The Sculpture Channel

The Point Chisel

The Point Chisel

The point chisel is an essential tool for stone carving and a favourite among many carvers.

Let’s see what it’s all about.

Purpose

The point chisel is used mainly in the initial stages of sculpting, when roughing out a stone and defining the basic shapes of a sculpture. During the process of carving a statue at least 85% of the stone that is removed is done with the point chisel.

Description

Point chisels come in different sizes. The big ones are for the heavy-duty work, especially in the beginning stages of carving a sculpture. As one gradually gets to more defined shapes the chisels diminish in size. They have different sizes, but their basic shape remains the same: they consist of a metal rod of about 20 to 30 centimetres in length and the diameter varies between 1 and 3 centimetres.
On one end they’re flat, this is the striking end, this is where the hammer hits the chisel. While on the other end you have the point. Let’s have a closer look at the point:
The point has four sides, and it’s pyramidal in shape. This pyramidal shape, with four sharp edges at its sides, makes it easier to break the stone. For a more effective chiselling, when you carve, you should place one of the 4 flat sides flat on the surface of the stone and the opposite side should face outwards in the opposite direction.
If you look closely at the point, you can see that it also has a slight curvature to it. This curvature has two main reasons: first, the part of the point just behind the tip will be of a wider angle making the point stronger and more resistant to the stress caused by the impact with the stone. Second, the curvature will allow the chisel to enter deeper into the stone, and the deeper the chisel goes into the stone, the more material will be removed.

Hardened Point

Most point chisels for carving soft stones up to and including marble are usually made from hardened steel. The word “hardened” refers specifically to the point of the chisel. This has undergone a heat treatment called “tempering” or “hardening”. During this treatment, the steel molecules change their position, or alignment, with respect to one another. And with the change of the molecular texture, the mechanical properties of the steel are also affected. The steel has thus become stronger and more resistant. This will allow for a longer carving time, without the point of the chisel losing its sharpness.

“Soft” Striking End

The term “hardened” refers only to the point, this means that the rest of the chisel is still relatively soft. This has consequences as well: in a regular carving day, a stone carver would hit the striking end of the chisel hundreds if not thousands of times with a hammer. And since the metal of the striking end is soft, it will start to crack, deform, and bend, eventually developing a shape that resembles a mushroom. like this one for example: show image of new striking head vs. used striking head.

Dangers

If you keep striking a chisel with a mushroom end, the metal will keep curling onto itself and at a certain point, it will not be able to take the stress anymore and it will break. The broken bits might fly off at high velocity through the studio and they might injure you or someone nearby. Additionally, the place where the metal chip breaks off will leave a very sharp edge behind, and sometimes, while carving, the chisel tends to slide through your hand and the sharp edge might cut your hand. To avoid these accidents, it’s a good practice to remove these mushrooms as they start developing. Watch how to do this easily on the bench grinder.

How to Use

There are basically three ways of using the point chisel and they differ only with regard to the angle with which they are placed with respect to the stone surface.

The first one is at 90 degrees on the stone surface. The second one is at 70 degrees and the third one is at 45 degrees.

The Sculptors's Stroke

A placement of the chisel at 45 degrees on the stone surface is called “The Sculptor’s Stroke”. While carving in this manner, you shouldn’t remove the chisel from the stone between each stoke. This will result in a “plowing” movement, where the chisel carves its way through the stone surface. This type of stoke will leave a series of parallel lines on the stone surface

It is possible to see traces of this technique on many unfinished works by Michelangelo.

It is characterized by a series of parallel lines that together create a beautiful pattern.

The Mason’s Stroke

The Masons stroke is characterized by placing the chisel at an angle of about 70 degrees, and instead of keeping the chisel on the surface of the stone when carving, you should briefly remove it at each stroke. This technique allows for a quick removal of large chunks of stone at once.  

The "Butcher's" Stroke

The third and last technique doesn’t really have a name, but here at the Sculpture Channel, we like to call it the butcher’s stroke, also because it is quite damaging to the stone surface. This method is applied when working with harder stones such as granite but can also be applied on marble and other limestones. It is characterized by placing the chisel at 90 degrees with respect to the stone surface. It is a surprisingly comfortable way of carving and will allow you to shape the stone quite easily and rapidly.

Setbacks of the Point Chisel

When working with the point chisel, you must realize that its impact with the stone tends to leave bruises on the stone surface that go relatively deep into the stone. Think of them as shockwaves going through the mass.

 

Sometimes they go as deep as two centimetres, and they increase in depth depending on the angle of the chisel with respect to the stone surface. The wider the angle the deeper the bruise penetrates the stone. These bruises are not visible when the surface is rough but once you start sanding and polishing your sculpture, they will gradually become more visible. They manifest themselves in the form of white dots on the surface. They are not perceivable to the touch, so even if the surface if very smooth, your hand will not feel them when going over the surface, but they will be visible. To remove these bruises, you will have to gently carve a couple of centimetres deeper into the stone, but that will probably compromise the design of your work.

A good advice is to stop working with the point chisel when you are at least 2 centimetres away from the final surface of your work.  

A few Closing Notes

When learning these techniques, don’t obsess too much on the precise angles, they are just a general guideline, but try instead to learn to feel the grip of the chisel on the stone. If the angle of the chisel is too narrow the chisel will just scratch the stone and not have any impact on it, and if it’s too wide, it will just hit the stone, but nothing will come off of it. Simply practice while considering these aspects and eventually you will get the right feel for it.

And remember to always use health and safety equipment while carving!

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