Wednesday, May 23, 2012

There's Marble in Them There Islands, Part 3


There is a wealth of misinformation surrounding the marble industry. One example is illustrated here. Many people assume marble has value. Over the years I have had prospectors and land owners come to me with accounts describing the number of acres of marble they have. Always accompanied with the statement of inexhaustible supply. Or how often individuals ask me if I would store, or buy salvaged marble slabs from them.

Marble mill blocks in the rain forest


25-foot long mill blocks left over from the Juneau Capitol job


To many the idea of thousands of already-quarried marble blocks lying abandoned in the rain forest of SE Alaska seems preposterous. Yet these blocks have laid peacefully on Marble Island Alaska for over one hundred years. There must be some reason for this.


Swimming in an abandoned quarry


Through a romantic lens, marble mill blocks in your back yard would seem to harbor value, however, as a grizzled stone industry entrepreneur, I realize stone in itself has little value. It only acquires value when you invest your time and money in it. This is typically not understood by prospectors and site owners since from their perspective the stone on their land has value and they expect monetary rewards leaving the risk and investment to someone else. I have always found this to be the case. Marble fever like Gold fever. Easy to understand. In this case the marble blocks have to be transported to a location with infrastructure to saw the blocks into slabs. No such place exists in Alaska. Finished slabs may have value. Risky business, in the stone industry you are competing against the world in sawing technology costs. USA, India, China, Brazil, Italy, Spain, all tough customers to compete with locally.

The dreamer looks at this situation and thinks it must be possible to set up a diamond wire saw and saw one slab at a time, a technology he has seen in stone journals or television specials. (This single wire technology may work in some situations but will not work well in the competitive slab market.) This stone is so unique, has such historic value that surely people will pay what it costs to produce locally. After all we live in an age of local is better. Such naivete. (See my essay Local Knowledge). For the business reality is, white marble competes with other white marble for the white marble market. Few people are discriminating enough to see the difference between them when they are spending their money. Many a local architect or potential commercial or residential customer inquires about using a local material only to say upon receiving your proposal, what do you mean local material costs more then Carrara shipped all the way from Italy.

Everyone who travels to the Apuane Alps looks at the great marble mountains with wonder and romance, only the Italians can generate, as they do with so many products, but it's a rare tourist who stops by the stone factories below, churning out slabs of marble and granite from mill blocks shipped in from throughout the world to be gang sawed with great efficiency then shipped by container back to the world at ocean fright rates. ITS ALL ABOUT GANGSAWING EFFICENCY, ALWAYS HAS BEEN SINCE 1950.

Vermont Marble Company did just that around the turn of the century, setting up gang saws in Tacoma and San Francisco and supplied thousands of square feet of white marble for commercial building throughout the west until the bottom dropped out of construction around 1929. The Italians developed faster and cheaper sawing systems than was done in the USA. This along with international port to port freight rates gave Carrara a competitive edge.

It's a rare and special American who is willing to pay the cost of local material for his or her home or commercial project. Italian romance is hard to overcome since it is also the cheapest. It seems to me that the primary reason all these saw blocks languish in the rain forest is because of international competition for white marble provided by massive sawing economies of scale and international ocean fright rates.

So why doesn’t some wealthy investor see this opportunity and set up a modern gang saw operation in Seattle or San Francisco and barge these saw blocks there and provide local material at a slightly higher cost then Carrara? It would be to risky -- one color is not enough to sustain a sawmill. The volume of sales would never pay the costs. One only has to spend a little time on the internet to see what a silly idea it would be today. Marble brokers have the world at there fingertips with much less risk.

I think environmentalists (I studied physical geography, biology, and urban studies in college in the 1970s planing to be an environmental planner ) who speak of local products being more environmentally friendly do not take into consideration modern container shipping.

I always smile to myself when someone tells me they used concrete, poured on top their kitchen counters rather then foreign granite. There jaw usually drops when I ask them if they think blasting limestone from eastern Oregon, crushing it, then cooking it up to 2500 degrees releasing noxious gases, then trucking it to Portland, then dredging the Willamette river for sand, mixing it up and pouring it on to your ever expanding and contracting wooden counters then sealing it with some chemical so the man made limestone won't immediately react with your food, is more environmentally friendly then drilling and splitting a stone mill block from the ground sawing and grinding it with diamond blades (no chemicals only abrasion) then port to port container shipping is more environmentally friendly? REALLY. Some trendy ideas just fool the general public and they get stuck with a vastly inferior counter at the same cost as natural stone and you had a guy who knew how to use a trowel rather then a master craftsmen do your job, such a deal.




