Carving Time In Stone

Odd Jobs, People
on January 14, 2007

John Carmichael Jr. lifts his safety glasses to study a cut he’s made in a sandstone disc. Satisfied, he drops the glasses back in place and revs up his diamond-tipped drill to carve another part of the tan-hued stone he’s transforming into a functional work of art.

Time is a specialty for Carmichael, the nation’s only professional stone sundial maker. He began crafting the unique timepieces in 1992 after selling his plant nursery in Mexico City and moving to Tucson, Ariz. “A book on sundials from a friend got me into this, so it’s a classic case of a book changing your life,” says Carmichael, 48, who’s since created more than 100 sundials.

With no moving parts, a sundial’s function is to track time using the sun and a gnomon, an object that casts a shadow on the sundial face. Some of Carmichael’s creations also indicate the time of sunrise and sunset, as well as high noon.

“Most sundials you see don’t work because they’re in the wrong location,” says Carmichael, whose creations are accurate to within one minute. “They have to be designed for the latitude and longitude of where they are going to be placed. All that requires math, but once you figure out that data, you put it into an equation and can develop a drawing of the sundial face. By knowing the latitude and longitude of where the sundial will reside, I can make a working sundial for anyone in the world.”

Carmichael’s craftsmanship can fetch as much as $20,000 for a 15-foot-high outdoor sculpture sundial, while more manageable 26-inch stone pieces sell for $3,500 or more, depending on the amount of etching required. A 26-inch sundial can take a month to create, while a larger piece may take half a year, depending on its complexity.

The actual cutting of the sun-dial face is a painstaking process. First, Carmichael uses a bladed cutting tool to fashion a piece of flagstone, sandstone, limestone, marble or slate into the shape he wants. Then he uses a diamond-tipped, motorized tool mounted above his worktable to cut lines, markings and etchings on the sundial’s face. Finally, he attaches his own specially designed, thin-cable gnomon that casts a sharp, well-defined shadow on the timepiece.

While stone sundials are the lure that got him into making the ancient timepieces, he also crafts sundials made of stained glass, porcelain and bronze, and even paints them on walls.

What sets Carmichael sundials apart is that he engraves all the markings by hand. “His work is very artistic and well-done with sculptural elements,” says Fred Sawyer, president of the North American Sundial Society, based in Glastonbury, Conn. “He’s shown it’s still possible to make a living as a traditional sundial craftsman.”

Sundials have a long history dating back to the Egyptian, Greek and Roman eras. They remain popular in England, France, Germany, Italy and Austria, as well as the United States.

Charles Hogan, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran in Park City, Utah, purchased a 36-inch sundial from Carmichael in 2004 for a military memorial he was building. “John was the only person I could find who could do everything we wanted,” Hogan says. “He even engraved a large U.S. eagle on the face.”

One of Carmichael’s newest creations is an 8,000-pound, 4-inch thick granite sundial at Discovery Canyon School in Colorado Springs, Colo. The massive timepiece consists of two large slabs providing the time and the date.

“A sundial is the perfect combination of art and science,” Carmichael says. “It’s a piece of art that does something useful.”

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