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This is one of my favorite quotes:

"The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time." -Henry David Thoreau

The only thing I don't like is the preposition in! ;)

Paraphrasing the idiom results in ...

The gentle touches are the tools and finest workers in stone.

Is that word fine there? Can we have anything else that looks more natural? Maybe "...of stone..." or "...on stone..."

If the perplexity is due to its idiomatic or poetic use, let's change it.

The Chinese are the finest workers in parasols.

Don't you think "...on/for parasols. looks better?

Had it been some art/act (or for that sake any verb) itself, I wouldn't have any problem:

The Chinese are the best in paragliding.

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    In is the correct preposition. Check out Meaning #11 in Macmillan. – J.R. May 29 '14 at 10:37
  • @J.R. I don't think so. Is stone used as a working tool? – Maulik V May 29 '14 at 10:40
  • @jimsug sorry :( I don't buy that as well. – Maulik V May 29 '14 at 11:05
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    @jimsug It's sense 11. Stone is part of the medium used (more or less analogous to paint or ink in the link), not strictly describing the quality or method of work being done. Thoreau is using artistic imagery to exhort the beauty of natural rock formations by comparing them favorably against manmade sculptures. – Esoteric Screen Name May 29 '14 at 11:16
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    No, but tools are used on stone. Think harder. I reckon Thoreau used "in" because he's emphasizing the medium as an art form. He's saying what makes a sculpture great is the finishing touches, not the initial blocking, and he's personifying the tools as he does so. In his metaphor, the tools are the sculptors – they are (correctly) workers in stone. – J.R. May 29 '14 at 13:03
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A person can be a sculptor of bronze or stone, or they can "work in bronze or stone".

"The finest sculptors of stone are not [men with] copper and steel tools, but [nature with] the gentle touches of air and water..."

Using "of" instead affects the meaning by shifting the focus from the tools to the force that wields them (this distinction was mentioned in a previous response). Is Thoreau really saying that people are less skilled than nature? Or is his intent to say that rough tools are less elegant than natural ones?

You could think of the original as:

"The finest tools for working in stone are the gentle touches of air and water..."

... because their slow working over time is preferable to the quick & rough use of copper and steel.

"In" works perfectly well because artists traditionally work "in" a medium, although "with" is also acceptable.

He does his best work in oils, while she prefers to work in acrylic. That guy works with clay.

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In that quote, the word workers indicates a that it's the tools that are the workers, not people who use those tools. Obviously comparing wind and water erosion makes better stone structures than through artificial means.

Your paraphrase I would use the word of:

The gentle touches are the finest workers of stone.

But I wouldn't translate that to the first sentence. Like saying:

"The finest workers in the world are robots" not
"The finest workers of the world are robots"

The word stone indicates anything stone related as opposed to a single piece of stone.

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