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Tough as Granite: Colma's Stone Cutters

by Michael Martin


COLMA -- Shake hands with Pete Masnada and it is immediately apparent this man does not hold a desk job.
After 41 years of cutting and polishing stone for V. Fontana & Co., Masnada's rigid and calloused hands resemble the granite with which he works.

"My fingers are getting a little crooked, I have to use a hamnmer to straighten them out sometimes," Masnada, 69, said with a grin.

Fontana is the last stone cutting business on the West Coast that does its own stone fabrication work, according to owner Mark Fontana.

In other words, Fontana does things the old fashioned way, taking blocks of granite -- some weighing eight tons or more -- and cutting them down to size.

"Pete can cut stone by hand or by machine," said Fontana, whose grandfather Valerio started the business in 1921. "I don't know of anyone who can do both, it is usually one or the other."
Masnada can operate the plant's three modern cutting and polishingmachines simultaneously, Fontana said, yet he also is comfortable using a hammer and chisel.

Equally important to Fontana's four-man operation is his engraver Ray Ward.
For 35 years Ward not only has inscribed the lettering on granite headstones--oftentimes in languages other than English--but he also can also carve, freehand, beautiful floral designs.
"We have our own style of lettering," said Ward, 61, who described the print as Roman sans serif.
"I can walk around a cemetery and can tell where in Colma each headstone was made."
Over the years Ward has had some unusual requests for messages. A few of the more memorable ones were, "Move over honey, I'm home," and "I told you I was sick."

Because much of Ward's job is done by hand, learning the trade requires years of practice. About four years ago he began teaching Daryl Sowers the basics.


Now Sowers has developed the sensitivity in his hands necessary to sandblast letters that are consistent in shape and size.

Because he offers custom cutting and engraving, Fontana sells a variety of granite products in addition to monuments.

Some of his more unusual jobs include 1,400 pound commemorative chairs for U.C. Berkeley's Hearst Greek Theatre that costs $30,000 each and a monument honoring the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Currently, Fontana has been commissioned by a local veterans association to build a memorial for 50th Anniversary of the invasion of Normandy.

"The business is much larger now," said Fontana. "The commercial side has grown substantially while the memorial side is about the same."

After working on headstones for countless families, Masnada said he has not thought about what kind of monument he wants for his own grave.

He just laughed and said, "I don't think about death, I think about life."THE END

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