By Richard Bermack, Contributing Writer and Photographer
Marble masons fear their craft is becoming a lost art with all the prefab installations and modern factory-like installations, but at 525 Market Street they are working on a job that gives them some artistic satisfaction. Bricklayers, Tilelayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 3 members are renovating the lobby. They are replacing a traditional marble slab with a mixture of a split-faced marble limestone with a rough cave-like look alternated with courses of the same stone but highly honed, creating a striking contrast.
When Organized Labor arrived on the jobsite, a marble mason and an apprentice were wrapping marble slabs all around the entryway and door frame of the first floor elevator shaft. Around the corner, marble finishers on scaffolds were polishing up the sides of the marble slabs several stories up. To install the large, split-face stones, several inches thick, and line them up with the marble slabs, they are using a track frame system that bolts to the wall. Finishers were cutting kerfs with a hand grinder, following a red chalk line on the sides of the stone. The grooves will fit on metal tracks, holding the stones in place but allowing them to move back and forth in case of settling or an earthquake. The lobby will also get a marble floor, and when the weather is clear, BAC Local 3 members will set the stones on the building’s exterior.
The Local 3 members are employees of D&J Tile, and the general contractor for the project is Hathaway Dinwiddie.
–Voices From the Union–
This job has been kind of hectic, but now everything’s working out. Old buildings are never quite plumb. It can be challenging to get everything properly lined-up from the floor to the ceiling and the glass doors in the middle. It all has to be on the money.
Sure, I lost some sleep. When you first start off, everything becomes chaotic and you may not see the light of the town at the end of the tunnel, but that’s because you are starting off. After 16 years of working as a superintendent, you learn to expect it. Then everything starts lining up and you are able to work things out with the glazers and ironworkers and everybody else. In the end everyone is happy, and everything matches up. It just takes a lot of communication, listening skills, and the ability to come up with work-arounds and modifications.
What is the secret? I have a great team. I wouldn’t be able to do it without them. They make things happen, and when the last stone is put up on the wall, you just step back and see how beautiful it all looks. The way the split-face travertine ties in is very creative. The guys really enjoy working on a job like this. That is the great satisfaction of being a marble mason, it’s an art.
I got into the trade through my godfather back in 1983. He brought me on as his helper, and it just took off from there.
Working with marble is becoming a lost art. I’ve been doing this for 38 years. I started down in L.A, right out of high school. A friend of mine’s dad was in the trade and he got us in. I thought it was exciting. It was hard to get into the trade at that time. It was a clique.
Marble can be a real challenge. That’s what I like about it. Sometimes the stone is warped and you have to bend it using clamps to get it to set flat. You have to know how to do it or it can spring back at you. I’ve been lucky, that has never happened to me.
Now the whole scene has changed. They use a lot of thinset instead of anchoring systems and we’ve lost a lot of work.
I have a son and grandson. They graduated from college. They are not going to get into the trade, like their father. I’ve built some projects at home with them, countertops and tables. I wish I had more time to build more stuff. Occasionally I do something for a friend to get on their good side. This has been a really good job. I did the lobby with all the split-face stone in the group picture. I just wish we had more jobs like this.
I started working with marble in 1979. Working in San Francisco has been really great, getting to see the city change and being part of it all. I got to work with all the old-timers and made a lot of friends in the marble trade and the other trades as well. You get to do something new all the time and meet new people. I started out working for a 100-year-old company. I did that for 30 years straight until the economy took a dump and they went out of business.
The marble is the same but the methods of installation have changed. I like the old methods better. They were more labor intensive and it was more of a craft. There was an art to installation – the way we put in floors and grouted them and the way we tied walls together. Now it’s more of an assembly line. They do it the cheapest and fastest way to get it done. The trade has lost some of its integrity.
Now the tile companies do more of the work, and there is just not a whole lot of work for marble masons anymore. You’re lucky to get a job. You worry about your retirement. It’s a little scary. I hope I can make it to the end.
The best part is working with my hands and getting to work with all the older guys who are teaching us the right way to do the trade.
I learn a little bit every day about all the different processes. Everything is pretty exciting. A lot of moving around and working with different people and different trades. It takes a lot of communication, but we all get along. I’m looking forward to doing this as a career. It’s not just a job.
My brother-in-law got me into the trade. My father was a diesel mechanic. He taught me how to work with my hands and work with tools. We worked on cars together. Power tools are my favorite. The Makita grinder is pretty much the universal tile tool. You can get in the tight spots if you need to. It’s all about precision. You need a strong arm and a steady hand and then just keep your eye on the line. There’s a lot of challenge here and a lot of concentration. You have to be focused and take pride in your work and craftsmanship.
Today we’re washing up the walls and looking for the little chips in the marble to patch up. It’s just a matter of mixing up the right color patch and smoothing out the finish. When we’re done you won’t see the chips. It’s nice work. I enjoy working with stone. I like the end result. Sometimes you see our buildings on TV.
My brother Armando got me into the trade right out of high school. My folks are retired now, but my dad used to work for Fuller O’Brien mixing paint.
I’ve been doing this for 27 years, I’ve seen a lot of change, most for the worse. I’m worried about the lack of work. There was a bad period a few years ago. I was out of work for a few years and my wife got laid off at the same time. She was a mortgage insurance broker. We have a special needs daughter. We lost her medical coverage for those years. It was pretty scary.
Tile finishing and marble finishing are two different trades. It is nice to know both. I like working with stone. It’s fun. I help the guys haul up the stone and then cut the stones for them, doing the kerf or re-cutting the stone. I like it when I get the stone to fit perfectly. It makes me feel good. I did my job right and know the guys can depend on me.
I used to be a truck driver, but it was a lot of hours, and I wanted to spend more time with my family. It’s been a good switch.
I’m here working with the stonemasons. We get along great. We’re like a family. I’m just glad to be working. Working with stone is a little slower than tile. It’s hard picking up the big stones. They are heavy. You don’t need to go to the gym after work, it’s like you’re going to the gym here every day. The trick is to keep your back straight, bend your knees a lot, and pay attention to what your partner is doing and try to follow.