Many artists work with sculptural materials: plaster, stone, clay, wax, and metal materials. See ceramics for information on silicate and clay based sculpting media.
Carving and Machining Wood
Plaster and Plaster Molds
Stone Carving and Cement Casting
Carving and Machining Wood
- Woodworking machinery and tools present physical hazards from accidents.
- Machinery accidents are often due to missing machine guards, faulty equipment or using the wrong type of machine for a particular operation.
- Vibrating tools, for example chain saws, can cause numbness of the fingers and permanent nerve damage.
- Sawdust and wood are fire hazards, especially on sanding and grinding equipment. In addition fine sawdust is an explosion hazard if enclosed.
- Wear goggles or a face shield when using machines that create dust or wood chips.
- Be sure that all woodworking machines are equipped with proper guards. Use the right machine for the right job and repair defective machines immediately.
- Do not wear loose clothes or jewelry and always tie back long hair.
- Keep hand tools sharpened, and cut away from your hands and body.
A variety of glues are used for laminating and joining wood. These include casein glue, epoxy, formaldehyde-resin, hide glues, white glue, and the cyanoacrylate “instant” glues.
- Epoxy glues are moderately toxic by skin and eye contact and by inhalation. Inhalation can cause asthma and other lung problems.
- Cyanoacrylate glues are moderately toxic by skin or eye contact and can glue the skin together or glue the skin and other materials together, sometimes requiring surgical separation. Eye contact can cause severe eye irritation.
- Formaldehyde glues are highly toxic by eye contact, inhalation, and moderately toxic by skin contact. Machining or heating releases formaldehyde, causing skin and respiratory irritation and allergies. It is a known human carcinogen.
- Contact adhesives are extremely flammable, highly toxic by chronic inhalation, and cause peripheral nerve damage.
- Water-based adhesives, casein glues, hide glues, white glue, and other water-based adhesives are slightly toxic by skin contact, inhalation or ingestion.
- Dry casein glues are highly toxic by inhalation or ingestion, and moderately toxic by skin contact.
- Avoid formaldehyde resin glues because of allergic reactions and the carcinogenicity of formaldehyde.
- Use water-based glues rather then solvent-type glues whenever possible.
- Wear gloves or barrier creams when using epoxy glues, solvent-based adhesives, or formaldehyde-resin glues.
Modeling clays can have similar materials to wet clay or may contain no clay at all. Polymer clays (e.g. FIMO, Sculpey) contain no clay and are made from polyvinyl.
- Plasticine clays usually contain ball clay or kaolin <see ceramics> in an oil base. Additives and preservatives are often present, so check manufacturer guidelines.
- Heating self-hardening clays above curing temperatures can cause materials to breakdown into harmful components and vapors.
- Use gloves or apply a barrier cream to hands if skin irritation results from using plasticine clay. Wash hands with soap and water after contact.
- Obtain the MSDS sheets from the manufacturer or supplier and follow the directions.
- Avoid heating self-hardening clays above the point of decomposition and vaporization.
Plaster and Plaster Molds
Plaster can be carved, modeled, and cast. All varieties contain calcined gypsum. Mold releases used with plaster include petroleum, soap, and wax bases.
- Plaster dust is slightly irritating to the eyes and respiratory system.
- Burnt lime is moderately corrosive by skin contact and highly toxic by inhalation.
- Chipping plaster molds can result in puncture wounds and eye injuries.
- Making casts of body parts is hazardous due to the heat released by setting plaster.
- Wear gloves or hand sealer and goggles when mixing plasters and burnt lime.
- Always carve or cut in a direction away from your face and keep hands behind the tool. If a sharp or heavy tool falls, don’t try to catch it.
- Wear safety goggles when chipping plaster.
- Never submerge a body part into setting plaster to make a mold, you will get stuck! Instead use a medical-type plaster bandage (available at pharmacies) with Vaseline.
