• Granite column: What goes into a monument
    March 18,2013

    Paul Wood photo The South Walden Cemetery, where the Wood monument was placed this fall.

    Editor’s note: This article, the latest in a series on Vermont’s granite industry, is provided courtesy of the Vermont Granite Museum. 


    The inspiration for this article on how a monument comes together stems from a decision my wife and I made to have a monument after our death. This article, and its predecessor, walks readers through the process Rock of Ages takes — from start to cemetery.

    Today, we start close to the end, with finishing.

    At the shop

    Each monument order is entered into an order database, including type of granite, shape, finishes, lettering, shape carving, etc. Any photos or drawings are attached to the printed order. The head of production verifies the entered data and orders the stone. A shop card is prepared during order entry, showing the type of stone, dimensions and finishes. The shop card accompanies each monument as it moves through the manufacturing process.

    An order status database is maintained and can be accessed by order number and dealer name. Plant foremen (two for monuments, Jason Hardaker and Scott Lafreniere, and one for larger mausoleums and feature work) supervise the actual production process in the ROA Craftsmen Center.

    The saw plant, at the rear of the Craftsmen Center, has a Pelligrini 10-wire saw (the largest in North America), a single wire saw, and a Dessereau blade saw with a 3.5-meter diameter diamond blade. The saws cut slabs from saw blocks, mostly to the standard thicknesses of 4, 6, 8, 10, 12 and 14 inches. Cuts are made along the hardway, yielding typical 5-by-10-foot slab surfaces that will become the front of monuments and will result in a superior quality polished or steeled surface.

    The single-wire saw and blade saw take about the same time to saw a slab from a saw block. The newer multiwire saw can cut multiple slabs in the same time. Whereas the blade saw can cut a maximum rise (height) of only about 5 feet, the 10-wire saw can cut a block with a rise of 12 or 13 feet which is needed for large mausoleum pieces.

    The 3.5-meter blade saw was used to cut the 6-inch-thick slab of Adam-Pirie granite for our monument, since the saw block did not have a high enough rise to require the wire saw.

    Most slabs for monuments are steeled, or dusted, by sandblasting or polished on a polishing machine such as the Thibaut 1500. Prior grinding is sometimes necessary to obtain the smoothest surface. The slab for our monument was sawn and split and the final steeled finish applied by sandblasting. The guillotine operator lays out the slab with chalk marks. The guillotine (a hydraulic splitter whose row of carbide teeth exerts about 20,000 psi pressure on the stone) splits the slab along the chalk marks into monument-size pieces. The slab storage area is now smaller than was historically common since today slabs are sawn and split more on an as-needed basis.

    A crane is used (instead of the conveyor system) for large pieces, or to move pieces from one conveyor system line to another for unusual custom orders. Two overhead cranes share a single track in the Craftsmen Center. The crane operator moved our monument to the sandblast department and laid it down on a conveyor track. The monument was then dusted or steeled on every surface with steel shot to produce what is called a “tiffany” finish.

    A sandblast stencil with the Classic Roman lettering and the lamps of knowledge was cut by a computer-controlled diamond-bladed stencil cutting machine. The sandblaster then peeled the protective sheet off the back of the stencil to expose an adhesive and glued the stencil onto the stone.

    The sandblaster removed the cut letter pieces with a stencil knife, and the monument was moved into a blowing room to cut deep V-sunk lettering. The letters were then “blued” with stone dust, the dust removed during sandblasting by the dust collectors, using a special gun. Blueing darkens the letters somewhat and improves the contrast.

    Next, the lamps were shape carved by hand in two sandblast cuts. For the first cut, certain pieces of the lamp stencil were removed. For the second cut, some additional stencil pieces were removed and glue was applied to some areas that had just been shaped, and previously removed stencil pieces were reapplied. Shape carving can add depth and detail, making the carving more accurate and realistic.

    A worker at the washstand located behind the sandblast area then pulled the stencil off, applied a water-based cleaner, allowed it to set, and washed our monument with hot water and a bristle brush.

    Finally, our monument was inspected — checked for stains or defects and compared to the shop card and full-size detail drawing. The inspector then signed off. The washed and inspected monument was crated by another worker. Our monument was wrapped in plastic and crated in wood with steel straps to hold the crate onto the monument. The straps were arranged so the monument could be easily picked up by the overhead crane. The order number was marked on the crate, and an identifying tab from the shop card was stapled to the crate.

    Our crated monument was sent to the warehouse area where stone is arranged in expected shipping order. A shipping clerk determined the order of loading of flatbed trucks by a front-end loader for various destinations — Boston, Chicago, etc. Since Bellavance Trucking does most of ROA’s long-haul shipping, the company often leaves an empty flatbed trailer that the warehouse worker will load and which, when full, will be driven to the Bellavance warehouse for reconsolidation. ROA does not use rail shipping. For local monument setting, a small boom truck is typically used to transport and set the stone.

