In front of the community movie theater in Friday Harbor, a perch welcomes anyone who passes by. It’s not your everyday park bench: it’s sculpted granite, refined in its well-formed lines and polished surfaces, yet preserving a natural form in its organic waves and curves. Like its creator Tom Small, it is solid, stable, and unpretentious. It invites viewers to pause and enjoy a few minutes’ rest and peace.
The bench is one of sculptor Tom Small’s first public pieces. Seeing people seated on it brings Tom a sense of fulfillment when he ventures into town, and it reminds him of his primary goal in stone carving.
From Wood Whittler to Stone Carver: Tools of the Trade
Tom remembers whittling and carving throughout his childhood. Shortly after completing his degree in sculpture at the University of Washington, he began working as a caretaker in the Olympic Mountains. He took up stone carving mostly out of curiosity. The work was tedious, as Tom chipped away at the stone with chisels and silicone-carbide blades.
One day an observer leant Tom a diamond blade. The speed and ease offered by the blade opened up new territory for Tom’s imagination. “My life radically changed,” he explains. Now, not only could he more easily carve softer stone, like limestone and marble, but also harder materials, like granite and basalt. “I’ve been [carving stone] for 30 years,” he says, “and I still am fascinated by the fact that [the diamond blade] can move through the rock.”
Since that first interaction with a diamond blade thirty years ago, Tom has curated a variety of tools, some industry-standard, others jerry-rigged to do his bidding. Sculptors “have to be part-time inventors and tinkerers, reshaping tools that are used for different industries,” he says. He has a forklift to flip slabs and a diamond drill press that he mounts to the forklift for drilling holes. A mounted chainsaw cuts quickly through slabs of basalt. A right-angle die grinder does detail work.
Tom also adapted a doubled-up stone-cutting blade for his own, specific need. “You’re constantly tweaking technology,” he says. “I’m 63. . . . I have less endurance, but I’m getting faster, smarter.”
Tom’s Friday Harbor Workshop
The rough, narrow approach to Tom’s workshop winds through a patch of San Juan Island’s tall, coniferous woods. Tom bought a plot of land thirty years ago on Cady Mountain in Friday Harbor and started building, adding new structures and tools from year to year. The workshop is not far off the beaten path, but the terrain is rugged enough to make it feel secluded.
To some, Tom’s workshop might look a bit like a surrealist painting: There’s a shelter filled with tools of every shape and size. Tables are topped with clusters of small stones and resin casts of bones. Stone armchairs sit in a thicket like primitive thrones, and stone seats of various shapes and sizes patiently await completion opposite the workshop.
For Tom, the workshop represents a struggle between work and play. It sparks his imagination.
Letting the Stone Speak
Tom recalls a famous quote attributed to Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
“That’s really what a lot of sculptors do,” Tom says. “It’s not even really that mystical, it’s just that you’ve got to have this ability to spatially visualize and see inside [the stone].”
The shapes that Tom sees in the stone and reveals through his work feel sometimes ancient and sometimes extraterrestrial.
Lying on its back is a tall, slim column of granite. A sunburst emanates from the cylindrical tunnel that forms its center. The sculpture is reminiscent of an ancient sundial, or perhaps some sort of Stonehenge-ian structure.
Up against the shed: a serpentine sculpture reminiscent of a seahorse, with concentric rows of scoring along its curves. Inspired by Pacific Northwest Native American art, Tom sometimes imitates traditional forms.
On a table nearby lies a collection of smooth, rounded stones scored with curved grids. The stones call to mind sci-fi cityscapes from an aerial view. Though that imagery was unintentional, Tom appreciates how it inspires a sense of fantasy. And what, after all, isn’t there to like? The shapes are soft and organic. They require minimal cutting. And they make people think about the relationship between people and stone.
An oblong boulder known by Tom’s clients as “The Cave” sits nearby. Tom is shaping this piece into a bench similar to the one outside the movie theater. The parallel cuts in the stone reveal something about his hollowing-out process. Some of the stone must be removed before Tom can achieve the final, finished form.
Before beginning work on a piece, Tom explains, he first examines it to determine which is the best plane to stand it on. He looks at the curves and edges. He imagines how to negotiate or incorporate fractures. He considers how changes in lighting will affect perception of the piece. “I’m letting the rock help me make a lot of choices, and then working in a little bit of my own shaping,” he says.
Then, before making a single cut, he illustrates his idea on paper. Sometimes he even prototypes an idea on wood. There is plenty of fallen cedar on the mountain, free for the taking and perfect for carving a template.
The Daily Grind
Tom begins each day at his kitchen table. “I start my day by writing a list,” he says. “I sit at the kitchen table with my wife and write what my projects are. Everything is deadline-oriented.”
Out in the workshop, Tom demonstrates the kinds of tasks he does on a daily basis.
When Tom is finally ready to begin making cuts in a new piece, he first uses a blue pencil to mark the cuts, which are typically made with a saw or sometimes a blade at steep angles. He uses a steel chisel or a pneumatic air hammer to chip off the ribs of stone in a straight line.
After rough cuts are chipped out, he grinds off the hatch marks that are left behind, working his way to a rough but uniform surface.
Like working wood with sandpaper, stone needs to be polished in stages with diamond polishing pads ranging from very coarse to very fine. As the grit becomes finer, the stone becomes smoother and glossier.