Stone Carving and Cement Casting
Stone carvers use a wide variety of manual, electric, and pneumatic tools. Casting and polishing stone can involve cement, crushed stone and abrasive powders. Types of stone include: soapstone, sandstone, wonderstone, greenstone, limestone, alabaster, granite and marble.
- Sandstone, soapstone, and granite are highly toxic by inhalation because they contain large amounts of free silica. Limestone contains small amounts of free silica.
- Serpentine, soapstone, and greenstone may contain asbestos, which can cause asbestosis, lung cancer, mesothelioma, and stomach and intestinal cancers.
- During carving, flying chips and pieces of rock may cause eye injury. Grinding and sanding releases pieces of stone and dust which are hazardous to the eyes and lungs.
- Lifting heavy pieces of stone may cause back or crushing injuries.
- Power and pneumatic tools create more fine dust than hand tools.
- Vibration from equipment and hammering can cause numbness and circulation diseases.
- Cement is highly corrosive to the eyes and respiratory tract and moderately corrosive to the skin. Allergic dermatitis can also occur due to chromium contaminants in the cement. The silica in cement is also highly toxic by inhalation.
- Grinding and sanding can create both stone and grinding wheel dust.
- Do not use stones that contain asbestos. Alabaster is a good substitute.
- Wear approved safety goggles or a face shield when grinding, sanding, or polishing.
- When using carving tools, keep your hands behind the tools and cut away from your body. Wear heavy shoes and don’t try to catch falling tools.
- Use proper lifting techniques and equipment.
- Protect from vibration damage by having good handgrips and take frequent work breaks.
- Tie longhair back and take off jewelry or clothing that can get caught by machinery.
Waxes are used for modeling, carving and casting; these include beeswax, paraffin and micro-crystalline wax. Wax solvents include alcohol, acetone, benzine, and carbon tetrachloride. Wax additives include rosin, dyes, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, and solvents. Waxes are softened for modeling in a double boiler, with a soldering iron or a heat gun.
- Overheated wax can become a flash fire and release of hazardous fumes. Hot wax acts just like hot grease when water is added, causing spattering.
- Alcohol and acetone are slightly toxic solvents by skin contact and inhalation; benzine and turpentine are moderately toxic by skin contact, inhalation and ingestion.
- Carbon tetrachloride is extremely toxic causing cancer and severe liver damage.
- Chlorinated synthetic waxes are highly toxic and can cause skin and organ cancer.
- Do not overheat waxes. Use a double boiler and a temperature-controlled hot plate or crock-pot. NEVER use an open flame to melt waxes.
- Use the least hazardous solvent to dissolve your wax. Do not use carbon tetrachloride under any circumstances. Store solvents safely, no open flames near solvents and dispose of solvent-soaked rags in an approved waste container.
- Do not use chlorinated synthetic waxes.
Wood sculpture uses plant materials from many sources. Many of these woods are hazardous themselves or are treated with hazardous preservatives or pesticides.
- Saps present in many woods as well as molds growing on wood can cause skin allergies.
- Many hardwood dusts, especially exotic woods, cause allergic skin reactions and respiratory problems. Softwoods rarely cause skin and respiratory problems.
- Contact with wood dust can cause eye inflammation, hay fever, asthma, coughing, and other respiratory diseases. Canadian and Western Red Cedar are examples.
- Examples of highly toxic woods include giant sequoia, cork oak, some maple woods and redwood. These can cause hypersensitivity pneumonia and permanent lung scarring.
- Some hardwoods (e.g. hemlock) contain chemicals that are toxic, and can cause headaches, salivation, thirst, nausea, irregular heartbeat, etc.
- Hardwood dust causes nasal cancer in 7 of 10,000 workers who are heavily exposed.
- Whenever possible, use common hardwoods rather than rare tropical hardwoods.
- If you have a history of allergies you should avoid common sensitizing woods.
- If you are handling woods that can cause skin irritation or allergies, wear gloves.
- Wear an N95 dust mask when airborne wood dust is present.