Cafe Interview with Walter S. Arnold, the Official Cafe Stonecarver

sam

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Thread starter #1
I've been trying to think back to when Walter and I first communicated via email. I can't remember exactly, but it was back in the early 90's when the internet was new to me. We'd communicate every so often, and I would browse his site and marvel at his incredible carvings in stone. He joined the Cafe shortly after it went online and has made some of our best contributions to the Tips Archive, with acanthus leaf examples and sharing what he knows on the subject. Walter is not a metal engraver, but shares our passion for ornamental artwork which he deep carves from big chunks of stone. His work is nothing less than spectacular, and it's with great pleasure that I present an interview with this brilliant craftsman. Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for Walter S. Arnold, the Official Cafe Stonecarver!
~Sam
====================

Q. What's your name?
A. Walter S. Arnold

Q. Where are you from?
A. The Chicago area, but I also spend a lot of my time working in Italy.

Q. How long have you been engraving?
A. Haven't started yet. :) But I've been carving stone since I was 12.

Q. What made you want to become an carver?
A. I really don't have a good answer, since it wasn't that I decided I wanted to do it. It was more that I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life. The bit question in life for me was never "what" or "why", but rather, "how"... from the start my concern was how to learn, how to do it.

Q. Are you a hobbyist or professional carver?
A. Professional

Q. How did you learn carving?
A. I spent my teenage years trying to learn to carve, dragging home stone from torn down buildings and figuring out what to use as tools. I realized I was trying to reinvent the wheel. To really learn this craft, this art, I knew I needed to find mentors, carvers who had learned and mastered the age-old tradition. I found them in Italy. I went there when I was 20, to the small town of Pietrasanta, near the famous marble quarries of Carrara. This region has been a center for carving and marble work since Etruscan times. The men I worked with had learned from their fathers and grandfathers, who in turn had learned from their predecessors

Subsequently, I returned to the U.S., and eventually was hired as a carver on the Washington National Cathedral. I was fortunate to work with some very experienced carvers on the cathedral, including master carver Vincent Palumbo, a fifth generation carver, and Patrick Plunkett, who had spent years working on Salisbury and other cathedrals in the England.

Vincent used to say, "you don't learn carving, you steal it". You steal little ideas from every carver you meet, every carving you see, and put that together to develop your own ability.

Q. Are you a hammer & chisel and/or push engraver, or do you use
pneumatic tools, or a combination of hand and power?

There are similar issues in carving to those in engraving. The pneumatic hammer was introduced in the mid 1880's, and gained full acceptance in the U.S. and Italy in the first decade or two of the 20th Century. However, some other countries, including France, still resist it, and usage is limited and often frowned upon in England. The chisels are the same, it's just a question of what is on the back end striking the chisel.

I use both, and move back and forth between them constantly; it all depends on the stroke and angle I want. Knowing both gives a wider vocabulary and more flexibility. I know a lot of carvers who trained from the start with pneumatics, and never developed a level of comfort or experience with the mallet or hand hammer. I feel that limits them.

Q. What are your favorite books pertaining to carving?
A. Pugin's Gothic Ornament, (a Dover reprint of an 1838 original is readily available) is a wonderful resource. I have a very large collection of 100 to 150 year old books on ornament and design, and consult them regularly.

Q. Of the old masters, whose work is among your favorite?
A. Lots of them; not just the famous ones, but the anonymous ones who carved all the wonderful pieces on European cathedrals, the facades of French and Italian buildings, the Japanese temple guardians and Javanese sculptures. Recently I've been looking at Aztec carvings; there are things to learn from every tradition.

Q. What's the worst carving mistake you ever made, and how did you fix it?
A. I think I make a mistake everytime I bid a job... I can estimate the carving time quite well, but all the other factors (design time, customer interaction time, getting the stone, handling it in the shop, stopping to research details and refine the concept) are unpredictable.

Q. What are the majority of your carving jobs?
A. A mix. Probably 60% is high-end residential (including fireplaces, fountains, and the occasional gargoyle). The rest is a mix between commercial, institutional, restoration, and the occasional memorial or work of public sculpture. I like keeping a wide diversity, and avoid getting stuck in a single market segment or type of work.

Q. What type of magnification do you use (microscope, Optivisor, etc)?
No, I work big. I wear bifocals, but I have a separate set of single focus glasses (like reading glasses, but with safety shields) that are focused for 17", my typical distance from the stone.

Q. What part of carving do you find the most challenging or difficult?
A. I'm always trying to improve quality and learn more, and questioning whether the piece I'm doing could stand up to the standards of the old days.


Q. What part of an engraving job do you dislike the most, and why?
A. Juggling construction schedules (since much of my work is architectural), and sweating the dimensions and fit. Often a fireplace will have 15 or more pieces, all of which have to be cut to fit precisely, and usually I have to base that on architects drawings or preliminary site conditions. Then, when it's delivered, the drywall or carpentery might have been changed, and things don't fit right any more.

Q. What's your favorite part of an carving job, and why?
A. The range and diversity, and the way that, for each different job, I have to learn something new and study something different. For example, I recently carved a series of animal heads, Rocky Mountain animals, and got to look into the types of animals native to that region and their anatomy. A while ago I did a fireplace in the style of a Chinese brush painting, and spent time researching the styles they used to paint trees and mountains.

Q. Do you like or dislike lettering, and why?
A. I do some lettering jobs; I've carved the names on a half dozen museums, and a number of other buildings. I find lettering keeps me honest; it's very precise and controlled, so it pulls back my precision after I've gotten too loose on some of the more sculptural work.


Q. What kinds of carving do you refuse to do?
A. I'll only work limestone and marble. I won't touch granite or sandstone. Limestone and marble are almost pure calcium carbonate (like breathing the dust of Tums), whereas the dust of granite and sandstone is very dangerous. Also, they work very differently, and require a different approach and different tooling.

In general I try to be selective about what jobs I take on; I look at whether I can make the client happy and make myself happy. I figure there are three things to get out of a job; money, fun, and a good addition to the portfolio. Not too often can you get all three out of a particular job, but it needs to provide at least two. If I only see I'll get one of those three, I'll take a pass on it. Life's too short

Q. How do you rate the quality of carving done today as opposed to
50 or 100 years ago?
A. The carvers of 100 to 150 years ago were phenomenal, I see things on old buildings which just blow me away. Quality and quantity had really diminished by 50 years ago; lack of demand killed off the supply. There are very few carvers now who could have gotten a job in a typical shop of 100 years ago, but we're trying to bring it back.


Q. What country or countries impress you with their highly skilled carvers?
A. Italy still has some of the best, but even there it has changed significantly in my lifetime, there are only a handful with the truly superb skill levels.

Q. What affect has the internet had on your hand engraving?
A. Probably 85 or 90% of my work comes to me because of my website, http://stonecarver.com
I launched the site in 1994, so I was very early. Lately I've also developed a fan page on Facebook; that gives me a venue to quickly post work in progress and finished work without having to format it to fit the structure of my website. That is at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Walter-S-Arnold/56306749133

Q. What advice would you give to someone who wants to learn carving?
A. I don't have a good answer, although I get asked often. Traditionally, carving skills were passed on from generation to generation, from master to apprentice. While the ideal way to learn these skills is to spend years working with these masters, that is generally not an option. There are just too few masters around, and most are not in a position to take someone on. I do know several sculptors who have worked in that environment and who periodically offer classes.

::: Personal :::

Q. How many children do you have?
A. Two (step-children).

Q. What's the occupation of your wife?
A. She's a registered nurse, but she also manages my business and provides me with a second set of eyes. She can look at the work from my clients viewpoint.

Q. If you have traveled, what was the most exciting country you
visited and what did you enjoy most?
A. I've been to 15 or 16 countries, and all but about 5 states of the U.S. I maintain an apartment in Italy, since I spend much of my time there working.

Q. What's one thing of which you are most proud?
A. It's always the most recent project which I've finished. This week it's my book, Staglieno - The Art of Marble Carving, on the incredible sculptures in the monumental cemetery of Genoa, Italy.
 

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gtsport

Elite Cafe Member
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Feb 16, 2007
Messages
255
Location
Racine, wisconsin
#2
Awesome! My g-grandfather was a stone cutter out of Alfedena ,L'aquila, Abruzzo, Italy. He worked in Albany until about 1904 when he moved to Detroit and worked cutting stone for the city. Do yo allow visitors to your shop? I'm just the other side of the cheddar curtain in Racine and would live to see your work in action.

Ciao,

Joe Paonessa
 

Gargoyle

Official Cafe Stone Carver
Joined
Feb 18, 2007
Messages
637
Location
Elgin, IL
#3
Joe, did he get the opportunity to work on the state capital in Albany? Some wonderful carving there.

Yes, visitors are welcome by appointment, even people from Wisconsin. :)
 

monk

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Feb 11, 2007
Messages
9,008
Location
washington, pa
#4
i finished a stone today. but guess what- not anything near your level of artistry. just a common yardstone. number and name on it. rather beautiful art that you produce. unlike you, i will do granite- that is if the folks are willing to lay out the xtra required for the aggrivation.
 

SamW

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#6
Walter, that is facinating work. As Jeff says, a lot of time required. In my youth I was very interested in stone sculpture but never saw an opportunity to learn it. When I stumbled across engraving it just clicked and I knew I found something similar that I could pursue so it satisfied my craving. Thanks for letting us know something about your work. Its most interesting.
 

Lee

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Joined
Nov 17, 2006
Messages
993
#7
Walter,

It's a good thing I'm not your neighbor. I'd probably hang around enough to annoy you to death and I know i'd never get any engraving done. I've always been fascinated by sculpture but like Sam never found opportunity or time to learn. I love your work and thank you for your contributions on the forum. Very inspiring.

Lee
 

eastslope

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Conrad, MT
#8
Your work is amazing, and I always look forward to your posts. Seems like most buildings made anymore have no class, no pride, and no longevity. The old brick and stone buildings with the ornamental and carved statues, not to mention the gargoyles on the tops are the buildings that draw people to them. Just by looking at them, one can see the pride of workmanship and a job well done. I hope you can find some young people to teach your craft to because it truly is a remarkable one! Thanks, Seth
 
Joined
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Location
Christchurch, New Zealand
#9
Hi Walter

I really enjoyed reading your story. It is really interesting to read about related arts and although our mediums may be different..........our thinking is the same.

Superb and inspiring work.

Thanks for that

Cheers
Andrew
 

Roger Bleile

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Northern Kentucky
#10
Walter,

Thanks for sharing your work and story with us. Years ago I visited the National Cathedral and bought a book on the stone carving. That is when I first became aware of your work and that of Roger Morigi.

In looking at the picture of your chisels, they look about the size of die sinker's chisels. What kind of steel are they made from and is sharpening as critical as it it is for metal engraving? Also in the picture of you and the carved angel, you have some kind of bag on your head as a hat. What is the story behind that? It seems like I have seen pictures of Italian carvers wearing those bags.

It is sad to learn of the decline in the art of carving. I'm sure much of it started in the 1950' to 1960's with the trend toward Bauhaus archetecture which was devoid of ornament. My prediction is that in another 50 years all of those Bauhaus monstrosities will have met the wrecking ball as they are devoid of any style or sole. Had it not been for books by people like R.L.Wilson, Mario Abbiatico, and Macro Nobili which inspired demand by gun collectors for hand engraved guns, hand engraving would have faced the same fate as stone carving. Do the carvers have a guild or assocation like FEGA to promote the art?

Also congratulations on the book. It is books such as yours that will promote the art of carving and give it the public attention it deserves.

Best wishes,

Roger Bleile
 

Gargoyle

Official Cafe Stone Carver
Joined
Feb 18, 2007
Messages
637
Location
Elgin, IL
#11
In looking at the picture of your chisels, they look about the size of die sinker's chisels. What kind of steel are they made from and is sharpening as critical as it it is for metal engraving? Also in the picture of you and the carved angel, you have some kind of bag on your head as a hat. What is the story behind that? It seems like I have seen pictures of Italian carvers wearing those bags.
For limestone, I mostly use tempered steel, but I do use carbide tipped chisels for the rough-out and heavy work. For marble I use mostly carbide. The tempered steel is generally simple water-hardening tool steel, 1020 if I recall correctly. I'm not sure how long the carbide tipped tools have been around, but at least since the 1940's. The pneumatic hammer was invented in the early 1880's, but I still use the wooden mallet (limestone) and soft iron hammer (marble) for some things. When you are comfortable with both H&C and pneumatic it gives more flexibility. The chisels themselves are the same for hand and pneumatic, just a different shape to the back of the shank.

The hat is because otherwise you get stone dust in your hair, so any carver who lacks the patented Sam-Master-Engraver-Hairdoâ„¢ needs something to cover it. Some use berets, or baseball caps, or bandanas. The Italian tradition is a newspaper hat- it's cheap, light weight (so your head doesn't get hot in warm weather), and many of the highly political Italian carvers would carefully select a newspaper and fold it so it displayed a headline which made a point. A good hat lasts a few weeks or more. I'll generally wear a newspaper in the summer, a cap in the cooler weather.

Do the carvers have a guild or assocation like FEGA to promote the art?
Yes, we have the Stonecarvers Guild, but it's small we've been struggling to get the momentum going so that we can pull together and really promote the art and the trade.
 

Gargoyle

Official Cafe Stone Carver
Joined
Feb 18, 2007
Messages
637
Location
Elgin, IL
#13
There are a few of the exotic marbles and granites which get misclassified and misidentified, but in general they're easy to tell apart... at least for those of us in the field. I guess it's like telling stainless and titanium apart, or brass and copper. You pick up on the differences pretty quickly.

However, while I can tell them apart at 50 paces, I'm not sure how to verbally explain the difference. :)

Visit a marble yard; large countertop shops will let you walk through their warehouse area and look at the slabs. Ask a few questions, and in a few minutes you'll get a feel for the difference.
 

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