Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Local Business is Born - Part 1

A Local Business is Born ” is a 20-year story of what I did to survive in the stone fabrication business before the kitchen counter revolution of the 1990s.

In 1968, the year I arrived in Portland, local stone fabrication was almost nonexistent. The industry was made up of less then six union marble setters, who installed precut stone slabs on buildings and mausoleums. These pre-sized stone panels came from familiar fabrication locations, such as Vermont Marble Co., Georgia Granite Co., Bybee Stone Co., Cold Spring Granite Co., Fletcher Granite Co., etc. I had already worked and trained at the worlds largest stone fabrication company, Cold Spring Granite, for 7 years. I was surprised to be in a place were there was little knowledge of stone or stone fabrication. Information about these stone companies was gotten from Sweets Catalog, all design offices had them. These companies provided technical information on their products for designers as needed.

At this point I know many people would say there were a large number of rubble stone setters or stone masons and tile setters, quite different trades. Both worthy trades, but not cut stone people. The rubble stone workers trade required mainly strength and endurance. I have always felt that glass fabricators and installers were a lot closer to stone fabricators and installers than tile setters. Glass having low tensile strength, high compression strength and a need for accuracy in sizing. I always smile to myself when people tell me about that stone guy, who built the retaining wall in their back yard, could hit the stone with his hammer and it would break it right were he hit it, what a stone man he was. No shit. President John Adams took great delight in stacking stones in his retirement. Stone fences built by Chinese labor dot the California foothills. An honorable trade, but not to be confused with dimension stone fabricators or installers. It has been a long time since the dimension stone cutters had been replaced by stone fabrication facilities as mentioned above. Regional areas were left with stone stackers for the most part. See my blog “THE LOST TRADE OF STONE CUTTING”. If you are interested in various roles in the stone fabrication industry see my blog “WHY BLOG”.

Before the kitchen counter revolution there was little work for the local stone fabricator. That is a person I define who cuts and finishes dimension stone to a custom fit, from slabs or tiles. In Portland when I arrived there was one stone shop employing five people and less then six stone setters as stated above. Today I would guess there may be between three and five hundred people employed in the stone business in Portland one way or the other.

At Blazing Granite in 1968, Art Lear ran a primitive diamond saw, powered forward and back, and up and down only. Oddly the saws forward and back motion was a water-driven hydraulic system. There was a quite modern Tysaman saw there as well, never used, because Art said it wouldn’t cut. I fixed it many years later when I learned about concentric bearings. He slid the stone by hand on a steel saw bed to line up each cut to the solitary blade path. He got to a point where he could slide the stone to fractions of an inch to were he wanted them. The first saw I had was even more primitive when I started Conrad Stone twenty years later. Art always had a least ten bottles of good whiskey given to him at holiday season in his four-by-four office with phone. He went to the Elks Club every night before going home. A good hearted jolly Polack he was.

Slab refinishing was done by Howard Coleman, a granite quarryman from Medica Lake, Washington, on a part time basis. He also drove truck and other jobs there. See “HOWARD THE ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY POUND MUSCLE MAN”. Again, surfacing marble slabs was done with carborundum bricks, of different degrees from 40 grit to 400 grit, then buffed with a buffing pad made right there of cut-up rope segments, surrounded with a metal strap. Buffing was done with tin or aluminum oxide with a dose of oxalic acid. Granite polishing could not be done with the tools we had then. Later a full time surface polisher was added, a cigar-smoking fine fellow fleeing from Kansas City where he was paid on the basis of square feet of stone he polished every day. He made a fine oyster stew and became a friend. I wonder if Leroy is still alive.

I learned from a Seattle marble man, a Greek fellow I believe, he never even had a polish machine, finish work was not very good in the good old days as people accepted what they got, as Art said after each job, “LUCKY TO GET IT.”

Finishing was done by Cal Michelson. This was mainly polishing flat edges on marble, and filling travertine with colored cement. The edges, be it a bath vanity, fireplace hearth, legs or header, was accomplished by mounting the stone on edge and belt sanding it from 80 grit to 400 grit with sanding belts, then dipping a rolled-up burlap cloth in a mixture of oxalic acid and sulphur dampening the hard rag by dipping in water, and rubbing edge until it took a shine. Granite edges were finished with air powered carborundum wheels 24 grit, 220 grit and 400 grit, and buffed with hard pad and tin oxide, the same way I finished granite memorials in afternoons while I attended college, years later.

I measured and delivered the fabricated stone to the job site, all jobs installed by a union marble setter and his helper. Rarely were they happy with the sizing or the job. On average the union marble setter, a branch of the brick layers union, was paid about three times what a stone fabricator received. Consequently management was always concerned that he wasted no time. If they complained that something about the sizing or fabrication cost them to work longer, the pressure was turned up on me. Average cost of a 15-square-foot fire place was $450. $450 in 1968 would be equal to about $1800 now. Today that same fireplace would cost $1500.

So you see, the whole stone fabrication industry in Portland consisted of Art, Howard (part time]), Cal, myself, and a marble setter and his helper in 1968, and it never changed much other then different names till around 1990. I must add there was one other fellow, Gordon Nelson, who to the best of my knowledge worked by himself. They say he installed by day, fabricated by night. He would go to LA, buy an old truck, load it with marble in one of the 3 stone yards there, and drive back to Portland. Such a business. Our inventory came to Portland by ship with crated slabs, handled by expensive stevedores.

