Traditional Letter Cutting

It’s really all Joe’s fault. Joseph Conrad. Not the author, but a different Joe who works stone and carves for pleasure. Joe started Conrad Stonecutter, of Portland, OR and still carves a few hours a week when he’s up to it. I first met Joe early in the 1990’s just after I started to figure out some of what I was going to be ambitious about in life. He was a big part of that and I’ve told him as much. Joe was one of the first to take mercy on me as a newbie and pointed me in the direction I mostly ended up taking. There were others, but none like Joe. He asked me one day to do a very shallow etch into some granite with my sandblasting set up. He told me that it would help him get the carving started for a project he was working on at the time: I think it was a corner stone for a local building. When I returned the stone to his shop, we placed it on a banker and I immediately noticed some strange looking tools he had laid out on the bench, in particular a metal tube attached to an air hose. Trow & Holden was etched into the side. I admit freely that I peeked when he wasn’t looking. Then I watched him work for a bit, enchanted for a few brief minutes, knowing I would own similar hardware very, very soon. That’s all it took. Like a duck to water. That and a whole lifetime of practice. But it was never difficult for me and I have prospered from it. I know now I was meant for it. Joe is still a friend. So is his son, Charles and daughter-in-law, Debra. They’ve been an important part of my life and my professional success. I’m grateful for their friendship and trust.

Carving donor names directly into the limestone lobby at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as a guest carver just prior to the 100 year anniversary of President Reagan’s birth.

Considered by many to be among the most refined of stone-carving skill sets. A gift admired even among the most famous of stone carvers. Take a close look at the greats and you may notice that skill surprisingly lacking in some signatures and lettering details. A hand-held hammer and chisel freely against the stone is no mean or easy task.

The precision can’t be anything but spot-on accurate or it won’t look right. No wiggle room. Only one right answer. Letter form is precise and dimensional. Spell-check is a must. Beforehand: I know that from experience now. Many eyes are needed and even sometimes that’s not enough. Mistakes can happen anyway. They do get by the best of us. There’s just one shot to get it done correctly. Sometimes – most of the time, really – every breath has a consequence.

Focus. No pressure, right? Join me and loose yourself in the moment. Experience the compression of time and full kinetic embrace of mind, body and tools as they become one. Hard to describe, but you’ll know when you’re in the moment. For something so non-aerobic and nearly stationary, it’s terribly hard on the body and the joints and the hands. It’s surprisingly an exhausting and difficult work to master properly, but it’s something no one can take away.

The Wanamaker Building – Penn. Square, Philadelphia

I found myself perched 60 ft off the ground on Penn Square for a couple of weeks in Feb. and March in an articulating high lift. I used inflatable boat pads in order to suck up the 2 x 4 ft x 8ft basket “lightly” against the building to keep it from swaying. Not just disorienting, but a bit of a challenge to plant one’s feet firmly and carve accurately with the basket moving from the pressure of the stance. Given the weather, the basket was fitted with something like a cover, but that didn’t make things any warmer up that high in a city-scape funnel. The practicality of working on Penn Square also precluded leaving anything unattended, so the work schedule was something along the lines of show up, load up, elevate, work for 4 straight hours without a restroom break, then lower for lunch which involved a complete evacuation of tools and equipment into secured storage and then after a long enough break, a repeat of the morning routine for the remainder of the afternoon until quitting time. Kind of tedious. But also totally necessary. The panels are granite – and huge – approx. 4 ft tall and 8 ft wide. Not a detail readily obvious from ground level, but you can see the colossal letter size next to me and you can see the tiny people in the entry area far below. Very satisfying.

An early view at a clean slate. This commission is one of the highlights of my career as a letter cutter.

The architects who brought me into the project were located in the mezzanine level of the building to my right – basically at eye-level to where I was working; City Hall (and the Historical commission which authorized the carving into an Historically registered building) at my back, the building ownership obviously quite interested in the identity carving at the new entrance of this repurposed, prominent, prior-department store building cum office complex, and both customers of the flagship Lords and Taylor retail store, building tenants plus hundreds of visitors to the building entering through the structure underneath and around the protective gear masking off the main entrance.

One of the all-time best compliments of my professional life from the architect who brought me into the project: “Pete, it looks like it’s always been there.” What a great way to end a job!

No pressure. Nothing: not hammers, chisels, tools, me, as well a guest carver who joined in working with me for the first week wasn’t pierced, strapped in and/or attached to something for safety sake. 60 feet is a long ways down.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, CA

Nathan and Millie, the cutest couple who ever was. Millie was a WAVE. She was originally from the mid-West and came out to the West Coast to serve in the Navy during WW2. She was a doll! I saw a picture of her in uniform – she must have been in her early 20’s – so beautiful and full of life. She recently passed away in her sleep in her mid-90’s. I miss her. I know Nathan does too, terribly. She always had a room ready for me to visit and made apple pie to celebrate my arrival.
As a post-college student, I was working for a few months as a trainee through the AIESEC exchange program in Berlin and was invited to be present in the crowd at the Brandenburg Gate when President Reagan spoke those epic words: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Being a guest carver at the Library was an amazing gift. One of the docents made arrangements for me to get some archival images of that historic day. I haven’t yet been able to locate myself in the crowd – how cool would that be?! But seriously, thanks! Nathan, for an awesome opportunity.

Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon

This is an honorific carving into marble at approx. 30 ft elevation. I was working off a scaffold, so it was far more stable than the articulating high lift used at Penn Square. But, I had to climb up and down. With tools. In wet, cold weather. One of these days, I’d love a project that’s not in the Winter months. For a change.

Midland Memorial Hospital, Midland, TX

I’ve been invited back to Midland a number of times to add names to this beautiful fountain wall at the main hospital complex entry. Great folks and awesome BBQ. I’m still working on finding my favorite and folks there have been kindly showing me around to their favorite pits.

A personal first for me has been in Midland carving in high waders in the fountain a time or two. I already know I want to be a Texan when I grow up. I especially love Midland in the Winter months! It’s pretty much like Portland in the Spring & Summer. I can confirm Midland in the Summer is rough and like an inferno. I must admit to having a whole lot of respect for South West Texans. Especially those who opt to go without air conditioning.

Portland LDS Temple, Portland, OR

Propstra Square, Vancouver, WA