Some photos of local fabrication and finished stone counter at Conrad Stonecutter in Portland, Oregon 


Local use of local stone, in this instance, as much as I would like to see it happen, will likely never occur. But we can take the raw product, stone slabs, from throughout the world and add value locally, a remarkably unique business in today’s US economic situation Just what this country needs.

I knew all this as I tramped about the Alaskan rain forest looking at indigenous marble resources

WHAT THEN TO DO WITH THIS BEATUFUL ALASKAN MARBLE
Chapter 4.



Alaskan mill blocks in Portland



How Are You Inspired?


I once asked a friend, what do you think was on the mind of the woodcarver when he was carving a wall sculpture he had purchased. I think I may have insulted him, for he ignored the question. Of course art doesn’t need explanation, it only has to evoke some emotion to give it meaning. However it seems to me it would be nice to think the artist was thinking of something when he created the art. Maybe I am being cynical to ask for this in art, I don't know.

I often talk of the barriers to stone carving, but I also think stone carvers are lucky in that they have so many ways their medium can inspire them. Stone speaks, so to say. I can't imagine a chunk of clay or a blank canvas inspiring me the way stone does. The stone provides both the limitations and the possibilities for me. This makes it a special art form. Every piece of stone has its own specific characteristics, one may try, but its unlikely that a favorable result will happen if the artist misreads the stone. To be STONEWISE is a real asset. Not to be, shows. The nicest compliment I ever received came at a stone sculpture event when a man told me, “Joe, you read the stone like no one else. ” Never forgot that. Experience helps in stone carving.


MENTAL IMAGING

THE DAVID


Irving Stone popularized the idea that Michelangelo could see a form within the stone. Of course, what does that say? Does an artist paint outside the canvas? My guess is that Michelangelo had a romantic vision that he felt had popular support, and found the largest block of stone he could get, to carve it out. It was all in his head. Mental imaging, genius indeed. From that point on it was all technical skill and endurance. I suspect he established benchmarks in the block so as to keep the proportions he wanted. Its hard for me to imagine the skills he must have had, as well as his artistic vocabulary. This is an extreme example of the most common approach to stone subtraction to get the desired three-dimensional form . imaged. It seems to me this what most all artists must do to create there art. I have never been good at this. But there are many other ways in stone carving for people like me.



COLOR INSPIRATION






I think this is a real plus, for the stone carver, who may be mental imagine impaired. What is one to do with a light pink marble? Carve a animal, or an abstract? Not likely, more likely the human form, most often feminine. For most stone carvers, basalt almost demands a Noguchi like form. Noguchi spent time in Japan's basalt islands working basalt so it was a natural for him. Cut a side away, leave a crusty side and polish another and you're done. Stone speaks. Pure white, to me, almost demands a youthful form. That’s why I did my David in the whitest marble I will ever get, which came from Mt Calder, Alaska. (See my blog “The Making of My David”) The translucence of alabaster and onyx seem to demand natural forms, flowers and foliage etc. Color can be masculine or feminine. Does a gray sandstone want to make you carve a flower? I think color is a great source of inspiration that is unique to stone carving.


VEINING



I have no heavily veined marbles. If I did, it would likely be used for either an animal form or an abstract, where the beauty of the stone stands alone. The artist only has to bring out the stone's character Many a stone carver has found that heavy veining does not work on a head but great for a free form. Heavy veining in a stone makes it sing.





THE SHAPE OF THE STONE








The most uninspiring shape I can imagine is cubical. It demands pure artistic mental imagining No doubt about it. See the shape in your head and subtract material to free the form imagined. I find this hard to do. On the other hand a difficult shape like a triangle can easily lead me to the New Mexico sculpture pictured. Remember, stone carving is a tough art form and most carvers I have known remove as little stone as possible to get the form they want. The half circle shape definitely inspired me to create Men at Work.

STONE LOCATION AND FOUND ART

Early Traveler

Practicing Physics

Glacial Activity

I found “Early Traveler” on a beach in SE Alaska where scientists now say that men first came over the Bering Strait to North America. An artist friend, Cindy Dececco, thought she saw a human form there. It immediately jumped right out at me and “Early Traveler” was born. Even the red color worked this time. So “Early Traveler” had shape, location and color to inspire me . What an easy job for me. “Practicing Physics” was pure found art I found these two pieces of quartz on Wadleigh Island Alaska and attached them to a green argillite less then 10 miles away on Prince of Wales, Alaska. “Glacial Activity” came from a road trip and hiking in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The green and red stone forming G. N. P. Are very inspiring to all basalt basin residents like me.


