The Spirit of Letter Carving: Interview with Fergus Wessel


Click here for another new and fascinating interview with Fergus about his love for headstones, and his new book.

Transcript of Interview

Interview by Rachel Foster. Film created by Rachel Foster and John Bellars of Wychfilms.

F: I'm a stone cutter and I make fine headstones. I run a workshop with my own ethos and ideas which are translated through people who work with me. We make opening plaques, commemoration tablets, memorial tablets, coats of arms, heraldry, any fine carving which isn't restoration. Our clients are from all over the country. We do a lot of headstones for children, I don't know why maybe it's because people take the time and effort to look for something special. We also have a lot of architects making enquiries for opening plaques, foundation stones, coats of arms, signs, then you get the corporate companies who just want an opening plaque. The other clients are the private clients who want to adorn houses with coats of arms, quotes, sundials, obelisks and we also get enquiries from committees trying to commemorate a group of people.

I run a workshop with my own ethos and ideas which are translated through people who work with me.

I guess the initial meeting is fundamental, the designing takes time as I try out different ideas, try to get to the best one and the drawing out takes longer than the cutting, usually. It doesn't have to, but you have to allow that time and not be rushed, and be disciplined if it's not right, to rub it out and start again, whereas the cutting, once you start, you have to carry on, so the drawing out does take long, especially if you're in a critical mood. There's a wonderful expression 'killing your darlings', I don't know who came up with it when you're, say you're drawing out a word and you're so pleased with the letters and the spacing, it's beautiful but if the whole word needs to be moved half a millimetre to the left you've got to have the discipline to rub it out and start again and that, hopefully, is what sets us above the others, it's that time spent getting it right.

Q: How many people do you have here in the workshop?

F: At the moment we have one. I say 'we' because we're all letter cutters. The guy is an apprentice, James. He's really good-natured, he's good with clients which is perfect really, no experience necessary. Actually, they people with previous experience need to be trained more; if they come here thinking they know it already then it's no good because then they have to unlearn and that takes time. There's a bit of self-expression: really the creation is the drawing out, the designing, which is always done by me but the letter carving can be done by anyone who's trained up so long as we all cut the same letter. So when you're working on a big inscription and there are three of you it's important that you all have the same 'E' or 'G' because otherwise there would be no rhythm. But the drawing out is quite personal really.

Q: Can you recognise another stone-cutter's work?

F: I can be walking around a churchyard looking at hand cut inscriptions, nice ones and I know who made them. I can say "that was done by Peter" because there's little things, like a serif might loop up at the end or on the 'M' the second leg might be a little bit lower and instantly you know it was Keith.

Q: So someone could look at a headstone and know it's a Fergus Wessel one?

I think so. I've been doing it for eleven years and I think in those first ten years you find yourself, you find your lettering, you get known for a particular way, the top of a 'T' might slant a bit more, so I think it's taking time, but yes, I'm pretty rooted now. But then again you always try to improve. I would say that many letter cutters' work is calligraphic, they come from a calligraphy background so their lettering is more organic and free whereas I come from a typographical background, a letterpress background where the type is maybe more timeless. That's just what I like, I like the discipline of it but I don't think I could nail it. There will be certain things which I'll just say "that's definitely mine" because of a little thing I do.

Q: What qualities and talents do you need to be a good letter cutter?

F: You learn to love lettering. I don't think people go "I love lettering" all of a sudden. It is very complex and the more you learn about lettering, the spacing, the more you're looking at the sides of lorries and looking at logos thinking "whoah that's terrible spacing" and then you learn to recognise what's good, what's nice to the eye. I guess you love the shapes more and more but I think it's the recognition of what is not nice which takes time and you can train people as well to use their eye for that reason.

Q: It's often an emotional world you're going into, where clients can be in a high state of distress. What traits of character do you need?

F: I would only employ people who are quiet and good-natured. I think that goes a long way. You have to be sensitive, you learn to give people room and time and not to hurry them. I think you have to be a listener which I'm learning to be but you do develop the traits that you need. You never know what people are going to be like when they come here. If they've lost a loved one, many of them don't want to talk about it, they just want to commission a stone. Others want to tell you everything about them which can be really useful actually when you're designing a stone but you never know. We had a couple who come all the way over from London and they'd lost a child and they walked in and they walked straight back out again because they just weren't ready. I just have to be able to realise that. They came back two years later.