Tom starts with a coarse grit on his water-fed polisher. Water creates more friction and increases the life of the diamond polishing pads. It also allows the diamonds to cut faster.
After polishing the marked area, Tom squeegees off the water, dries the area with pressurized air, and scrutinizes the granite for any imperfections. “I’m looking for weak spots,” he explains, marking a slight variation with his blue pencil. It’s important to get the right texture for each grit level. Some flaws caused by the saw blade will stay visible unless lifted with the right grit. The polishing pads will also suffer greater wear if he goes to the next grit too quickly. It’s a process that requires patience and attention to detail.
Tom polishes at the same grit level until he’s satisfied he’s eliminated every flaw. Even though his clients might not notice such tiny flaws, Tom does. “I have to meet my own standards,” he says. Then he changes to a pad with a slightly finer grit. This process is repeated until he achieves the right finish.
How does he know when he’s done?
“I want a certain quality on this surface so that it refracts light a certain way,” says Tom “…It’s really [about] what’s the best surface for the overall design and bringing out the color of the rock. That’s why polishing is neat, because you see so much more color coming out.”
Sometimes Tom uses different grits on different parts of a sculpture to create contrast. Variations in polishing can be used to create interest and to emphasize a sculpture’s shape. At times the reasons are not aesthetic only, but also practical. On one project, a bird bath, for example, he put a much more refined polish on the landing surfaces than in the basin. “Apparently birds don’t like slippery, steep slopes,” he jokes.
For some pieces, Tom brings in a professional polisher. After decades of sculpting, he’s earned the luxury of outsourcing a task that can put the tedium in art medium.
Tom works on sculptures in groups over several months to add variety to his daily task list and to spend more creative time with each piece. He takes on about 40 client projects a year and works on them in groups, careful not to overextend himself. After all, his hands, body, and mind are what make his work possible.
Exploring Stone on Tom’s Terms
There are certain pieces in Tom’s sculpture forest that were created solely for his own satisfaction. These noncommissioned pieces give Tom full creative freedom. His largest such piece is a seven to eight-foot column of stone, a rough-cut cube tower created by the removal of block-shaped sections of stone. The piece resembles an artistic work of stone block masonry, but with a freer, less restricted form.
Tom points to the washed stones with the curved grids, which will soon appear in a showcase in San Juan Island. “People really like a lot of these soft, sensuous forms,” he muses. “I’m just trying to respond to the stone, and people will like it, you know?” The thought hardly escapes his mouth before Tom acknowledges a little concern that appealing to more people might be cliché. But there is nothing cliché or mass produced about these sculptures.
Some of the voids in these smaller sculptures will be filled with molten glass in Tom’s more recently added glass studio and foundry, located on the other side of the Cady Mountain property.
Whether commissioned or noncommissioned, Tom’s goal for his works is the same. “I want them to be loved,” he says. He hopes that he can develop good relationships with clients and that they’ll trust him to design something that fits their needs but also aligns with the rock’s natural shape and attributes.
Sourcing Rock: Granite from Orting
Tom knows where each piece of his rock came from. There are stones from a beach in Oregon. Boulders from fields. Red rock from another stone carver who was downsizing his collection. Some stones come from suppliers in Canada and Washington. Sometimes Tom finds interesting stones on hikes.
He prefers working with stones he finds locally. He calls them “wild harvested.” Sometimes that involves working around flaws. “You know what? I’m happy carving our local stones,” Tom said. “It’s part of my reality. I grew up with these stones.”
Over time Tom has developed solutions for dealing with compromised structures, the packing of stones with steel rods along a crack, for example. Tom incorporates these as an ornamental feature of the design. It’s the stone cutter’s version of the woodworker’s bow tie joint.
Some sculptures require harder materials that will last many generations. Tom’s search for the right material has at times taken him overseas. More recently, however, his search took him to the mainland of Washington State. A client commissioned a work similar to Tom’s movie theater bench. The commission required acquiring more river-washed granite boulders.
Tom visited quarries from the Anacortes in the north down south to the foothills of Mt. Rainier. “I went to a lot of different quarries,” he says, “and Kapowsin Quarry had the best stack.”
The activity at Kapowsin Quarry also helped reconnect Tom with the human element of stone work. To him, the quarry looked like one of the fantasy landscapes he portrays: the crushing plant like a Jawa crawler on the sand dunes, the cliffs like a Tolkienian mine, miners working tirelessly to extract rock.
Tom tells of hand-selecting five boulders there and arranging for their delivery by ferry. The boulders were hauled with a side dump truck from Orting to the Anacortes ferry terminal, two hours north. The ferry ride to Friday Harbor took another hour.
The boulders are now being safely kept in a local supply yard, since the rugged road up to Cady Mountain was too steep for a haul truck. At the supply yard Tom proudly shows off a 7.5-ton behemoth. It will be Tom’s biggest sculpture yet. Eventually it will be hauled to his workshop where fantasy will be brought to life out of Tom’s unique vision and artisanship.
“Stone carvers,” as Tom Small explains, “are compelled to try to bring a stone to life. And there’s a certain level of fighting and physicality to get there. If you aren’t going to love the stone, you probably aren’t going to love the carving.”
But Tom Small has yet to get enough of either.
Article co-written and edited by Mary Blake.
Tom plans to display the finished 7.5-ton stone for his studio tour in June 2023. To see more pictures of Tom’s work, check out his website.