Carving Four Dolphins Into New Stone

copying dolphins into sandstone

Four classic sandstone dolphins

damaged old dolphins and new stoneworkSometimes there are those assignments that I dread a bit, because of the high quality work it demands. I'll admit that the next job wasn't easy. I was to copy one of the two early 20th-century dolphins-featuring ornaments that graced the building of the Art'otel on the side of the Prins Hendrikkade in Amsterdam, opposite the Central Station. On 13 January 2020, now more than a year ago, a gas leak burst into flames there. The fire that started as a consequence of that roared up against the facade of the hotel for some time and it especially damaged the natural stone of the exterior, including this ornament. In 2020 all damaged natural stone was replaced by Slotboom Steenhouwers BV from Winterswijk.

Dolphins or just fish?

fountain with dolphins Palace CasertaThis design is very widespread. You ccould find these 'dolphins’ for example along the banks of the Thames in London, in renaissance sculpture in Italy, on vases, fountains and garden benches, and used as gargoyles over a basin, pond or swimming pool. However they don't look at all like dolphins as we know them, but more like fish. They have big round eyes, fat lips, gills and fluttery fins and a distinct fish tail. While, of course, dolphins are smooth mammals without much frills.

After some searching on the interweb I found that dolphins have been depicted so terrifyingly since Roman times (the ancient Greeks came a lot closer), but nobody knows why. I did find an interesting and amusing article, by Donna Zuckerberg↑ (english), but that does not provide a good explanation either. Perhaps the real reason is that it is a lot more interesting to paint and sculpt them in this way? Dolphins are creatures of quite high consciousness. Perhaps the same applies here as it is now: demonize the good, portray it as bad, creating so much confusion that you can take advantage of the resulting fear yourself.

Taking a different approach than usual

block of stone for dolphins, removing unnecessary volumeI next received in my yard sometime in December 2020 a large block of profiled sandstone from the stonemason, out of which I had to carve a copy of these dolphins. This block was made of Polish Rákowicz sandstone. Rákowicz is comparable to Bentheim sandstone, but more cost-effective. This was an exceptionally fine, dense and homogeneous piece, although it had a few ochre smudges in it.

Normally I would put such an old statue on the pre-sawing machine and then start detailing from the sawn copy. But these dolphins were missing many parts, especially their tails. They're also rather small and quite detailed. So I quickly came to the conclusion that presawing wouldn't work. I would have liked to have had the brother of this ornament, which was still intact because it was a few meters further away on the façade. That would have made copying a lot easier. But I was involved too late and this was no longer possible.

Pointing step by step

starting the pointing processThe solution was to approach it in the classic way. I would measure the dolphins point by point and copy them with a pointing machine. This is something I prefer to avoid as it is an excruciatingly slow process, and as you may know by now I have a thorough dislike of measuring and I like to hurry up. But this time there was no escaping: I couldn't find any large shapes that would help me carve the sculpture mainly by eye or with just a few rough measurements. I did cover the original sculpture up with clay, to see if a simple main shape remained within which the most protruding parts fell, but it remained a tricky complex form. I had to simply measure it up in detail and do it step by step.

I started by reconstructing the tails in regular modeling clay. A sturdy rod inside the sculpture was to provide stability for the measuring device. Usually you'd need to make three base points on the original as well as on the block from which the copy is to be made, in which to hook the copying crosswood. This time I couldn't glue on some nuts or drill holes in it, so I decided to clamp some small boards onto it, in which I could fix some torx screws. The hooks of the pointing cross fitted perfectly in the torx heads.

Patience work

The new block with the stonemasonry parts already carved, that I had received from the stonemason, was much too big, so I first started to cut away the excess mass. I could measure that with some compasses. Then I started measuring lots of points on the dolphins, whereby one always works out the highest points first, and then will start shaping the intermediate parts. It's not really difficult work: you just need to keep setting up the pointing machine patiently, check that each wing nut is properly tightened and retract the needle, then transfer the pointing cross to the block of new stone and drill and carve there until you get to exactly 1 single point copied. Ad infinitum. The disadvantage of this method is that it takes a very long time before the shapes start to become visible. It's pretty stupid work actually. And slow work too. But after a few weeks of pointing, the details were all there and I was able to put the dreaded device aside.

I had all kinds of other assignments in between, such as my father's grave, the cornerstones of the Latin School in Nijmegen and a new set of large crockets for the Dom Tower in Utrecht. Fortunately, because pointing is not my favorite job.

Carving by eye

the sculptor ties the sculpture to the palletFortunately, there always comes a point where the sculptor has enough grip on all the measured points to work out the details by eye.. In this type of work, I like to trace a transparent plastic template from the main lines, so that I can very quickly get from the rough shape to a sculpture by transferring these lines onto my copy. After that it was only a matter of copy-carving the original dolphins by eye. I could make the tails from photos. I had deliberately left the modeled tails on my reconstructed parts very rough, because I find it easier to work that out in the stone than spend days fiddling in the clay. As long as I know how big the main volumes need to be, I have enough to start from. With some measurements that the stonemasons had provided me from the other original that was still on the Art'otel, I was able to make a decent copy. The entire ornament was finished with a narrow claw chisel, so I copied that into the copy as well.

four classic sandstone dolphins


pointing processI really dreaded this work because it is quite complex, and because this old sculpture was made with great flair and craftsmanship. I thought it would be a tough job approaching this level. Fortunately, it wasn't all that bad in the end, because what is very difficult at first was made a lot easier by the simple pointing process. That is also the reason that in Italy, for example, this simpler work is often left to the lesser sculptors. The real craftsmanship is done by the master artigiani, who for example can carve the faces, hair, hands and other details to a level that the ordinary carver cannot match. In this case, the pointing machine was a useful but boring tool for me. It was once again clear to me why I am so happy with that copying saw. Imagine that we would have had to measure up all of the 83 (until now) flying buttress statues of the Eusebius Church with the pointing machine, or Thomas Aquinas and Pope Leo the Great… then there would have also been a completely different price tag to such a sculpture, because we could never have made it so fast that way.

Speed ​​and price all-defining

The pointing machine is quite accurate, but as I said, it is a slow process, which would mean for most of the work we do that it would all become too costly. That is probably also the reason that more and more often robots are used to pre-mill the sculpture. The disadvantage of this is that professional knowledge is lost and that the work does not become very interesting if you're only required to finish what a robot has already milled to near perfection.. But usually that is not the most important point for most projects: it always turns out that in the end it is mainly about the cost price.


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Statue of Pope Leo the Great, completed

sanding the chasuble The statue of Pope Leo the Great, carved out of two parts of Udelfanger sandstone, is completed. I made this copy for the restoration of St John's Cathedral in Den Bosch, The Netherlands. You can read the two previous articles on this subject on my blog under the following links: here↑ the article on the presawing work and here↑ the second article, on the fitting together of the two parts, and why this is made out of two pieces of stone. …Read the whole article…

Two small family crests in black granite

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-Click on the picture to see the details enlarged-

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