I was sent to Port of Portland about twice a year and had to hire 3 stevedores, one to drive fork lift, one to sling cables, and one to hold clipboard and keep time. I drove the old flatbed discussed in “HOWARD THE ONE HUNDRED THIRTY POUND MUSCLEMAN”, and tied the tall thin crates down with chains and made my way back to Beaverton worrying all the way should they fall. Mr. Macy and the shop wondered why it took so long, knowing the stevedores worked by the hour. The normal inventory we kept was 6 slabs of Italian Cremo, 6 Negro Marquina, 6 Norwegian Rose, 6 Carrara, 6 Travertine, maybe 6 Rose Aurora. I may have left a few out, but that’s pretty much the choices Portland Marble buyers had to choose from. I don’t remember one customer who didn’t have a designer helping her choose a stone. What a business it was. As my friend Bob Scull says, “WE DID EVERY JOB TWICE AND STILL MADE MONEY.” If anyone needed any custom stone work done in Portland it was done by us 4 or 5 guys working for not much more then minimum wage. As I have often said when you asked for a raise, the usual answer was, “Try Seattle, they might be hiring.” But for the most part Mr. Macy, though not a Medici, a good man to work for. I still think highly of him, now in his 90s, and still playing golf.

The reader might wonder how could such a business exist with so little demand. It couldn’t. Local stone fabrication was a very minor part of the business. Historically the business always did a good memorial business, lettering prefabricated tombstones, which I worked in later when I went to college. But the big business was installing prefabricated mausoleums throughout the northwest and as stated, installing prefabricated stone slabs on buildings; all this work done only by union marble setters who knew little about fabrication, they just installed. An apprenticeship I took up years later after college.

I think if you made a graph of LOCAL STONE FABRICATION it would pretty much bump along the bottom with a little improvement after 1975, but for the most part a tiny industry employing fewer than 10 people in Oregon up until 1990. My next blog will discuss how I survived as a stone fabricator from 1975 till 1990 when the local stone fabrication industry exploded because of kitchen counters.

                                       THE 1968 STONE PRODUCT LINE STONE FLOORS

Stone floors and slate floors were installed in what we called dry pac. Dry pac was a 3-1 sand cement mixture, chopped by hand hoe, adding just enough water so that you could make a ball of it in your hand, but still a fluffy texture, which allowed the stone to be pounded into correct location. On wood floors tar paper and wire mesh were first put down, pure cement was broadcast and drywall shoved down, on average about one inch thickness. The stone was then fitted to correct location, lifted back out, back painted with water and pure cement, more pure cement was broadcast to make sticky surface the dry pac was then sprinkled with water to so cement would set hard and the stone was replaced to it in correct position.

This may sound quite simple to many, however remember dimension stone was expected to be installed with tight joints; the stone did not have rounded edges to conceal differences in height, the object was to have one flat plane on the surface no matter what was happening on the sub floor. The difference between setting tile with rounded edges and joints which allow you to just fallow the sub floor, and setting a flat stone floor should now be apparent to the reader. Not many marble setters mastered the skill to install a great floor. See my blog “Some Bits of Advice Given Me By Stone People”.


I have shown how walls and floors were installed but stone also was sometimes put on the celing. This was a bit more tricky. Wire was twisted with drill, to turn it into a rod. Two holes were drilled about three inches apart as shown on drawing. Copper wire was formed as shown with pliers. After placing wire in holes it was twisted to make tight. A hole was put in sheetrock and 20 minute casting plaster was used to secure stone to ceiling . Good idea to have holes near joists for strength.



Friday, April 22, 2011

A Local Business is Born - Part 2


A Local Business is Born"  is a 20-year story of what I did to survive in the stone fabrication business before the kitchen counter revolution of the 1990s.

Continuing from Stone Industry in Portland in 1968, things changed slowly. After completing Portland State University once again I found myself out of work with family to support. I was accepted into a apprenticeship Marble Masons program with Blazing Granite, attending brick layers school on Saturdays, and working as a marble setter when there was work. Due to my long hair I was always the last one hired and first one laid off, on these commercial buildings, I was quite small to be lifting massive stones on hanging scaffolding, but did all right when my feet were on the ground. Not everyone is suited to this work but I made the most of the opportunity nevertheless. 

My friend Peter Rigutto whom I blog about advised me to try my own marble business, he thought I had the stuff it would take to make it since I was getting so little work as a marble setter it made sense to me. I loaded remnants of marble in a old Chevy van I owned. Art, whom I blogged about, let me clean out his piles of stone remnants at Blazing's yard. My wife and I loaded them onto our front yard, until I found a old quonset hut, in SE Portland I could rent really cheap. My neighbor and friend worked for George Halverson, a large contractor developer and dam builder, Mister Portland so to speak. George talked to him about me, and he gave me two heavy-duty grinders, which I still have, and a supply of leftover two-by-sixes tongue and groove which George and I used to put a partial floor in the quonset hut. We brought in gravel to finish of the floor. I built some work tables, and acquired a used skill saw and carborundum saw blades found through a local source of Pacific grinding wheels for my grinders. I then shifted the stack of stone remnants to the shed. No orders, no prospects of work – A BUSINESS WAS BORN.

