Letterforms can take many forms. This week, TypeThursday sat down with stone carver and Typethursday attendee, Wes Adams. We discussed his introduction to stone carving, his process, and what he thinks of Garamond’s capitals.


TypeThursday: Wes, thanks for being here with TypeThursday.

Wes Adams: No problem, my pleasure.

TT: So you’ve come to many a TypeThursday event and have to say, personally, you’re one of my favorite people to show; you always come in with your work-in-progress stone carving.

I definitely know for myself and the other attendees that we just learn so much from just having a conversation with you; about your process and what your thinking is behind the stone carving.

I’d love to have a conversation with you to just learn more about where did this come from? How did you learn to get into stone carving?

The font that I was working on was a French revival and I couldn’t wrap my head around the tool logic of the original punchcutter.… So I learned how to make the capitals with a brush in the traditional way.

Wes’ Introduction to Stone Carving

Italic alphabet in Main slate gilded in 23k, 2016.

Wes Adams: Stone carving, letter carving, specifically, isn’t something that you do by accident. I can think of only a couple people who’ve stumbled into it. In college there were inscriptions all around the campus, and that was probably my first exposure, but I only began working in stone years later.

TT: What college was that?

WA: I studied on College Hill in Providence. There the two campuses, RISD and Brown, are close together and you see a fair bit of lettering, walking around. Afterward I worked as a graphic designer and then, eventually, began designing typefaces. I struggled with capitals because they aren’t really related to roman minuscules.

In type design, you spend a lot of time early on refining the minuscules. The capitals are a puzzle that you might deal with a little later. If you start with capitals it’s unusual. At any rate, the font that I was working on was a French revival and I couldn’t wrap my head around the tool logic of a punchcutter. Minuscule strokes generally follow the emphasis of a pen nib. With caps the stroke direction varies and so does the weight. It didn’t make any sense.

And so I learned how to make the capitals with a brush in the traditional way, first memorizing the stroke order and over several months converting that into muscle memory. Once I felt like I had a grasp on the principles, it felt natural to carve the letters because those two processes are very connected. The intention of formal capital brushwork is inscription. If you’re not carving, the shapes are still arbitrary.

To learn about the craft, I travelled around the east coast of New England, which is where all the letter carvers are. Actually, there are a few here and there; an outlier in California, he didn’t return my email so I didn’t visit him [laughter]. I spent about four months just trying to visit everyone who would humor my questions. After seeing the tools and learning where to buy them, I began carving. That’s how I got into it.

TT: So it was totally self-initiated.

WA: Yes, I wanted to learn how to do it and so I did.

TT: I appreciate the self-initiation; I like that.

WA: Well, thanks.

TT: So the process of learning stone carving, was going to visit the people who were practicing on the east coast. Moving from brushwork to then stone carving and trying to understand how your capitals were made. If that’s the case, what’s your general process for stone carving?

Catich, who came up with the theory behind the brushwork, has been influential.

Ed Catich’s notebook for ‘Origin of the Serif,’ written in the margins of Goudy’s ‘Capitals from the Trajan Column at Rome’ as a series of rebuttals. Saint Ambrose College, Davenport, IA

Catich’s Influence in Stone Carving

WA: Sure, well, there are a few modern approaches that have developed. In the UK, for instance, they tend to carve from drawn outlines. That’s a world apart from what goes on in America. Partly, I think, because Ed Catich, who came up with the theory behind the brushwork, has been influential here. Even his skeptics are grateful for the rediscovery of brush capitals.

There’s a guy in Iowa who still practices Catich’s idiosyncratic carving technique. Because of his experience sign-painting, Catich was interested in working flat and he carved really shallow with sort of a wide chop — the distance between his chops can be a few millimeters.

TT: So when you say “chop”, what do you mean by that?

WA: In a letter, you’ve got a channel, a v-cut, and in that channel there are striations on either side because as you carve up the v, you’re perpendicular to the direction of the stroke. I tap hundreds of times up the letter, expanding and deepening the cut with each pass. I’m not carving into the v from the outside perimeter, I’m carving from the midline out.

TT: So are those “chops” — each one of those hits?

WA: Yeah, I’m calling them “chops” — the technique is called “chasing”.

TT: Okay.

WA: So the chase marks in Catich’s inscriptions are far apart which means he hit with a hard, shallow blow and the chisel travels some distance before the next strike. Each striation marks the impact of hammer and chisel.

