Laser & Monuments

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  Is laser cutting it in the monument industry?
  Following on the heels of new methods for creating sandblast stencils, lasers also allow smaller lettering and more-intricate decoration than in the past. Laser-etching machines are large enough to handle granite pieces up to 4’ X 12’.
  Although the machines have been on the market for more than a decade now, they still haven’t swamped the monument industry. Many laser owners focus on the wholesale market, selling to monument retailers rather than the end client, although there’s some of that, just as laser-etching on granite has some appeal beyond memorials.
  Still, in a market where monument buyers are seeking personalized ways of expressing their grief, laser etching offer a reasonably quick method of creating high-quality images, and those doing the work now expect demand to only grow in the future.
  Even before lasers came on the market, those seeking to add photo-like images to memorials could commission the work, painstakingly done by a artist making literally hundreds of shallow strikes by hand on a piece of polished – and usually black – granite.
  With the time and cost involved, it’s little wonder those in the monument industry looked for a better way to etch granite. Sherm Cochran of Barre, Vt.-based Cochran’s Inc. found his answer, and Terry Fewell of Scottsburg, Ind.-based Fewell Monument says it changed the entire direction of his business.
  Cochran and his wife, Diane, started in business in 1976 as a wholesale granite company. Over time, they also began dealing in hardware and software for creating stencils.
  “We’d always offered hand-etching, but Sherm thought a laser machine would be able to do the same functions,” says Diane Cochran. “He worked with some machinists and developed a system to work for the monument industry.”
  Today, the Cochrans offer large-format lasers for the monument market, and also wholesale laser-etching to the monument industry. Diane Cochran sees the demand growing for both machine- and hand-generated work.
  “They’re popular because they’re custom,” she says. “People can customize their memorials and get portraits and other little mementos that mean something to them. And, our hand-etcher believes she’s busier now that the laser machine has made the market more popular. Our market has grown considerably.”
  Terry Fewell was a retail monument dealer employing the services of four different hand etchers when he first talked with Cochran about the laser machine he was building. Cochran, in fact, told him he thought Fewell would be the first to buy.
  A year later, after hearing what kind of profits Cochran made from his wholesale work, Fewell bought his first machine.
  “At the time I really bought it for retail and intended to pay for it that way,” says Fewell. “Once we got the laser, I found out the inexpensive part was buying the machine. At that point, the portrait technology was almost zero, and we had to create all our own designs.”
  Luckily for Fewell, the printing company producing his brochures employed a Russian immigrant who'd studied lasers in his native country.
  “What he did was teach us to use our software,” he explains. “We really spent a lot of money learning how to do it and making sure we had the right quality. I figured out I wasn’t going to be able to pay for it at the retail level.
  “However, it dawned on me that if we started importing granite, the granite would help sell etchings and the etchings would help sell the granite."
  Today, Fewell figures 90 percent of his work is wholesale; he imported almost 70 containers of mainly black granite from China and India last year. Because one of his two lasers has an automatic job feed on it, his crew can set up six additional projects to run every night after they go home.
  Fewell certainly isn’t the only laser buyer who found that lasers propelled his business in a different direction. Nowhere is that more true than in production artwork.
  Across the board, machines owners expected to offer stock images from catalogs. That’s certainly part of the story, but it’s not all of it.
  “Historically, the monument companies have done that, and in some cases it’s just fine,” says Kurt Swenson, president of Barre, Vt.-based Rock of Ages Corp. “If a customer wants a lighthouse, for example, they may have a particular lighthouse in mind, but the stock laser etching of one we offer may be close enough to satisfy them.”
  Joe Ford, designer for Stanstead, Que.-based Picture This On Granite, says the catalog images often become tired. He’s in the process of developing a new line that takes Renaissance paintings and puts them on monuments, but he estimates that probably about 50 percent of that company’s clients buy from the catalog.
  “Even then, they’ll see something and say, ‘Could you change that horse to a dog?’” he relates. “Even with our stock images, people are wanting to change them.”
  Bruce Furstenberg of Vancouver, Wash.-based Vancouver Granite Works (and a past president of the Monument Builders of North America), doesn’t do the work himself, but he sells it. He says the sample etchings he has in his display generally just get people thinking.
  “If people inquire about it, we can start developing it from there,” he says. “We can tell them what their options are.”
  And, when it comes to personalizing a monument, changing a horse to a dog on a stock design is just the tip of the iceberg.
  “Often, what they want is their home or a picture of the deceased or of their family,” says Swenson. “They’re looking for something very personal to them. This is the Baby-Boomer generation, and in many cases it’s their parents who are dying. Personalization in shape and design and content is becoming the way of the world in monuments.”
  Ford agrees that photo images and scenes are the most-popular custom items. He adds that much of what goes on the monument depends on where it’s being sold.
  “The majority of our custom work is portraits, but people also like specific scenes,” he says. “Customers from California have a lot of ocean and underwater scenes. Here (in southern Quebec) there are a lot of hunters, so it’s deer-in-the-woods scenes. If you go West, it’s often prairie scenes. It depends on the market.”
  Just as in the days when portraits were hand-etched by skilled artists, laser-etched portraits offer the biggest challenge to these companies.
