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


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 stone worker 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. I think this suggests that I am not only interested in the designers name but maybe my interest is more centered on the technology and people working on the project.

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.

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.


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.


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.”


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

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Being around as long as I have one has heard a lot of sage advice from stone workers.
When I was a 23-year-old quarry worker, john Alexander, founder of the largest granite company in the world, cold spring granite, told me a few things I never forgot but probably abused often in my life:

- Never hire an artist, always hire a mechanic.

- Never sell something you don’t have.

- Never fire someone until you have someone to replace him.

We all break this rules over and over, especially # 2.

Once when I had an open multiple wire saw available I sawed a block of black diamond granite slabs thinking I was getting ahead of things. Mr. Alexander had seen these slabs on a visit and asked what job they were for. I told him. He asked me if I would like my paycheck when they sell. I got the message quickly. I am sure he was the smartest stone man I have ever been around.

Another great stone man I had the privilege of working with Peter Rigutto. My son calls his nephew re-Pete. If Pete was still alive he would be well over 100 years old. I was a part-time marble helper, full-time G.I. Bill, 30-some college student interested in physical geography and urban studies. For five years I worked for Pete whenever he wanted me.

Pete told me he walked over the Dolomites with his dad, they slacked their own lime, doing marble work in Holland as a kid. Later as apprentice marble setter for his dad in Portland USA. He kept things going by working as a marble setter, being a professional wrestler, and playing cello in an orchestra during the depression.

Pete mostly gave his lessons in expressions but was a great ad-libber:

- Never got enough till you got too much

- Lucky to get it.

- Pearls before swine.

- Can’t make a silk purse out of sow’s ear.

Work men of his era were gruff with home owners. Not a bad policy all in all. It kept them from looking over your shoulder and second-guessing what you’re doing. He preferred to tell you when he was finished, and not have you look for problems.

I don’t know why but women loved Pete But they seemed to get under his skin. I asked him once way he always knew more about my college subject matters than me, he said he had  the advantage of Italian being his first language. Words had meaning and he never got along with his wife so he spent a lot of time at his beach shack reading.

Once after laying out a complicated slate floor in a building lobby downtown all the women got to know him and his quips after two weeks walking in and out of the building . We installed the slate ramp up to the door at quite a steep angle I thought, but one never questioned Pete’s work. The president of the bank thought to it was too steep and to be dangerous. The women chuckled, saying you just did that as they walked in. Pete responded without looking up ,women aren’t the only ones who can change their mind.

Pete was laying a marble floor in an eastern Oregon home and the lady homeowner came in and started tapping the finished areas with a pole thinking she was checking for a good job. Pete dryly said we just lay them ma’am, we don’t tune ‘em. When Pete’s brother and I got together as we often did before they died we never talked about Pete, it was too hard. Fred was no slouch himself. You can always pick these old great Italian marble men with their strong hands, never seem to be more then a foot off the ground ready to go to work laying a floor. Fred always said what you don’t get done by noon isn’t worth doing. A craftsman’s work ethic. The difference between a good job and a perfect job is a waste of time. I learned a lot from these two brothers and miss both of them all the time.

A note about Fred. Fred had a lathe in his garage and would always help you tool a special part you wanted. He was a true Italian mechanic par excellence. And Pete surely would have been an artist in another life.

Fred the mechanic would say "not much call for that" when you presented him with your latest innovation, whereas Pete would have smiled and said "keep going Joe!"
Mr. Alexander, the Scottish granite man, ended up owning thousands of acres of land, and had over 3000 employees working for him. The two Italian brothers ended up sharing their mother’s side lot for a garden. All three of these stone men were a great influence on my life.

I would like to finish by stating that the two Italian marble masons enjoyed and shared the food they grew, the fish they caught, and the wine they made all their lives. I am sure neither one would have traded lives with anyone, nor would the great Scottish entrepreneur trade his life. All three of them had great lives in the stone industry.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


My Delivery System

Moving stone, due to its mass, has always been a topic of conversation and interest to the general public. Pyramid construction, Stonehenge, Mayan ruins, etc. Seems to be a endless source of TV documentaries. Sculpture groups give seminars on handling large heavy stones. Working with gravity, simple levers, inclined planes, etc. Is essential to stone-loving sculptors. Today we have lifting devices of all sorts to make things easy, but it wasn't so long ago these aids were not often used.

