Stone Breaker

By , April 19, 2011

As Michelle leads the family effort to prepare the garden for the coming season, we’ve gotten serious about locating some of the raised beds. The garden plan has always had to accommodate the many large rocks strewn around the plot, but not this year. I’ve been called in to break up the rocks.

In the past we’ve levered rocks around to make them sit lower in the soil or to remove them from the garden completely. Each year we add a few grow boxes, and dig out a few more rocks. Sometimes, when a rock is sitting proud of an otherwise good gardening spot, I can break the rock up into fill.

Tools for stone cutting

The tools of the stone breaker’s trade, and some results (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

I use a hand sledge, a long handled sledge hammer, and a rock chisel. I look for flaws and fissures in the rock to exploit. If I find none, I’ll tap across the line I intend to cut, working back and forth as needed. Either way, I work up and down along the intended split line, rapping the chisel with the hand sledge repeatedly. I always wear safety goggles, and I’m careful to wear sturdy clothes. Stone flakes and shards can ricochet around like shrapnel. I take great care to land accurate, solid blows on the chisel head. Missing would be painful, glancing blows might be dangerous.

It takes patience and a good deal of endurance. I make sure I let the weight of the falling hammer do the majority of the work so I don’t create painful shock waves through the bones of my hand and arm. Amazingly, this can produce dramatic results.

The satisfying part comes from listening to the sound of the stone as I hit. The quality of the impact report changes as a split begins to open up. I can tell I’m making progress more by listening than by watching. When I get a certain high pitched vibration, I know that my blows are penetrating into the rock. When I work the chisel down into a fissure with the hand sledge to the point that it sticks in the rock, I then switch to the large sledge hammer. I aim extra carefully to avoid glancing off the chisel.

Aly’s taken an interest in this as well, so I don’t have to do all the heavy work. Funny, though—it’s as addictive as eating potatoes or breaking ice. Once you get going, it’s hard to stop.

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