    The cemetery

    Our monument was set in a rural cemetery in South Walden, on the Bayley-Hazen Military Road. This was the first road constructed in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Authorized by George Washington and built in 1776 and 1779, the road later served as the avenue for early settlers. The South Walden Cemetery is a rural cemetery bordered by century-and-a-half-old sugar maples and surrounded by hay fields.

    It is a small cemetery of 1.5 acres with about 260 monuments erected before 1977. It was opened in the late 1820s and has early 19th-century slate monuments, mostly mid-19th-century marble monuments, and granite monuments mostly starting from the late 19th century.

    The cemetery began as a neighborhood cemetery where neighbors who shared religious principles chose to be buried together. Later, as the population of Walden grew, it became a town cemetery with formal rules and perpetual care. We can see our monument from our 1830s farmhouse, which overlooks the cemetery.

    Using the earliest inscribed date of death as an approximate date of erection of a monument, it can be seen that slate was used in the 1840s and before. Since the cemetery was established in the late 1820s, the half dozen or so slate monuments that have earlier dates were either erected at a later date or perhaps were moved from private family cemeteries. All of the slate monuments are tablets with mostly flat or rounded tops. An early 19th-century tablet was typically 22 to 24 inches wide, 2 to 4 inches thick, and the bottom was set below grade to support the monument. Slate is easy to split into tablets, and it is easy to carve sharp, clean lettering and designs. However, slate’s durability varies widely. Some slates are highly durable and will not degrade over centuries, while others will spall (flake off) with exposure to extremes of hot and cold.

    Marble began to enter the cemetery in the 1840s and peaked in popularity in the 1850s and 1860s. Most of the marble monuments are tablets with flat, pointed or rounded tops.

    By the 1870s and later, two-piece marble die and base monuments became more popular. A die is the stone with name and date inscriptions and decorative carving and is set on a typically rectangular base for support and protection from ground moisture. There are about a dozen large combined marble and granite monuments — marble obelisks or square columns set on a double or triple granite base. Marble can be readily sawed into tablets and dies, is a lustrous creamy white, and carves beautifully. While not as big an issue for rural cemeteries, 20th-century air pollution, including acid rain, has dissolved away the surface of many marble monuments so that inscriptions have become unreadable and the carvings badly eroded.

    Finally, all-granite monuments began to appear by the 1880s and were the dominant stone from then on. Most of the granite monuments consist of a die with single or double base of gray (probably local Vermont) granite. Granite solved the problems of spalling and air pollution, but its introduction had to await the availability of tools and machinery that could economically quarry and finish this extremely hard material. Not only is granite little affected by atmospheric conditions, but it can be polished to a mirrorlike surface, providing an attractive contrast with steeled and rock face surfaces.

    In the South Walden Cemetery, the evolution of stone and design can be seen in the Edwards and French family monuments.

    Setting the monument

    Of Walden’s 10 cemeteries, only three are still active with burials and available lots — the South Walden Cemetery, the Noyesville Cemetery and the Walden Heights Cemetery. Two cemeteries are privately owned and are maintained by the owners. One of these private cemeteries is owned by Bryan Blundell, the “Walden Christmas Tree King” who takes excellent care of his cemetery.

    Walden’s cemeteries do not have formal regulations as to monument size or style, but a monument has to be within the lot cornerstones, should be at the head of the grave, and should be facing the road. Dimensions are 4 by 10 feet for a single-grave lot, 8 by 10 feet for a double-grave lot.

    Walden has a cemetery commissioner, and the Cemetery Commission has an annual income from the town of $5,000 plus the income from lot sales. Seventy-two-year-old Roy Hopkins is the sexton who mows and maintains Walden’s cemeteries. The South Walden Cemetery has gnarly soil with plenty of stones, resulting in tough digging.

    In fall 2012, Kevin Walbridge, the foundation contractor, dug and poured the concrete foundation for our monument. To keep the monument stable and plumb, the foundation was dug about 4 feet 6 inches deep — below the frost line. The foundation bells out at the bottom so frost can’t “grab” onto it and move it out of alignment. The foundation was done in two pours — the first pour is up to the bottom of the monument (18 inches below grade) and the second pour extends 4 inches all around the monument and 3 to 4 inches below grade so grass can grow right up to the monument. Our monument sits on the first pour.

    Dennis Beaudin, the setting contractor, picked our monument up at the Rock of Ages warehouse. He used a “boom truck” to move our 1,500-pound monument to the gravesite and lower it onto the first pour. (For setting really large monuments, a crane would be hired.) Steve Benoit and Dennis drove up to South Walden, where they worked together to install the monument.

    The dates of death will be cut by a cemetery sandblaster with portable sandblast equipment — air compressor, sandblast tanks, hoses, nozzles, helmet, rubber gloves, etc. If requested, ROA will recommend a cemetery sandblaster and will provide a sandblast stencil to ensure that the new lettering is identical to the old and correctly positioned on the monument.

    We feel confident that our monument will survive in excellent condition for many years in this beautiful and tranquil rural setting.

    Paul Wood is a regular contributor to The Times Argus.

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