Joseph Conrad

Special Contributor

Stone ApprentishipI grew up in a central Minnesota town population of 2500, which was the home of the largest stone fabrication company in the world. 

This may seem strange to many readers. Blocks of granite from 25 upper Midwest locations were shipped, mostly by rail, to be cut and fabricated for architectural projects all over the United States in this little town. 

The glaciers did the heavy work, removing the top soil, uncovering many colored granite deposits. Varieties of color helped provide a steady job source for this company. My father and his three brothers and my three brothers, and many other family members worked there in many different capacities. 

My dad made an appointment for me with Bob Tice, vice president in charge of engineering, where my two older brothers already worked. He hired me as an apprentice pattern maker, I am sure because of my dad and brothers. 

In order to better understand what this job was, think about the next time you see a large urban plaza granite job with sweeping curves or complex shapes, or stone fountains, or slopping walls of stone. Each stone was fabricated to fit in a certain place, based on architectural drawing as interpreted by shop drawings and individual shop work tickets and zinc patterns for durability and accuracy in the fabrication process. I, like everyone else, started out in the office basement floor. It was great –  minimum wage, but what an opportunity to learn. I was only 19 years old, and eager to learn the ropes as an apprentice pattern maker. 

Back then, architects provided site specific, general information for stone engineers to make shop drawings for stone fabrication, as per their general plans. These stone fabrication shop drawings were made by senior draftsman, and approved by the architectural design firm before fabrication was begun. Stone mill blocks could then be ordered from the quarry to the correct sizes and quantities to produce the project. 

Apprentice draftsmen would then make an separate shop ticket for each individual stone in the project, which was sent to the shop with fabrication instructions for that individual stone. If adequate information could not be put on the individual shop ticket, a pattern was made for that stone. This is how I spent my first year in the stone business.

In the office basement was a space – from my memory, it was about 40x50 sq. ft. of smooth concrete floor. There was a large roll of very heavy paper about six feet wide. This paper was pulled out and taped to the floor to make an area large enough to draw out the project full size. Then, with the aid of straight edges, snap lines, long sticks and points to swing arks, and hundreds of pre-made zinc radius templates and other aids, a drawing was made with 6H pencils. We did the drawing in our stocking feet, to keep from smudging the lines. 

As an example, a plan view of a given radius on a curved wall with given end points defined by architectural drawings, could be laid out full-size, so equal, individual stone pieces could be determined. Granted, all of this can be done mathematically with the help of logarithms, etc. But full-size patterns were needed for shop fabrication, because full-size layouts help to eliminate errors, and often provide a visualization that is hard to envision mathematically (I wrote an article about this, published in 1996). The process helps to see three dimensional forms developed from two dimensional drawings.

These full-size layouts were inspected by a senior draftsmen and he would then tell you to proceed to the next step – making zinc patterns for the fabrication shop, if he found no errors in your layout.

Our layout room was furnished with a pallet of three by five foot zinc sheets that you placed over the paper layout of the project in progress. Using a sharp scratch awl, you scribed the shape of the future stone. The zinc was then bent to break on your line, the edges filed smooth, and then numbered with a felt ink pen. We added all the specific information pertaining to that stone. 

This pattern went to the fabrication shop, matched up with a shop ticket to fabricate the stone. That was pattern making back then, and a big responsibility. Of course, I was also every draftsman’s errand boy as well, to fetch “whatever” from the fabrication shop.

The next time you see a Notre Dame football game on TV, look at the large stone mural of Christ and his disciples on the campus profile, made up of many stone colors. I did not do much on this project, but it was all laid out with patterns on the office floor, the first year I was there. I remember fetching stone for a couple of weeks when the project was being cut and cast in panels to be assembled on site.  

This was my introduction to the stone industry. As stated, Cold Spring was the largest stone company in the world, employing maybe 1,500 people at that time, so there were many opportunities to learn many trades or professions there. By spending much time running errands in the fabrication shop, I could see many aspects of how high production architectural stone fabrication was done. 

I learned how to read shop drawings and was introduced to producing general drawings, which served me well all my life. 

I was taught to be precise and neat, which is fundamental to stone work where the product is so unforgiving – and mistakes so costly.

After one year of working in the pattern shop, it was my turn to go on active duty in the US Navy for two years. I served one year on an island and one year in a troop transport, hauling American troops to SE Asia and back, with 12 Pacific crossings in one year. We rarely stopped.

But before that adventure, I got my foot in the door of the stone industry with maybe the best architectural stone company in the world. Few could argue the point that Cold Springs was one of the best around, and is still winning awards. 

Joseph Conrad has fifty years experience working in the stone fabrication industry. He is the founder of Conrad Stonecutter in Portland, Oregon ( and a 15-year member of Northwest Stone Sculptors Association,