For two generations before him, the men in Paul Terrell’s family have set things in stone.
His father was a sculptor. His grandfather was a stonemason. Terrell carries on the family trade as the owner of Big Sky Stone & Wood in Chilco, Idaho.
“I come from the artist’s side of things,” said the 33-year-old journeyman stonemason. “I really have a passion for it.”
Terrell and his wife, Leah, moved their marble and granite business to North Idaho earlier this year after spending three years doing stone work for upscale homes in Montana’s Flathead Valley.
In this region, Terrell has tackled large commercial projects like the granite in the executive boxes and main bar at Veteran’s Memorial Arena in Spokane. Most of his orders come from the residential side, with custom kitchens and bathrooms the fastest-growing part of the business.
Although Terrell said he was “doing less work and making more money” in Montana, growth in his new location makes him feel good about the move. Since opening this spring, he added a second production shift and now has a staff of five.
Terrell’s shop is outfitted with the latest in laser-guided saws and high-speed routers, but he spent his apprenticeship learning to shape stone the hard way.
“They didn’t have all these machines,” Terrell said. “Everything we shaped and finished was done by hand. And yet we still did an incredible amount of volume.”
As a newcomer to the business, Terrell studied in California with an Italian taskmaster named Al Maglieto. His first three days at work were spent in the “mud box,” mixing grout for an installation crew. In time, the apprentice learned directly from Maglieto, who he said was a legendary stickler for punctuality and preparedness.
“If you showed up late and didn’t bring a tool with you, he gave you two choices,” Terrell said. “You could either go home and lose a day’s wages or buy a new tool from him.”
Maglieto’s craftsmanship comes to mind every time Terrell shapes a curve in a piece of stone.
“Anything that’s not a straight line is all done by hand,” he said, explaining that his high-speed router is limited to straight runs. “There’s still a lot of room for creativity.”
The showroom at Big Sky Stone & Wood - which Terrell has designed as a combination kitchen, conference room and den, with a corner shower thrown in for good measure - is meant to be the starting point for home improvement plans. It also is something of a geologic workshop, where Terrell holds forth on the differences between marble and granite.
“This was a flowing rock that gradually cooled,” he said, sliding a palm across a countertop of black granite. “Granite is formed through heat and it’s 10 times harder than marble; it’s harder than glass.”
Marble, on the other hand, is formed through pressure. Its flowing patterns are shaped by water penetrating the ground and crystallizing minerals inside the stone. Although it’s not sturdy enough for counters or cutting surfaces, marble is no slouch when it comes to staying power.
“If you go to Italy, you see that all the floors in the old churches are made of marble,” Terrell said. “And it’s been there for centuries.”
The Italian school of stone-working lives on in Terrell’s modern shop, where key components of the automated gantry saw used to cut slabs into smaller sections and the router that shapes the edges both come from Italy.
“I wanted to make sure I got an Italian motor on this machine,” said Terrell, showing the control panel for a programmable saw that commands the center of the room. “The Italians and the Americans disagree on the speed stone should be cut - I went with the Italians.”
Stacked on their sides like so much plywood in a lumber yard, slabs of marble and granite form a perimeter around the metal building that houses the business. Customers are drawn to certain pieces purely on the basis of color or the vein patterns weaving through the slab. Terrell said he can see what lies beyond the polished face of stone.
“It takes an eye to look at two different slabs and say, ‘How can I make the veins from this one roll into the next one?”’ he said. “I can look at a slab and see the job from start-to-finish in my mind, like a sculptor would with a raw block of stone.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo