The carving of characters into the face of a piece of stone, or other materials such as wood or metal.
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
The drawing and carving of letters onto stone and wood is an exacting craft whose principles go back to the classical world. Through Eric Gill there was a revival in the early twentieth century, most of the current leading practitioners can trace their skills back through the lineage of letter carvers back to Gill.
The skills required to do the best work are hard won – the design, drawing and layout of letters take years to master and are rarely understood without the guidance of a tutor. Letter carvers see the drawing and carving of letters as a particular craft in itself, allied to but distinct from masonry and carving in general. Most letter carvers are both designers and carvers. Typefaces designed for printing are rarely satisfactory when carved into stone, so most letter carvers design their own letterforms. Some have a signature style and others rarely use the same letters twice. there has been a retreat from the Victorian trend of using many letterforms and fonts (with maybe 10 different letterforms on a single stone) in a single piece of work. The design, spacing and layout of the lettering are the most important factors in any inscription.
The range of work lettercarvers do is varied. As well as memorials, plaques and signs, their work may include architectural lettering and public or private commissions of a more sculptural nature or personal work for exhibitions. Some are proficient in stonemasonry and general carving and others have skills in related areas such as calligraphy, painted lettering, glass engraving, type design and design for print.
An initial design of the commission is produced and letters are designed and drawn by hand using a pencil and paper. Then the letters are drawn on to the material (wood or stone) and carved using a chisel and hammer. These tools have not changed since Roman times.
Although some letter-cutters design directly onto the stone, redrawing letters until they are happy with the overall layout, designs are usually planned on paper, or on a computer, before cutting is started. The controlling principle in drawing the letters is the quest for consistency of letter pattern, equality of line weight and spacing, consistency of stress, and logical line breaks. Designs are often inspired by the text to be cut. Letter-cutters are interested in the form and rhythm of not just the letters but also the spaces between them.
Letters, once marked on the stone, are cut using various sizes of chisel and a hammer or mallet. The letters may be incised or relief cut. On incised letters the cutter works from just inside the edge of the letter forming a central ‘V’ cut. As currently practised there are three distinct hammer and chisel techniques: ‘stabbing’, where the chisel is held parallel to a straight edge and hammered in towards the centre of the letter, a technique for quickly roughing out stems; ‘chopping’, where the chisel is driven in from the edge, but at an angle, so that the plane of the cuts is parallel with one face of the ‘V’-cut, but the chisel edge is angled across the face; and ‘chasing’, where the angle is lower still, when the inner corner of the chisel travels along the root of the letter, but still cutting along the face of the ‘V’. When the letter is the required depth, the cutter focuses on refining the edge. Light taps are made to chase back to the drawn edge of the letter. Using a fine chisel the letter-cutter refines the thickness of each part of the letter, taking it back to the pencil drawing.
Techniques such as sand blasting and laser cutting are increasingly used in commercially manufactured letter-cutting, even if the designs have been drawn by hand. In some cases the whole process is mechanised, with the text being assigned a font from a library and the file sent to a laser cutting and finishing machine.
There is a distinct British style of lettering that is different from the rest of the world, but there are no regional styles in the UK.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Marketing/educating the consumers as to the true cost of providing the finished product – memorial, architectural or garden artwork.
Training by skilled tutors at an affordable level is in short supply.
Suitable workshop space to accommodate large stones and equipment is expensive to rent, especially in urban areas.
Only some carvers have the versatile skills to be able to work with multiple materials, techniques and commissions
Adaptability to enable carvers to diversify their sources of income
Craftspeople currently known
A list of craftspeople can be found on the Lettering Arts Trust website.
Businesses employing two or more makers:
The Lettering Arts Trust has apprenticeship and journeyman schemes and workshops.