NATURAL WEATHERING OF STONE

Natural Cleavage

Romance

Gibson


The manner in which natural processes weather stone is a great form of inspiration to me. I have no photos, but I know the skin on basalt is a big part of basalt carving. My favorite stone by far is marble, preferably a northwest marble weathered by wind and rain. Chinese culture has long been enchanted with nature's weathering process on marble, They have elevated it to monumental proportions in what they call scholar stones. The Chinese call this Wuxi and the Japanese use the word Suiseki. The beaches of SE Alaska are weathered by tide coming and going. The photo I took in the Prior Mountains in Montana showing weathering from rain. I used to have a geography professor who would say we came just in time, one million years earlier or later it wouldn’t be the same as we arrived at our field studies. For me weathered local marble is a great source of inspiration.



TRIBUTARY ART

The Leg Lamp

High Style


My Idaho travertine leg lamp is a salute to Jean Shepard, the author. Some day I hope to put Garrison Keillor’s fishing dog on one side; and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, with a fishing pole, on the other side. Sadly no space left for Will Rogers in my ranking system. All four of these great American observers of the human condition deserve a stone carver salute. “High Style”, a tip of the hat to the human fixation on appearance and the fashion industry. There is nothing like an elegant woman to get my attention. Wonderful inspiration.



THEMATIC SCULPTURE

Apples and Pears


Apples and Pears

Apples and Pears



I have always felt that comparing apples and oranges just doesn’t work well. It's a lot more fun to compare male and female with apples and pears. This idea can turn many ways from abstract to rigidly formal. I like it, and hope to develop this concept many ways in the future. The great book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance struggles with creativity, so I certainly would not presume to know where creativity like apples and pears come from, it's way beyond me, it just is.




CLASSICAL ART








Human forms

Carving the human form never gets old. It's a great challenge to get the proportions the way you want, never easy. I am prejudiced but I feel that a lot of abstract stone carving I see is merely tool manipulation. As an old stone fabricator in the industry for so many years I just smile to myself and say looks like he got a new core drill or chain saw etc. Classical form demand classical ability, not tool tricks. Even though I do a lot of tool tricks myself . See my stone bowls below, a subject of future essay. In the end I hope anyone who looks at my sculpture will know what was on my mind when I carved it.





Tool tricks




ARE YOU INSPIRED, HAVE YOU BEEN INSPIRED?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Twenty frequent comments from visitors at my stone sculpture studio


The stone yard

1 Do you know Mary Jo? (Mary Jo Anderson is a well-known Oregon sculptor)

2 I know a person who makes sculpture.

3 What are those statues for?

4 Do you make bubble stones?

5 Do you make fountains?

6 How long did it take to make that?

7 Have you been to Italy? I went there after college.

8 Have you read the book about Michelangelo?

9 He could see the form within the stone.

10 Do you get you stone from Italy?

11 All that freight must cost a lot.

12 I like the way you left the the holes.

13 Is that a crack?

14 Do you ever hit it too hard and crack it off? HO HO

15 How come it isn’t smooth all over?

16 Is that finished?

17 Looking at rough marble boulders, what's that?

18 I took a sculpture class in college.

19 Where do get your ideas?

20 I have always felt a connection with stone.


22 QUESTIONS I WISH VISITORS WOULD ASK AT MY SCULPTURE YARD



1 What is that? (Looking at my David)

2 How come I don’t see stone sculpture in Portland?

3 What is the process you use to carve stone?

4 Where does this stone come from?

5 What is the difference between marble and basalt and granite?

7 Why do you carve marble instead of granite or basalt?

7 Where did you learn? What tools do you use ?

8 Why do you do this? When did you start carving stone?

9 What is the difference between bronze sculpture and stone sculpture?

10 Do we have any marble or limestone in Oregon? Why not ?

11 How do you make the stone look so different in different places?

12 Why do you do figurative art? It seems so old fashioned.

13 What's the meaning of Apples and Pears?

14 Do you visualize the finished sculpture before you start carving?

15 Do various types of stone direct you to do different things with it?

16 Are there some stones that you don’t like to work with?

17 Where do you get this stone, and how do you determine what to do with it ?

18 Why don’t you show at galleries ?

19 Who teaches stone carving in Oregon?

20 What makes stone carving unique from other forms of art?

21 Stone carving seems so rare. There must be some barriers to doing it, what are they?

22 Why is stone carving so expensive ?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Why Blog About Stone??

Socrates was a stonecutter. I suspect his wife wanted more stonecutting and less dialogue. But I am sure he would probably blog if he was still here.

