Stone Cutter Leaves His Mark
by John Curry
COLMA -- The old hymn about the Rock of Ages suggests a solid foundation for humanity. The implication that rock is the most solid of all things man encounters is right on the button, with only some of its uses changing over the years.
And as times change, so does Mark Fontana's V. Fontana and Co. monument works, a Colma landmark since 1921 at 7600 El Camino Real.
Fontana, 41, is a fourth-generation stonecutter. His grandfather, Valerio Fontana, arrived in Colma from his native Italy in 1921 and established the business originally just off F Street, near where the Fontana factory now stands at Clark Street and F, across from the Italian Cemetery.
There are an estimated 1.5 million bodies or ashes at Colma cemeteries. Mark Fontana can't even estimate how many Colma graves and crypts are marked by stones turned out by his family.
Valerio Fontana passed the business on to his son, Elio, in 1945, with Elio Fontana turning it over to son Mark in 1979, when he retired.
"We realized that the business was changing," Mark Fontana said.
He diversified into the other fields and now estimates that cemetery markers are only half his business volume.
Indicative of the differences in modern demand from the time the original stonecutters set up their businesses close to the cemetries is that "There used to be 20 in Colma, now there are six," Fontana said.
The Fontana office has a display of Valerio Fontana's original hand tools, which he used to painstakingly chip out every monument. Today's specialized pneumatic and electric saws, drills, cutters and polishers are a night-and-day difference.
There are thousands of styles of grave markers, large and small, that range in price from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars. But the real challenge in today's world is to give customers what they want.
"People want a certain thing but they don't always realize how difficult it can be," Fontana said, "and many times we've had to come up with a new process."
One such challenge that stands out clearly in his memory was an order for a kitchen countertop made of one solid piece of granite, so it wouldn't leak and never would have to be patched or repaired. They did it, Fontana said. The finished 1-1/4-inch thick piece of granite fit over a stove island of about 6 by 6 feet and had a large, deep, three-sided indent for a cooktop stove, plus a small wet bar sink cut into the other side. The only breaks in the solid granite were the holes drilled for the pipes.
Another job they don't see every day was an order for a solid granite fireplace, again with no breaks or separate pieces to let heat or ashes escape, Fontana recalled.
The cost of this kind of work is around $60 to $80 a square foot, he said.
Like cemetery memorials, stone signs and markers are being chosen by business and public entities for their durability, he said.
"Cities and counties are buying granite signs because they can't be vandalized," he said.
Some of his local customers have included Skyline College in San Bruno,Burlingame High School and Chabot College in Hayward. One of the larges projects was a seven-ton office sign now at the Pacific Gas & Electric Co.offices at Bayhill Office Park in San Bruno.
The Portola Discovery Sitemonument on Sweeney Ridge in Pacifica and the 50th anniversarymonument at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco came from the Fontana shop.
On the more esoteric side, Fontana's plant has been turning out dining table-sized round "service plates" of granite for Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which requires very stable bases resistant to heat and other damage for some of its experimental work.
Fontana noted that his company is the last "self-contained" manufacturer of granite products in the United States.
This means that he starts with a raw 8- to 10-ton block of recently-quarried granite, not pre-cut slabs as the others do, and turns out finished products from that.
"This is unusual and can be cost-prohibitive to do it that way," Fontana admits, "but we do it the old way because that allows us to literally fabricate here whatever the customer wants."
The countertop and fireplace were good examples of that, he said.
There are many kinds of granite, with 80 percent of his supply coming from California, Minnesota, Texas, and Georgia. Imports come from Scandinavia, India, and Brazil, and soon Fontana hopes, South Africa as trade sanctions are lifted.
It takes several weeks to turn out a headstone because they do them in batches, Fontana said. But the work gets out at the rate of 30 to 40 units a week.
And who does all this work? A crew of four, including Fontana. This includes two long-timers Fontana considers best in the business: Pete Masnada, a stonecutter who has been withthe company of 41 years; and Ray Ward, who has worked more than 30 years as an engraver.
Both skills have been carried to a fine art. The sophisticated stonecutting equipment can trip granite in half-inch slabs and in almost any shape, including perfect circles. The decorative edging choices are infinite, Fontana said.
Engraving starts with a sheet of rubber-backed stencil paper over the stone, on which the desired design and lettering are drawn. English, Chineseand other alphabets can be found on stones around the shop.
"We can do anything here," Fontana said.
The design and letters are cut out and the stone put a closed sandblasting chamber, where the grinding sand bounces off the stencil but etches the stone to a desired depth.
Will the business continue in the family after he retires? Fontana has a son and two daughters. Son David now is 14 and a student at El Camino High
School in South San Francisco.
"The potential is there with him," Fontana said, "but I"m not going to push him. He'll have to decide.