When I was attending Portland State University in the early 1970s, I cut letters and polished monuments after classes and often delivered monuments with Howard Coleman, a five-foot-six 130-pound machine polisher. We both worked at a tombstone manufacturing shop in Portland, Oregon Howard got his start in the stone trade working in Medica Lake white granite quarry in eastern Washington, near Spokane Howard would take me along when he had monuments to install in local cemeteries around Portland and sometimes outside of the Portland area as well.

He needed no help with with flat markers 2 foot by 1 foot, or 2 foot 4 inch by 1 foot 4 inch. Or 4 foot by 1 foot double markers. Nor did he need help with hickey or slant markers, they only weighed 150 to 200 hundred pounds.

It's a special language this monument business. I taught it to my daughter and we still laugh at things like ”carnelian 3-0 x1-10x 0-8 ck molds -rock sides with 4-0x 1-0 x 8 base.” All a stone man needs to know to start working making a specific color, size, and detailed monument.

Howard cut and polished raised lettering by hand at night for extra money using hand-held emery bricks. My mentor Julius would rough out the lettering with the sandblast and Howard would take it from there, polishing square and sharp corners with lots of fine details with a flat recessed background in granite.

I spent many pleasant Fridays helping him deliver monuments in a 1947 four-speed green flatbed, equipped with split rear end for the open road to local cemeteries.

Monuments, that is die and base, went mainly to Jewish cemeteries, and occasionally to a gypsy section in one cemetery. Flat run the lawn mower over the top markers is good enough for most of us. Its all about price and cemetery efficiency and a lack of interest in the dead. In our mainstream society, no “day of the dead” ceremonies remembering our parents or grandparents north of the Rio grand.

Howard’s basic tools were planks, broom handle rollers , 4x4 cribbing, plywood for path construction, a 4-wheel balloon tire heavy-duty hand truck, and a pinch bar seldom used, it being a dangerous tool. He would deliver and install 500 to 1000 pound fragile and expensive monuments with ease. Knowing that any chips or scratches were unacceptable to the customer. He would raise them up on the base with the hand truck and put a special goop he rolled in his hand while I rocked the monument back. He slid them down off the truck on his trusty planks and moved them through the cemetery without damaging the grass with his hand truck on plywood roads he laid down.

With a guy like Howard, what company would bother with a lifting device? We both worked cheap, low wages and long hours. Fridays were often 7 to 7 by the time we got back to the shop with a lunch at one of Howard's favorite beer joints.

Early one spring – I don't remember whether it was hood river or The Dalles, Oregon – Howard asked me to go with him in the old green flatbed loaded with his trusty planks, 4x4 cribbing, 4x4 by 8 foot beams, chains and belts, come along puller, plywood road material and a solid stone altar about 8 foot long and 4 foot wide and 3 feet high, it must have weighed about 8 tons. It was to be installed in a catholic church. I didn't know how he was going to do this so I told my wife and children I would be back later in the week.

Howard had already cased the job out, for when we got to church parking lot,two auto wreckers pulled up, one one each side of the flatbed. We rigged the lifting cables, the wreckers coordinated the lift and Howard drove the flatbed out. I don't remember whether he had them lower on to a steel cart or whether it came down on his 4x4 roller system, it's been 40 years. I do remember that it took 2 days to move the altar with the come along up into the front door and down the center aisle and up to the front of the church. Turn it and and safely land this fragile and expensive stone. I assume it's still there.

Food and lodging at a motel was provided by the company we worked for. I remember when we drove back down into the Willamette Valley the heavy rich smell of spring in the air and feeling of accomplishment working with this gentle man. I learned a lot from him and a few years later when I had my own little business I had a opportunity to move and turn an altar with my companion Schmitty. I will save that story for another blog.

Whenever I go back to my home town in Minnesota I always visit the cemeteries where my brothers and sisters and parents are buried, all with beautiful upright die and base monuments, and think about my roots.

My Final Installation System

Monday, April 16, 2012

Stonecutters Provide the Human Touch

The design of a stone tabernacle for a Portland, Oregon, church was completed with a partnership of design and craftsmanshipby Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad Stonecutter
Portland, Oregon

(First published in Stone World magazine, April 1996)

The design of the tabernacle of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Portland, Oregon, was influenced by Venetian churches.

My association with the restoration of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Portland, Oregon, began when Father Anthony asked if I could restore and reduce the size of an historic marble altar for the church's 100-year celebration. The altar, having come from St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, had been moved several times, and its size did not fit the space well.

After studying the way the altar was built, I knew this could be done tastefully without damaging the original design. However, I was somewhat intimidated by his request that I propose a design for a tabernacle to stand behind the altar. I eventually proposed that a marble tabernacle could be built utilizing an existing insert in the altar. The new tabernacle would reflect the design elements of the altar.

