Sculpture by Jeff Powell
Original artwork in stone, metal, and who knows what else
Hand Tool Recommendations for Stone Carving
At one point I was asked by one of my students for recommendations
on hand tools to purchase. This is a finicky area, since every carver has
their own particular likes and dislikes. Never-the-less, I have included
here my favorite hand tools and some comments about why and what I look for.
I hope these help someone out there. If you don't like something here, please
remember that everyone likes something different, so your mileage may
vary, and I am not responsible for money you spend based on what you read here.
Note: you can find most of the tools listed below at either of these
suppliers, and probably many others:
I am reviewing old copies of their catalogs as I write this page, and I will
include part numbers from what I have where appropriate. Part numbers are
listed like this:
That's part number 222 from Stone Sculptors Supplies and part 12345 from
The Compleat Sculptor.
I also regularly buy from Renaissance Stone
in Oakland, CA, but he doesn't do mail order work, so you need to be in the area
to buy from him. He carries many of these items, but not the Italian chisels.
REMEMBER: part numbers change, availability changes, I make typos in
everything I write, and your preferences may well be different from mine.
Buy anything you see mentioned here at your own risk. Please cross check
what I've written, and contact me
if you find any errors
Hammers are a purely personal item. I happen to like 1.5 pound soft iron
hammers, but the balance of two apparently identical hammers -- same manufacturer,
model, weight, etc. -- can be (and usually is) just different enough to make
one person happy with one and unhappy with the other. Handle lengths vary by
manufacturer, as does the polish on the handle. Simple stuff like that can
make a big difference. I know people who love round hammers, which would drive
me to distraction.
In all, hammers are probably the most personal hand carving tool you can buy.
If you can, go to the store to find the one that's right for you. If not, you'll
get used to most anything so long as you've tried something like it before and
have a basic clue about what you're getting.
I strongly prefer Italian carving chisels to just about anything else I
have seen. These chisels have longer teeth than others I've seen, and seem to
bite into the stone better. They also have thicker shafts, making them heavier,
but easier to hold securely when needed.
My preferences are as follows:
Those are my "daily use" chisels. There are a few others that are for less
common work. Specifically:
- Large 4 tooth chisel (SSC: 302, TCS: 37424). Excellent for large scale
material removal in alabaster and soapstone. Good in softer marbles too.
3 tooth (SSC: 203, TCS: 37427) and 5 tooth (SSC: 304, TCS: 37425) are useful
too, but for me, less often than 4 tooth.
- Narrow flat chisel (SSC: 320, TCS 37403). Wonderful for detail work.
Absolutely a critical chisel to have.
- A basic simple point (SSC: 311, TCS: 37400) is good to have. Something
heavier will be needed in hard marble, but these are good for most soft
- A flat chisel can be useful in places too. I like 1/2" or so (SSC: 321,
- Pitching tool (SSC 327). For removing huge amounts of stone.
- Narrow tooth chisel (SSC: 305, TCS: 37432, I think). Useful for
controlled removal in alabaster and soapstone.
- Frosting tool (SSC 450 or 460, TCS 37610 or 37611). Puts textured
surface onto a carving.
- Carbide chisels of various types. Great for harder stones, but
brittle. These are very expensive. SSC and TCS both carry various
types. San Francisco bay area supplier
carries various carbide chisels too, though not Italian ones.
- Cathedral chisels. 4-5 inches longer than standard chisels, these
can get into nooks and crannies that would otherwise be hard to reach.
I've only seen these at Renaissance Stone.
All the chisels in this second group should probably be bought on an as-needed
basis. Their use is less common than the others I have mentioned. Again, I
feel the need to point out that others may well disagree with me, though. There
are certainly sculptors who live with narrow tooth chisels, for example, and
wouldn't want the larger teeth I like. As with all advice, your mileage may
(and will) vary.
Here you can go broke -- easily -- and not be sorry about it.
Far and away, the two best kinds of rifflers are:
There are all kinds of cheaper versions out there -- mostly made in China, and
not worth much. They will get you through a project or two in soft stones,
but then they need replacing. I have 4 year old Italian rifflers that have
been used extensively and are still in excellent condition, but they cost a
LOT more than the Chinese version.
- Italian stone carving rifflers
- Structured carbide files
Here are my all time favorite Italian rifflers:
The truth is, I actually own all of these rifflers in 8, 10, 12, and 14 inch
sizes. Which one I use depends on what I am doing. These three shapes have
done a world of good for me. You can see these online in the SSC catalog,
and in the TCS catalog too, I believe.
