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Traditional masonry : When it is written in stone

13 August 2012

Memorials are a traditional part of a stonemason’s work and hand carved memorials are still in demand. Fergus Wessel of Fergus Wessel’s Stone Workshop in Oxfordshire discusses the process of matching the stone and the lettering.

On entering my workshop with the intention of commissioning a headstone, customers are often concerned about ‘choosing the right kind of stone’.

Although I use lots of different materials, let’s take limestone and slate to illustrate the sort of differences that have to be considered.

While customers usually have an idea of colour and texture in their minds, the right stone quite often depends on the inscription they want. For example, a long, complicated inscription might get lost on an opened textured, soft material such as a limestone. It would be better suited to slate, which is harder and can take a finer cut. Limestone needs large, bold letterforms.

When a V-cut letter is left unpainted, it needs the light from one side to form a shadow. It is this shadow that is essentially the letter. The smaller the inscription the more light it needs. So the letterform on limestone not only needs to be bold, it needs to be easily recognised, and it is for this reason that I normally suggest using capital letters.

Slate is different. It is an incredibly fine-grained material that shows every mark. These marks are not eroded by weathering. If a fine calligraphic inscription is desired then slate is usually best.

Apart from its durability and texture, a stone is chosen for the specific location it will be used in. Many churches favour a local stone or, if the local stone weathers badly, the next best thing, which is often considered to be Portland limestone.

Polished marble or granite is seldom encouraged in English churchyards as it stays looking new rather than ageing in with its surroundings.

I think it is important that a stone has a lifespan, although that does not necessarily mean it should deteriorate. It should weather and mellow. It will lose its quarry colour and grow lichen and moss because it is porous, but this ageing process only improves the best materials.

Portland and most limestones ‘prove’ and become slightly harder with age. The weather darkens the letters and they become easier to read. Slate, on the other hand, weathers less and any growth on it can be wiped off, leaving it looking like new.


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