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I have been carving stone since 1972. I found my original inspiration while working in a geological field camp with an Inuit man who carved rocks in his spare time. He gave me a piece of soapstone and along with a few pointers and the end result was a treasured rock carving I still have with me 50 years later.

In 1999, I moved to Sedona AZ where the beautiful red rocks of Sedona inspired me to pick up my tools and start rock carving again after a lull of 27 years. Back in Ottawa, I now carve the local limestone, sandstone, and marble, as well as Eramosa Marble from Owen Sound. My degree in Geology doesn’t make me a better artist, but it does give me an appreciation of the history of rocks and the stories they tell. In non-pandemic times, I divide my time between Ottawa, Ontario and Sedona, Arizona. For more information about how I go about carving rocks, see below.

James Gregory

Carving Rocks

To carve a rock, first, you have to find a rock to carve. It is not as easy as you might think. You need a rock that will lend itself to carving. Some rocks are so hard, the tools just bounce off; others are so crumbly, they fall apart in your hands. I look for rocks that have personality and speak to me, rocks that literally say, "Take me home and make me into something beautiful." The first rocks I carved I found when I was hiking in the red rocks of Sedona. I would be walking along and I would spot a rock that was too attractive to leave behind. Into my backpack, it would go. I have memories of putting rocks in my pack that were so heavy, I couldn't put my pack back on. These days, I find most of my rocks at the foot of rock cuts at the side of the road. In the Ottawa area, I collect Nepean Sandstone, Ottawa limestone, and marble from Arnprior and Wakefield this way. I also buy rock from a local stone yard, primarily Eramosa Marble sourced from a quarry near Owen Sound. People give me rocks and I have even found a few beautiful boulders in my own rock garden.

Next, I study the rock. What does it want me to do? What beauty is hiding inside waiting to be revealed? I try not to force my will on a rock, but rather follow its lines and contours. Sometimes cracks and imperfections force me to change my plans, but I just consider them ways that the rock is speaking to me, to work with what it gives me, not against it. I don't very often carve figures. Usually, I carve the kind of shapes and surfaces I see Mother Nature creating. Because I know I cannot match her beauty and subtlety, I simply try to emulate and simulate, so my customers can have a little something of nature in their homes. The rock is the art. I see my role as artist to simply release the beauty of the rock.

I use power tools, not the traditional hammer and chisel. In the early days, I used a Dremel tool but soon found it underpowered and small. I moved to an electric drill with various bits and wheels. It was better, but still too limited. When I first discovered angle grinders, my whole world opened up. Here was the tool I had been looking for! It was powerful and came with an unlimited selection of grinding and cutting wheels. The downside is that it is very noisy (I use two layers of ear protection) and very dusty (I use an N95 industrial breather). But what a joy to work with - it feels like a magic wand in my hands.

I had another breakthrough when I discovered diamond tools. Diamond is by far the hardest material in the world, and, these days, a wide variety of grinding and cutting wheels impregnated with industrial diamonds are available. They are more expensive but well worth the time they save and the finesse they give my magic wand.

When I begin a carving, I use a very aggressive diamond wheel to rough things out. Then I work my way through more precise diamond cutters and grinding wheels to refine the shape. When I am getting close to the final design, I use different polishing wheels, each one finer than the last. The finishing touch is... the finish. I used to use masonry lacquer, which gave the rock a wet look and deepened the colour, but I found it hard to work with. Now, my preferred finish is a mixture of waxes in a solvent base. It is easy to apply and when it dries, it gives the piece the look of finely polished furniture.


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