Fortunately for me, Blazing, as it was developing its commercial imported stone business, had plenty of problems that had to be solved by a stone man with my expertise, so I could make some wages by working for them off and on. The first large imported job they did in Portland was a nightmare. They hired a masonry company to install the Georgia Pacific building, all good old boys but none of them had ever seen cut stone before. They somehow slammed the granite up using me to recut all the misshaped pieces on the job site and and add to stone were needed as they installed the stone. I secured a portable air compressor to level the pavers these brick lays installed with my Troy and Holden tool. I had to beat the exterior pavers flat enough to walk on, and grind the interior lobby down so people wouldn’t trip as they entered the elevators. I remember one night, as I worked inside the elevator lobby, a night watchman came up behind me with his club up to hit me. He apparently did not get the message, and me with my long hair in those days looked like a problem to him. Years later a now-deceased friend of mine replaced all the walls around the plaza of the building because the granite pavers expanded with temperature and the parapet walls were snapped off. Ron reset the walls on top of the floor, sadly he fell under his mower later in the summer, we who knew him missed him. 

These sort of problems provided me with work opportunities in those lean years. One summer was spent on staging, solving a problem on a large Carrara commercial building. There seemed to be a chemical reaction set up between the metal Unistrut, the caulking, and the stone, leaving an oil like stain three or so inches above and below each joint line, causing huge payment dispute. Stone experts were brought in to solve the problem; no answers came forward. I was asked to look at the problem. I had little experience with what appears to be oil stains. They always seemed to get worse and travel around when messed with, so I came up with a plan: cut away what appears to be the problem, the caulking, torch the stone to set, or fry, the stain like frying grease in a fry pan, turn it brown but set, and bleach it white by placing casting plaster and bleach poultice on this vertical surface. I worked on it all summer with Big John, now a successful stock broker, then a good friend who helped me roof my house on Saturdays and Sundays. I don't recommend this process to anyone, but the stone company was paid, and I often look up even today as I drive by this building and see those slightly lighter three inch bands above and below each joint line and smile about the summer Big John and I, two strange looking hippies had.

Carrie Amiton, a friend from night classes in urban studies at Portland State University, joined me about this time. She brought a sense of art and design and encouragement to the fledgling stone shed operation. She developed posters and made a brochure for next to nothing and relief-carved stone planters, part of the sales effort. I developed a line of custom inlaid hearths and fireplace surrounds all precast on a sandwich panel system I developed, all out scrape remnants I had gathered. I remember selling some, one to a famous car dealer in Portland, his wife – bless her soul -- asked me if I could make the hearth inlaid pieces smoother (I hammer textured them to contrast the surrounding dark walnut travertine) when I poured the hearth out. Such was the understanding of stone craftsmanship in those days.

Carrie enticed a television show to do a ten-minute show on our operation I wonder what ever became of it, or the wonderful women that put it on the air. The show was called EVENING I remember. My family must have been the only ones to view it, for I never had anyone comment or was ever asked about it. During this period I got a travertine tile bath job. I fabricated a red granite bathtub and red granite trim around a travertine shower and a custom fireplace job for a jeweler, who had stores in Eugene and Portland. It was a big job for me -- five thousand dollars with maybe $2500 in materials. He must have been happy with the job for he came out to the stone shed and gave a check for the project then left town with the store's inventory I believe. A lucky break for me.

Stone hearth, built strong

Stone hearth, lightweight

Carrie's planters

Carrie came up with a promotion plan I liked. We put a carpet in the back of my van and set up a display of the product line. Two fireplace mantles and hearths, a custom stone table and some planters I believe. We drove around to architects' and designers' offices and knocked on their doors and asked them to take a look. Mostly I remember they were dumbfounded and had no comment that I can remember. This may have been due to the fact that all my fireplaces were three dimensional in order for me to build a unit that was self supporting. We entered Portland first Saturday craft market with a tent full of stone tables, planters, relief carvings, and a fireplace surround, It rained like hell, I got a bad cold I remember and was offered a goat for a stone table. So much for that.

Old Town stone shop

About this time a family friend, a Portland police officer, told me about a small space on his beat in Portland then called Old Town were trendy folk could mingle with down and out drunks and other outsiders on weekends and shopping excursions. Latter I got to a point were I used to say lets share the wealth and bus the poor folk out to the malls on weekends. What was I thinking. I set out painting the 30 x 50 store all white ,It had 20 foot ceiling, I put in antique glass fixtures I salvaged from Port lands historic Custom House,built all the display cabinets, and worktable. Put in new carpet, bought a fancy fireproof awning out front had a women hand paint signage on the windows. I then set up stone tile displays, which were just becoming available, fire place displays, and a new idea I developed artistic stove hearth and back wall displays all custom crafted and pre-built. Wood burning stoves were were popular at this time. I had Rodgers Fireplace Shop set up popular models and I displayed my work under and behind. I of course built displays for his shop as well, even put one in popular night spot next door. Mostly they were built out of black slate and my marble rem mint stash. I asked my wife to mind the store while I worked in the stone shed. To make the story short, my wife left me to work at a dress shop around the corner and start her new life, the street people busted the windows, with my hand-painted signage, and held a torch to my awning and melted large holes in it, all in the next year and one half. Then the sky-glass broke in a Portland rainstorm and flooded the building. I dug a hole in my back yard about 20 feet in diameter cleaned out the store and buried all my stone mantles and hearths and planters along with my tools including some pretty good Troy and Holden air hammers and planted flowers in a large circular flower bed probably two feet high. Gathered my two children and asked my friend Roger for a job selling wood burning stoves and fire doors and heat extractors, so to be close to my children.

