The thing about stone – Part 1 – Chisels
Updated: Oct 5, 2021
In a yard dedicated to the crafting of stone, they stood out like two sore thumbs, totally incongruous, the first one thin and stunted in its growth, the other solid, its branches reaching up above the corrugated asbestos roofing of the surrounding workshops. How these two pear trees even survived in the hard-packed and dusty earth, surrounded by stones and with not a single other blade of green in sight, was a mystery to me.
But mystery or not, incongruous or not, the larger of the two made for a splendid prop in my imaginary Robin Hood and Tarzan worlds, holding out a tempting low branch you could clamp onto after a quick, two-step monkey dash up the trunk to haul yourself up and disappear into the tree’s canopy.
However, on the hottest of summer days, when the heat underneath the workshops’ corrugated roofing became unbearable, the pear tree was off limits to my games and primate antics, as my father would set up to work in the shade of its leafy crown. Often on those days, I would watch my father handcraft the stone, imposing his will and strength, patiently, and with infallible precision.
“Because that’s the thing about stone – stone doesn’t forgive,” my father told me, raising a finger in warning. “If you make a mistake, you can’t rub it out like you would a pencil line, you can’t paint over it, or mould it again like clay. If you make a mistake, it’s permanent, and your stone is lost, and that’s an expensive mistake to make. Measurement and precision, my boy, that’s the essence of the craft, and it starts with these,” he pointed to the large and heavy steel square and compass lying to one side, and then held out the thick red pencil and the wooden folding ruler he always carried in the side pocket of his blue overalls.
“The stone has to fit its purpose,” he frowned, “after all, I’m not an artist dealing in abstracts.”
But in my book of boys, he was – an artist – as I saw roses bloom, a dove take flight, or a man’s forlorn face, pained by a thorny crown, gaze out from the gravestone underneath his chisel. Once I watched him carve the coat of arms of Lord Baron what’s-his-face, a local remnant of Flanders’ feudal days, and he explained to me how vertical, horizontal, diagonal and intersecting lines, or a pocked or simply smooth surface, all expressed different heraldic colours.
Funny, I thought at the time, how one mistake in the patterns would possibly turn Baron what’s-his-face into the Duchess of so-and-so, but then again, what would his lordship care? After all, the man was dead and buried, the last of his noble lineage, though hardly of Mohican fame, and now I really needed to get back into my tree to fight the Hurons.
Many years later, engrossed in yet another book (which I believe was Alberto Manguel’s ‘A History of Reading’, though I can’t say for sure) I came across this phrase attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas:
“Beware the man of a single book.”
and I remembered how my father had his own version of this one-liner:
“Never trust a mason with only one chisel in his kit.”
and I’ll leave it up to you, dear reader, to interpret both of the above as you please.
Though I’m not sure how many different chisels my father used that day to reproduce that one coat of arms, I do know each one of them would’ve been razor sharp. In the tool shed there were dozens of them, of various shapes and sizes, with different sets for crafting bluestone, granite, marble or limestone, and throughout the day, sparks would fly from the grindstone as the workmen honed them.
“Because there’s nothing stone hates more than a dull chisel,” my father told me and patted me on the head, “so make sure you gather plenty of them in that little noggin of yours and keep them sharp. You never know what stone life may put in your path.”
And that, as you know, is the thing about stone – it doesn’t forgive – though all the chisels in the world, however sharp, won’t get you anywhere without a hammer.