Sculpture: the Air Hammer

Fifty or sixty years ago sculptors and stone-cutters started using a small air hammer. It is not like the big, heavy, ones you see them using to open a hole in the street, though the principle is the same: air-pressure substitutes the old hammer blow with a steady vibration.

The pneumatic hammer the sculptors use is a small, hollow cylinder half a foot long that feels pleasingly heavy in your hands without causing tiredness. The air from the compressor comes in through a rubber tube at one end. You can regulate the force of the air, and so of the hammer, with a little valve on the tube. More or less, the whole thing looks like a garden hose with its nozzle (the cylinder-hammer).

This little sculptor’s air hammer works with the same old tools sculptors have always used. How?

Inside the cylinder a piece of iron vibrates: that is its “hammer”. You choose a chisel—the claw chisel, for instance—and stick it into—back it into—the vibrating cylinder until it touches that buzzing piece of iron and vibrates too. Now your chisel is a hammer. Hold it to your stone and it cuts right in and shaves little chips away. It’s that simple. Nowadays a sculptor at his statue might look like a barber shaving over the head of his customer with an electric clipper with its long cord—in this case, the long air tube. A sculptor at work on a big stone might have the air-hose temporarily wrapped around him like a snake.

Using an air hammer is easy—you get the hang of it right away. And it does make the second stage of sculpting easier and quicker. Though not the first stage—the chipping with a pointed chisel. Why?
Because it can’t drive the pointed chisel, which needs heavy blows to work. And the pointed chisel is still the best tool for removing big areas of excess stone from the block. At maximum vibration the air-hammer driving a big claw chisel can throw out a lot of chips but it is no longer very manageable and so the good old pointed chisel is still preferred.

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6 Responses to Sculpture: the Air Hammer

  1. Koos says:

    I have been using what I call an air chisel for quite some time. I live in Cape Town, South Africa and have to order the chisels (or bits) from France at steep prices if I cannot improvise. I buy cheap bits used in the panel beating industry and forge or grind the tips to my requirements and then have them hardened. For really hard stone like granite you actually need tungsten tips. Local engineering works assist to provide such tips for me.
    Depending on your compressor output, you can do almost anything with this tool as you can set the force of the impact. I even have a set of bits for wood carving. Just stick to the basics regarding the force, the angle of impact and the shape of the chisel point just as if you were carving by hand and you will save many hours and much sweat.

    • 100swallows says:

      Koos: Thanks. I used to complain that nothing was ever available in Spain, that it all had to come from abroad and was twice as expensive. I always looked toward France, the UK, and America with a sigh of envy. Now I see other sculptors are even worse off. So you have to improvise or invent your own tools. Yet you will agree that improvisation and invention is one of the fixed requirements of sculpture anyway—if it isn’t tools then it is a support or an armature. It seems that every single work needs an invention of some kind to be brought off, right?
      The air chisel certainly does make things easier and quicker, though stone sculpture is still almost too slow to be lucrative. Do you do big figures?

  2. This is the 2nd occasion I have come across your blog post in the last couple weeks. Seems like I ought to take note of it.

  3. Dries Kunz says:

    Can you tell me where i can obtain a air hammer


  4. Slowy Spirit says:

    I know this is an old post but I’ve come to ir right now so… sorry for the delay guys :) I always buy my tools at .Excellent service.

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