I don’t know why I do stone sculpture, or why I want to write about my passion for stone, and its history, as well as its impact on the urban environment. As a friend of mine told me “writing and art work for slave wages and the master rarely delivers fans.” Nevertheless just as I wrote in my artist’s statement many years ago I solicit audience participation, for my stone sculpture and blogging, for they only need to evoke emotion to be meaningful.


To begin, I have noticed that there is not a good definition of a stonecutter on Google. This is one taken from a turn-of-the-century stonecutter technical manual.” One who cuts a stone by hand to a specific size to fit in a specific location among other cut stone pieces making the whole, most often for a building.” Kind of dry but I think it explains why many stone fabrication and installation business east of the Mississippi are titled ______ cut stone company. It’s an historical precedent. In fact in my 50 years of working within the stone industry I have found that few people understand how stone flows into our lives, much less its history.

This may help:

Quarrymen: quarry stone blocks                      Lumberjacks: harvest logs|


Stone is sawed in: sawmills                             Logs are sawed sawmills|


Stone brokers buy: stone slabs                         Lumber yards buy : finished lumber|

At this point customers select materials from stone supply yards to be fabricated and installed on their projects.

Stone fabricator cuts to size & details              Cabinet builder builds cabinets

 |
Stone is installed by marble mason                    Cabinets are installed by finish carpenter

Each of these general areas tend to be specialized. That is, you would not expect a lumberjack to build your cabinets even though he knows a lot about wood, just as a quarryman isn't interested in fabricating your kitchen counter tops, it can become a little less clear about who is capable of what when you further define the general areas for example in the general area of saw mills you may find stone engineers, stone sayers, stone polishers, stone cutters, stone carvers, stone lettering experts, stone sculptors, etc. -- all separate and unique trades. The same is true for stone fabricators.

All these trades and the people within them have interesting stories that I will be blogging about.

Joseph Conrad
March 2011 edited November 2013

Saturday, April 21, 2012

STONECUTTERS URBAN ECOLOGY 101: URBAN THERAPY

Living and walking about a city is always an exciting experience for me as a stone history buff. Something new around every corner. It's like a road cut for a geologist or a walk in the forest for an ecologist. Up to now Chicago is my favorite city, although my son says new york is better.





I have a simple 4-step program that may help you enjoy your urban walks as well. It’s an urban ecology starter that works for me.



I believe there have been four major changes in the stone industry since 1850 which have helped define the urban landscape. I call them footprints in stone. Recognizing these technologies helps me put these building forms into a time frame. Maybe not perfect because there is overlap and digression, just as there is in fashion, but it’s a useful historical reference system, and a sense of history never hurts. Hopefully it will help to make one more comfortable in our urban environment.



1 - Local stone on stone 1850-1910



In this era, stone was locally quarried and cut by hand as i describe in my “Lost Trade of Stonecutting” blog. It is a totally romantic period, before compressed air, or useful gangsaws. This technology certainly provided a sense of place to urban areas. Cities were defined by local geology. It's the era of the vagabond stonecutter going from job to job, city to city. Many architects came out of stonecutter backgrounds at this time since stone was the fundamental building material. Cities in this era reflected the ground they were built on, giving rise to urban identities defined by stonework.



Local Stone on Stone, here Portland Oregon, Basalt and Sandstone 






2 - Deep drilled hammer face 1900-1930




This technology was developed with the invention of useful compressed air. It often used local stone as well if good building stone was available. However if there was no local stone suitable for architectural construction, regional granite was often used. Softer stones, limestone and sandstones, would still often be cut by hand locally.

Stone was removed from quarries by drilling and blasting horizontal beds and drilling vertical blocks to millbock sizes. Slabs were split or sawed  to be hammer finished with multiple air hammers called drifters or shot gangsaws  this was the era when stone cutting was infamous for dustborn ailments. We call silicosis most often caused by hitting the stone with air hammers to shape.

This was the era when my father and his three brothers first started in the stone trade. Faces of building became smooth but not polished with beautiful details. Columns were cut on lathes. Flute often cut by hand with hand-held hammering tools. Intricate details including relief sculpture were put into building facades in granite as well as sandstone and limestone. Stonecutters were employed at job sites as well as quarry fabrication sites. This is the era when cutting and shaping of stone went from local to regional fabrication facilities. These regional faculties developed sophisticated equipment and and often had multiple stone resources. Beautiful permanent building, stone on stone walls were built. Many of these buildings have been gutted out, and refitted, and still serve as great urban architecture for us to enjoy even today.


