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Engraving a Legacy: A new generation pursues an old-world craft at Pechmann Memorials

Flanked by old- and new-world tools of the engraving trade, 26-year-old Erich Pechmann leans over an 800-pound piece of granite that came from South Dakota. Chisel in hand, Pechmann taps into a deeply carved portion of its design. With each strike, a white dot appears on the surface, creating a lighter-colored texture that contrasts with the stone's darker, smooth face.

The technique is called "pointing," and applying the wrong amount of pressure could ruin the monument's design, but Pechmann works confidently, completing four quadrants in about 20 minutes. He carefully aims the chisel away from the design's edges and whisks away the resulting dust with an air hose. After the pointing is completed, the stone will be washed and put on display.

Pechmann Memorials, Inc. is a family business that has been etching its way into Madison history since 1971. Each day, Pechmann works on between four and six different monuments – in varying stages of completion. Representing the business's third generation, he will spend years perfecting his skills under the watch of his father, Gerhard, or "Gerry," who learned the trade from his father, founder Kurt Pechmann, who passed away in 2009.

Grandson Erich has been working on this particular stone the entire morning. Its design, of praying hands in the center of a modified cross, was created in-house, and a rubber stencil of the design was glued to the stone's flat face. Portions were then peeled away, and polish was removed in a hand-blasting booth. In an enclosed chamber, an automatic sandblaster pummeled only the exposed portions with particles of aluminum oxide at a rate of 450 mph, creating the four deeper quadrants. Afterwards, the chamber floor was thick with granules – not of sand, but black aluminum oxide that would later be recycled for another project.

"The aluminum oxide particles cost about $2 per pound, and we use hundreds of pounds on a project, so we recycle at every opportunity," Gerry Pechmann said. "We've found aluminum oxide to be the longest lasting. It will eventually wear down and pulverize itself, but can be used up to 10 times, generally."

Before Erich could begin work on the design's finer detail, the 42-inch-high stone had to be laid on its side. Using a system of ceiling-mounted pulleys, father and son carefully positioned straps around the stone, and then hand-tightened and loosened the straps until it tilted to a horizontal position on the cart. It took about five minutes of intense concentration, and even though family members handle tons of stone every day, nobody, they insist, has lost any fingers or toes.

Back to the future

Next, the horizontal slab was returned to the hand-carving booth. Wearing a hood, goggles, and earplugs, Pechmann closed the door behind him as a generator pumped clean air into his breathing apparatus. Inside, he began a process called shape-carving, a more refined sandblasting process using a handheld sandblasting tool to round and soften edges, and create color on a design. After about 15 minutes, Pechmann emerged from the chamber having created a more realistic and three-dimensional set of praying hands.

Dust particles float in the air, coating every inch of the shop. This is a dirty job, yet highly rewarding. Designs can be personalized to include cabin scenes, for example, or portraits etched in stone. "It's really something," Pechmann says, "to sit down and get to know a family, then be able to translate the memories and emotions of their loved ones into something that evokes happiness and comfort.

"The permanence is also moving – to know that everything I make each day will likely outlast our civilization. It's a lot to take in."
Pechmann says when people learn what he does, many jokingly ask if he "still works with a hammer and chisel," and they're genuinely surprised when he answers yes. "Most people assume that you can't get a monument like the ones made decades ago, but that could not be farther from the truth.

"This is almost a lost trade," he laments. "It's sad." His greatest frustration is the "waning appreciation for the true trade," and the fact that cemetery monuments are quickly becoming an Internet-marketed commodity. Some online vendors, he says, simply paint and thinly engrave their monuments, resulting in stones that won't last. In contrast, he says he and his father work hard to create long-lasting memorials worthy of the lives they represent.

Pechmann Memorials goes through about 140,000 pounds of granite each year in addition to about 60,000 more pounds of granite foundations that support the upright stones. Granite comes from quarries around the world, and while foreign granites, particularly from India and China, are gaining popularity because of their color varieties, about 60% of Pechmann's purchases are from large, domestic plants in Georgia, Minnesota, Texas, Vermont, and elsewhere.

Most gravestones arrive polished, and there's a reason for that. "It would take us about eight to 12 hours to polish both sides of a standard monument," says Erich. "Large production houses can polish a 6-foot by 10-foot slab on an automated conveyor system, like a carwash, in just 40 minutes."

In the company's workshop, stones of various sizes, shapes, and colors stand like soldiers, awaiting names and designs. There's Wausau Red granite, from Wausau, Wis.; Jet Black from South Africa and India; and Aurora and Bahama Blue – not from the Bahamas, but rather from the Himalayas in India. The most expensive granite, according to Gerry Pechmann, is Blue Pearl from Larvik, Norway.

"To give you an idea as to the difference in cost," the elder Pechmann says, "a two-foot slant-faced marker from Georgia has a book price in Georgia Gray of $1,100. The same size monument in Blue Pearl is $2,200, because there's a limited supply."

The company sells about 200 memorials a year, running the gamut from a small, $50 engraved river rock to an $8,000 monolith. Most common are the two-piece, upright monuments that average between $2,400 and $3,000 each and account for 65% of the company's orders.

The growing trend toward cremations has made smaller stones more common. Those that in the past might have included two names now might hold eight or more. Cemeteries have also adjusted to the trend, as Gerry Pechmann notes: "Forest Hill in Madison used to have 36-inch monuments on a 48-inch base for cremations. Now, many families are going to 24-inch monuments on a 30-inch base, weighing two-thirds of the size." Then he smiles. "I always tell people, what matters isn't the size of the stone, but the period between the two dates."

Carving a niche

Later this day, while Erich works at the shop, his father will visit a local cemetery to add final dates to an existing gravestone. A simple job might be completed in an hour, but if the stone has an intricate font style or requires hand-tooled lettering, it could take much longer.

For most memorials, Gerry says sandblast-sunk lettering is best for longevity. Hand engraving, in square or rounded-raised letters, requires the most expertise and takes time and money. As an example, a simple 14-inch flat stone engraved in round-raised lettering on a recessed panel took him about 12 hours to complete. It simply read, "Father."

Pechmann Memorials also engraves thousands of names on fundraising bricks each year, and has a strong portfolio of work on over a dozen large veterans memorials throughout the state, such as the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Memorial on Madison's Capitol Square, and the Dane County Veterans Memorial at Ahuska Park in Monona, which, incidentally, displays the largest granite star in the world. For Gerry, 55 – whose father, Kurt, was first brought to the U.S. as a prisoner of war in World War II – these are the most poignant pieces. His dad promised long ago to add names to U.S. veterans memorials at no charge as long as he remained in business. "It's important to give back," Gerry says, "and help people at the worst time of their lives. Erich has picked up on that, and Dad left that example. He wanted to return the favor as a thanks to America for accepting him."

Meanwhile, Grandson Erich graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in business management and a minor in political science. He began working in the shop at the young age of 13, and continues to learn by doing – the old-fashioned way – with his head, and his hands.

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