Sculpture January 1998 Vol.17 No.1
The field of sculpture has not escaped the influences of a rapidly changing technological society, and, although the sculptural process for many is often associated with traditional methods of working, this overview of sculpture tools discusses how today's range of technical possibilities, newly developed materials, and use of computers have important implications.
25 Years: The Evolution of Sculpture Tools by John de Marchi
The development of new tools and methods for sculpture can have a dramatic effect on the way artists work as well as on the range of aesthetic options available. Over the past 25 years, there have been major changes in sculptural processes and the tools associated with them. I have spoken with sculptors who work in a variety of materials and styles, as well as with people in the tool manufacturing and supply industry, and the consensus is that there are four primary areas of change:
(1) the technology revolution, in particular, computers and micro-electronics;
(2) the decline in the use of hand tools and conversely, a greater reliance on power tools;
(3) access to a tremendous range of materials and processes; and
(4) the issue and practice of safety, both personal and industrial.
Despite all this change there are some processes that have altered very little in the past 100 years, such as oxyacetylene welding. Other techniques have remained the same since the earliest days of artistic creation, including modeling human and animal likenesses in clay and carving stone, wood, and bone.
Twenty-five years ago powerful personal computers and common computer literacy would have seemed like science fiction. But now, since the technology revolution, many sculptors not only create at their computer work stations, they also work with software that enables machines to replicate their creations in real space and in almost any scale desired. The industrial process of CAD/CAM (computer-assisted design and computer-assisted machining), and newer innovations such as stereo-lithography (through which complex three-dimensional forms with hollow cavities can be created by a computer-directed laser aimed into a liquid plastic bath which catalyzes layer by layer into a solid form), have given the sculptor new powers that are just now being explored. Several companies now offer services with which a person or an object can be laser-scanned and the information digitized so that the exact form exists, and can be manipulated in cyberspace. By using the CAD/ CAM interface this scanned form can be duplicated in a great variety of materials. Some sculptors today work primarily in virtual reality, with computer-generated graphics in three-dimensional synthetic space, work that can be experienced only in cyberspace. Sculptors use computers for doing correspondence and record-keeping, and for preparing and presenting proposals, whether utilizing drawings or simulated sculptures in virtual settings.
Computers and micro-electronics have also brought indirect advances in the process of making sculpture. Cordless and variable-speed tools, affordable industrial diamonds, and low-cost carbide saws, burrs, and tooling are just a few of the items that the sculptor today owes to advances in micro-electronics. Welding technology has benefited greatly from the silicon revolution in the form of inexpensive and durable MIG and TIG welders as well as in the magic of plasma cutting. Plasma cutters using shop air and low power requirements give the sculptor the ability to cut almost any metal quickly, easily, and safely with only moderate skill and technical knowledge.
Another gradual shift in the sculpture-making process has to do with the use of hand tools. In general, the use of hand tools and their associated skills seems to have decreased in recent years. The reasons are numerous and include changing technologies, the amount of time and knowledge it takes to become proficient with hand tools, and the decline in the average quality of such tools. Although beautiful, high-quality, expensive sculpture tools are available to those who desire, or who require such tools for their art, when it comes to hand tools, often the choice today is between high-end tools made from the best materials and cheap tools which are made with poor quality materials and processes. This difference is especially important with basic cutting tools such as chisels, carving and turning tools, saws, and files and rasps. These tools are totally dependent on the quality of the steel and skill of the manufacturing and finishing process used. Unfortunately, the midrange-quality hand tools of years past often are not available due to lack of demand.
The good news is that the sculptor has an almost endless choice of moderately priced, well-made, and durable power tools for just about every job. For the sculptor, the cordless drill has become an indispensable tool along with the bugle head screw. How did we build crates and armatures and hundreds of other things without these simple tools? In addition, some of the new adhesive technologies have replaced the need for mechanical methods of construction and have therefore reduced the need for the hand tools previously used to join things together. Hot melt glues have allowed sculptors to build and attach all manner of things together in moments. Epoxy, silicone, and cyanoacrylate adhesives, to name a few, give the artist the ability to bond almost any material together permanently and easily.
The contemporary sculptor is much more reliant on power tools than his or her predecessor and part of the reason is due to advances in electronics. Power tools have come down in price over the years, yet they have more features and greater power with less weight. Twenty-five years ago the standard right-angle grinder used in most sculpture studios was a nine-inch model, which was very heavy and powerful, but left one exhausted at the end of the day. In today's studios the four-and-a-half-inch model is prevalent. A tremendous range of abrasives and accessories are now available for this versatile tool, allowing the sculptor to do many processes formerly done by hand or with hand tools. For example, with the development of non-woven abrasives and coatings, materials such as metal, stone, and wood can be given their finish with power tools. The ubiquitous four-and-a-half-inch grinder can also be equipped with a woodcarving blade. In this configuration a large amount of carving can be accomplished in a short period with little effort and moderate skill.