Deep drilled hammer face.  Typical rustication with columns and carving of this period in Granite







3 - polished smooth face 1925-1970



The next stone building type totally changed the relationship between the local stone economy with both people, and the local stone forms. The industry separated local knowledge about stone since it become something that arrived by truck or train from a distant fabrication source. This precut cut stone was shipped ready to put on the face of building  for the first time. Stone no longer was cut or quarried locally. Stone is no longer a structural building component, but rather it becomes a veneer over a concrete structure.

The modern gang saw made low cost fabrication of 2-inch and thicker slabs, or what we call dimension stone possible. Huge surface grinders brought stone slabs to a high finish, then they were sawed to size and sent to local building sites to cover concrete structures as decorative and protective veneers. This new building process, the modern high-rise elevator-equipped building, became covered in stone, terracotta, or brick, all as veneers, likely none of it local.

These production facilities were not placed locally but rather close to the source of quality and quantity stone quarries. Varieties of color being important. The stone blocks were shipped by rail to these centrally located modern fabrication plants. There stone fabrication expertise flourished. Finished cut to size building skins were then sent to local job sites for a new trade called stone setters to install. This forced the separation of the local knowledge of stone, and its origin, and how it is fabricated. This all happened in my father's and my lifetime.




 Granite and Marble veneer covering a concrete building. Here Morton gneiss and Georgia granite in Portland Oregon






4 - International thin cut stone 1970-2011



The final stone footprint once again came with a breakthrough in mass gangsaw cutting. This came about with the ability to mass cut thin slabs by putting post tension in diamond or shot gangsaw blades, fast mass production of multiple slabs brought costs of stone down for building construction and made stone slab prices such that the general public could afford stone counters for the first time. Suddenly there was a stone revolution all over the world.
I believe this technology started in Germany and Italy. Even today if you go to the Italian stone fabrication centers at the base of the aupanies you will see thousands of blocks of stone drilled out from quarries all over the word to be sawed with these gangsaws – although American, south American and Asian facilities are catching up by using this technology.
But the important point for the urban walker is that once again, stone is used as integral part of the building structure. Steel skeletons were erected with floors floating free of concrete side walls. Their weight is transferred down by transferring it to vertical steel supports. What is called curtain walls, a very descriptive term, the glass and stone are mounted on horizontal frames with their mass also transferred to vertical steel supports. Thus the glass and stone skins become the protective skin of the structure. Stone is once again a useful and important structural component of the building. This makes stone curtain walls a practical and economical building component, not just a pretty face covering concrete. Economical mass production of stone slabs certainly changed the urban landscape.

This is the current state of high rise construction. Thankfully design professionals soften the building by employing historical stone elements to soften this harsh building system. I call them urban furniture to ease our eyes. Sculpture is used this way as well. It would be a pretty bleak world if curtain wall construction was not offset this way. Of course traditional tricks of texture and color soften these structures as well. Future blogs.




International thin set here south American granite sawed in Italy in Portland, Oregon






I hope this brief survey of stone footprints makes your urban experience more enjoyable, for as a friend once told me many years ago, i have always looked at the shoes behind the glass, while you looked at the way they the shoes were housed. I think a little history along with how things are done can often be therapeutic to the soul.





Friday, April 20, 2012

Form As A Result of Historic Process


They say form follows function

This paper says sometimes form is a result of historic process

I published an article in stone world magazine in 1996, where i introduced a concept I called "inside out design." Looking at it 15 years later, I still believe it is a good article even though I have no reason to believe any one ever read it. Never the less 25 years and one half dozen articles later I still attempt to provoke minds, for better or worse.

I have read that capitols on stone columns imitate tree limbs on original wood columns. To me this makes sense, particularly since I have seen small tree trunks used this way to support wooden boards for use as platforms to pour concrete roofs in colonial Mexico.

Historians would have you believe that if you don’t know the difference between Corinthian, Doric, or Ionic capitols, your education is incomplete. But to me I never cared, it seemed pointless, but I do like the tree branch concept, which probably casts a shadow on my education.

I believe, based on personal observation gleaned from 50 years in the stone business, that the technology within industry provides designers basic building blocks to work with. The possibilities and limitations of the medium you are working in change through time. These changes provide design professionals an ever-changing variety of possibilities. This all seems logical and apparent to most of us.

