what is a Pointing Machine for stone carving and how to use for carving

There are several techniques used for sculptural reproduction.  In this article, I will provide a brief overview of several of them, later going into more detail into the one most used for stone carving or wood carving:  poinT machine

Since the beginning of sculptural art, artists have had to solve the question of the precision of proportions in one of the most basic aspects of sculpture: volume.

  In drawing, a kind of grid is used that can be enlarged according to the scale you want to use, to ensure that the sizes and proportions reliably reflect those of the model.

 In sculptural art however, a system of points has been adopted that functions as references in the process of capturing the proportions of the model in its copy. There have been several instruments or tools with which the artist has used to perfect this method.  

Starting with plumb lines, the method then evolved to the use of a compass or squares, and later still, into the use of “cages”. However, the method that is the easiest to use and most practical, is the pointing machine.

Pointing  Machine To Carve In Stone

Sculptural Reproduction Methods

• The tub of water 

This was one of the first methods of sculptural reproduction. It consisted of immersing the piece in a container with water and, little by little, draining the liquid in order to see the most salient parts of the piece and pass them on to the surface being worked on.

• Grids 

The Egyptians drew on the stones to create a grid in the style used in two-dimensional art, in which the points of a model were located.  This grid was drawn on all faces of the block in order to carve all the angles of the original model.

• The plumb line

Employed by the sculptors of Ancient Greece, this indirect method of working with the sculptural pieces consisted of taking reference points with the help of a plumb line. This allowed them to be oriented according to the vertical, the horizontal, and some graduations in between that helped to locate specific areas in the piece to be worked.

• Definitor

This method is named after its creator, Leon Battista Alberti, a painter, sculptor, and thinker of Renaissance Italy. This system used a circle combined with the plumb method, with lines located at the top of both the figure to be reproduced and the original.  This thus allowed the artist to determine some points which were used as a reference for the sculptural carving.

• Three Calipers 

In this method, three measures are used in a coordinated way in order to establish distances and fix points to make reproductions of pieces.

• Cage 

This system is the legacy of Leonardo Da Vinci and it works with the idea of the reticle. In the three-dimensional it allows the necessary variations to be made, not only in the reproductions, but also in the case of sculptural enlargements or reductions.


This method, also used in two-dimensional works such as the drawing of architectural plans, has two parallel arms that move at the same time. One arm is on the original and the other is on the copy. This allows the artist to locate reference points according to volume and depth of the model which can then be passed onto the copy.

 point Machine sculpture

This is the method that we will consider in this article. This machine began to be used in the 19th century and the French sculptor and metalist Nicolas-Marie Gatteaux and the British sculptor John Bacon are considered to be its creators.  Later, it was Antonio Canova, the painter and sculptor of the Italian Neoclassical era, who perfected it.  With this new method, a simpler and more faithful copy of the original is achieved via a system of points that the artist records from the original piece and then transfers to the copy.

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The Point machine consists of a kind of crosspiece or frame with three points that account for the height, width, and depth of the piece to be copied.  An arm is mounted on the frame that has two joints, each one with a system of wing screws that allow the rods to be adjusted according to the measurements required. 

This allows the artist to reach any point desired and use it as a reference for STONE CARVING or Wood carving work.  These rods determine the depth at which the point is located.  

The sharp point at the end of the rod is in charge of taking the measurement and fixing the exact place of the point that the sculptor has to mark.

This method ensures that the more points are marked, the greater the accuracy of the copy of the model will be, as an exact replica can be configured.

The  machine for Sculpture combines many of the operational and methodical principles of the three bars and pantograph evident in earlier systems, with the advantage that by having greater control and more freedom over the points that are chosen, there is a greater possibility of adding the particularities and features desired by the artist who creates the work. Each artist will set as many points as necessary for him. 

At this time, it is worth mentioning that in some of Rodin’s sculptural pieces, it is known that he left to his apprentices the responsibility of grinding off the excess material from the marble block. Some of his works retain traces of the machine on its surface, as well as marks from the bit of a compass.  This shows us that sculptors use various tools and resources; it is precisely a sculptor’s creative capacity and knowledge of tools and techniques that ensures mastery in artistic and sculptural works.

It is also worth mentioning, that the sculpture pointing machine – inspired by the human anatomy of the arm – becomes like a real third arm for the sculptor that allows him to achieve great works without assistance. It allows him to create and keep a record of the proportions that could not be achieved by memory alone. 

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A Little About How to Make a Model

The pieces that the sculptor uses as models for his stone or wood carvings can be made of different materials, such as plaster, clay, Styrofoam, or wood. 

Models can even be made from canvases combined with a solution of wood and water colbon. This achieves very lifelike effects, particularly of the draping and falling of fabrics.  This may be a topic of a later article, so keep an eye on this website for more information about the properties and uses of each of these materials.

Many of the great sculptural artists throughout history have taken advantage of these different methods of reproduction in order to create a serial system of production with the help of their apprentices. This was the case for the great CANOVA himself, who during the height of his productivity and prestige as a sculptor, had a group of apprentices who used the pointing tool to extract the excess marble from his sculptures.

