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.


-click at the bottom right of the photos for a full size version- is the blog of Koen van Velzen, sculptor in stone and bronze. Look up my website as well:

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Modelling griffin in clay and plaster

Jelle modelinf the griffin. Modeling Griffin in clay and then cast it in plaster

Jelle and I are halfway there with the modeling work on the griffin

Continuing with the large griffin

griffin modeling in artificial clay It's a project with long interruptions, because there's always work coming in between that seems to be much more pressing. But last summer there was a holiday period in which Jelle and I could get to work to finally shape the large mirrored griffins. In my last post on this, from more than a year earlier, I said that these two mirrored griffins will probably be cast in concrete. But I got good news from the customer: on closer inspection he preferred sandstone originals to concrete casts. We can proceed to carving them in stone! I decided that this is quite a big project for me alone and that I would like to make it together with Jelle Steendam both the modelling and the carving. With the combination of both our senses of shape and an extra pair of hands, this will become a great piece of sculpture that I am extremely enthusiastic about.

Not foam but clay

Making steel frames for the work of griffin in clay and then casting in plaster

I had already started to enlarge my scale model in hard foam. But the work was not to my liking. I could not get the suppleness that I had in mind and decided to do it differently and thus, I wanted to model the griffin in clay. The first step was a sturdy frame. I drew a contour template from my scale model, enlarged this to the desired scale and sawed it out of a sheet of wood. Then I welded together a steel frame from square profile tube for the griffin. I could roughly model the body of the griffin out of wire mesh and fix it to the frame, and filled with polyurethane foam. I made the wings removable.


modeling griffin shield in clay 3Then came the modeling of the shield. The shield is such an intricate movement of parts with all kinds of details that at first it was difficult to read from the small pictures. When we were almost done with all the casts, the client sent us a whole series of razor-sharp photos showing that I had been very close to the original. But there was also new information that we discovered on them which we will certainly incorporate in the reconstruction. I had already spent many hours in photo editing to find out what it once had looked like.

old photo griffin in situA colleague noted that he was more likely to use such old photos as a guide to make his own animals than to make an exact copy of them. There is also something to be said for that. But for myself it has been a challenge to reconstruct and approach the level of the old griffins. It has made me a better sculptor. And it is also a very educational project for Jelle. He has a lot more modeling experience than I do and is also better acquainted with making plaster caps. But doing it on this scale is new to him too! So together we learn a lot. Only when we really start carving will we be on familiar territory; we have done that many times before.

I made a one-sided cap from the shield and with the help of Jelle also a plaster cast. We could use this for further modeling work on the griffin's body.

Teeny tiny knights

family crest Von Klot for left griffin's shieldThe shields are also both different. They both have a family crest on it, one is of Graf Von Klot-Trautvetter with two helmets and two knights with banners and lances and a motto, and the other of Graf Von Bohlen, with five griffins and three helmets and the weapon motto "Cave Gryphem". These family coats of arms alone are extremely laborious pieces, so this is a project we will be spending a lot of weeks on in addition to the time we needed to model it in clay.

family coat of arms Von Bohlen for right hand griffin's shieldThe general shape of the shield I had also modeled n clay and cast in plaster. I did not model that whole family crest, because that is a lot of work that you cannot transfer anyway with the copying saw. I could better carve it directly into the stone, which is much faster once the drawing's transferred onto it. A good example for this is the large family crest with two griffins that I installed in 2013 in sandstone.

The body of the griffin

modeling griffin in clay and then cast in plasterThen came step three: modeling the body, the wings and the tail. This was the point where Jelle could also come into action. Together we shaped the griffin in a number of days of intensive modeling. Clay can naturally dry out and shrink, so it was very nice that we could do this together in a shorter time. The griffin will be 115 cm tall and the shield 122 cms, so that was hard work.

Plaster molds

modeling griffin in clay and then cast in plasterBut you can't do much with a clay model. When it dries out, it will crack and disintegrate. When wet, it can sag or become damaged. That is why we have used up a gigantic load of plaster to arrive at a plaster model. We were satisfied with the expression of the clay griffin, so that we could proceed to step 3: Placing plaster molds over it.

