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.

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