Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Tuesday, 6 November 2012
This post could save your life
This bust of a man was modelled by my green-eyed girl when she was between 6 and seven years old (she is now 18). 6 years old! Apparently she had minimal help from the teacher as well. The photo really does not do it justice. When I saw it on their shelf all those years ago, I could not believe my ears when they said who had made it. I know professional portrait sculptors who could not do better.
This lump of red sandstone is what I am supposed to be working on right now (my glamorous assistant should have done it months ago). You might not guess it, but it will eventually be a rather ugly urn with four small feet and a band of roses running around it.
There is a lot of basic masonry to do on it before the free carving starts, and because it is sandstone, only tungsten tipped chisels can be used - unless I want to spend half the day re-sharpening ordinary steel ones. That is not the only draw-back to cutting sandstone.
As the name suggests, the stone is made up of hard, compressed 'sand', and so is extremely high in silica. Breath enough of that dust in (not very much) and you will die of silicosis in rather too long a time to be comfortable. For this reason, I wear a good-quality filter mask, and am clad from head to foot in anything that will prevent me from turning a rather pleasing pink colour at the end of the day, and eating sand for the duration, wearing out what is left of my teeth.
Sandstones (or other high-silica stones) are not the most dangerous of them all, however. Can you guess what the most dangerous stone of all to cut is? If you can't, you are not alone - many professionals do not know this either, but may find out too late.
It is slate. When you cut or split slate, thousands of microscopic, diamond-shaped particles are released and they spin through the air almost invisibly - you can see them sparkling in bright sunshine as they do.
If you breathe in only three or four of these tiny crystalline particles, they embed in the walls of your lungs and are never rejected. They stay there for ever and - in many cases - cause a particularly nasty form of silicosis which will eventually kill you.
In the old days, all the Welsh slate which clads the roofs of Georgian Bath was split - by hand - in little open sheds right by the quarries where it was extracted, whittled into a standard shape then loaded up and distributed across the country.
If a Welsh slate cutter started working at sixteen years old, then he could expect to live until he was about forty-five. Remember that if you ever find yourself repairing your old, slate roof.
Here is another bit of information which, although it may not save your life, could prove very useful in the future:
The name of the billhook-type tool which a slate-splitter uses is a ZAX. This is one of the shortest and highest-scoring words which can legitimately be used in the game 'Scrabble'.