Sigrid and I enjoy carving in slate because it is such a fine-grained stone and shows off beautiful lettering better than any other. The early settlers in New England used whatever slate was easily available and not all of it was of high quality. The black slate of Maine is extremely hard and dark. Slate also comes in purple, green and mottled hues from Vermont. We also frequently work in limestone, marble and granite.
We brush out our letters and other elements calligraphically, fine-tuning the work on paper overlays before transferring the finished design to the face of the stone. Typically, we v-cut letters into the honed surface of the stone, but we sometimes carve raised lettering.
When it is cut, slate leaves a whitish trail in the letter which naturally enhances readability. All other stones are best darkened very slightly with an acetone-based, long-lasting stain. If appropriate, gilding in 23K gold or palladium can draw special attention to the lettering. The reflective quality of gilding is especially effective against the dark background of slate.
A letter carver’s tools are pretty simple. A one-pound hammer drives a carbide-tipped flat chisel against the two faces of the letter in repeating passes starting in the center and moving to the edges. This is called chasing a letter. Granites and some marbles require heavier steel mallets and a more aggressive kind of strike. The decorative work employs a broad range of hand-made chisels, each leaving a different effect in the stone. Sometimes, we will use an air hammer to remove material more quickly when we are creating larger letters, but every letter is finished by hand.