First I took off the wings and tail and made separate plaster molds for those. Then we made, in an intensive rhythm of mixing plaster, putting on a thin layer of plaster in color and applying a thicker layer over it, a plaster mold for the belly of the griffin. The last two molds were for the griffin's head. We definedthe seams with strips of metal, in this case cut from a sheet of zinc that I still had. Finally, the two molds for the left and right half of the griffin followed.


modeling griffin in clay and then cast in plaster. Hollow plaster casts.After that Jelle and I made casts of each mold part. We had mixed a good load of glass fiber through the plaster, so that the casts could remain thin. Finally, we joined the loose parts together with more plaster, which we smeared over the seams from within. Overall, we now have a hollow griffin of approx 8 cms thick, that we can still handle a bit.

modeling griffin in clay and then cast in plaster. carving away the plaster moldsBut the statue was still encased in the plaster molds! That is why we have also been busy for a few days to carve away all the molds from the plaster cast. Fortunately, we had added a little red dye to the inner layer of the plaster molds, allowing us to see when we were getting close to the final surface. We ended up with a bunch of casts, which may not have been perfect according to the views of professional mold makers, but more than sufficient quality for our copying saw and also good enough for a maquette to start sculpting from.


modeling griffin in clay and then cast in plaster. Carving away the last remnants of plaster by JelleThis griffin will later on be carved in stone. And just like all those flying buttress figurines of the past years, it is first sawn on the sculpture sawing machine. For this we need a sturdy model that does not depress when a follower disc rests on it. I could've also cut the beast out of foam and covered it with polyester, but with this method we were more flexible with the design. After all, you can easily remove and add clay, and with foam that becomes more difficult.

But the griffin will become two different griffins, a left version and a right one. They need to be mirrored and that means the front legs, the claws, sit differently with one version than with the other. I thought we could first cut out and sculpt one griffin, and that we will then adjust the plaster legs of the model so that the right claw holds the shield and it rests on the left.

Ordered some sandstone

For these two griffins, the two shields, the four wings and the two tails I have now ordered a batch of Obernkirchener sandstone. The quarry informed me that it will take a while to find good blocks of such a large size for the sculptures. But I really wanted this type of stone, although it is very dense and quite difficult to carve. But it is extremely weather resistant and has a beautiful color. Above all, the material is very strong. I had cut a slice of approx 1 cm thick, about 15 x 15 cms, and I couldn't break it with my hands. And yet I still have quite a lot of strength in my fingers. This is a perfect property for my purposes, because these beasts will be standing on 1 front leg, and the shield, the wings and tail are not very thick either. This way they can last a few centuries. is the blog of Koen van Velzen, sculptor in stone and bronze. Look up my website as well:

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Video: visit to the Sculptor's Workshop

Koen, Jelle, customer and Stide at flying buttress statues carved by Jelle during visit to the sculptor's workshop

Koen, Jelle, customer and Stide near flying buttress sculptures carved by Jelle

We're going viral

Last month I would have had visit to the Sculptor's Workshop again: customers of St. Eusebius's Church who had bought one of the old flying buttress sculptures, could come over and have a look at the place where they are being copied into new stone. But a spanner was thrown in the works. At the moment everything is about that darn coronavirus and I too seem to be unable to avoid having things cancelled. I received a cancellation and a request to make a video of our work, so that the buyers/viewers can still get an impression.


Now it is different when I'm telling something all by myself than when people ask questions. Most of the work has become so obvious to me that I don't realize that parts of the work process are not yet clear to others. The best interaction is of course if you can answer questions directly, and often one question leads to another. And explaining things gives a different nuance than if you'd tell stories and quote anecdotes.

Image thinkers

But the Chinese already said it: a picture paints a thousand words. So here goes my replacement tour of the sculptor's workshop, with performances by colleagues Stide and Jelle. So the whole story revolves around flying buttress figurines that we're currently replacing, and these are some of the last of arc no. 14 and 16, with the musicians and apostles. Learning to film and edit was an interesting challenge, so I'm probably going to do that more often. I have plenty of plans, now to find some free time for it.

St. James the Lesser

The flying buttress sculpture I am working on in this video is now finished. Read in this post↑ more about the statue of James the Lesser. You will find the accordionist in this post↑. I have also started on the last flying buttress statue for now, that of St. James the Greater, about which more later ↑. is the blog of Koen van Velzen, sculptor in stone and bronze. Look up my website as well:

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