Q.What's the hardest piece you have ever done?

We do a lot for babies and children and obviously, they're very sad but it might not be how and why they died that makes the stone difficult, it's how the parents are with you. Once or twice you can feel anger coming through which is very hard to deal with but most of the time people wait three years when everything has calmed down a bit. If they come too early I usually say come back next year because there's a lot wrong with coming too early, there are practical reasons but more importantly, there are emotional reasons. You're more likely to put too much emotion on the stone which should be a celebration of someone's life not something to remember the painful dark times, I think. But it depends on what the client wants. So when a client comes here and they want to put too much emotion, to express their pain, it's my job and obligation to try and steer them towards an inscription which is uplifting and in twenty years time, they'll be uplifted by. Also, the inscription shouldn't be too personal you know? It should say something to everybody because lots of people are going to be looking at it and if it means something to them as well, other than "Beloved Grandmum/mother/daughter" if it said "What will survive is love" for example then it just speaks to everybody. I think that's important.

Q: Do you find you're translating people's thoughts and emotions so that they speak to eternity?

Well, I don't think clients expect me to. A client might walk in and say '"In loving memory......." and I might say "Well, stop there. You know I've used "In loving memory" once, I mean it's fine if you really want it but it's over-used, it's everywhere, it's lost its impact. It's better to have the name to remember and something that's thought about". I think it's too easy to put on something that's the standard. It's my job to steer people really.

There's a lot centred around hand-carved headstones. We're known for hand-carved headstones but actually, that's only one fraction of the work. There are the people skills, there's the designing, typography, there's the drawing out, there's the discipline in the drawing out and then a bit of carving. But it's also getting the right materials dealing with quarries, suppliers, dealing with churches, vicars, cemeteries. You just learn these things I guess which is why when I was training I was just carving all day long and they asked me to stay if I wanted a permanent position there, and the reason I didn't was because I didn't want to be carving all day because I wanted to be part of the whole process. Then again if I do too much office work I crave letter cutting again, because it slows you down. You know, you zone in, and you're "in the moment", and it's magical actually.

Q: Tell me more about being in the workshop.

When you enter the workshop, it is a workshop, a zone, and instantly you close the door and you're in this slow world and the moment you open it again you hear children's voices, kettles whistling and stuff and you come out of it. I think you cannot work with too much around you which is why it's important to employ quiet people, so there's not too much chatting. Have you heard of the expression lego talk? It's when as children when you were making lego, bits and pieces and you would just jabber away to your mates about nothing because you're concentrating. We do lego talk and occasionally we look at each other and say "what were we talking about?" It's concentration talk, so we call it lego talk. Lots of people walk in here and say "I couldn't do that all day", but it's not like that, it's really absorbing and you're lost in this world which sounds stupid but it's true. You start, you get going and you're thinking about lots of things and gradually you're thinking about the lettering. It absorbs you, it pulls you in, it really does. We were always trained, before carving in the morning or before drawing out, any exercise like that, to sharpen a pencil, get the pencil really sharp. There's something in the sharpening which slows you down.

Q: How did you first become interested in letter-cutting?

I was encouraged by my parents to do something creative. They were both creative, my mother is an illustrator, father is a flute-maker but even at the dinner table, the conversation was always about design. It was considered more important than maths, and knowing the encouragement was there steered me to the arts. I used to do lots in the garden, carving from quite a young age, not very well, and I left school and studied ceramics at Falmouth before becoming a thrower at Winchcombe pottery. I did that for 7 years but it wasn't really what I wanted to do even though I learnt an amazing skill. I wanted to go back to carving. My mother was then a typographer at a private press, so the lettering side was there, the carving side was there, it all fitted together.

I got some tips from Keith James, who had a workshop opposite the pottery, I got going carving a stone for a neighbour's dog and my grandparents, but I wanted to train properly. I was worried about throwing away the skill of potting. To throw all that away, 7 years of training, at 26 didn't seem right, but I knew I had to do it. I was accepted onto an apprenticeship at The Cardozo Kindersley Workshop and Lida Kindersley taught me about cutting and about life, at an age when I was discovering what I really wanted to do. I was there for 3 yrs and then started my own workshop, thinking I knew everything about drawing out and letter cutting, but I didn't. I look back at my early work and think, well, I've come a long way. You want to always be improving, you don't want to get complacent. I think you are always improving, always trying to get better, each stage of the work, you take an inscription, you do a design, then you make the design work for the stone, but you're improving the design. Then when you cut it you're improving the drawing out so you're always trying to improve, improve and that's what makes the work interesting otherwise it becomes boring.

Lots of letter cutters do a design, then blow up the design on a big piece paper, then trace it through onto the stone, but at each stage, there's life been lost, it loses a little bit. I think the design should be a sketch, an impression really, and the drawing out stage is a more accurate representation and we get the client in to look at it.

And then the carving. You tend to carve 3 or 4 letters at a time and concentrate on the spacing and if you need to adapt a letter, you know widen it or narrow it, then you have to do that because otherwise, you have spacing and rhythm problems, which actually stand out more than bad lettering. I think people notice typography, or bad typography without realising why they like something and why they don't like it. It's balance, it's rhythm, it's a combination of factors which make an inscription readable and it needs to pull you in to read it and if it's a mess, letters all jumbled up, too close, you just don't want to read it, I think.

Q: Do you ever do a piece where you don't like what you're carving?

We're commissioned to make something to the client's specifications. You know the wording's not your wording but there's a bit of space for self-expression in that you can make it work on the stone. I don't mind about the wording as much as the overall design. Although sometimes the wording chosen is not to my taste, it is amazing what clients come up with and most of the time the words are wonderful.

I find it very hard to do my own pieces. Occasionally we have a bit of time, and I think "let's do an exhibition piece" and it's very difficult to find anything, wording, or inscription, or quotation, or line of poetry which is really, really amazing. Occasionally we just do a Latin inscription because people look at the lettering more than what it's actually telling you.

Q: Can you talk me through the process from commission to finished piece?

Some people have clear ideas about what they want, most people don't and they come here wanting to get some inspiration, wanting to touch the stone. If it's an opening plaque, or work for an architect, they'll have discussed the wording, the sizes, there's very little we can do. Usually, a person will walk in with inscription on the back of an envelope and say "How about this, would this work?" and it's great because then I can open up. They're asking me to help and I can help, or at least I can give them some variations which maybe they haven't thought about. We sit down, have a cup of coffee and talk about how we can improve the wording, look at the materials, look at sizes, and most of all look at the character of the stone, which is so important and often overlooked by people. What I mean by that is the feel, whether it's going to be formal and upright, stiff, you know, a coat of arms, formal, capital letters, or feminine, italics, flourishes, or contemporary, sans serif. All of this needs to be thought about and most people don't realise that because they'd go to a monumental mason and chose, caps or lower case and that would be that. It's probably hard for people when they come here because there's no off-the-shelf choice, we can do anything. But it's important we talk about these things here and then that's enough to give me some ideas for a drawing, a sketch.

I don't offer ten sketches, you know, this one or this one or this one. I work on one which I think will work really well because I think the more I like it, the better it'll be. I don't mean to sound arrogant but if you enjoy doing the work, you naturally put more into it.

Q: Do you have a favourite stone?

F: I love cutting Portland stone, but then after cutting it for a week I want a change and I go on to slate. In my old workshop, they used to say slate was invented by God for letter cutters because it's so wonderful. You make a tiny line and you can see the line. It's so consistent, it's beautiful stuff, it's hard and you can see where you're going with it. There are stones which I hate cutting, mostly imported stuff, granite is horrid, too hard. I love cutting big letters, you have more of a chance to get it really right, there's more to take away.

I do get days when I think "I've had such bad day, my cutting's been awful" and the next morning I go and look at what I've done and it's brilliant. You begin every job thinking, right this one is going to be perfect, and it never is perfect and who wants perfect anyway, but it's that striving for the best. There are times, when you think "this is really good", but you can look at it a week later and pick it to pieces, you're always going to have that. I think the day you stop having that will be retirement day really, I enjoy pushing myself, you learn by making mistakes, it's an old cliche but so true. It's very important when training apprentices, to let them make mistakes because that's how they're going to learn. You have to teach by example rather than by criticism and then let them get on with it. I have to teach the apprentices to be self-critical as well. The greatest pride I've had recently is seeing a guy cut lettering who I've trained, and thinking 'this is great' because he's always going to have that skill.

Q: What are your tools?