As a second-generation stonecutter with 35 years in the stone industry, I admit to a prejudice favoring local stone fabrication in spite of economic and social realities favoring foreign manufacturing of stone products. However, I am convinced that many experienced craftsmen intuitively view three-dimensional forms from a practical perspective which I call "Inside-Out Design," which was utilized for this project.

Inside-Out Design is the perception of physical forms as a series of processes that generate form. The architectural designer looks at the physical, social and economic needs of the client and proceeds to define a physical form to fulfill those needs. The craftsman looks at the same needs of the clients, asks how much money he has to spend, surveys the tools and supplies he has to work with, and proceeds to define the form.

In Practice

As we dissembled the altar to bring it to our fabrication shop for refurbishing, Father Anthony gave me some 1940 photos of the original tabernacle. He reminded me that tabernacles and church statuary and furniture are typically purchased in Italy, but there was a change in Church policy directing the use of local craftsmen whenever possible.

While this was refreshing news, I assume this proclamation is more typically interpreted to buy materials in Italy as usual and have local labor move it in. However, Father Anthony was determined to employ local craftsmen and artisans for the entire process.

He contacted Michael Dante, a professor of sculpture at the University of Oregon, to design and build the ornate sculptured doors for the tabernacle. Two separate sets of doors were required to house and show the monstrance at different elevations for religious ceremonies. Consequently, sizes were roughly established in human scale. The metal container and interior lighting were to be enclosed by a marble structure.

Father Anthony then hired DiBenedetto/Thomson Architects of Portland to design the structure. The architectural design team studied Venetian churches and developed drawings for a stone tabernacle.
A meeting to review the plans was held, including members of the architectural design team, the sculptor, Father Anthony, the church historian, myself and others. Each of us provided input as to the feasibility of construction and design concepts. It was decided that while the tabernacle should be the center of focus for the church, it should not overwhelm the space only with size. We wanted it to function on a human scale while also relating to the altar in front of it. As a sculptor, Dante was also concerned with door function, texture and relief.

Father Anthony requested that the architectural firm develop a full-size mock-up and set it in the space to check for scale, introduce and get input from congregational members, the donor and fellow church clergy.

After assembling the Styrofoam mock-up, it was decided to downsize the structure. Certain modifications were made, working drawings were given to me, and Dante was instructed to start on the doors.

Father Anthony and I then went to a local stone supply yard, Oregon Tile & Marble, to select material for the project. We set aside three slabs of Carrara White and chose accent and column stones later as the colors of the church decor evolved.

The construction procedure

Any complex stone project must start the same way, with full size drawings that include: plan, front, left, right, rear and critical sections through. Full-size drawings ensure that all parts work together. For example, if the doors swing into the column base, modifications would be required to make it work. It is useful to make drawings on pattern board. If kept clean and dry, they can then act as templates to build from as the project takes shape.

The stone craftsman must turn a single dimension drawing (flat plane) into a three-dimensional form. Often, changes in design occur during the process. As few people are capable of truly perceiving three-dimensional objects from shop drawings, patterns help.

The tabernacle was viewed as separate understandable stone components.

The tabernacle was viewed a separate understandable stone components, and shop tickets were made describing each element. At this point, shop experience is critical to create three-dimensional forms with little seam appearance. Understanding of shop machinery and practices are critical, as well as having strong knowledge of the stone's characteristics.

For some of the features, the various elements were cut-to-size, the edges detailed and the pieces were then assembled and glued to form a whole component. The components were then dry set in our shop and viewed by Father Anthony and the designer. Following the procedure, minor adjustments to the lighting were made.

Once approved, the assembly of the tabernacle at the church took less than six hours.

Once approved, the assembly of the tabernacle at the church took less than six hours. The local fabrication in this case allowed the customer/builder to interact with the artisans involved in the project. Sophisticated customers often require the stamp of craftsmen, which provides some of the soul that can be lost in day-to-day life.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


A piece of pure white marble from Mount Calder, Southeast Alaska. Native corporations have sold millions of dollars of this material to Japan for paper whitening and other chemical uses, including (probably) indigestion tablets!

Black marble from a small quarry next to five large white quarries abandoned on Marble Island, Alaska (around 1925).

Two small mill blocks sitting next to my truck in SE Portland. We sent these blocks to New Mexico Travertine to be cut into slabs.