However, what is interesting are those limitations of past technologies, that become permanent design staples all around us. Learning to recognize these technological glitches to me provides a more meaningful appreciation of the design environment. It goes back to the tree limb thing, I think. For example, walking through an historic neighborhood with a craftsman who has knowledge of wood construction, or walking the streets of a city with a stoneworker interested in history, is much more fun than taking a tour and having someone tell you the architectural style and the name of the architect who designed it. This of course is not true if I am touring a foreign country and want to see some local history.

I am sure that every construction medium could chime in here -- it would be interesting to hear other thoughts. My experience is with stone which has traditionally been the provider of urban forms or designer building blocks.




Here are a few examples to open the discussion:

The quirk miter. A staple of urban stone design

Problem: stone is fragile - miters don’t work - they chip



Quirk Miter


Solution: split and pitch or saw and grind strong edge - A staple of urban stone architecture.





Rustification

The historic difficulty of holding sharp corners before modern equipment is probably the reason for rustification. That is a term I use to describe softening the edges of each stone with a bevel or round. This seems to have become a staple of the stone imitation industry, terracotta. By employing various bevels, rounds and offsets designers have been able to create beautiful designs in building forms in both stone and terracotta. My stonecutter father used to say ‘it all comes out in the wash’. The chips that is. (“wash” being a term stonecutters use for bevel.)




United States Customs House, downtown Portland


Nothing worse then looking at an old stone building with close-fitting joints without details of some sort separating the stones and seeing the front, or what stonecutters call the face of the stone weave in and out.



Lincoln Hall, Portland State University

35 years ago a design firm asked me how to get a elegant look in their entry lobby without paying a high price. I advised them to bevel the edges of marble tiles to make them appear like blocks of stone. They did and it seemed to come out great. This technique seemed to be used quite often . The beautiful use of stone tiles in mall architecture still fascinates me, even though I don’t frequent malls much. Stone use in mall design makes a strong statement, good or bad.

 

Heads

Because gang sawing stone slabs has always been a difficult and imprecise job, granite veneer slabs have often employed a structure called the head in architectural projects, that is corners, are dealt with by specifying a given fixed dimension at butt joints.



Head



Problem of uneven thickness solved at minimal cost:


 
Even today my son often uses a CNC stone router to plane all exposed edges on kitchen counter projects to provide a uniform edge. It is one of many things that separate an average job from an outstanding counter job. Old tricks in modern stone fabrication.



CNC Stone Router


I have a suspicion that many moldings that have become design staples were originally from wood or stone problems that are now part of our daily lives. Can you think of any?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Lost Trade of Stone Cutting

An essay by Joseph Conrad describing stone construction before gang saws or compressed air, 1800 to 1900


Have you ever thought about how those old stone churches, so much a part of 
Portland’s identity, were built? Walking with my father, the stonecutter, gave 
me an interesting insight back in 1965.








People who work with stone can leave permanent marks on the urban landscape. I call these “Stone Footprints.”

Introduction

Thirty years ago when I was designing our company logo, I sketched a derrick lifting a mill block from a granite batholith and titled the company, "Joseph Conrad, Stonecutter," doubting that anyone would understand what the logo was or what the title "stonecutter" means. The quarry and the trade had both been long forgotten.



Back in 1917, Portland had a significant stone cutting industry, with 17 to 20 companies that supported hundreds of people. The times and technology changed over the years. By 1980, about the time I was designing my company logo, Portland had only one stone company, which probably supported 10 to 15 people. Styles and tastes changed, and today, Portland may have around 30 stone companies supporting perhaps 500 people. But during these changes much has been lost, for few of the people in the current stone industry have any sense of history or an interest in stones other than as a means to make a living-although all of them demonstrate a healthy sense of romance towards stone, since that is an integral part of the stone business. People who work with stone can leave permanent marks on the urban landscape. However, since for the most part, the urban landscape is defined by dimension stone- sandstone, limestone, marble, and granite-for this, we need to look at the sources of these materials to understand how these materials shape our city. The urban landscape I call "stone footprints" for the most part is defined by technologies at stone saw mills, which are far from local stone workers. But here I will focus on the small but important part of our past. The stonecutter, a long forgotten trade.

This is my personal understanding of the stonecutter. I have for most of my life lived on the West Coast so I can speak little of the great body of stone history mostly located on the East Coast. So my knowledge is somewhat local and does not include the work of marble cutters, again the result of geography. And of course it excludes the monumental efforts of European stone workers of the 13th through 15th centuries.

People who work with stone can leave permanent marks on the urban landscape. I call these “Stone Footprints.”