Charlie & Sharie in front of a pre-built wood stove hearth

My wood stove
During this period, maybe two years, Blazing Granite stumbled along as always, with three people handling all of Portland’s stone fabrication needs. The owner, Mr. Macy, asked me somewhere around 1977 if I would come in and give local stone fabrication one last chance, since his son wanted to abandon it all to gather in favor of a stone erection only company. They were getting pretty big at this unique high risk industry. At the time I was breaking up crates to keep my house warm in a wood stove and living on beans with two children. Of course I was happy to give my full effort. I reorganized the shop personnel, much to there anger, even threats of bodily harm, and set out to make the most of Portland’s fabrication stone business. 

There was little work to be had even with a slim crew. Stone work just was not popular. Finally Mr. Macy asked me to try to find buyers for the business. I started by paring down the inventory by selling it off to a Vancouver, Canada stone shop where stone was popular still. I eventually found a buyer who didn’t have any money but had a good line of credit at a bank. To the best of my memory it sold for about $100,000 – saws, polisher, hand tools and supplies, slab inventory and forklift. We had a commercial floor project worth maybe $25,000, and a mall art project worth maybe $20,000 on hand. The rest was blue sky. Mr. Macy, bless his soul, gave me an old pickup truck – whose cab side door wouldn’t close completely – to drive since by this time I was flat broke due to a bad relationship. 

The new owner Leland and his wife located a building on the east side of Portland, it had a low ceiling, just high enough for the forklift and no water drainage to speak of, but it did have a truck ramp and big office space for showroom. I, with the crew, set out to build a low concrete retaining wall topped with wood decking, and put all the equipment in a logical row on top, starting with a tilt table I designed to load slabs on saw since we didn’t have room for hoists. This solved the drainage problem and kept our feet dry.

We built a wonderful display room which included a red granite kitchen. The new owner's wife had a expensive brochure made showing the displays, which also stated that marble was beautiful. That was the marketing in those days. Myself, Herman, Mike, Dan, Jose, and Leroy were ready to do Portland’s stone fabrication, which we kicked off with a gathering of the design community where I gave a nervous talk. Once again I had a regular paycheck. 

For the next three years Abby Marble bumped along in Jimmy Carter's 20% Interest rate with about a $175,000 bank note. What a deal. I beat the bushes for any work, small commercial projects mostly from design offices, but the big opportunity came from a contact I made with Alexander Manufacturing, a large cabinet manufacturer. They did hotels top to bottom, in their large Portland facility. Red Lion Inns was hot and growing, I promised we could make it happen by us adding the marble to the cabinets before they shipped them to the job site. Speed was everything. We did it well. Also provided the table tops, a good business for them and us.

Abby Marble Co. shop

Brochure for Abby Marble Co.

We were suited to fast production it took to keep up,but it wasn’t enough to sustain us, and eventually monthly visits to the bank to get more money was part of the job. I remember we all tried hard, and worked as a team,but the interest hill was just to high. Finally, after losing the contract for KOIN Tower to a low bid Canadian company, we went under. That was the last straw for us. (Incidentally they butchered the marble work with their low bid, even today as I go on the escalators I look at one-half inch gaps filled with caulking. You get what you pay for eventually. 

Our checks bounced as Abby folded, however the purchasing agent for KOIN, a wonderful woman, gave me personally a small contract for some office furniture, and architect Pat Hills gave me an order for some custom prefabricated furniture for a bank job in California, done by local architectural firm BG BG. I gathered Mike and Dan and we started to work in my garage, back to burning wood crates in my wood stove for warmth. This must have been around 1982 What a business it was.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Local Business is Born - Part 3

1982 TO 1985

A Local Business is Born” is a 20-year story of what I did to survive in the stone fabrication business before the kitchen counter revolution of the 1990s.

Mike and Dan (who eventually formed the Portland Marble Works) worked most of the winter in my garage. I remember hosing my back patio down each night where we did the grinding. I believe all the standing water in my back yard killed a small stand of birch trees I had recently planted there. We built some beautiful tables, check writing stands, out of tile on sandwich panel plywood system I had developed over the last few years. (Wonder if they're still in that bank in California.) They were both good hard-working craftsman, but work was so hard to find for us in Portland. My garage was the total stone fabrication business in town. Work ran out.

Dave Wily – who owned a large tile installation business that went back to his father coating ships with membranes during WW2 Portland’s ship building industry – bought Abby Marble's bankrupt inventory, showroom and equipment for $18,000 from the bank, and decided to go into the marble business. He needed a man to run the business and asked me to go to work for him. I needed a job and he offered better wages than I ever had in my life. It was a good family to work for. This company was commercial work only with a long history of working with large contractors. When I started we had about $90,000 worth of work on hand. It disappeared when SOM went under in Portland. When I left about 18 months later, I believe we had about $300,000 on hand, commercial work. JA Wiley tile went under and closed its doors. I remember the vultures gathering there when the news was out, that’s why I don’t go to these type of sales. I sensed that the end might be near for me and applied for a $10,000 second mortgage from Beneficial Finance on my house while I still had a job. I got the check the day before I was laid off. Wily went on in the stone business with his son taking over my job. And doing a good job of it. The second time in my Portland stone career I was replaced by a son.