  “A lot of times there’s quite a bit of work to do on photos,” says Ford, who considers himself an expert in Adobe Photoshop®. One good example is with splitting images of a two-person portrait when one of them passes away.
  “For instance, the wife my be partially in front of her husband’s face, and we have to take the wife out and recreate the face," Ford says. "That’s quite a bit of graphics work to do.”
  Jeff Anderson of Austin, Minn.-based Anderson Memorials agrees. He notes that once a person is deceased, it’s impossible to go back and take photos, so the graphic artist is left to work with whatever's available.
  He relates one job his company did where the family wanted an etching of the deceased riding a motorcycle through Grand Teton National Park.
  “We had a photo of the man on his motorcycle, but it didn’t show all the motorcycle, and we had an image of the Grand Tetons,” Anderson explains. “We had to get one of his friends to get on his motorcycle and drive it in the position we wanted, and we photographed that.
  “It still comes back to the creative,” he adds. “There’s a lot of the artistic element we have to add to make it work.”
  Surprisingly, for an industry that’s been putting words on stone for centuries, the other area where laser-etching is just making its mark is in the verbiage applied to these monuments.
  Both Rock of Ages’ Swenson and Vancouver Granite’s Furstenberg say they stay away from laser-etching some design elements in memorials, including words. Swenson says he recommends sandblasting for text and other design elements simply because it’s going to cut deeper into the stone, provide greater contrast and texture, enhance the artistic beauty of the memorial, and last longer.
  “With the computer, we can cut stencils for some pretty small letters,” Furstenberg says. “I’ve seen some really, really small letters that have been laser-etched, but I’ve never had the occasion to do it.”
  However, both Terry Fewell and Diane Cochran say it’s a good use for a laser machine.
  “A lot of family names and inscriptions are done with the laser etcher,” says Cochran. “The laser machine is especially good for poetry and Bible verses. Some people have poems that will fill the whole back of the monument.”
  “Take the poem Footprints in the Sand,” says Fewell. “Many people used to want that on their monuments, but unless they bought a big monument there was no way you could do that by sandblasting.
  “With the laser, we can do down to letters 1/8” tall and still be legible. Especially with verses that have a lot of words, it’s ideal.”
  The combination of words and scenes is also most-commonly the work that takes wholesalers outside the monument industry. Fewell, for instance, says he’s been called on to do several war memorials, a market niche that the others often serve – although it’s not their only foray away from monuments.
  “We recently donated a large piece of black granite to fit in the floor of the new Boy Scouts center in Louisville, Ky.,” Fewell says. “It has a big Boy Scouts emblem on it, and we do use the laser for that, as well as plaques and commemorative things.
  “We don’t necessarily seek out that kind of business, but it seems to seek us out,” he adds.
  Picture This On Granite’s Ford believes its natural for would-be buyers to think of monument dealers when they’re looking for something such as a donor wall.
  “They see it as a type of monument, and they want granite because it’s outside,” he says. “However, our company also specializes in kitchen backsplashes. We do a lot of still-life imagery and, once it’s etched, we go in and hand-paint each image. People also buy these as art to hang in their homes.”
  “We do some work for shops that make kitchen countertops,” says Anderson. “They’ll bring in a piece of black granite and ask us to do a portrait or a design motif on our Vytek laser and they’ll work that into the kitchen design. We have several firms we do design work for.”
  Whether it’s for a monument or a backsplash, these companies tend to charge for their laser-etching by the square foot or square inch. Anderson says his pricing is also based on the source of the artwork involved.
  For instance, a portrait created from a studio-shot professional image will cost less than one created from an out-of-focus snapshot with nine other people in the composition.
  “Even so, sometimes we’re not pricey enough,” he says.
  Swenson says Rock of Ages also tries to base its price on how much time the job will take on the company’s two CAM Tech Lasermaster L-20 machines.
  “Along with the square-foot cost, there’s a complexity part of the equation,” he says. “We try to figure out how many machine minutes or hours we’re really going to have to run it in order to complete the etching.”
  Swenson adds that while people want to know how much a particular design will cost, price usually isn’t a concern. Nor is delivery time often an issue. And, while the actual time in the laser machine may be only a few hours – or less – things such as developing artwork and getting it okayed, or ordering specially-shaped monuments, may stretch that delivery out to 60-90 days.
  Ultimately, however, both Swenson and Fewell say laser etching on monuments is about personalization - something that will likely only continue to grow.
  “It’s like with houses,” says Swenson. “In some places you see repetitive houses, but more and more that’s not what people want. They want to personalize their houses, their cars and their monuments, so laser-etching is definitely a wave of the future.”
  Fewell agrees, and says the laser etchers just make personalized memorials readily available to a broader segment of the public. He relates it back to his own experience dealing with parents who have lost young children.
  “That’s one of the worst situations, and it always seemed so limited what we could do for them,” he says. “With the process of etching, they can purchase a stone and really load it up with everything about that child’s life. When they leave, they feel a whole lot better. Etching has made a big difference that way.”

This article first appeared in the June 2006 print edition of Stone Business. ©2006 Western Business Media Inc.