F: For drawing and inscription you need a pencil, a good sharp pencil with a knife, sandpaper to sharpen it and a ruler for keeping the horizontal lines on. You mustn't use the ruler for measuring the spacing or measuring the letter, you need to train your eye to do that because otherwise you're reliant on measurement and a millimetre is a lot when it comes to letter spacing so you need to train your eye. And it's drawing out freehand, so the tools are just a pencil and a ruler. Then you need the design before you cut because you need to spell-check twice, at least twice. Spelling is our big hazard because when you're drawing out a word you're not writing a word, you're making a shape and the spelling's the last thing on your mind, you're making that shape look nice. And so then the carving. You just need a good sharp chisel, and a mallet which we call a dummy, a round-headed mallet of metal, and maybe some goggles, and a radio. Do I need anything else? No, not really. Perhaps a workshop cat.

It was a big transition from pottery to letter-carving. As a potter you don't need tools, you just need a wheel. Here you're using man-made implements. I was very worried about losing that skill which I'd learnt by changing completely from pottery to letter-carving, but I've brought with me things I've learnt as a potter, like the curve of a pot needs to have tension, no wobbles, like a 'C' or a 'D', you know, that curve. Little things you're taught, you're reminded of and also the workshop life, the discipline.

Q: Do you have favourite letters?

F: The tension of the curve on the bowl of a 'D'. If you can imagine a balloon, the air, it's pushing the balloon and you have this beautiful curve, a curve with conviction, that's what it's got to be like. The 'D' has got to be inflated, the slightest wobble or flat bit completely ruins it. 'Q' is a beautiful letter, and 'S' is a beautiful letter, any letter which is difficult to get right are beautiful letters. In fact, they're all beautiful really. The other thing that's important in lettering is that there are no straight lines. An 'I' will have entasis, where the letter goes in very slightly in the middle. If you did 2 parallel lines it would look as if it is going in at the ends, so you have to make things look straight by bending them. So every letter has entasis.

There are words which are spacing nightmares, we recently had to draw out the word STELLA on a curve and, when you have two 'L's and an 'A' together you get all the space at the top and it's the top line your eye reads. If the letters are slightly bent you open up space. It was a very difficult word, but there are other words like 'FIRE' and 'LIFE' which are beautiful to look at. And 'THE' is a nice one. These little points are handed down through the apprenticeship cycles, you can tell the self-taught people because they don't have these important things which people have taken 200 years to learn.

When you're training, you focus on the letters, you learn your letters, but as the years go by it's the spacing that becomes important, it's the rhythm, it's the typography, it's the layout that's important. When you walk into a graveyard the first thing you notice from a distance is a layout and if it's a nice one it'll make you go over there and look at it, so that's why it's more important if you have a spacing problem to alter the lettering to correct the spacing

A lot of the time we'll get asked by an architect, "Can you put a plaque in this wall, we've left you a space in the wall" and they might have left a space like this (arms wide), but the inscription is like this (arms high) and what am I going to do? So it's much more important to plan the inscription and then look at the dimension and then order the slate. I don't want to go on about monumental masons too much, but if you go to a monumental mason you'll have lots of slates and blanks which you'll choose and it's really difficult to make the wording fit with your pre-made dimension, so it's much better the other way round, to start with the inscription and then choose the stone to fit.

Q: Can you tell me more about the range of work you do?

F: We mainly do headstones but we also make a lot of opening plaques, seasonal, summer work especially for schools, September openings. We do a few coats of arms for private clients, public clients. We recently made a coat of arms for Charterhouse to celebrate their 400th anniversary. Heraldry is linked fairly closely with lettering because it's disciplined, it needs to be right, there are rules.

We do little things like memorial plaques, cremations tablets, that's probably about it. Somebody might just want some lettering for a fireplace or something like that.

People never come to me with the question "What can I write on this piece of stone" because it's very personal and needs to come from them. We did one recently for a dog kennel, really good inscription, something like "begging's not my business". It was on a huge piece of slate.

Q: Do you get days when things just don't go right?

F: Everybody has off days and lack of sleep, whatever it may be, but it's a job. You have to go to work every day and keep things running. But I always find, if I'm having a bad day and I get into carving it just improves my bad day. Don't forget, coming to work every morning, I'm very lucky I enjoy it, I walk into the workshop and I sigh (with pleasure). The workshop's an amazing place. I don't get too many bad days.

Q: Tell me how you get into a piece of work?

