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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The stepped gable of the Latin School in Nijmegen

ornaments in Baumberger stone for the Latin School in Nijmegen

A Hasty Rush and still doing a proper job

Suddenly we got an urgent phone call: can you find time to participate in carving work for the Latin School in Nijmegen? Actually that shouldn't have surprised me: lately everyone has been busy and there are always two delivery dates a year that have a really hard deadline: before the Christmas holidays and before the summer holidays. The first one is because they prefer not to leave the scaffolding up during New Year's eve, think of fireworks and strange actions, and the second one is because there is a long period when there is no one on the scaffolding. Besides, these are great moments to finish a year or a six months period.

Three sides per block

ornaments in Baumberger stone for the Latin School in NijmegenThis was another such case of 'it has to be ready before Christmas'. Only those who took on the job were already terribly busy with all kinds of other projects and they actually couldn't find anyone other than Jelle and I to help out. And so ten blocks of ornamental work from the Latin School came our way. Fortunately, our colleague Serge also managed to find the time for carving a few of these blocks, otherwise we would not have made it all. Each block has three carved sides so just check, 30 processed sides that is a good number of weeks of work.

Dutch Renaissance

ornaments in Baumberger stone for the Latin School in NijmegenIt is interesting to carve these things, because much of it has disappeared through weathering and then you just need to reconstruct what was there. Fortunately, one can usually trace a part over from other blocks, and as this is made in the style of the Dutch Renaissance, some examples of it were still in my head. Flowers, leaves, stems and ribbons and a few fruits. Botanically it's really a mess, for a plant with oak leaves bears chrysanthemum flowers and pomegranates, but it is a lot of fun to make. If only there wasn't that much pressure on it!

block numbering Latin SchoolBut we got it done in time. As it always goes with these things you get the hang of it over time and then the second one goes a lot faster than the first, the third even more quickly, and that's how you get the knack for it. Jelle and Serge, in addition to their other duties, could complete two blocks each and I did the other six.

Latin School

ornaments in Baumberger stone for the Latin School in NijmegenThese blocks are intended for the stepped gable of the Latin School in Nijmegen. They flank the stepped facade, and are covered by horizontal parts, some of which also contain ornamental work. This Latin School is not unknown to me. In 2015 Stide and I spent several months working on the South Portal of St. Steven's Church, which is opposite it. Then we also made a quote for copying the statues of the Latin School, but another company with a robotic milling machine had submitted a lower price. Because they didn't have enough sculptors to do the end carving, Serge and Stide have been finish carving those statues in Obernkirchener sandstone. In the video below you can see Stide cutting away a block of sandstone from under Apostle Thaddeus with my chainsaw . He still had to get to know the saw a bit, but it was a handy way to get rid of a large block.

Baumberger stone

ornaments in Baumberger stone for the Latin School in NijmegenThese sculptures were carved in Baumberger stone in the 1960s by sculptor Giuseppe Roverso from Nijmegen. He probably also provided this ornamental work. The copies of the sculptures from 2016 were made in the much stronger Obernkirchener sandstone, because Baumberger only lasts for about 70 years. Why a different type of stone was not chosen for these blocks as well is a mystery to me. Yes, it does fit with the historical use of materials, but unfortunately it doesn't last very long outside if you don't paint it. We'll see how they will keep up. Despite all the haste, it was a very nice assignment to make. is the blog of Koen van Velzen, sculptor in stone and bronze. Look up my website as well:

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Large finials for the Dom tower of Utrecht

finials for the dom tower of Utrecht

Our first work on the Dom Tower

The restoration of the Dom Tower is in full swing in Utrecht. We cannot escape it either and will provide a whole batch of ornamental work for this. In October we received the first parts: three large finials for the Dom Tower. They will be placed on the balustrade at the top, at approximately 100 meters up. We divided these three finials among Serge, Jelle and myself. Soon we will get 16 large crockets. Jelle and I have been up the tower before to carve a number of trial ornaments, read a short article about this in the annual overview of 2019.

Meticulous copying

finials for the dom tower of Utrecht

First making the large shape on the bottom

The old finials were made from a French limestone, but this type is no longer available because the quarry is closed. These copies were therefore made in English Portland stone. The ornemants are 80 x 80 cm wide and about the same height.

That is a laborious job that takes three weeks of work, and then also the tails have to be made on it, where it used to be just two separate parts. Because these were the first ornaments we'll be making for the tower, the restoration committee wanted to be sure that the old quality was preserved. In particular, some consultation was needed about the type of surface treatment. That is why there has been a viewing twice during which all details were discussed. All parts will be placed together on the tower later on, where they are now made in two separate workshops and by three different sculptors. This consultation is necessary in order to maintain unity.

Why replace them?

finials for the Dom tower of Utrecht

rough-carved finial

The old finials of the Dom Tower actually still look quite good. But a closer look shows that cracks are appearing and the stone is coming to an end. These ornaments have been carved over the years 1903 to 1911 and are therefore over 100 years old. These limestones are known for deteriorating after 100 years in our climate and are at the end of their life cycle. They sit at a great height and if a small piece should fall down, where there are always many people walking around, then it could be deadly. One of the premises for this restoration is that the next major overhaul will be in 50 years and that this restoration therefore should last for 50 years should last. That would be an awful lot to ask from these old finials.

Rigid design

These finials for the Dom Tower were made under a strict regime at the time and are carved almost geometrically. So our task was to imitate this work just as accurately and to allow ourselves little in the way of freedom. I noticed that the whole ornament was still tightly embedded in the original block of stone. The masses were still following the outlines of this block and from a slight angle you can clearly see that all the highest points are in one plane and only the leaf edges are slightly undulating. True gothic crockets are often much looser and make smooth movements that are more difficult to follow, but these neo-gothic ornaments are quite regular and rigid. That also makes it a lot easier to copy: with a plastic template you can copy many of the shapes.


Below is a photo impression of my work on the finials for the Dom Tower.

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