European Stone Masonry, Raleigh, N.C.

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RALEIGH, N.C. – Joe Valles is definitely an old-school mason – but he’s also wielding a keyboard as deftly as a chisel.

For 25 years, Valles has installed architectural stone here in his adopted city and the surrounding area. One of his specialties is a grapevine joint that masons here popularized in the 1920s and ‘30s.

However, this old dog isn’t beyond learning a new trick. Valles not only has his own website; he’s also on Facebook and Twitter. After a career built mainly on word-of-mouth, he’s enjoying the interaction with customers through social media.

THINKING SMART

There’s no doubt that Valles is a real blue-collar guy with a deep love of natural stone. A native of Paris, Pa., close against that state’s western border with West Virginia, he grew up literally within sight of Weirton, W. Va., and its steel mills.

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His grandfather worked at Weirton Steel, but he did building on the side, and growing up the older man taught Joe and one of his cousins about masonry.

“By the time I was 14, my grandfather was retired, but he did stone and brick work until he was 73,” Valles says. “He had us mixing mud for him and taught us how to lay bricks. We did a few stone jobs, too.”

Valles adds that his grandfather came to the United States from Italy at a young age and, “I think most of the brick and stone masons in Pennsylvania are Italians.”

Valles, too, went to work in the mason department of Weirton Steel in the late 1970s after finishing high school. However, it wasn’t a good time to count on a lifetime career in the steel industry; he left after three years and moved to North Carolina.

Before too long he found himself working for a stone mason.

“I worked with him for just a few months,” he says. “It wasn’t too long before I started working for myself.”

Valles says the birth of European Stone Masonry wasn’t due to any overwhelming bit of entrepreneurial spirit on his part. If anything, it’s that he realized he could make more money working for himself.  

“I’ve probably taught half-dozen of my friends how to do stonework, and a couple of them actually work for themselves now,” he says. “It’s just that when they get to where they're confident at it, it’s smart to work for themselves.

“I don’t blame people for doing that; it’s pretty limiting if you work for someone else.”
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Not that he knew it all when he went out on his own, he says.

“I think if you get into the detailed stuff, no one can really teach you that,” Valles says. “It's a matter of learning from experience and having an appreciation for quality. It's about taking pride in your work too – something my grandfather instilled in us.”

That’s certainly the case today. A Valles-crafted fireplace can run $25,000-$30,000 for larger, more-intricate jobs. However, a person contracting with European Stone Masonry will get just that: a product hand-crafted by Joe Valles.

“I know people who have large crews working for them, but I just never really wanted to go in that direction,” he explains. “I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to compete with them.

“I really like doing the artistic jobs,” Valles adds. “I do all the work that I sell myself. My customers are looking for high-quality workmanship and personal service. I back my work with a lifetime guarantee.”

EYE FOR ARCHES

Valles is a craftsman; he works out of his home, and he’s not into selling products. About the only thing he offers – besides his skills as a stone installer – is a little bit of design work if clients want it.

“It’s probably 50-50,” he says. “Some people come in with blueprints and I work from them. Sometimes we design on-site. With retaining walls, we may stand out in the yard with a garden hose and lay out the design. You can move it around and then spray paint along it.”

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He can do his own drawings, but adds, “I find that after browsing the website, my customers often already know what they want. In the end, there's a lot of collaboration.”

It’s much the same when it comes to their stone. Valles is particularly proud of a fireplace he installed a couple years ago in a client’s basement, with a raised hearth hand-cut from 400-lbs blocks of sandstone around the entire installation.

In that case, he says, the clients came to him knowing what they wanted.

“They wanted 50 percent of one kind of stone and 25 percent of another,” he says. “The job is a combination of different types. The only thing they didn’t know was what to do for the hearth, and I steered them toward those big pieces.”

While he sometimes works with cultured stone, Valles’ real preference is for the solid look of heavy building stone. It’s not surprising that one of his all-time favorite jobs remains a bridge that he did as part of a larger landscape project for a client in one of Raleigh’s older neighborhoods.

