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How to make a sundial: a step-by-step guide


Rodrigo G. Xiráldez - 9 May, 2024 - 0 comments

Our ancestors discovered how to measure time by using the sun as a reference. In this way, they invented sundials, key objects in the history of humanity that still prevail in gardens and estates. Stone sundials are highly sought-after products by customers, but their crafting process is complex and requires great skill. We will explain it step by step and present the best option for purchasing one of them.

A Brief History of Clocks: From Using the Sun to Mechanical Models

The sundial, humanity’s first major invention for measuring time, played a crucial role in structuring human routines. The earliest examples date back to ancient Babylon around 3,500 years ago, and it was the Egyptian civilization that engineered its first significant evolution. Thanks to their sundial models, the day was divided into ten parts, with marks around the base of the obelisks representing the temporal subdivisions of the day. However, the world’s oldest portable sundial, crafted around 1500 B.C., included two additional divisions corresponding to dawn and dusk, thus dividing the day into 12 parts.

The history of the sundial did not halt in Egypt, as both ancient Greece and the Arab civilization pick up the slack. In 280 B.C., the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos invented the hemispherical sundial, a notable variation from the Egyptian model and one that remained in use in the Arab world until the 10th century. During the medieval era, the Arabs extensively utilized their knowledge of trigonometry to design sundials with a gnomon aligned with the Earth’s axis.

The Roman Empire also contributed to the evolution of the sundial, excelling in the creation of two types: garden sundials, still commonly requested today to adorn large gardens, and portable sundials. An example of the latter can be found at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, a piece that showcases the Romans’ impressive ability to adapt technology to different latitudes and times of the year.

Sundials were commonly used until the 19th century, despite the emergence of the first mechanical clocks in the 14th century. However, the invention of the electric telegraph by Samuel Morse in 1832 marked the beginning of the end for sundials, as it allowed for the transmission of time signals on a national and even global scale, facilitating the synchronization of mechanical clocks. Nevertheless, sundials are still in use in some rural areas of Egypt.

How does a sundial work

A sundial is an ancient instrument that uses the position of the Sun’s shadow cast by a gnomon (a thin rod or stick) to indicate the time of day. This method is based on the apparent movement of the Sun across the sky due to the Earth’s rotation. The shadow of the gnomon falls on a flat, marked surface known as the dial, where different hour lines indicate the hours of the day. As the day progresses, the position of the shadow moves, providing a visual representation of the time​ (EAAE Astronomy)​​ (Yale Scientific Magazine)​​ (Border Sundials)​.

The accuracy of a sundial hinges on its alignment and geographical setting. The gnomon must be aligned with the Earth’s rotational axis, pointing true north in the northern hemisphere, and its angle should equal the latitude of its location. This precise orientation allows the sundial to track solar time accurately throughout the year. However, since the Earth’s orbit is elliptical and its axis is tilted, sundials often need adjustments known as the equation of time to align solar time with mean time (the time standard used by modern clocks)​ (EAAE Astronomy)​​ (Border Sundials)​.

Despite their historical and educational value, sundials are rarely used for practical timekeeping today, primarily because they do not adjust for standard time conventions like time zones or daylight saving time. They are often valued more for their aesthetic and historical significance, providing a tactile connection to the ways ancient civilizations understood and measured the passage of time​ (Macmillan Hunter Sundials)​​ (Border Sundials)​.

How to make a sundial

The meticulous process of creating a stone sundial today preserves ancient techniques and tools. Across five key phases, sculptors turn a simple stone into a functional art piece that measures time using only the sun:

  • Location selection: The initial phase focuses on choosing a suitable location where the sundial will receive direct sunlight and be oriented southward. A preliminary sketch is made to define the proportions of the sundial.
  • Paper sketching: Master stonemasons must also be adept in drawing, as sketching the sundial on paper is a crucial step. This helps in defining the artistic proportions before the stone carving begins.
  • Clay modeling or scale templates: Depending on the sundial’s complexity, craftsmen might model a prototype in clay or create scale templates for stone crafting.
  • Stone carving: This is the most complex part of the process, where the stonemason carves the stone, either by direct carving from the sketch and templates or by using a point transfer method to replicate a previously molded model.
  • Installation: The final phase involves anchoring the sundial at its location, which must allow for unobstructed sunlight and be oriented toward the south.

Sundials for the garden: best places to buy them

Reloj de sol de piedra.
Sundial created by Rodrigo García Xiráldez (pedradesign.es/en/)

Sundials offer both aesthetic and functional benefits that make them ideal additions to gardens. They not only act as beautiful focal points but also bring a historical and artistic element to outdoor spaces. From ancient times, sundials have been used to track time using the sun’s position, and this historical significance adds unique charm to modern gardens. They can be fashioned from various materials like stone, brass, or metal, and often feature intricate designs that can range from classical to contemporary styles​.

Moreover, sundials serve a practical purpose by marking the time based on the sun’s shadow. This can be particularly enchanting in a garden setting, where the natural light and landscape create a perfect backdrop for observing the passage of time in a serene environment.

In the heart of Galicia, the age-old tradition of stone carving is brought to life through the meticulous and skilled work of Rodrigo García Xiráldez, a renowned master stonemason and sculptor who has dedicated more than a decade of his life to creating sundials in stone.

Rodrigo holds certifications from Artesania de Galicia and the National Network of Masters of Traditional Construction of Spain, marks that validate his skill and experience in the field. Therefore, he is the most reliable choice when purchasing a sundial of this kind. His workshop, PEDRA Stone Design Projects, specializes in the sale of stone sundials and is specialized in deliveries to United Kingdom.

Acquiring one of these pieces is a process that goes beyond a simple commercial transaction. Each clock is carved and designed by hand, ensuring that each piece is unique. Once the sculpture is completed, it is carefully shipped to the home or location required by the client, in an effort to guarantee complete customer satisfaction.

You can contact him by phone, WhatsApp, or email at this link. The initial consultation and project budgeting are free.

Rodrigo G. Xiráldez

¡Hola! Me llamo Rodrigo y soy un maestro cantero especializado en la escultura en piedra. Desde 2015, elaboro desde cero esculturas exclusivas por encargo en mi taller PEDRA Stone Design Projects. A día de hoy, cientos de clientes españoles e internacionales (realizo envíos al extranjero) ya han confiado en mis servicios para crear sus esculturas personalizadas (valoración de 5 estrellas en Google). ¿Quieres una escultura en piedra? No dudes en contactarme. Cruceiros, esculturas de jardín, bustos, escudos heráldicos, relojes de sol, estatuas religiosas, mesas, bancos, chimeneas… ¡Descubre en este enlace todo lo que puedo hacer por ti! Ver más artículos

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Rodrigo G. Xiráldez

¡Hola! Me llamo Rodrigo y soy un maestro cantero especializado en la escultura en piedra. Desde 2015, elaboro desde cero esculturas exclusivas por encargo en mi taller PEDRA Stone Design Projects. A día de hoy, cientos de clientes españoles e internacionales (realizo envíos al extranjero) ya han confiado en mis servicios para crear sus esculturas personalizadas (valoración de 5 estrellas en Google). ¿Quieres una escultura en piedra? No dudes en contactarme. Cruceiros, esculturas de jardín, bustos, escudos heráldicos, relojes de sol, estatuas religiosas, mesas, bancos, chimeneas… ¡Descubre en este enlace todo lo que puedo hacer por ti! Ver más artículos