I am a letter cutter, specialising in hand carved memorials, which are very different from the sandblasted, machine cut headstones that grace many British churchyards.
The process of creating a hand carved memorial is one that is never rushed. Traditional methods using a chisel and mallet instead of machinery is making a comeback and more and more people are seeking unique personal headstones to commemorate their loved ones instead of sandblasted off the shelf designs.
slate headstone painted off white
Gilding a headstone; applying the gold size before the gold leaf
headstone with gilded sunken disc at the top
I have been carving headstones now for over ten years and when I began I did not envisage spending so much of my time making headstones; I thought it would be more prestigious to be making opening plaques and heraldry. Although I still spend a lot of time on these other activities, they do not give me the personal contact with clients and the level of job satisfaction as making headstones.
The first step is to encourage the client to visit my workshop; here there are always lots of examples of work in progress, and samples of different stones. The client may come with a good idea of what they want but more often they are open to ideas and hopefully gain inspiration by looking at my work and examples of stones I have already cut.
The first choice that needs to be made is the type of stone. I always use British stones whenever possible; they blend in with the environment and suit the British climate. The client may choose a dark stone such as Cumbrian blue/grey slate or green slate, or a lighter stone such as Portland limestone or Hopton Wood Limestone. The stone choice will be partly dictated by the type of lettering and indeed the size and amount of lettering that is wanted on the headstone; slate lends itself well to fine detailed lettering; Portland on the other hand needs strong bold lettering which will still be legible as the stone weathers in time. I also encourage the client to look at the other stones in the area and a stone in keeping with the local stone often looks best.
Once the stone has been chosen, the client needs to think about the layout of the inscription and the type of lettering. They may wish to have a poem on the back of the stone or an inscription in a circle for example; the options are endless. Whenever a client is unsure I always say “less is more”, meaning that usually the simpler designs work best; too much lettering can often be lost.
There are also the options of a carving at the top or bottom of the stone for example. Quite often a simple cross is chosen, but also a carving which means something to that person, for example a type of plant, or an animal. Quite a popular motif is a gilded, sunken disc (see above), which has a peaceful feel to it.
Headstone with carving in sunken relief
The shape of the stone can be chosen to best incorporate the inscription or carving; sometimes a client wants a rounded edge which can be pleasant to touch. Sometimes I might carve a bevel around the edge of the stone; this can help prevent it from chipping.
Sometimes the lettering may be painted or even gilded. I tend to use a light wash of off white pain on my slate headstones which reflects the natural cut surface of the stone; if they are not painted the lettering can be hard to read when wet.
I always fix my stones straight into the ground whenever possible, with at least a third of the stone beneath the ground; this looks most natural and is preferable to a stone base.
For more examples of my hand carved headstones and my philosophy please visit my website.