This then left Canova to complete the final phase of the carving process, the treatment of the surface. This is what created Canova’s signature style, as he was able to polish the marble to achieve a unique silky surface which remains the most appreciated element of his work today. This was also true for Rodin, who used a similar serial system due to his dislike of the hardness of certain materials, instead preferring the pliability of clay to create his sculptures.

Stone Carving Using  a Pointing  Machine

Ugulino  and his sons Metropolitan Museum of Art

How to Take Measurements with the Italian Pointing Machine

After ensuring that we have a model to copy and the material on which we are going to make the reproduction, the most important thing is to fix the three base points (height, width, and depth) very well. 

These points are determined by the support structure of the machine which is made up of two bars, one horizontal and one vertical.  It should be noted that these three points must be fixed as they become the main references to guarantee the accuracy of the copy of the model. It is very important to ensure that the pointing machine to take points is well secured on both the model and the copy, in order to certify that the measurements taken are accurate.

After this, and with the help of squares and rulers, these exact points are found in the stone or wood to be carved. 

Once enough points have been marked according to the needs of the sculptor, a starting point can then be determined (for example, the nose).  Note how the selection of this point can be largely determined by the principle stipulated in the first known method of sculptural enlargement and reproduction, “The tub of water”.  During the process of sculpting, we must adjust our way of conceiving volume – we must cultivate the skill of the subtraction of matter. This means that we must be able to discern in the model the points farthest from the center of the model’s matter, as these points will be more volumetrically visible than other areas of the sculpture. 

To explain a little about how the points are transferred, it is useful to think of a time when you have traced a drawing. During that process, you would have looked for a special point, and like in the aforementioned principle, you likely would have selected an outstanding section of the figure to be the starting point from which to begin your copy. During the process, it would have been important not to move the tracing paper so as not to reduce the accuracy of the copy. In the same way, this happens with the machine to create points.  We must fix the frame to the piece very well so that we do not lose the reference frame of our model.  Then, and with the help of the screws that each of the sections of “our third arm” has, we will fix the exact measurement; that is, our three-dimensional trace.  These screws are normally thumbscrews, as they enable better securing of the moving parts.

How to Start Transferring the Model to the Block of Stone or Wood

Once this is done, the machine must be carefully moved to remove the points from the sculpting block. This can be achieved with the help of specific tools, determined according to the material you are working with. For example, in the case of stone carving, carbide chisels are available, or you could also use metal chisels, generally made from steel or alloy metals.  

As the extraction of the excess material is carried out, special care must be taken to mark the reference point, as it will serve as a guide to ensure the other reference points are not lost as you continue to extract excess material. Some sculptors choose to make three lines that converge at a point, as this keeps some guidance in the lines drawn, allowing them to quickly recover the reference points that may have been lost when removing material.

 The work must be done very carefully; the amount of material extracted must be continually checked against the model and you must ensure to mark with a pencil the point in which you are working. It is important to remember that the order of work will be done in accordance with the more protruding volumes of the piece, for example the nose, hair, crown, headdress, wings, or limbs. Special care should also be taken in the depressions of the carving piece. 

Little by little, as the essential features of the model emerge from the piece, the number of points on the surface increases.  The sculptor at this stage will use the chisels, pointing tool, and his pencil, as he passes the machine over the sculpture to draw points from one piece to another. Great care must be taken to ensure the machine is fixed very well to the piece.

Another important point to consider, is that a distance of about two or three centimeters must be left as a margin, to allow for the finishing and final polishing phase.

After the sculpture has already been roughed out and all the excess material has been removed, it is time for the detail work. This is the phase in which the artist can unleash all his mastery and skill of sculptural carving and create the stylistic features that will create a distinct final piece.

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The Advantages of the Sculpture Pointing Machine

From this information about how it functions, it can clearly be said that the pantograph machine is an ally of stone or wood sculptors. This is because it facilitates the work of model reproduction, offering a high level of performance when several reproductions are involved, through its ability to solve the common anatomical problems of proportion and space. 

Some people believe that the use of the machine is a kind of “deception” in the reproduction of an original model. However, my more than twenty years of sculptural experience has given me the firm conviction that the evolutions in the methods of sculptural reproduction have been brought about to enrich an artist’s work and have contributed to the consolidation of an artist’s personal style.

I consider that this machine enables the carver to achieve better carvings, by reducing the possibility of errors and reducing the time and effort to achieve the expected end results. In addition, as a tool, it does not affect the talent, skill, or style of whoever creates the work. Simply put, it is a tool that allows you to optimize and make the most of all your talent and expertise.

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Final Notes

The pointing device, also known as a pointometer, is one of the most used tools by sculptors around the world.  The method by which it works is based on a mixture of previous reproduction methods, in which the most protruding points of the model (the proportions and the depths) are determined, in order to transfer them to a wood or stone block. 

With the contributing ingenuity of Italian artists and sculptors, this tool became popularised, and since the 19th century, has appeared in the workshops of many sculptural and architectural carvers.  Despite having both detractors and defenders, the pointing device serves as a good ally for accurately reproducing pieces or models, respecting the personal expression and finish work of each sculptural artist.

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About the Author Ruben

Colombian Artist
I am a working artist since 1987 in the mediums of Stone Sculpture, Wood Sculptures and Oils painting...

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