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 It has been a long time since the dimension stone cutters had been replaced by stone fabrication facilities as mentioned above.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.




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