A stonecutter by definition is one who cuts a stone by hand to a specific size to fit in a specific location. Among other cut stone pieces making the whole, most often for a building.

I donated a book to the stone museum some years ago outlining the work of the stonecutter. It was about 45 pages, 5” x 7” pocket manual, filled with geometry, math equations of shapes describing solutions to architectural problems. I think these sorts of working manuals existed for many trades then. It was very complex reading, so I couldn't understand much. Imagine cutting a circular stair casing complete with step, facing, outside, and inside walls, with a circular base and the hand rail, banisters in granite or marble. Columns that fit, cutting the flutes in columns, arches, door frames, windows frames, sloped sill coping, floors and ceiling radial patterns or grades that wrap around a city block and align perfectly. A lot of three-dimensional math is required.

Stonecutter's Geometry: Ramp & Twist


The first job I had in this industry was laying out large complex shapes full size on the floor of a pattern room, then making zinc templates of each piece for stonecutters to apply to individual stone while shaping it in 1959. I don't know if early stone cutters had the luxury of such patternmaking , but developing complex shapes in three planes with stone was part of their job. I presume to know a little, but my father and my two older brothers could calculate what dad called ramp and twist. My younger brother who was an artist in stone and I could not. The modern era of the stonecutters in the United States was from 1800 to 1920, when they were replaced by the gang saw (for the most part) although they still exist in large architectural and Memorial fabrication facilities is in the Midwest, East and Southeast, with the help of sawn slabs. I read once there may be 300 stonecutters left in the United States.

Stonecutters learned to pitch stone with minimal effort.


I briefly apprenticed in a fabrication facility cutting dies, slants, hickeys and bases for monumental dealers. They mostly used 6 inch and eight inch sawn or polished slabs of granite. Stonecutters talk of the subtleties of each type of granite amongst themselves. They all pitch differently. These Memorial cutters are offended by point marks or ill- defined corner lines, a sign a failure in stone cutting. You won't survive as a memorial cutter if you can't drive a clean pitched face on a 10" slab of granite cutting from two sides with the handset and a specialized stonecutter's hammer. Stonecutters would stun a modern stone worker or government ergonomics inspector. No stonecutter could work with bent elbows. Swinging a 1 1/2 to 3 pound hammer 8 hours a day requires work to be at hip level.


Apprentice cutters were called lumpers whose job was to shovel up spalls for the stonecutters. I think there were many extra labor jobs back then. I met a stone polisher in Portland in 1968 who told me he knew my uncle Ted, a bricklayer and stonemason when he was a teenager working as a water boy for masons. Back then marble setters (installers) wore white shirts and ties in Portland in the 1920s and 30s. Even though I worked in the stone trade for 15 years and had four years of college, I needed to attend a year long Saturday brick layer school and serve a three-year apprenticeship before I was given a marble masons union card in 1975. Standards for craftsmen then were much more rigid, but today almost anyone can call himself a stone artisan.

My father told me that there were 2000 stone workers living in the Knowles, California granite quarry in 1920 when he worked there. They were building San Francisco's city, state and federal buildings, post offices, courthouses, City Hall and the Customs house. To me, these buildings are the most beautiful parts of San Francisco, all of which were built out of Sierra Nevada granite. We walked around several abandoned quarries looking at granite foundations of stone bunk houses in the lonely foothills of Madera County California. All gone now, flowers, live oak, and abandoned quarry holes full of water. They are on private property ranch land, with no easy access. These old quarries exist all over the country, a remnant of another time.

Back then the stonecutter traveled from job to job, city to city, following the work. They worked with local materials, giving rise to the urban identities we can still recognize. This was well before modern day mass production steel frame, stone skin buildings.

There is an architectural expression that cities reflect the ground they are built on.


Here are some examples of local stone that gave rise to urban identities back then:

• Portland Oregon, basalt and sandstone churches
• Vancouver BC-B.C. granite waterfront and public buildings
• San Francisco Sierra Nevada white granite public buildings
• New York City brownstones
• Austin Texas pink granite capital, historic public buildings
• Moriello Mexico, city of pink limestone
• Jerusalem yellow limestone
• Minneapolis Canadian shield granite and Kasota stone.

The list goes on: cityscapes defined by local stone, a connection to the past, stone providing a sense of place.



In fact, I often visit the Central Montana town of Lewistown. Croatian immigrant stonecutters, who settled there in the 1800s, built it out of local sandstone. When I first visited no one seemed to know the source of the stone. After making inquiries I found my daughter-in-law's great aunt Mary who was ready and willing to help me. Two years later she took me the town’s old quarry. We took some pictures. There is a strong sense of local pride in Lewistown where the old stonework has not been painted over or covered by trendy designs.