At this time my brother Don dispersed Dad's will; each of seven children received $10,000. What timing for me. I had a wonderful International Scout that I purchased from Schmitty, my stone shed friend. I remember going out to his house and being attacked by the geese in their front yard. Shmitty was now living in a small trailer house in front of his house; since his wife was receiving her own social security check she banished him to the little trailer to live in. (Some of us have not been lucky in love.) Shmitty wanted me to have the Scout, my transportation for many years. That’s when I discovered that it was good to never clean a truck, when I cleaned up the interior it was like new, having been protected with dirt. All it needed was some suspension work. What a workhorse it was.

I bought an old trailer and had a dropped axle and dropped bed welded in, I then decked it with 2x6 and built wide wooden fenders to use as job site work tables all in my front yard. I knew I would not be able to buy a truck for a long time and the trailer was, and still is, a fine alternative, and headed to Eugene, Oregon where I heard a tile shop was selling a home-built stone saw. Hugo and his sons were giving up their little stone shop, in favor of the tile business. I bought the track saw, no up and down, push forward and back, all home-built by Hugo, and an old Tysman polish machine (I have no idea where it came from), and a small forklift, plus a 3-phase electric convertor for $7,000 and landed them in my front yard. I wouldn’t give up, even though I had been struggling in my adopted city Portland for 15 years now. (See “My Mom the Rose Gardener” in my Growing Up in Minnesota blog.)

Jose Devila, my long time friend from Blazing and Abby, agreed to partner up, and his son, a Portland undercover detective, wanted to join in. I agreed and found a building on SE 6th Avenue in downtown Portland to rent for $600 a month. It seemed to me that to have any success in the stone business one would have to be close proximity to the design community. The building included a 5-horsepower air compressor which I still use in my stone sculpture studio. Jose’s son got scared feet and bolted, taking his dad with him. (He later sued the city of Portland for $60,000 for discrimination, he was teased by fellow officers because of his race, and he and his dad went back to Texas a couple years later. I think it was a record settlement at that time.) I was left with the lease myself. When I think about it it was probably a good thing. A good friend of mine, a successful LA businessman, told me he made all his important business decisions as a small businessman while on his morning stool, not a bad policy. He told me all you need to know is what work you have, what you owe, and what is owed you. The three box filing system works good. I used old Styrofoam tile boxes myself. Hugo’s son helped me set up the equipment in the space. It was a saw with a wood bed I built with crank I added, to pull it through, and a counter weight I rigged up to bring it back, so I could pull it through as fast as the blade would let me. Hugo’s son welded the polish machine on the wall. Behind the saw I built work tables, got some old glass panels from a remnant sale to top them off, an idea that had mixed results.

I had another bit of luck. At this time I bid a mausoleum job to my old friend Herman, who was managing a large mausoleum and cemetery in Portland after Abby folded and was given the project for $25,000of which I figured would cost me $20,000. I got a ticket to LA to see an old friend Steve Leiser, who owned Marble Unlimited, one of three marble yards in LA at that time. I was right, and he told me he would deliver the project to Portland for $20,000. I knew I could solve any problems with my new shop. I had $5,000 left to buy some inventory for Portland. Steve said, “You're 40 now, Joe. I trust you, and will extend you another $20,000 credit, on inventory to pick out at his stone yard.” I was ecstatic, this I did not expect. My sweetheart at that time, Charis, asked me to pick up some sourdough bread in San Francisco on my way home which I did and waited for my truck load of stone from LA.

To the best of my memory, I unloaded the truck by myself, with cables and my little forklift, and leaned the crates up against the walls. It's hard for me to remember, but I parted these stone slabs out for jobs in the next few years. I do remember tremendous stress I had paying off the stone, I remember Steve Leiser forgiving about $5000 years later. I had a lot to learn, never sell a part slab, your investment gets eaten up fast.

I learned a lesson for the second time in my life just then. A large bank was being built one block from my little shop. All the street level window mullions sat on six-inch-thick by one-foot granite sills, apparently they were cut wrong. The large commercial contractor asked me to re-cut them to the correct length. I tried and tried, but my little saw wouldn’t do it. I lost the opportunity to make some money. I should have been smarter, 15 years earlier I had quit a job at Cold Spring Granite in California after a dispute I had with John Alexander over two diamond saws I had built that had too high a rim speed on the diamond blades to cut efficiently. I forgot the lesson, all I had to do was change the pulley sizes the slow the blade speed down. Take it from one who has learned the hard way, saw vibration, saw bed vibration, and correct rim speed on the diamond wheel, is everything toward efficient diamond saw cutting. Of course it's good to have the saw blade run parallel to saw direction. Something often missed.

The worst example of doing everything wrong, but getting by, I saw around this time was coming back from a Montana visit and stopping in a Montana travertine shop and seeing a sawyer repetitively diamond sawing some two inch travertine strips on a swayback plywood deck, the saw blade screaming. I suggested to him that the plywood was likely loading his blade and a concrete or stone bed would help a lot. In a typical Montana fashion he told me to get out of there, what did I know. I did. Sawing in those times where stone slabs were slowly beginning to become fashionable for reception counters etc. People were all coming up with tracking systems were they could push their seven inch skill saw, with water feeds along slabs without scratching the stone and getting fairly straight cuts. A big break through for me came when a friend, Ron, told me he pried up the stone slab and threw sand under the stone and on to the bed to aid in sliding the stone to different positions to the fixed saw blade. Such was the state of the art for me around 1984.