Thirty-five years ago I rented a small quonset hut in southeast Portland's low-rent district and attempted my first effort at my own stone business as a 35 year old. I was totally impoverished with a wife and two children and no work. This was pre-granite counter days, the stone business didn't exist. Outside tombstones, or an occasional fireplace facing. Stone tiles were first beginning to appear. There was some question whether these stone tiles were work for marble masons or tile setters. In an attached shed next to mine worked Schmitty, a 70-year-old man who cast cement collars around flat tombstones for cemeteries. We became friends.

Schmitty told me that during the depression he raised and trapped for furs in the southeast Alaska islands. He told me that there was a machine shop on an island that he could use to repair his outboard motor left by a marble quarrying operation. Apparently a caretaker was still assigned to this operation by the Vermont marble company. This was when I first heard of marble in southeast Alaska. I never thought much about it until 15 years later I received a phone call from an Alaskan fisherman. He told me he got my name from a maritime attorney in Portland suggesting me as a stone expert. Thus began a five-year misadventure with Alaska marble.

The fisherman to the best of my recollection was fishery biologist who retreated from a government fisheries post for seclusion in southeast Alaska to create his own private reality, which he seemed to prefer. This sort of behavior seems to be not uncommon in southeast Alaska, rugged individualists. He had all the skills to function in a world of what seemed to me to be a severe and dangerous profession. We became phone companions with daily conversations. He told me about marble blocks on an island, and that he had an offer to provide slabs from this stone for a courthouse remodel in eastern Washington. In the next several months I talked him through the steps to remove these blocks for his courthouse dream.

About 4 months later he showed up at the front door of my small stone fabrication shop in Portland and told me he had gone to a competitor stone company and they had no idea what to do with the stone blocks he had on the back of this old beat-up flatbed truck, and again asked for help. We went for breakfast where he informed me he hated cities and particularly restaurants with their fake flower arrangements. He also expressed a dislike for people in general and that he had lost 35 pounds breaking the stone and getting it on his boat and eventually down to Portland on this flatbed . I later found that his food preferences were lukewarm sausages, instant coffee and cigarettes, which seemed to sustain this 6-foot-5 inch healthy man. It could have ended right there if I said go away but I didn't. This was before the internet, information was hard to get so I decided to help him.

I went back to my shop and called a friend of mine who owned and operated one of only two stone saw shops west of the Mississippi, that could saw his blocks, Ted Orchard. Ted, a true professional, a hero of mine agreed to help him. The fisherman was off and running, glad to get away from town. I was told he slept under his truck for the week it took to slab his blocks.

Six months later the fisherman called me out of the blue and told me he delivered the slabs to the courthouse, got paid, and wanted to try this marble business again. I was flabbergasted and asked why I should help him. He asked if I would meet his partner, a Yakima farmer at the Alaska air terminal in Seattle, and they would show me Alaska. How could I say no?

Thus began one of the greatest friendships of my life with a 70-year-old farmer who got his degree in chemistry before World War II.

I packed my old Navy seabag with what I thought might be appropriate gear for life on a fishing boat and found Bob. He was hard to miss in his coveralls, and small hand bag. Pulling two white styrofoam coolers taped up, filled, I learned later, with Bob's own home-cured without any refrigeration that is, beef. Quite crusty. A process all new to me. This aged beef was to be a special treat for the fisherman even though he had no way to properly cook it. I found out later. Bob the ever-harvesting farmer wanted the cooler to be filled with fish he intended to sell when we got back from our trip to Alaska. Bob's mind was not on marble, although he was curious to learn. Bob's interest, besides shrimp and salmon, was looking for a good spot to raise oysters, the salinity of fresh and salt water and location was someplace in southeast Alaska. The whole experience was all new to me, the marble man.

Bob was a practical man, he would just as soon provide sandwiches hot coffee and cash to native fishermen for resale then to harvest them himself on fish openings. My friend Bob loved to say cash is still legal tender. The fisherman's favorite expression I later learned was nothing final till Lisbon, the U.S. Not having an extradition treaty with Portugal. He had big dreams about the value of marble. Bob and I were off to Alaska – me with my overpacked seabag, him with his Yakima meat, which later turned out to remind me of another Joseph Conrad's meat supply, getting larger and smellier as they traveled upstream one hundred years earlier.

View of #1 stone mill blocks stacked on 6 x 6s waiting for shipment by ocean transport to San Francisco - but they never left! (Marble Island, Alaska)

Saturday, April 14, 2012


(this blog should be read as a second part of my first blog on Alaska there will be more.)

It's been 15 years since I last visited Alaska so I may not have a exact recollection of events, however I won't let that stop me from discussing my 5-year Alaska experience.