TT: So in America, they make more strikes, more chops.

Wes Adams: Yes, generally. The wide chasing is a weird attribute of Catich’s inscription. In New England, they carve with a deeper cut and a more refined technique. Catich carved on repurposed chalkboards so his stone was really thin. He needed to have a shallow v-cut and his technique was well suited for his material. He wasn’t, to my knowledge, connected to an existing tradition of monumental letter carving. He was really carving letters as a sign-painter. It doesn’t always endear him to the New England crowd.

TT: And what about yourself — so what process do you do?

The letter form is sort of the union of what you can do with a chisel and what you can do with a brush. Where those tools intersect is the ideal letter.

Wes’ Process for Stone Carving

WA: Catich brought the brushwork back from Rome and that’s what I take from him. There are, I guess, a half dozen of us who practice the brushwork and carve from it. In a manner similar to the Romans, I lay the inscription out with the brush, in a formal style of calligraphy. Then I’ll carve the letter in stone out of the shape that the brush made. Along the way you develop your brush skills and your letter ideal. You work with the eventual carving in mind. You think, ‘okay, that shape will be a little quicker to carve in stone’, and then choose a simplified letter.

The capital letters of Rome were formed with the knowledge that they would eventually be carved. For instance, the graceful, wide shapes of the O and D are easier to carve than narrow curves.

TT: I know you said earlier that the brushwork is kind of an abstraction of those essential forms of the carving itself.

WA: Right. The letterform is a union of what you can do with a chisel and what you can do with a brush. Where those tools intersect is the ideal letter.

TT: Is the idea of the ideal letter something that you find very exciting or something that you think is interesting as an idea?

WA: It’s always nice to discover something that saves you a lot of time. The craft itself is slow, so you’re not trying to think of ways to make it harder. When you discover, for instance, that gravity helps you do something, affords a certain shape, yeah, it’s exciting. It’s nice to go with that.

TT: It’s serendipitous — You’re doing the work, and you learn new things as you do it.

WA: I have to say yes and also that it doesn’t feel accidental. If you aren’t careful there are accidents. Some people have the idea that hand craft is an opportunity to be loose and expressive. In stone what results is usually bad. It’s best to avoid that. I guess I’d say it feels like the tools give you guidance.

I make digital versions of my letters and can try things out in a fast way rather than spend the entire day brushing out four or five different versions of the same thing.

Trial layout with custom type

Type Design’s Role in Stone Carving

TT: I know you went from type design to stone carving. What are your thoughts on ever going back to the type design world?

Wes Adams: I think type design is handy for a stone carver to have in the toolkit.

TT: Why do you say that?

Wes Adams: Because when you’re laying out inscriptions, early on, it’s nice to have an immediate idea of what you’re looking for. I make digital fonts of my letters and can try things out in a fast way rather than spend an entire day brushing out four or five different versions of the same thing. When you think about layout, things like proportion and measurement, it’s nice to have sophisticated tools. If you know that you’re eventually going to be working with the brush, you need to have a type based on your own style. Then your measurements are accurate.

TT: So they’re all consistent next to each other.

If I lay out an inscription in Garamond, which has terrible capitals, when I begin working in stone, I find that nothing fits because Garamond didn’t use classical proportions.

Flaws in Garamond’s Capitals

WA: Right, if I lay out an inscription in Garamond, which has terrible capitals, when I begin working in stone, I find that nothing fits because Garamond didn’t use classical proportions. There needs to be an analog between the test and the finished product.

TT: That’s interesting that you said that Garamond’s capitals are not good. Why do you say that?

Left: A humanist reconstruction of classical proportion by Albrect Dürer, Nurember, 1525. Right: Garalde capital E cut in 1598.

WA: They’re for typography, so they’re not useful to me. You know, you occasionally hear people classify Garamond as classical, but its capital proportions are really defined by the 15th or 16th century. That’s not the classical period and Roman capitals have different proportions.

I think that a lot of the principles during the 16th century were rationalized. In that period you find geometric guidelines inviting peculiar inventions which wind up in the types of the day. For example, the extremely extended lower leg of the “E” is not something that you’re likely to find in an ancient Roman inscription. And it’s also not something that’s likely to help you with the spacing. There’s no real functional justification for it. And that’s why I don’t like Garamond’s capitals.

TT: Wes, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for spending this time with me.

WA: My pleasure.