“I like doing big arches,” he says. “I’ve gotten into doing structural arches and big structural pieces. The bridge has about a 10’ span and is 18’ long. I did it in 1997, and I’ve been trying to sell another one ever since, but not a lot of people have a creek in their front yard.”

That job has given Valles an added appreciation for those in whose footsteps he’s following, particularly the masons who erected a 159’ version of an arched bridge in Wheeling, W.Va., in the 1890s.

“When I saw a picture of it in a book I thought it might be 40’,” he says. “Each rock on the arch row is as big as a pickup truck, and it’s hard to imagine how they did that with nothing but cable cranes and horses. They didn’t even have hydraulics. It’s like what you see in Europe.”  

However, he regrets that his grandfather didn’t live long enough to see his bridge.

“I did it five or six years after he died, but he would really have appreciated it.”

OLD MEDIUM, NEW MEDIA

Although his bridge job has been several years ago, it also reflects several aspects of Valles’ operation.

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For one thing, it incorporated a particular type of yellowish-brown granite that was once a popular material – and, at the time, less-expensive than brick – used to build Raleigh homes, but is no longer quarried.

“Fortunately, the people I did that work for bought their house in the 1970s, and shortly after they bought it, they also bought the stone from a good-sized garage that someone tore down,” Valles explains. “The owner just piled the stones along side the driveway, and they were completely covered with English ivy and weeds. I just pulled it all out of there.”

It also utilizes a grapevine joint, which Valles says was quite popular at the time these homes were built after World War I.

“It’s a way to fit granite where it’s not quite as detailed as you think,” he explains. “Because the granite was difficult to cut, you’d put a grapevine joint on it, and it looks like it’s perfectly fitted from two feet away. With a lot of these homes, the work wasn’t really high quality when it was first done. Things went up fast – faster than brickwork.”

Today, these same homes are worth quite a bit of money, Valles says, and the owners are willing to pay more to get their new stonework to match.

And, because that particular job – which also included rebuilding a retaining wall – took parts of two years, it offered its own form of advertising.

“That led to probably two more years’ worth of work for other people in that neighborhood,” Valles says. “One thing seems to lead to another. There’s always been enough work around here; that it’s never been a problem.”

Although starting out he did some subcontracting for a now-defunct stoneyard, Valles says he never did any advertising until the last couple years, when he started with his website.

His electronic presence allowed him to expand his market. “I’m willing to travel much further for the right job,” he says. “If somebody wants something really specialized – a higher-end fireplace or a bridge – I’m willing to travel just about anywhere.”

In the meantime, a guy who practices skills developed centuries ago is busy developing his online presence with Facebook and Twitter.

“Facebook allows me to easily stay in touch with my customers, and Twitter is just fun,” he says. “I like sharing information about stonework with my followers on Twitter. My customers aren't really on Twitter yet, but I think they will be eventually. For now, I'm meeting interesting people.”

Recently, Valles had the opportunity to give input into a new building-materials-reuse website that's in development in North Carolina; the contact came through a Twitter connection.

However, Valles adds it’s hard to measure the impact of his online presence against the fact that since he’s often working in people’s front yards, potential customers just walk by and see the caliber of his work.

“A lot of times I line up another job while I’m working,” he says.

And, he adds, construction activity seems to be picking up again in the Raleigh area. For now, he’s keeping busy with retaining walls, staircases and patterned flagstone patios as people upgrade their outdoor living spaces.
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However, one of the goals of his Website is to push some of his more-upscale work. As it is, he’s sometimes working seven days a week just to keep up with orders. But, he’s not complaining.

“Just about anybody who’s ever worked for themselves can’t imagine working for somebody else,” Valles concludes. “I make my own schedule and it’s spoiled me a little bit. Sometimes you end up working more hours than if you worked for somebody else, but it’s worth the trade-off.

“I wouldn’t have done this for 25 years if I didn’t enjoy it.”

©2010 Western Business Media Inc.


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