The small part of Alaska we went to is known as South East the archipelago traveled by cruse ships,or inland passage off western Canada. Generally this area from Juneau south to Ketchikan has a climate similar to Seattle with more rain as you move north. Winters are mild but wet and can be windy and dangerous for small planes in winter as well as uncomfortable boating. Consequently I always went in the summer.

There's marble in them there islands

Mt. Calder - pure white marble

Ten percent of Alaska is owned by native corporations since statehood formation. Most of the state is federal or state owned land. It is important to know when one is looking and exploring around, whose property you are on . This is home of the Tungus, our largest national forest, now protected by President Clinton, not so when I was there. Today it would likely be illegal to walk or drive the old log roads we traveled on these remote uninhabited islands as we did, looking at geology formations.

How we get around

Old log roads

Landing craft and fishing boat home

People who live on these islands have to be self sufficient,with boats to get to town for supplies,but no infrastructure at there home site, diesel generators for power needs. Fish camps are scattered around with customers pampered in and out on float planes, getting an outback experience with no personal discomfort. Local economists gauge the economic health by calculating the ratio of pounds of fish going out, to gallons of beer coming in,on the barge transport system.

Fishing for dinner

Landing craft as truck

Dangerous passage

There is classic award winning book over 600 hundred pages describing the geology of the United States mainland, titled ANNALS OF THE FORMER WORLD by JOHN McPHEE. In it the author states that if you don’t want to read the entire book, it's enough to understand that the stone on top of Mt. Everest was formed at the bottom of the ocean. I am not smart enough to describe the geology of SE Alaska but to say that its geology was formed a long way south and smashed in, or what geologists called docked, by tectonic drift. So there is a lot of variety to look at. I found a lot of good information in the Ketchikan library on local geology, those librarians are always so kind and helpful, I hope our digital age doesn’t somehow displace them. Two of the best sources being MARBLE RESOURCES OF SOUTHEASTERN ALASKA by ERNEST F. BUCHARD, given to me by Ron Geitgey, with a section on geography and geology by THEODORE CHAPIN, bulletin 682 posted in 1920. How these guys traveled around and walked these rain forest islands is beyond my imagination. The second great source for me is a book written by PATRICIA ROPPEL, titled FORTUNES FROM THE EARTH, published in 1991. There is a lot of other great stuff on this subject but these two I found most helpful.

Me at the black deposit

Marble blocks covered with moss

Stacked and ready for San Francisco

On my first trip to SE Alaska, Bob with his meat, me with my over stuffed navy sea bag, we landed on Gravina island just off Ketchikan (bridge to nowhere fame), and took a local ferry to PRINCE OF WALES island. Then van shuttle to CRAIG our headquarters, then down to meet JIM the Alaska fisherman and explorer who lived on Bob's 42 foot wooden trawler. After going to grocery store for provisions we headed out the next morning to a friend of Jim's place, to pick up a skiff with an outboard motor to use. His friend had a wonderful home. He and his wife and one son lived in all built by him on a log raft. Behind his home he had built a large building that was his log mill all on another log raft, well lit and airy, a business he used to supplement his fishing. I remember they had a dog that he said had never been to town (had never seen another dog). I liked that.

My friend the Yakima farmer

Marble blocks

Me swimming in quarry

Shortly after heading out for Marble Island we were all engaged in conversation and came up on a concealed rock, high and dry and tilting portside. This is how navigational errors sink boats. If the tide is going out, the craft tips and fills with water . Tide was going the right for us,so we had to wait an hour or so and were lifted off and floating again. Must have hit right in the center, these old wooden fishing boats have massive keels, probably not so lucky with modern fiberglass boats. No damage, everything seemed to work again.

The black quarry

25-foot-long marble blocks under water, water left from Juneau capitol job

Rail cart in rain forest

Our fishing boat had a top speed around 6 knots, and we got to Marble Island at night fall. The solitude and stillness of this remote place is beyond description. As you approach the island two 40-foot-high stacks of quarry blocks protrude from the rain forest out into the water, all waste material abandoned there 80 to 110 years ago by the Vermont marble company. These piles of marble quarry blocks were built by loading blocks with stiff leg derricks cut from handy trees and steam driven wenches to a rail cart on top, with an improvised track to the end of the pile and dumped. By our recollection these scrap piles tangled through the rain forest for 3 miles, 40 ft wide 40 ft high, by my calculations there are probably 60,000 marble blocks resting in the rain forest. Four quarry holes of white marble and one quarry hole or black marble all filled with fresh water in the middle of a pristine rain forest. This being one of many abandoned quarries I would have a chance to visit the next five years. (MORE ON ALASKA FUN LATER )