The difference between carving wood with the traditional mallet and chisel, and power-carving wood with the four-and-a-half-inch grinder illustrates the differing skills and knowledge level required for each method. The traditional process demands a good understanding of the nature of wood, such as its hardness, grain structure (face or end grain) and direction. The type of wood (i.e. conifer, deciduous, or tropical), whether it is a hard or soft species, and how abrasive it is on the carving chisel must be understood. A selection of mallets and chisels with different shapes and sweeps (the amount of curve a gouge possesses) is needed, and the carver must have some experience with which tool to select for each particular situation in order to achieve the desired result. The traditional carver needs the skill to sharpen and hone the various chisels, which are shaped to suit individual carving styles and types of wood. It is readily apparent that a moderately proficient woodcarver needs a fair amount of technical knowledge and skill in order to produce a sculptural form. The length of time that it takes to acquire these skills will, of course, vary greatly from person to person. My experience with teaching such skills is that it takes several weeks on average for a student to become comfortable with traditional woodcarving. The knowledge, skills, and the length of time required to become proficient with power carving is, as you would expect, much less.
The latest model of carving attachment for the four-and-a-half-inch grinder is an aerodynamic aluminum disc which uses three indexable round carbide cutters (throw-aways) for shaping wood. The grinder rotates the disc at 10,000 to 13,000 rpm so that each cutter or tooth takes a small but precise shaving each revolution. This makes for a very controllable cutting tool which is fairly easy to manipulate and can handle hard and soft woods, straight and curly grained woods, and face-grain and end-grain wood with equal ease. To have success the carver does not need particular knowledge of woods other than a very basic concept of wood grain with regard to the direction of carving and the rotation of the cutter. The amount of chip load on each tooth of the rotating disc is low, so a smooth cut can be achieved in almost any wood. The art and skill of sharpening is not a concern because the round carbide cutter can be rotated 180 degrees to expose a new sharp face. When this carbide insert is dull or chipped it is easily replaced. The amount of time it takes for a novice to become proficient with power-carving on average is several hours. Some of the negatives of power carving are that it is extremely dangerous, it is noisy, and it throws wood chips in all directions. The woodcarving disc must be used with the proper guards and personal safety protection. In reality, most artists would probably use some of both processes. Since the early days of the industrial revolution tool designers have been building the skill into the tool. The woodcarving disc and the four-and-a-half-inch grinder are good examples of that progression.
An ever-increasing array of new materials and processes have played a role in changing the field of sculpture in recent years. Almost anything imaginable can become either a material or a tool for the sculptor to use. Sculptors are wonderful at appropriating tools and devices designed for specific commercial purposes and adapting them to artistic ends. For example, electronic sign boards are now used by artists involved with words or text. Today's stone sculptors use industrial diamonds for cutting, shaping, carving, and polishing hard and soft stone.
Industrial diamond tools were almost unknown to the sculptor two decades ago. Because of advanced manufacturing processes, due in large measure to computer technology and global competition, the cost of industrial diamonds and diamond tools has steadily declined over the past few years. The fact that sculptors today can afford diamond tools gives them the ability to work and create with new materials. Now diamond-studded tools are used to carve and shape a wide variety of hard and/or abrasive materials, such as ceramic, brick, concrete, glass, tile, bonded sands, and synthetic stone. Diamond tools have also found wide use in the shaping and finishing of composite materials such as Fiberglas, carbon fiber composites, and numerous other new exotic materials.
Artists working in the foundry have benefited greatly in recent years from the advances made in industrial casting. Ceramic shell casting, the development of new investments, new alloys, and new and better coatings and patinas are just a few examples. Sculptors today are also casting with different metals such as stainless steel, cast iron, aluminum alloys, and monel. Glass artists have turned to casting in recent years and are pushing that technology. Synthetic materials and composites are also being exploited by the sculptor in order to obtain great strength with little weight, to create durable and weather resistant surfaces, and to reproduce almost any texture. Artists have the freedom to shape and form these materials into complex shapes relatively easily. Although these composite materials are often too abrasive or difficult to handle with conventional hand tools, the development of advanced abrasives and diamond-coated tools have made them very workable.
Another change in the field of sculpture in the past several years concerns safety. Two-and-a-half decades ago the issue of safety was seldom brought up in most professional and academic discussions. I remember well, much to my chagrin, watching sculptors pouring bronze while wearing beach attire with leather gloves as the only form of personal safety clothing! It was also not that long ago that grinding on metal without eye or ear protection was thought to be a machismo act. Thankfully, better safety practices in art schools, the strong influence of professional sculpture training programs, and legal liabilities associated with unsafe working conditions have combined to make safety a top issue in all aspects of art-making today. Years ago it was often difficult to find out how toxic or dangerous a particular chemical or studio procedure was. Now there is a great amount of safety information available in the form of material safety data sheets (MSDSs), warning labels, books, and computer databases. It is encouraging to see that sculptors have become increasingly aware of safety in the studio and are using personal safety protection. In this area we have made a great deal of progress.
In recent years many sculptor's groups have been formed to represent diverse sculptural interests and mediums. With today's landscape of changing sculptural technologies and tools, such groups often provide the sculptor with technical information, help in locating materials, or aesthetic feedback. A number of conferences and symposia in recent years have given artists the chance to meet and exchange ideas and information and to be involved first-hand with new tools and techniques. There is now access to a tremendous amount of information through the resources of these local and regional groups as well as through the large international network of organizations and institutions.
Today's sculptor has a huge array of tools from which to choose, ranging from basic hand tools to super-computers and huge earth-moving machines. In many ways, advances in technology have changed the sculptor's tool kit as well as the sculptor's aesthetic options.
John de Marchi is a sculptor and consultant who designs and tests tools.