F: You have to begin a piece of work slowly, the first 2 or 3 letters are going to be a struggle, they're always slow but then you get into it soon enough as you relax. It's a bit like the drawing out if you're making a mess with the pencil, too much rubbing out, lines all over the place, it means you're either rushing it or you're not in the right frame of mind. So you always begin drawing out by sharpening the pencil, getting a really good point on it and then when you touch the point on the slate and the point snaps it means you're pressing too hard, you're still not relaxed. It's a good indication. But when you're drawing with a very, very good tip you're not going to make a mess. You're doing it slowly, carefully, with conviction and it's going to work much better. It's very easy to blame your tools or the stone or the pencil but really it comes down to you, I think. You should be able to work with bad tools.

If I've been carving a big inscription for a week or so and I come away, after about 2 days my hands, they kind of, it's not a swelling, but it's a need to do it again, to do more. I guess it's like any exercise, it's like running, it's like endorphins in the hands. I have to look after my hands, my hands are everything, if I didn't have my hands I don't know what I'd do, I obviously couldn't talk for a living!

Q: Do you have any favourite pieces?

F: There are pieces I've done which I've loved doing, absolutely loved doing and they are the pieces where I learn. We recently did (I say we because it was a collaboration of a sundial designer, a builder and me and my apprentice), we created this sundial based on an Egyptian obelisk. It had carved on it Egyptian hieroglyphs which I loved doing purely because I had to go to the British Museum, meet an Egyptologist and learn about hieroglyphs. It was amazing to discover how close they are to letters as we know them, the spacing, the detail. If you get a little bit of detail wrong, it's wrong, it doesn't say 'A' any more, so that was really interesting.

The client's approval is so important, and that's what we live on and when we're happy it's just fantastic, it's brilliant but obviously, with this work, some people just don't say anything, they're not thinking about whether it looks nice, for example with a headstone, they're thinking about the person they've lost, which is fair enough.

Do you know this is why I love doing headstones? In the beginning, I was a bit worried about it, but now I love doing it, I love getting to know people and you do get to know people. They walk into the workshop and the ice is instantly broken: you're talking about a person they loved the most, whom they've lost and you get to know people, you really do. Most of the time I keep up some sort of correspondence with the clients and I've made a lot of good friends as well over the years. Whereas working for architects and corporates, little plaques and things, most of the time these plaques aren't read, you know people walk past so it's up to us to make these plaques readable, to make people stop and read it because that's the point, when most of the time people just want it to blend in and not get noticed. You want the inscription to be read by people. What's the point of doing it otherwise? That's why it's up to me to encourage people to make the inscription interesting, whatever it is, an opening or headstone. But you know there are a lot of clients who just want it to blend in, they don't want to upset people or maybe there's a lot of people in the family who have got to approve the wording so you end up with very safe inscription and sometimes that's just what's wanted. They don't want to upset the vicar or anyone else which is fine, it's fine, but at least I've had my say, I've opened up that different door which they could walk through if they'd wanted to.

Q: Why did you go into stone carving rather than wood?

F: When I began, I was approached by a neighbour who said: "Oh you're artistic, you can make me a stone for my dog" and that's when I loved it. It was for a reason I began. It's a very different technique from wood-carving, you use different chisels. I love the long-lastingness of stone, know it's going to be there long after you've gone in hundreds of years time. It gives you the feeling of leaving your mark.

Q: Is there much call for heraldry?

F: Yes, we do a lot of coats of arms, crests, badges, at the top of a headstone, particularly at top of the headstone, things like Tudor roses. There's a set way to carve a Tudor rose, there's a discipline, it's got to be right. You need to know the rules to break them, you need to know what you can do. If you have a coat of arms that's given to you in a rectangle but it's going to go in a circle you need to know what you're allowed to bend because otherwise, it won't be correct. So when we do a design for a coat of arms, normally we send it to the college of arms in London to check. It's got to be right. There's nothing worse than seeing a coat of arms when they've put the letters on the scroll, the motto in v-cut, it's got to be raised lettering because it's embroidery, just little things like that I think are important. Details.

Q: Where do you get your inspiration?

I'm inspired by letter designers, type designers, stonemasons and architecture are a huge inspiration. With proportions and shapes, there are rules which you have to know and then you have to break the rules for example with the golden section. I can't make every headstone I make perfect dimensions with perfect proportions because it's a little bit boring after a while, but you have to know the rules.

I think if I didn't love this then I would just be rubbish at it, you have to love it.