Setting Stone

As we walked toward the back of the vast storage yard, I must have been in something of a zone.

By Ron Jones | January 31, 2002


E-mail Ron Jones at


As we walked toward the back of the vast storage yard, I must have been in something of a zone. I get that way sometimes. The winter sun was about to set, and it had stained the late-afternoon sky with colors that caused the nearby mountains to appear ablaze. When that happens, I often lose track of what I am doing and have difficulty concentrating.

“I like what you said about the stone,” my companion repeated, “that you need to get to know it better before you can set it.” I realized he was referring to an offhand comment I had made in a phone conversation with him about an hour earlier. He has helped me select, process and apply various types of stone for several years, but we don’t always talk about stone in these kinds of terms.

He had called about rescheduling the delivery of several large sandstone slabs that was set for the following Monday afternoon. The slabs were to be used as massive lintels spanning hallway entrances and as the mantel for the main fireplace in a house we have under construction. The stone company had just finished cutting the pieces that afternoon but faced a conflict in meeting our agreed delivery time.

He hadn’t begun the call by asking if he could reschedule. Instead, he had asked if the equipment needed to set the stone in place was lined up for Monday. I replied that we needed to get used to the pieces before we installed them and that I had the machinery lined up for much later in the week.

Upon learning that the cuts had been made, I told him I would stop by the yard at the end of the day so I could see the pieces and think about them during the weekend. It had taken weeks to come up with an acceptable set of stones, and I needed to satisfy myself that these were the right ones for the project. Thus the visit to the storage yard.

Boom Ballet
When the boom truck arrived Tuesday, I saw that the 9-foot, three-quarter-ton mantel stone and the largest lintel — a slab measuring 6 feet by 2 feet and 8 inches in thickness — rested separately on wooden pallets. The two lesser lintels were on another pallet. The largest of the pair was 5 feet long and matched the 6-footer in depth and thickness.

The boom-truck operator was skilled and experienced, but the boom range was limited. The building site is complicated, so I settled for distributing the pallets to either side of the truck. This meant I would need both the crane and the forklift that were scheduled for the installation of the massive chunks of reddish-chocolate sandstone.

Had we come up with stone we were happy with earlier in the process, we could have set the pieces with a crane before the roof structure was built. Now we needed to lift them with the crane, transfer them onto a forklift, ferry them into a more completed structure and maneuver them into place. We were dealing with a much tighter operating space and minor obstacles such as a fork carriage that would hit the roof trusses on two of the lifts unless we blocked the stone above the forks a full foot.

The equipment rental company delivered the forklift right on time at 10 o’clock Friday morning. The deliveryman went through the operating instructions with me and said to call as soon as we finished to stop the rental time, and then he was off on his next run.

The machine could lift 4,000 pounds almost 12 feet but was built to operate on hard, smooth surfaces such as the concrete floors of a warehouse, so we couldn’t stray too far from the house. We had left a large opening at the front entry for just this sort of contingency and had ramped onto the front-porch slab and wide door stoop with lumber from the site.

My crew had masked all but the smallest traces of skepticism when I had explained weeks before what I had in mind and how we would accomplish the task. They have grown accustomed to expecting the unexpected in our projects and with their familiar air of business-as-usual had built the kind of structural support the stone slabs would require.

Our stonemason would secure the large mantel stone into position on the concrete-filled block columns he had prepared. He would drill holes for steel pins in the backside of the mantel and then form and pour a reinforced bond beam to hold it permanently in place. He showed no sign of surprise when I told him what I wanted to do.

Stage Setting
It sounds pretty easy in the telling, but it was a fairly complicated effort, and careful planning made everything go smoothly and safely throughout the operation. As each stone went into place, we would pause and briefly discuss its unique attributes, and I would hint as to why I had selected the stone for its place. The men displayed more excitement and satisfaction as each piece went up, eventually voicing their impressions the way people do when they describe what they see in a bank of clouds.

The texture, color, shape and shadows of each stone made it seem to take on a life of its own. Even the crane operator got into the act, helping tweak by hand the final positions of the slabs as we neared the end of the installation. He said the fireplace mantel reminded him of a distant mesa that rises away from the onlooker and leads the eye up toward the mountains.

Our little adventure with these slabs could be considered successful, I suppose, because we didn’t get anyone hurt or damage the stone or the rest of the building. We’ll lightly sandblast the stone when the wood posts and beams are being cleaned and then seal it to protect the surfaces during the rest of the construction. Eventually the stone pieces will become spectacular elements in the blend of materials that will make the house special.

My job is to move on to other parts of the project and leave the stone to its own effect. But every now and then I slip into that zone and can’t help imagining how the stone will look when the late-afternoon sky sets the mountains on fire and the color reflects off the stone’s surfaces. It makes me glad we took time to get to know the stone just a little.