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.