I have spent 5 working vacations attempting to reopen old marble quarries in Southeastern Alaska (once owned by the Vermont Marble Company). These quarries provided much of the stone used on buildings throughout the West. 60,000 blocks remain in the rain forest there on Marble Island. A pile of white marble 40 feet long, 40 feet high and 3 miles long still lies on the ground covered by thick layers of moss.

See Stearns County Minnesota for a great video on the history of stone

I have only found four places in the world where traditional stone cutters are still celebrated, by showing their tools in display cases. There may be others. The first is the state historical Center in Helena Montana and, second, a state building in Vienna Austria. Both honor stone craftsmen. The third is the Stearns county museum in Minnesota, where I grew up. This building is located next to a granite quarry that is now used as a nature park. It has a sunken man-made exhibition quarry in it showing the tools of the trade. It is a shame that Tenino Washington does not have an exhibition since its community pool is an old quarry. The Vermont marble company has a museum that recalls when their company once controlled almost all the marble work in the USA. However its more gratifying when noncommercial individuals provide the history lesson. It seems to suggest a more sincere interest.

As my father and I continued walking around abandoned quarry he told me stonecutters of his era were paid a dollar per hour and train fare to and from their home state. Great wages. By comparison, electricians received 60 cents per hour at the same time. No wonder the stone cutters strutted the streets of San Francisco with their wooden foldup tape measures in their back pockets on Sundays.

I don't know the exact delineation of jobs, but stonecutters worked at both the quarry and the actual jobsite at this time. In 1965 I was visiting with a 75- year-old memorial dealer from the bay area. He joked that so much stone dust came from a job shack that the insurance rates went up to the business across the street in San Francisco. In that era some lived, some died, my father told me he never expected to see 40 years. His three stonecutter brothers didn't live beyond 45.



I recently erected an 8’ by 6’ screen wall in my front yard. Looking out the window, I noticed it has a twist in it caused by its end posts not being in perfect alignment. My dad would have called this a wine, I suppose from the word winding. Can't have this in stone construction, it would eventually fall. Gravity disapproves.




Stonecutters and bricklayers are unique among tradesemen. They insist on their work being absolutely level and plumb.

Later, Dad and I came across a piece of granite –five feet wide, five feet long and 6 inches thick-lying among the wildflowers. All the edges were rough split top and bottom broken face. Interestingly, there was a perimeter of 3 to 4 inches of point marks all around it. I asked my father what this was. I can still see him 50 years later. “You don't know? That's a level seat! The stonecutter prepared this stone for the surface drifter to hammer point the top flat to his marks. Years later it dawned on me, this is the fundamental beginning of every building stone ever cut. The stonecutter from 1900 to present had the advantage of compressed air to help them shape the stone, but it's still all begins with a level seat the stonecutters first step.*

So far the so for the sake of experimentation let's think of the process stonecutters must have used before Ingersoll's book, The Uses of Compressed Air was published around 1895. I can only speculate the work of the stonecutter before compressed air. (I will chronicle what I call deep drilled hammer face compressed air technology another time.)


Bit is turned with each hammer blow. My son told me they still have in drilling contests in granite in Reno Nevada. Probably due to railroad building for explosives through the Sierra Nevada. I believe that Sullivan Channler used steam power in Alaska quarries at the turn of the century to chisel. I don't know if steam energy was used to drill. But I doubt it was used to drill stones locally. Hammer and chisel most likely. I watched my father drill this way in concrete at his Lake home where we had no electricity.





St. Patrick's
1st Presbyterian 1887
1st Congregational 1891

St. James Lutheran

1st Baptist 1894



Previous essays about stone by Joseph Conrad

"Stone Cutters Provide The Human Touch", Stone World Magazine 1996

"Heroes Of Local Knowledge", Portland's Future Magazine 1998

"Footprints In Stone", Field Trip To Downtown Portland For The Geological Society Of Oregon 2003

"Stone And Icabana" Lectures To Portland Icabana Society In The Portland Japanese Garden; 1999

"Exploring Historic Stone Quarry In Southeast Alaska", Lectures To Oregon Historic Architectural Society 2000

"The Influence Of Stone Production Techniques On Urban Morphology, A Historic Review Of American Stone Technologies And Its Influence On Cityscapes", Shown At The University Of Portland Library Art Exhibition 1995