- 10 inch, SSC 502, TCS 37661D
- 10 inch, SSC 504, TCS 37667D
- 10 inch, SSC 503, TCS 37666D
Next, I love these custom made carbide coated rasps from SSC:
CR-502, CR-503, CR-504. These are the same shapes as the Italian
rifflers, but carbide coated, which makes them cut in both directions,
and good for harder stones. Expensive, but worth it.
The Italians also make a bunch of 6" rifflers. Much like those listed
above, these are wonderful tools, and they come in more shapes. See the
SSC and TCS catalogs for their various available options. I own several,
and find them useful for doing detail work on some pieces.
Plain structured carbide rasps are wonderful. SSC has CR1 and CR2 -- both
highly useful and worth the money. TCS has a larger selection in various
shapes. I bought mine at Renaissance Stone
and I'm sure he uses a different supplier. Note that structured carbide comes
in different grits. (And guess what, different people like different grits
for the same sorts of tasks!) Low numbers are coarser, usually removing
more stone in a single pass. High numbers leave a smoother surface.
Now we head into the more obscure rasps...
There are many other rasps and rifflers available. As a carver, you'll
experiment and buy things to see what they do, if they work, etc. Plan on
spending time wandering hardware stores just to see what's new, what you've
never tried, etc. It's fun, in a strange sort of way.
- SSC sells something called an "American half-round Vixen File". I
love this file for what it can do. It leaves a very smooth,
clean surface. SSC 414 and 413. Manufacturer is Nicholson but I have
no manufacturer's part number available. A great -- but expensive -- file.
- Diamond files. These are wonderful for doing detail work, particularly
in harder stones. I don't use them much, but I tend to work larger.
The people I know that use diamond files love them, but only if they
buy the expensive ones. If you pay $10 for a set, you'll get junk.
Ones costing $20 and up each seem to last forever, and people swear
by them. SSC and TCS both have options here, I think. Check their
- Horse shoe rasp. Really. SSC 425. A big, heavy file for removing lots
of alabaster in a single pass. Very useful. If you can find a ferrier
in your area, you can buy them cheaper and in bulk. Great files.
- Wood rasps. I have several files intended for wood that work well on
alabaster and soapstone. My favorite of these -- by far -- is a Stanley
Sureform file. There are various versions of this file. Mine is about
15" long with a yellow handle at one end. It came with a flat file
blade in it, but I bought and installed the curved blade for it too.
I found this at Home Depot. Cheap and good for soft stones. Hard
stone will kill it though.
- 4-in-hand. This is the simplest file you'll get. Coarse and fine,
flat and curved, all in a single file. SSC 405, but it is also available
at any hardware store. My advice: do not spend a lot of money on these.
They are not designed for stone and so wear quickly. Buy several
cheap ones instead of one expensive one. $5 is a good price to pay if
your hardware store has them in that range. The limitations of these
files vary. Some have sharper teeth than others, but all suffer from
a small cutting surface and short length. Useful, but the Italian
files are much better.
A few simple things go with all these goodies:
- A file cleaning brush. A wood backing with stiff metal bristles about
1/4" long. Used to clean the gunk out of files so they cut more
- Crayons. Used to draw on stones so you know what you're doing. If you
change your mind, go back and redraw in a different color. The wonder
of crayons is that they don't penetrate into the stone and discolor it,
they don't rub off easily, and the marks they leave aren't easily obscured
by dust. Sue Toorans -- my co-instructor -- picked this tip up from
a professional carver she took a class from years ago. Why we didn't
think of it ourselves we'll never know.
- A couple of cheap paint brushes. Gently brushing dust off the stone is
better for your lungs than blowing it off and getting it into a cloud
in the air. Two or three cheap paint brushes of different sizes make
- A respirator. Breathing stone dust is not good, and some kinds are toxic.
If you're working in stone, you should consider wearing a mask or respirator
to avoid this problem. There are many kinds to chose from, starting with
paper masks for 50 cents each and going all the way up to battery powered
devices that blow filtered air into the inside of a helmet/face shield
combination and cost $500 and up. Spend whatever you need to here to make
yourself comfortable. Lookup any stones you're working on to see if they
are toxic too.
- Canvas tool rolls. Steel tools need protection. They get dull if they
bang into each other, etc. Keep them in heavy canvas tool rolls.
Cotton canvas lets any water and sweat evaporate away from the tools eventually,
reducing rust, and doesn't present a surface to the outside that water
will condense on, also avoiding rust. (Nylon, on the other hand, would allow water
to condense on it, which would be bad.) Various people sell these, and
anyone handy with a sewing machine can make them too.