Basic Techniques for Shaping Stone by Hand

Rock your hardscaping projects by learning how to use the right tools for the job and honing your observational skills.

People have been shaping stones for millennia. As a natural material, stone varies widely, and a range of methods and tools can be used to achieve a similarly wide range of purposes. This article will focus on basic techniques that are appropriate for landscape uses and building structural walls with stone. These techniques can often be applied to other types of stonework, such as veneer, as well.

For the purposes of shaping, there are two main types of stones: level bedded (including sandstone and slate) and irregular (such as granite and basalt). Level bedded stone will tend to break easily into flat sheets or plates. Sedimentary stones will almost always be level bedded, as are many metamorphic stones. Igneous stones, formed through the cooling of lava, are irregular, because they don’t naturally form flat sheets or plates, but they may still have a grain that affects how they break.

Stones are strong in compression, but weak in tension. Stones are also weak in bending and twisting forces (brittle). We can use this knowledge to make sure we’re applying force to a stone in a way that takes advantage of these weaknesses. How a stone is supported will greatly affect how it breaks, or if it breaks.

Common Types of Shaping

Photos by Tom Hutten

Splitting is done by applying a force through a wedge-tipped hammer or chisel. The stone on either side of the chisel’s tip is in compression, while the rest of the stone will be in tension, where it’s naturally weak, and this will allow the stone to split. Splitting is best applied in the direction of the bedding plane or with the grain of the stone. Use Stone Busters, a tracing chisel, and a trimming hammer to split stone.

Photos by Tom Hutten

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