I remember a tile setter friend who still works in Portland gave me my first job it took me a long time to do. I have no idea how I moved and laid those slabs down by myself, but I did. He was patient, saying to me you have to crawl before you walk, Joe. Along about this time big money entered Portland’s stone fabrication industry. A friend with a more worldly vision of the stone industry,being well traveled, knew there was going to be a big future in local stone fabrication, probably something that was already happening in places like Florida and California, but some years out in Portland. He set up a large stone yard and fabrication shop with modern bridge saw, polisher, tools, and men. I think he told me he lost $100,000 his first year. Did a lot better later when he got out of the fabrication business and consecrated on stone brokering. So did a lot of other people five to ten years years later. I remember a couple years later when my son came back from working for a friend in LA stone brokerage; he said to me, “Dad, let's get into the buy it at one price and sell at another business, without much touching it.” I didn’t understand, both of us were meant to touch the stone, violating the old Italian business principle, the less you touch it the better off you are. I think I have certainly totally validated that principle as I moved to stone sculpture in my old age.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Local Business is Born - Part 4

1985 to 1992

A Local Business is Born” is a 20-year story of what I did to survive in the stone fabrication business before the kitchen counter revolution of the 1990s.

I continued working alone for the most part, in my new shop with the walls full of stone slabs. I found little work, stone counters were still seven or eight years away in Portland. It wasn't until magazines showed the use of stone in kitchens, that local fabrication became a practical industry

I got a few commercial jobs that I cut out with my primitive push saw. I asked Mike and Dan who formed the Portland Marble Works to install them, since I was by myself. Oregon Marble and Granite bid against me on each job back then. Work was still scarce, mostly fireplaces and bath work, some commercial reception counters for downtown offices. It's hard for me to believe that I cut them out with that primitive saw.

I had a friend named Costa Arvantes -- a woman’s dream lover – who come to work with me. Women seem to bring these guys into the country now and again I have found. An old country craftsmen they tell you, I suspect otherwise. It took me a year or two, to figure whether we had a language problem or an intelligence problem, never fully knew, but I eventually gave up on Costa. Some years later a another woman asked me to employ her Greek master craftsmen she brought to Portland. I remember he showed up at a sculpture seminar with her one summer, and carved out one of those damn ugly stone sinks from some special stone they wanted the sculpture community to buy. My Mexican friend Elizabeth (see “Things Are Different in Mexico” blog) drove over to their home on the way back from camp. It was hilarious and sad too, for this gal, their entire back yard was stacked with ugly off-white marble slabs and blocks right on the ground, I am sure the winter rains of Oregon submerged them into the ground. I have met some fine craftsmen from Europe, but for the most part it's all romance; Americans hold their own. You can only spread the memory of the Renaissance so far; talent is not hereditary. When I looked at the modern stone work of Europe it certainly did not exceed American standards. However I was amazed what Europeans did with architectural glass. Same in Mexico City, the glass work is wonderful.

A new era started around 1986. I asked my son Charles who was out of high school and working part-time and going to a Community college. A little later, my daughter came home to live with me also. We somehow all lived in my little 900-square-foot, wood stove heated house. I remember the first Thanksgiving day, Charles and I driving down a cold and wind blown Beaverton Hillsboro highway in my international scout to cash a 40-dollar check at a check cashing place to get our Thanksgiving food. Things were tight. The shop had all tools that I made, except for two grinders and a skill saw. We used one half of the shop space then building displays of uses of stone in kitchen and bath and furniture, and floors since there was so little local information on the product. Today most customers are very educated on what they want it seems to me, not that they don’t need help from stone fabricators, which is a service that professionals are glad to give. My memory of the next 3 or 4 years may have some shortcomings. Charles soon began to work at night making sculpture bases for bronze artists. He bought brass sheets and cut out with skill saw and brought two inch marble slabs up from California. A business now taken over buy India and China any product line that you develop that can be made in multiples, will be taken over by China or India. Survival in the stone industry is only possible by custom fabrication and good service.

Charles around this time left for a job in Los Angeles to work for a marble wholesaler Marble Unlimited delivering slabs to marble fabricators in California, quite a good education. Came back to Portland in about one year as I recall. The shop took a big step forward when he flew to Phoenix and bought a used Tysman saw, which we reassembled and had a electrician wire up for us. I don’t think many people fully understand what a bridge saw can bring to a marble business. Obviously, cutting becomes faster and much easier, but the true value is that it allows a craftsman to make easy choices where to cut up a slab, allowing for patterning decisions, not easily, or often done,without 360-degree ability cutting. It opens up a whole new world to a marble shop. If you don’t understand this, take a skill saw and stand next to a 5' by 9' slab of stone and plan how to cut out the best pattern for your customer. It can be done but not many people will. A bridge saw makes it easy and fast.

I have spent years of my life in a effort to find fabrication work in Portland. During this time period 1985 to 1992, my daughter and I installed, with her friend Tracy, many commercial marble floors in two high rise buildings, for a design firm and wonderful developer both of whom believed in us. It was unheard of to see a woman in the trades in those days (the early 1990s); women in the work force were constantly harassed by other tradesmen back then. I remember a doctor in Portland’s most expensive neighborhood saying he would not have women work in his home when he came home, and found my daughter and I tiling his bathroom. I built my own tile saw, not having money to buy one. Eventually we were able to buy a tile saw, which made life easier. We did marble and granite tile jobs where ever we could find them in Oregon while Charles kept the home fires burning fabricating any reception counters we could get. Kitchen counters very slowly beginning to appear. The first one in Portland was done for a family that is still a customer. Charles' future bride Debby started coming in part-time to keep the books in our little office we built in the shop. Totally a family business it was, and still is.

