, outdoor fountain can be a very rewarding experience for both the customer and the stone carver. Think of a carved fountain as a near-vertical stream. When making these types of carvings you have the same creative control that you do when building a pond with a meandering stream. You control the flow you decide where it will flow, how it will divide, where it will change course and what pools of water it will form on the way.

When carving the fountain it is first necessary to determine where the water will emerge from the stone. I prefer to carve a large pocket into the stone to allow the water to pool up before flowing down the face of the stone. Again, lava rock/feather rock is perfect for this type of carving due to the ease of carving and the already mountainous look each stone possesses. Using the large chisels, work from top to bottom, etching out the path through which the water will flow. Just like when building a stream, allow the flow to move around outcroppings in the rock and allow it to pool into various areas before continuing down the slope. Use the large drill bits for shaping out the pockets for the water to pool into. The chisels can then be used to rough up the pockets and remove any overly round shape from them.

The Soothing Sounds of a Waterfall

You can carve pockets deep into the stone and allow the water going into them to fall from above, creating a waterfall effect. Over time you will learn the best way to carve these chambers or pockets to amplify the sound of the falling water. I like to call these echo chambers. The depth of the pool, the size of the chamber and its shape will all create different sounds and allow the water to be heard from great distances. Once, a customer was standing next to a newly installed, 5-foot carved fountain and asked me, “Where is the speaker hidden?”

This carved stone fountain spills into a small entryway pond. (Photo courtesy Peter Gonzalez of Relaxing Decor)
This carved stone fountain spills into a small entryway pond. (Photo courtesy Peter Gonzalez of Relaxing Decor)

These fountains can take on many shapes and styles depending upon the surrounding landscape and features. When you’re creating a fountain by the edge of a pond, the water will be supplied by a submersible pump down inside the pond itself. If away from the pond, then an above-ground or below-grade basin will be needed. The best way to conceal the plumbing will be to use a long masonry drill bit to carve from the bottom of the rock up to the pool where the water will flow out. Very large stone lava rock fountains may require you to drill in as far as possible on both the top and bottom and then gently tap a length of rebar into the stone over and over until the drill holes connect. Remember to drill in from the top and bottom to prevent the rebar from blowing out the last few inches of rock.

Finishing Touches

Just like on the stones surrounding a pond or waterfall, you can age your carving by growing moss on it. This look can help blend the carving into the surrounding landscape and make it appear as if it has been there for hundreds or thousands of years. Most rocks will eventually grow moss if they’re out of direct sunlight and ample moisture is in the air. However, it is easy to greatly speed up this process. First, locate some available moss in the color and texture you desire. Tear the moss into chunks and put it into a blender (when your spouse is not around). Add a packet of dry yeast and some water, or pour in a bottle of beer. Blend the mixture into a thin paste and then paint it onto the carving in any area where you want moss to grow. Be sure to mist the rock face with water in a spray bottle each day for about a week if possible. Soon the entire rock face will have a nice coating of moss that will grow and thrive on its own in the right lighting.

Carving your own stone fountains and sculptures for your water features can be a profitable and rewarding experience. Anyone can set a spitter or a resin decoration on the side of a pond, but the addition of a stone carving can bring a uniqueness and sophistication that no store-bought decor can match. Best wishes and happy carving!

Getting Started

Here are the basic tools needed and some pointers on how to begin creating your own stone carvings.All of these tools can be found at any hardware store, and many can be found at  garage sales and flea markets. Used is fine, but try to keep the chisels sharp.

[ordered_list style=”decimal”]

  1. Suggested Tools and Their Uses

  2. Chisel-end hammer: For removing large chunks of rocks. In a bind, a hand axe will do … but don’t plan on ever using it for anything else again.

  3. Steel rasps of various sizes and shapes: For smoothing out rough areas, rounded shapes or inside corners.

  4. Large steel chisel: For roughing out the basic form.

  5. Small steel chisel: For detail work.

  6. Claw chisel: A tool often used for removing a thin layer from the face of stone.

  7. Point: For gouging out chunks of stone.

  8. Carbide sawblade: Perfect for cutting softer stones.

  9. Sand papers: Use 60 to 300 grit for smoothing and polishing stones for a glasslike finish.

  10. Grinder: A big time-saver, but not required.

  11. Dremel: Another time-saver for detail work.

  12. Large masonry drill bits: For adding tubing or creating fountains.

  13. Batwing wood drill bits: For gouging out lava rock. (Once used for stone, they will be ruined for woodworking.)


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