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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A pine cone for a classic garden vase

An 18th century garden vase with pine cone

A small assignment I got last summer was to make a new sandstone pine cone for an 18th-century garden vase. This beautiful vase was made of Bentheimer sandstone, but the pinecone was made out of concrete and it was also very weathered, so now a new one was to be made for it. The lid of the vase also had two damages on its edge, which I would fix as well.

By hand or by lathe?

First I made a new pine cone from a new piece of sandstone, but I didn't get it as sleek as I wanted, and it took me way too long. Whenever you want to make something round by hand, it takes a lot of time, because you have to make a cube first, then you turn it into a cylinder in several steps by making facets, then you have to set up the outline of the ornament in facets, make all that tight, and then you still need to start detailing the ornaments and scales. I didn't like it and started over.

So I started with another piece of stone and turned a nicely detailed copy out of this block on my copy saw. It took some work to set it all up, making a contour tracing, aligning and sawing everything accurately, but it immediately looked much more crisp. After some sanding I was able to continue with drawing and carving the details.

making pine cone in sandstone


restoration garden vase lidOnce the pinecone was ready I was able to restore the lid of the vase and attach the cone to it. I started by removing the old concrete pine cone. It was secured with some copper pipes and polyester glue. Then I could glue the new one on top, repair the damage to the edge with restoration mortar and bring everything back to color. I also adjusted the new part to the old color scheme, so that it merges into the whole and doesn't contrast with it.restoration garden vase lid restoration garden vase lid with pine cone

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The Four Seasons of Badhoevedorp

block of houses with the figurines of the Four Seasons in Badhoevedorp

An urgent case in Badhoevedorp

figurine Spring Four Seasons brokenFour sandstone statues from Badhoevedorp were in bad condition. We received an emergency phone call: Could we remove them in the shortest term possible, and repair and then reinstall them?.

When we got there it turned out that it was not for nothing. What I thought I'd seen in the pictures turned out to be correct: it was their anchorings. Due to corrosion in the iron pins on which the statues were placed, they were cracked and three of the four sculptures stood shaky on their remaining shards, waiting for another storm to be their last. I was a bit shocked by the dangerous situation, for the statues were placed directly above the entrances!

Four Seasons

figurine Autumn reinstalledI soon discovered that these were depicitions of the Four Seasons, probably made in the 1950's. Unfortunately I have not been able to find out who made them, but clearly it had been a classically trained sculptor. For a moment I thought they had been cast in sand cement, because the material was so coarse and crumbly. But everywhere, especially at the rear, the characteristic traces of tooth chisels were to be found, and of the pointed chisel and flat chisel. So it definitely was carved out of natural stone, a greenish gray sandstone. But not of the best quality. This porosity had contributed to the anchors rusting.

The expansive power of rusting iron

rusting iron pin damages statuesIron expands when it rusts. It can then grow up to 7 times as thick and slowly crush each type of stone. It's the same process as with concrete degradation: moisture penetrates into the base matter and corrodes the iron parts, that then expand and cause the stone to shatter. The moisture had penetrated to the core of the statues through the open sandstone. The iron pins had started to rust, although these were actually not even glued to the statues. The statues had only been slid over them and then placed on a layer of cement mortar. Yet three of the four sculptures were so cracked that they only rested on the last shards.

Restoration and impregnation

Winter and Autumn broken sculpturesIn September we drove to Badhoevedorp and disassembled the statues. Due to these pressing times, they have been left in storage for a while, until I could find the time to restore them. The figurines of the Four Seasons have been repaired with epoxy glue and restoration mortar. The new stainless steel anchorage is also glued in with epoxy mortar.

Broken statues of Spring and SummerThen I treated the figurines with a transparent hydrophobicizing agent, to repel algae and protect them from frost penetration and to delay weathering. By applying many layers of it, this liquid has saturated deep into the stone. Water will now bead more off the stone than penetrate it, while any residual moisture present can still evaporate, because it is breathable. A gore-tex jacket for stone statues, so to speak.

Pressure washing?

impregnation of the figurines of the Four Seasons with hydrophobic agentOne reason for this anti-moisture treatment is that I found traces of cleaning with a high pressure cleaner, which has not done the Four Seasons any good. That must have been done against moss buildup- and to prevent algae growth, but it is not too good for the stone, certainly not with an already somewhat fragile sandstone. Small particles from the surface of the sculpture will detach, and moisture will penetrate ever deeper into weak spots. Clay inclusions are also rinsed clean as a result, causing the vulnerable areas to become bigger and bigger and details to blur. One could consider impregnating the figurines with acrylic resin or else with a silica-forming solution, that can strengthen the stone. But for the moment, the treatment I have given them now should keep the figurines good for decades.

Sandstone is fragile?

figurine Spring Four Seasons reinstalled


Often people also seem to react very strongly to the word 'sandstone’ when they hear that a sculpture has been made out of it. Maybe they think it's just a collection of loose grains or something, but lay people usually think that sandstone is a super-fast degrading stone. But the opposite is true. Statues of Bentheimer sandstone, for example, can stay sharp over 300 years in all weathers. Unless there are many fish-eating seagulls defecating on it, that is, as with the sandstone falcon from Franeker. In the Badhoevedorp case, the vulnerability was mainly due to the lesser quality of the blocks of stone. In other cases it is mainly calcareous sandstone and sandy limestone that causes problems.

One percent regulation


The figurines of the Four Seasons were reinstalled last week. The hardest thing about this work was actually just drilling out the old anchorage, which was a time consuming job. But the installation itself was actually quite easy.

The residents were noticeably happy that their sculptures had returned, and rightly so, because they define the entrance and the facades against which they stand. I also like their style myself, and I think it's a shame we don't do this anymore, placing sculpture onto buildings. When I see how much appreciation there is for them, it is actually surprising: they have a clear function and add beauty and character to the built environment. That was also the reason that there was a one percent arrangement since the 1950s which was intended for works of art: 1 percent of the construction cost of public buildings above a certain budget had to be spent on sculptures or wall reliefs or ceramics or glass art.

Beauty made secondary to profit

figurine Autumn reinstalled


But nowadays we all think it's a waste of money and people tend to build huge houses on a postage tamp. Property has greater interests than the beauty of our living environment.

I expect that there will certainly be another period of change one day. After all, things like this always happen in a wave motion. But it still amazes me that beauty is sacrificed for profit. Whereas a beautiful environment requires less maintenance than an ugly one, because people have more affinity with it and take care of it better. Junk attracts junk, and ugly buildings are also quickly demolished and replaced by more contemporary ones. Valued buildings do not always escape this fate, but it seems they stand a better chance.

A turnaround is not yet ruled out

figurine Winter Four Seasons reinstalled


Still, every now and then something nice in the sculptural way happens to buildings. Okay, unfortunately many architects seem to think that the craft is dead and unaffordable, and something then gets designed and executed on the computer. But when you see what happened in Haarlem with the facade reliefs of the old bus and tramway terrain, then you can get a taste how sculpture can still find its way back to the neighborhood.

I think a revival is still possible. As far as I'm concerned, it could all be a little less with the grand aspirations. I prefer to see something more small-scale, intimate work that evokes recognition, perhaps also something that falls under the heading of 'applied art'’ than imposing works that actually mainly strive after an effect. That would probably be a professional deviation, this affinity with hidden sculptures and reliefs. But I'm curious if more people think that way. I am also curious about the themes we would propose now, or whether we would design those Four Seasons very differently today. I myself at least have plenty of ideas!

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