As I stated, slab work was still quite scarce, so I spent time trying to make the best usage of what we did have available, marble and granite tiles. I developed tile edges for application on kitchen counters (see drawing). The stone tile counter was finished on the front edge by installing a molding or various designs we made in the shop of the same stone. I thought it would be especially suited to areas where stone shops were not available, tile could be shipped by UPS to us, moldings fabricated and sent back to the tile setter. Quick turn around again. We did 25 or so kitchens in Portland area using 2' by 2' granite tiles and our edges – seems like the average cost of these jobs was $2500. I suspect they're still being used. Of course we wouldn’t have done this had there been a market for slab counters, still in the future. We also trimmed elevator jambs and tub surrounds and other things with our stone moldings. I doubt there are any tile setters around even today who could match our beautiful finished jobs. These projects helped keep us alive. We at the same time precast inlaid tiles for special floor projects allowing us to do interesting floor deigns at a reasonable price. (As my brother Don who worked in the stone industry from 1946 to 1985 said, the most important change in the industry in his life time was glues and mastics, or as my friend Jim Laport said, it's so nice to be able to level the hearth with your feet while you're gluing the fireplace facing up. Mastic’s eliminated the need for a marble setter. Almost anyone could glue up the stone. But as I stated in part 2, few people could lay a good floor. I struggled with this, but got by. The key to laying a really good floor is in understanding your setting bed materials, as my old friend Fred told me, every time you set one stone you are altering the ones around it. Using the correct setting bed minimizes this problem. (See “Some Things I have learned from Stone People” at Its also helpful to have a strong back and good knees.

Into the early 90s stone counters began to appear as we took the final application of tile edges, applied it to my sandwich panel structural system, and build a series of executive conference tables by inlaying tile designs on my plywood sandwich panels and grinding them smooth, creating a strong light weight stone surface not a lot different than I started out doing 20 years earlier in the garage, only much more sophisticated.

I will stop the story here. As stone counters entered Portland, stone supply houses flourished, marble shops began to appear on every corner Everyone become a stone expert overnight, as our little family marble shop that had struggled along for 20 years entered the world of granite counters. I think the next 20 year story would best be told be my son, maybe 20 years from now – for he may be one of the few of his generation who has any idea what stone work was like for us who went through this transformation from one half-dozen to 400 people employed in the stone industry in Portland. What a business it is.

The shop with displays - Charles working

Shop displays before kitchen counter revolution

Shop showing product line before counter revolution

Big mausoleum project in Salem

Same mausoleum in Salem

Typical stone tile kitchen job with edges used
Marble tile bathroom with marble slab sink large enough for two

Bathroom job at the coast

Slab fireplace, Portland OR

Construction of sandwich panel conference table

Sandwich panel conference table, including stone legs

Floor base and elevator jambs with inlaid tiles, precut base and tile edges for elevator facing. As I recall, I did all the marble work for $23/square foot - a very good buy!

Sharie with slab fireplace

Granite counters begin to appear

Pre-built table, sandwich panel conference table including base

Inlaid granite floor. We also built a slab inlaid table for this customer.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Heroes of Local Knowledge

By Joseph R. Conrad and Mary Anne Harmer Allen
Published in Oregon's Future, Fall 1998

We called him the Vegetable Man. His tomatoes, eggplant, and basil were sweet and beautiful -- the finest produce around. And without hesitation Frank shared these garden jewels with all his friends and neighbors, often offering advice as to the best way to prepare and cook them. He loved his vegetables and spent hours thinning, weeding and watering the lush growth. He often told us his success with vegetables was a result of his Italian heritage and the traditional skills of gardening passed down by his father in Southeast Portland that resulted in his superior produce. We knew it was that and much more. It was his passion for the earth, the simple gardening tools, the delicate seeds that made the difference. Frank cared about his garden -- treating each cucumber, radish and pea with respect and tenderness. He kept up on the latest trends in vegetable gardening, and somehow knew when and how to incorporate new methods with the traditional ways, blending the knowledge to create new innovations in gardening.

That Vegetable Man is retired now, and there is no one around who can come close to growing the quality of produce that Frank sold from his small fruit and vegetable market. Customers now purchase pale tomatoes wrapped in plastic year round from the nearest large supermarket. And, in thinking about Frank, one wonders not only about the traditional vegetable grower who for so many years successfully used local knowledge, but of other highly skilled professionals and craftsmen, also steeped in local knowledge, who have contributed so much. Has their local knowledge and expertise been passed on? Are these individuals valued today for the traditional foundation they bring to new knowledge and technology? Does anyone care? Does respecting local knowledge, passed on through generations while learning and adapting new techniques, represent true evolution and hope for a more authentic, healthier community? Should it not?

Each of us can identify warning signs in our own communities:
- Is the local logger still employed?
- What about the local fisherman?
- Is the local sawmill still running?
- How many cabinet shops and furniture builders are still around?
- Do the builders around town carry contracts, not tools, and attend meetings for permits, instead of working with their hands on the site?
- Does the tile setter know where or how tile is made, and do the roofers understand where shingles come from and the subtleties of each material with which they work?
- Do stone setters laying the steps of city buildings and putting up the walls of public structures know the origin of the stone they are using and how it got from the quarry to the worksite?

