From the power shovel that claws chunks of rock from the earth to the powerful machine that shapes raw stone into slabs, there is nothing delicate about Joe Vinci's business.
So it comes as a surprise when Vinci pauses during a tour of his Baltimore County quarry to offer a paean to the aesthetics of the granite-like boulders — called Butler stone after the excavation site — and the craftsmen and women who work with them.
"Architects have always liked Butler stone because it blends so well with so many styles," Vinci said. "But the masons make it art. The ability to paint a masterpiece is the painter, not the paint. It's the artistic talent of the masons that makes the beauty come out."
Apparently, this rock's beauty turns heads and opens wallets. Butler stone graces building exteriors from Morgan State University and Stoneleigh Elementary School to Immanuel Lutheran Church on Loch Raven Boulevard and Camp David. It's the climbing wall at Bass Pro Shops in Arundel Mills and the landscaping at actor Charles Dutton's Howard County home. It's an integral part of a Japanese golf course and a sprawling estate in Texas.
"It's a good-looking stone, a good, hard stone, so it's easy to cut and squares up nice," said Butch Rovder, a 27-year stonemason with the International Masonry Institute. "Some people think you have to go to Europe for good stone, but you don't."
About 200 years old, the Butler quarry is one of the oldest continuously operating quarries in the country, Vinci said, mining what once was called Chesapeake Hue, recognizable for its combination of quartz, mica, feldspar, iron and tourmaline. An 1847 map of the county shows a quarry on the site.
The quarry is one of three that make up Vinci Stone Products Inc., a company started by Joe Vinci's father and uncle in 1958. The other two quarries are in Marriottsville. The combined operations employ 15 people who produce more than 3,800 tons of stone each year.
"Every piece of rock that goes out is a piece of Maryland. It's Maryland with pride," said Vinci, echoing a state marketing slogan.
Located a few miles north of Oregon Ridge Park, the 25-acre quarry sits back from the road, bordered by Blackrock Run and shielded by thick stands of trees.
About once a month, workers drill and blast 10-foot-thick terraces, or benches, into the earth to expose the stone. Small chunks get processed for retaining walls. Boulders go to the guillotine, a hydraulic cutter with 350 tons of force that slices stone like a loaf of bread.
Cutters Genaro Sanchez and Elias Alonso hoist freshly blasted stone onto the platform and line up the cut, being careful to note the mineral veins that run through the rock.
"You have to know how to read the veins," Vinci said. "If you put it in wrong, you'll shatter the stone. If you don't take into account the weather—cold makes the rock more brittle—you'll break it up."
The cutters quickly turn a stone into a rectangle about 4 inches thick and place it on a pallet. A full pallet weighs about 1.5 tons. Sanchez and Alonso make about 10 tons of finished stone a day.
"They know how to cut rock," Rovder said. "If you have Butler rock, you know it's been handled correctly. That makes a mason's job easier."
From Baltimore County, the pallets often are trucked to Meshoppen Stone Inc., in Scranton, Pa., where cutters slice it into stone veneer for building facades.
"We sell a lot of it," said Carol Shingler a Meshoppen saleswoman. "In this day and age, people are embracing a rustic look. Butler stone has its own color, gray with gold tones."
Some stone leaves the quarry as is, said Vinci as he leaned against a boulder the size of a Smart car and weighing about 7 tons.
"People are starting to go for diving rocks for swimming pools instead of diving boards," he said. "Wait until landscapers see this. It will go out in one piece."
Vinci Stone Products also supplies much of the infield dirt for municipal baseball diamonds in the region.
"High sand content, low organics and just a little bit of clay to get the red color," said Vinci of the formula.
Maryland once bustled with quarries. A vein of stone from the Baltimore city line to just north of Cockeysville supplied marble and limestone for many building projects, including the monuments to George Washington in Baltimore and on the Mall, the columns for the U.S. Capitol and the famous white stoops on the city's rowhouses.
Today, about 60 companies operate mines in Maryland, with a combined payroll of $62.7 million and nearly 1,300 employees, according to the U.S. census. The state estimates that nearly 330 surface mines are in active use.
Vinci, 62, grew up in the Northwood neighborhood of Baltimore and began hanging out at the family's Marriottsville quarry when he was about 12, answering phones and running errands.
"I've always wanted to do this," said Vinci, a wiry man with salt-and-pepper hair and mustache. "I love being outside. But I'm a small guy and not really built for it."
After graduating from Polytechnic Institute, he attended what was then Towson State University, but not for long.
"Maybe a year. I'm a wanna-be engineer — that's what my father wanted me to do," he said.
Instead, he returned to the quarry and at age 25 took over when his father died in 1975. Thirty years later, Vinci Stone bought the Butler property and spent two years cleaning up what had been used as an informal dump.
Vinci guesses he's removed more stone over the last eight years than the previous owner did in 15 years, with plenty more to go.
"I'll be dead and gone — we'll all be dead and gone — before Butler runs out."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun