I’ve come a long way since quarry days, which was how I started out on my professional career as a sculptor. Officially I was an assistant to the Japanese sculptor Hideo Furuta, then resident in a granite quarry on the west coast of Scotland. The reality was that learning to split and carve granite with hand forged tools is nothing that art college prepares you for – I was learning on the job, and wasn’t particularly useful until about 6 months had passed.
Hideo gave me an apprenticeship in a way of working so old that few people are working that way any longer. Tungsten carbide tools were phasing out fire-tempered chisels. Such tungsten tipped tools just need a bench grinder to sharpen them, not a forge, an anvil, and years of experience to get it right. Though we used air tools, the jack hammers were used to make wedge holes to split the rock, both large and small splits, not for carving the rock. We resharpened the air hammer chisels on the forge too, and made our own wedges.
You can imagine how useful a chisel sharpened and tempered by a compete beginner is when faced with good Scottish granite – I spent a lot of time in the forge, resharpening my soft or brittle chisels. And ‘forge’ was a fancy description for a tidy heap of coal, surrounded by rocks, with a scaffold pipe and various reverse flow vacuum cleaners or cold running hair dryers to fan the coals. The truck wheel rim was eventually replaced by a proper anvil, spotted for sale in a local newspaper from a retiring blacksmith. Hideo snagged a swage block from the same man, plus sets of tongs, drifts, sets and a hardy – which is a chisel that is set into the anvil and is useful for cutting off the shattered ends of badly tempered chisels. I became fast friends with the hardy, using it several times a day….