In considering these questions, it quickly becomes apparent that understanding and promoting the appropriate use of local knowledge -- that set of skills and information held by individuals in a given location or culture -- would be to learn from the heroes of local knowledge we meet each day in our communities.

These heroes of local knowledge are the keepers and tenders of an honorable garden of knowledge. In the past, this was a powerful and important role -- a role respected and appreciated. Today, however, we seem to value things, not how things are made. And so the keepers of this garden of knowledge swim upstream against a society that promotes consistency and mass production.

On the downside, local knowledge, because of its personal, slower, hands-on approach, is inconvenient to store, organize, and describe. It can be ambiguous and vague. On the upside, local technology brings with it years of emotions, feelings and sensitivities associated with a specific locality -- a special place identified by the people living there. It may not be as easily quantified, packaged and dispersed as more universal models, but it belongs to the community.

As a second generation stonecutter, I (Joseph Conrad) strongly feel that some elements of modern production, technology, and economies of scale have caused our industry to sacrifice local models. Technical knowledge, so easily accessible today from books, magazines, and the internet, can lead to a richness and expansion of knowledge; but it can also contribute to a dilution of local traditions and technologies. As a craftsman practicing a trade passed on for generations, I now learn through global technology to use standardized models. The resulting products, whether created or produced in my hometown in the Pacific Northwest, in Europe, or in New York soon take on a "common" look; everything looks the same.

As the local cabinet maker tells us, "Our customers demand the latest style or trend for our industry as seen in national or international magazines. They forget about the local creativity based on traditions and materials originating in our own backyard. It is important to remember that a sense of history provides the necessary connection to local material sources and traditional processes that can then be utilized to maximize the potential of new trends."

Perhaps, in the short term, standardized products are of value to business owners looking for savings reaped through consistency and mass production, however long-term we all may be paying a high price with this approach. As technology moves society toward the use of universal models there is a real loss of the creative diversity that reflects the local place and its traditions. If we don't use the expertise learned from our fathers and grandfathers, this knowledge will die with all of us. No one will be left to teach or pass on the skills that we learned from generations past. No one will be able to take the best of local knowledge and adapt it to new technologies."

Again and again, professionals and craftsmen using traditional methods communicate a sense of loss. Loss accompanied with a challenge, a hope that this trend can be reversed. Preserving local knowledge is becoming a common cry heard across many, many disciplines. It is a cry for survival -- for the continuation of the best of the past made better through the technology of the future.

When we do not honor, respect and acknowledge local knowledge, forsaking it completely for technological knowledge, we soon lose the human touch. The intimacy of daily personal relations is no longer needed.

The face-to-face interaction, that special bond between teacher and student, is replaced with instruction by impersonal methods such as the electronic transfer of knowledge.

Although the theory of a certain skill or technique can be communicated electronically or by a book or magazine, you certainly lose the small nuances of how to hold a saw or how to pick grapes at their peak flavor. This learning is best gained through observation, personal experience, and practice -- taught by someone with respect and passion for the trade.

As one thinks about how we make purchases as individuals or as businesses, one quickly understands the threat to survival for the local hero of knowledge. It happens as the corner pharmacy is put out of business by large drugstore chains, and as the local hardware stores, where the owner helped and encouraged us to slowly browse through the inventory on Saturday afternoons, is replaced by large self-serve hardware stores -- the fast and efficient way to sell home supplies and hardware. These are all signs that communities are slowly moving away from local knowledge. Rather than using it in conjunction with new technology, it is discounted all together.

It has become to easy for people to lose connection with their communities; they stop caring when people, products, and services become too distant. A local builder expresses it this way, "To accommodate more customers and enhance productivity, my services are not viewed uniquely, but 'limped' into common categories for ease and efficiency. Consequently, we use design principles that are considered universal with more legal codes and standards and construction regulations that will not accommodate exceptions. Finally, there are elaborate bureaucratic and operational procedures that reinforce mass production. Thus, an original idea or skill, with roots in local knowledge, is stretched, pulled, and forced to fit common standards. The result is the sacrifice of local knowledge and creativity. My structures are just not as unique as they used to be."

It is very difficult today to go against the tide. Practitioners of local knowledge know this, but we can make it easier for them. If the community -- if individuals -- will support them, they will utilize the advances of technology to further local knowledge. It is a win-win proposition. Practitioners of local knowledge will selectively capitalize on the advances of technology while staying connected to their tools and materials -- staying connected to the customer.

The cabinet maker, the fisherman, the stonecutter and so many other skilled professionals and craftsmen are the foundation of our communities. They bring creativity, sensitivity to the environment, and sound economic value to our cities and towns. They represent the synthesis of ideas, the tools or technology employed, and the material selected for use. The integration of all of these elements can only lead to more creativity.

Creativity does not operate as an independent vision; rather, it is within the holistic context of local and traditional tools and materials, accompanied by inspiration, that creativity, unique form, and innovation emerge.

This is the power, strength and ultimate hope of local knowledge. Nurturing this process and incorporating it into new technology is absolutely critical to our creativity, to our environment, to our economy. Local knowledge helps build healthy communities. If we do not use it, we lose it.

Joseph Conrad is a Northwest sculptor, second-generation stonecutter, and owner of an Oregon-based stone fabrication company currently practicing his art in Portland. Mary Anne Harmer Allen is a national consultant and director of the Healthy Communities Initiative in Portland.