Colma Stone Cutting Shop
Offers Journey Back in Time
by Paula Harrington
IF YOU WANT to journey back to the age of Michelangelo but don't happen to have a time machine handy, you might take a trip instead to the Colma stone cutting shop of Elio Fontana and his son Mark.
The techniques of working with stone have changed somewhat since the Renaissance, but the art of making blocks of rock come alive has not died.
These days, automatic contour and diamond saws, stencils and sandblasters are used instead ofhammers and chisels. Still, the undeniably Italian sense of stone work remains.
It does not take an over-active imagination to feel transported back to the village of Sant'Andrea north of Florence, the birthplace of Elio's father and Mark's grandfather.
According to church records, the Fontana family took up the stone trade there at least as early as 1800. To this day, says Mark, the finest marble fields in the world are in that area of Italy, where Michelangelo once quarried his marble. For the past 60 years, V. Fontana &Co. has been in Colma instead of Italy. Its plant sits across from the Italian Cemetery, however, and that is probably the next best thing to being in the Old Country.
Thirty-year-old Mark Fontana grew up in the business, starting work in the shop when he was only 14.
As tradition would have it, he has taken over from his father, who recently retired.
Elio Fontana had worked in the family business sicne he was 16. He, in turn, took over from his father, Valerio Fontana, who founded the company in 1921 as a small hammer and chiselworkshop.
Under Elio's leadership, a large granite and marble factory went up in place of old wooden workshop. New machinery was introduced, and the shop branched out into other areas besides the customary cemetery monuments and vaults.
Mark says it was the automatic contour saw, diamond saw and sandblaster that his father adapted for the business that allowed them to expand into new kinds of work, including ornamental stone work and granite facades and veneers.
Right now, for example, the shop is working on the granite veneer for the new Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco and on a spherical historical marker for Sweeney Ridge in Pacifica.
"We are the only shop around here that still fabricates everything from stone," Mark notes. "We take everything down from 9- or 10-ton blocks."
"All the other monument companies have stayed monument companies. My father is the progressive one who changed that for us."
Mark also credits his father with developing a dust collector for the shop. The machine removes 95 percent fo the stone particles from the air in an effort to prevent silicosis, the cause of Valerio Fontana's death and that of most other stone cutters until recently.
The machines would be useless, however, without the men who run them--Pete Masnada, a stonecutter from Italy who has worked for the Fontana's for 30 years, and Leon Rader, an engraver and carver who
emigrated from Russia three years ago.
Masnada "takes the stone and works it through until finished," Mark Fontana explains. It is Masnada who cuts, shapes and polishes stone.
Rader does "all the design work and lettering," says Fontana.
A skilled draftsman, Rader creates all of the images -- such as protraits -- that appear on Fontana stonework, as well as doing the stenciled lettering.
"These two compliment each other," comments Mark Fontana. "One is a stonecutter and one is an engraver, but somewhere along the line their jobs overlap."
Describing both as "Old World masters," Fontana says it is "their artistry and attention to detail that sets us apart."
For father and son, the family business brings both satisfaction and a strong sense of identity.
"I like the creativity," says Mark. "There's so much variation and always a lot to do. I just like the business." Standing in [sic] the Italian Cemetery next to the vault he made for his father, Elio Fontana says simply, "I love it."