First Month (and a bit) On The Job

I’ve been an apprentice lettercutter for a bit over a month now, and I can confidently say I’m still really enjoying it. Every day brings a new challenge, a new skill to learn, another unexpected facet of the job. 

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One project that has consumed a lot of our time recently is the carving and fixing of a giant caithness stone table, which was to be placed in a client’s garden.

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The table, which was six feet wide and over 700 lbs in weight, had to be rolled several meters then flipped onto a large track where it was slid/carried to its brick base.

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It was a massive bit of stone and it took four of us to get it where it needed to be, but the whole fixing was a huge learning experience and presented some very interesting problems to solve. 

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The other big event was planning and hanging the Alphabet Museum show at the Lettering Arts Trust gallery at Snape Maltings. The show was curated by my teacher Eric Marland.

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I’d never hung a show before, much less a show consisting mostly of stone. We used so many different methods of mounting and fixing that it ended up being a bit of a fixing masterclass.

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There was so much great work in the show from several different countries, and though it was certainly hard work to hang, I think it came out great. The Lettering Arts Trust always hosts great shows and this one is no exception!

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The Death’s Head

My favorite kind of gravestone art is probably the pre-colonial headstones in the northeast United States. One of the most common motifs from that era (and one of my favorite) is the death’s head. The essential design consists of a skull (sometimes happy looking, sometimes not) with wings on either side.

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I was first exposed to the death’s head through the work of Tim Burton. It is a motif he uses repeatedly in his films and artwork. For some reason, I really latched on to it as a symbol, and through it I was led to gravestone art.

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Now it’s easy to dismiss the death’s head as a silly symbol used by goths and wannabe tough guys, but its origins are much more somber, and sobering.

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Historically, it represented the presence of death, and acted as a reminder to all that passed by that one day they too would die; it was often accompanied by the inscription “Memento Mori”, which is Latin for “Remember Death”. Some may look at this as a wholly dour expression, but I tend to view it more as a caution to not waste your life and to value the days you have left.

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Either way, this symbol has come to define early American gravestons, and it persists across the public consciousness in myriad forms and with myriad meanings. And even though the death’s head is no longer in vogue when it comes to memorial art, I hope someday I do get to carve one on a headstone because it won’t look dour or gothy or depressing or silly - it will look...life affirming.

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A Quick Demo

So before I started this apprenticeship, I was essentially a self-taught lettercutter. I had a series of carving lessons with a local guy, read a bunch of books, and watched as many YouTube videos on the topic I could find (of which there are actually very few, and most consist of close-ups on the carvers hand, as opposed to what they are carving). 

So it was really awesome to have Eric, my teacher/boss/guru, give me a proper top-to-bottom carving demonstration where I was able to  annoyingly hover over his shoulder and ask a multitude of obvious, if not potentially stupid, questions. Luckily, Eric is a patient man, a great teacher, and a heck of a lettercutter.

 R you ready for this?

R you ready for this?

Eric took me through the entire process of pouncing (transferring the letter I’d drawn to the stone) then carving, carefully explaing his approach and the best order in which to start carving. It was an extremely valuable lesson, and a great foundation to base my future carving skills on. Now all I have to do is do it a few thousand more times, and maybe then I’ll start approach “getting good.”

 Gee, you really R a great carver, Eric.

Gee, you really R a great carver, Eric.


 

My First Fixing

A major part of my two-year apprentriceship is not only designing and carving letters, but also learning how prepare and install the work I do. For most pieces done in stone (such as a plaque or a gravestone) this is known as fixing.

This past week Eric and I went out for our first fixing together. The task was to get a huge slate gravestone properly set in the ground of a lovely churchyard in Grantchester.

As this was a monolithic gravestone (a simple upright stone), the fixing was done in the traditonal method, which is very simple: 

First, you mark out the approximate footprint of the stone, careful to line it up and place it appropriately with the stones around it, then you dig a neat slot in the ground. The height requirements for memorials (and, therefore, the depth you dig your slot) varies depending on where you are digging it - a churchyard vs a public cemetery, etc.

 Eric hamming it up for the camera.

Eric hamming it up for the camera.

 Me using what my mamma gave me.

Me using what my mamma gave me.

After you’ve dug your slot, you place two bricks on either side. This will act as a base for your gravestone to stand on. Everything is tweaked to make sure the every part is level.  

 We’re on the level, literally. 

We’re on the level, literally. 

Then you lower the stone in (mich easier said than done) and fill in the earth around it, careful to tamp it down as you go along. Voila! You have a fixed gravestone.

 

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That’s three inches of slate and three pills of Ibuprofen when I got home.

 Trust me, it’s straight. 

Trust me, it’s straight. 

First Week On The Job

Looking back on the first week of my apprenticeship I have to say, all and all, it’s been an absolute pleasure thus far. Not only have I been offered a warm and welcoming reception from Eric (my boss) and the good folks at the Lettering Arts Trusts (my benefactors), but I’ve also become completely engrossed in learning the craft of lettercutting.

 

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In the past few days, I’ve learned how to flood paint lettering on a stone, how to make mounts, about the characteristics of a million different kinds of stone, and I have just picked out a monster piece of stone for my first-ever alphabet - amongst many other things.

It’s rare thing to be able to fully immerse yourself in something that genuinely interests you, especially with such a knowledgable teacher to guide the way.

If this week is anything to go by, the next two years are going to be fascinating!

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First Day On The Job

Yesterday was my first day as an apprentice letter carver with the great Eric Marland. It’s been a hectic move from Bristol to Cambridge - complete with injuries, illness, and terrible weather - but I couldn’t have asked for a better first day.

The chapel workshop where I will be working is truly the coolest office a guy like me could ask for!

 

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I spent the day at the Lettering Arts Trust in the amazing Snape Maltings complex. The Trust is funding my two year apprenticeship, so it was great to finally meet everyone. Plus, I was able to privately view their incredible Berthold Wolpe exhibit - which is a designer’s dream come true!

I also got to hang out with the legendary Pieter Boudens and the very talented Robyn Golden-Hann - two letter carvers I really respect. On top of all of that, the weather was beautiful! You can’t really ask for more than that, am I right?

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Rubbing a grave

Recently, I took a trip to Arnos Vale Cemetery to do my very first grave rubbing. It’s part of some research I’m doing for the lettercutting apprenticeship I start in May. The kit I used, which I bought over a decade ago in a charity shop, dates from 1975. The paper worked fine, but the 43 year old rubbing wax was super hard and a real chore to rub on. Got a sore arm and black fingers, but it worked in the end!

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