masonry, stone, brick, chimneys

Tips from a Custom Carver

A noted stone carver offers advice for designers and architects working with custom carvers.

By Chris Pellettieri

Chris Pellettieri stands in front of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, where he studied stone carving from 1989 to 1991. He describes it as a rare and wonderful opportunity to work stone in an architectural as well as a sculptural setting. All photos: Luigi Pellettieri

To those of you who are commissioning a custom stone carver to create something for you, let me first say, “I commend you.” Out of the small subset of people who have chosen to build in a traditional style, you are a member of an even smaller subset who has chosen to include components that are not off the shelf. By seeking the collaboration of an artisan, you are inviting another individual to contribute his or her creative energy to your project.

That decision has the potential to bring abundant character and uniqueness to your project, whether it’s a fireplace mantel, doorway or any other item. However, there are some unwelcome outcomes that can be avoided. The following guidelines will help you avoid pitfalls when specifying a stone carving project.

1. Be selective when choosing an artisan.
From presidents to street sweepers, there are bunglers in every profession, and stone carving is no exception. The surest ways to steer clear of them is to look at their previous work (preferably in person), to speak with the people they have worked for in the past and to ask your respected colleagues’ recommendations. It is almost always a mistake to choose an artisan based on lowest price alone. While it is possible that the lowest bid could come from someone who is young, hungry to prove himself and also gifted, it is more likely that an inexperienced carver is trying to compete on price alone. It is best to check references and to see past work.

This window is one of a pair that took about six months to design and carve. Fortunately, the clients got the project off to an early start.

2. Look for design inspiration.
Since you are commissioning a custom stone carver to create a unique piece, you have an exciting opportunity to design something very special. It makes no sense to squander the opportunity by having that person copy something out of a mass production catalog or some such source. Set your sights high. Be original. Include elements in the design that express something special about you, your profession, favorite animal, interests or whatever.

I have had clients who live within 15 minutes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art seek inspiration from drab brochures that they have gotten in the mail. I often tell them, “Go to the art museum and find something you like, and I will do that for you.” I know that I will never be equal to the geniuses whose work is on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but if I am looking for inspiration or ideas, it makes sense to look at their work.

One source of inspiration came from one of my favorite clients, whose grandmother was an avid collector of ancient Middle Eastern art. He commissioned me to carve a fireplace mantel to be decorated with a motif from one of his grandmother’s cylinder seals. A cylinder seal is a small bead-like object with designs carved into it so that when it is pressed into a soft clay tablet and rolled along, it stamps a distinctive design on the clay. The finished mantel had special significance to my client’s family.

3. Give careful consideration to timing.
Many stone carving projects can be very time consuming. It may seem odd to think that a decorative window could take more time to carve than the whole rest of the façade took to construct, but that is often the case. To some, the subordinate role that a fireplace mantel plays in the overall scheme of building a house would mean that one could wait until progress is pretty far along before getting started on the mantel. This is a big mistake. I have often had to try to install my work in rooms that are completely finished. It is very stressful to maneuver 1,000-lb. pieces of stone under such circumstances. It is also very stressful to hold up an entire worksite that is waiting for your piece. So please be aware of how long stone carving projects can take and get started on them early.

A simple stone mantel can typically take a month to carve. Even before work starts, though, there is often a wait of six to eight weeks for the material to be delivered from the quarry. Excluding the time needed for the design process, from the moment you give the carver the green light to the moment you receive the finished product, it could easily take two or three months to create a simple mantel. A more complex project will take longer.

This is one of a pair of “Foo Dogs” that Chris Pellettieri designed and carved for a private garden. It illustrates the ability of an artisan to add vitality to a traditional decorative sculpture motif by adding his own unique creative approach.

4. Don’t design in stone as though it were wood.
As we all know, stone is widely available in slab form so it resembles a sheet of plywood. Perhaps that similarity has given some designers the idea that it can be used that way.

Although stone can bear almost any load when compressed, its edges are highly vulnerable to crushing. That’s not so much of a problem when a slab of marble or granite is used for a countertop, but when a design calls for two slabs to meet at a 90-degree corner and their edges are each sawn at 45 degrees so that the joint is less visible, they are ignoring the basic nature of the material. Equally ill conceived is the practice of shaping a molding on a separate strip of stone and applying it to another larger piece, often with mitered corners. These are abuses of stone that should be avoided.

Another word of caution. All designs are not achievable in all types of stone. A visit to a marble or granite showroom might leave one with the impression that he could choose from hundreds of colors and patterns and have that material shaped as he wished. The truth is that even the most adventurous stone carvers probably have experience with only a handful of different materials. Stones can be very different. Some can take much longer to shape than others. Consult your carver before you select a particular material. 

A final word of caution. Don’t expect the carver to deliver and install the work. While some carvers may gladly accept this responsibility, installing (or setting) stones is a separate trade with its own set of techniques. If you put a high priority on one-stop shopping, you might unintentionally compel a competent carver who is an incompetent setter to botch the job and, in so doing, damage his own creation.

By following these few basic guidelines, I am confident that your experience working with a custom stone carver will be satisfying and the resulting project will be a source of pride and pleasure. TB

Chris Pellettieri received a 2009 Arthur Ross award from the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America (ICA&CA) for artisanship. His work can be seen at