Re-emerging U.S. Stone Industry: Celebrating 25 years of stone production
January 1, 2007
When Michael Morey established Champlain Stone, Ltd. in Upstate New York in January of 1982, the company was essentially a one-man operation, as Morey would extract stone by hand and haul it to the marketplace for sale. Today, the company employs over 175 people and supplies six distinct varieties of stone to markets throughout the U.S. and abroad.
“I started in hotel and restaurant management, and I had an offer to sell stone,” Morey explained. “I researched the stone industry and visited the Building Stone Institute, which was in New York at the time. I took the principles of hospitality to the stone business, because in the end, you’re still in the people business.”
Company history and growthThe original operation was financed by Morey’s brother, Mark, who loaned him $5 a day, a vehicle and some basic tools. Also during the first year, Larry Ritchie purchased a 50% interest in the business and became Morey’s longtime friend and mentor.
Initially, the company leased a quarry for South Bay quartzite® near Lake Champlain, which was used for the company’s first major project, the Stratton Mountain Ski Center in Vermont. South Bay quartzite is characterized by a warm tan color, with accents of white, blue, amber and brown.
A year later, the company continued to grow and opened a second quarry in Putnam, NY.- Morey’s future wife, Barbara, became instrumental in the company and managed the Putnam operations, where Ticonderoga granite® was extracted by hand from the site’s shallow stone ledges. For years, she headed up the accounting department, which earned industry recognition for its billing and collection efficiencies. Barbara Morey remains as the company’s vice president, but now focuses much of her time raising their children. Several of her long-time employees, however, continue her collection methods within the accounting department. By 1986, the company opened a quarry for Corinthian granite®- which has tones of blue, green, black, pink, brown, burgundy and white - and it added another site for the same material a year later. Mark Morey joined the company on a full-time basis, and Ritchie sold his interest in the company back to the Morey family. Expansion at the time included a line of granite flagging as well as investments in heavy equipment such as forklifts, loaders and excavators.
Ultimately, Morey began looking to the future of hand-cut stone in the marketplace, visiting dealers to determine their needs in this sector. Noting their requests for roughly squared and rectangular patterns, along with ashlar material, Champlain Stone’s line expanded to include these products.
In 1990, the company introduced Great Meadow limestone®, meeting the demand for stone that provides an aged look for restoration, as well as a “fresh-split” look for new construction. A year later, it opened a quarry for American graniteTM, a brown material which also features an aged appearance as well as a fresh hand-split look.
The company headquarters moved to Warrensburg, NY, in 1995, and three years later, Champlain Stone moved to an historic 19th century home, which was extensively renovated with the company’s stone products.
Today, the company produces four varieties of granite: American, Corinthian, Van Tassell® and Summit™, along with South Bay quartzite and Great Meadow limestone. Van Tassell, a granite with tones of buff, pink, blue/green and brown, was introduced in 2002, while Summit, a dense, dark blue-gray granite, featuring highlights of sage green, white and russet orange, was introduced in 2003.
Champlain Stone also recently expanded the Fort Ann location to include a facility for producing custom sawn and thin veneer products. This plant is run by Michael Morey’s son, Christian, who joined the company full time in 2003.
Champlain Stone’s products are sold through an extensive distributor network across the U.S. When supplying stone for architectural projects, the company generally works with architects in conjunction with the dealers. “We support the dealer base whenever possible,” explained Jane Bennett, a member of the corporate media relations department for Champlain Stone. This department also acts as an in-house advertising and graphics company for promotion, including a great deal of marketing to the architectural community. “We promote to architects a lot,” Morey said. “The architects fuel the industry. If you promote to them and learn their vision, they will work with stone.”
Quarrying and splittingDuring the quarrying process, stone is extracted from the topmost layers of the site by setting charges. Holes are drilled in the ledge, where explosive charges are placed and detonated. This way, stone is “bumped” away from the natural ledge rather than blown into small pieces. “We don’t blast often; only a few times a year,” Morey said, adding that the blasting is done by a subcontractor so they don’t have to keep explosives on the site.
Excavators from Caterpillar also pull and dig the large pieces of stone from the ledge, and many of the excavators are equipped with “thumbs” that allow them to pull stone from the quarry face. Large excavators equipped with hydraulic hammers from Caterpillar, John Deere and Volvo are also used to split large blocks as needed. These larger blocks are then loaded into haulers and moved to the drilling area for further processing.
Drilling is a labor-intensive process where large blocks of stone are drilled into thick slabs. Holes are drilled 4 inches into the stone at various distances apart, depending on the length of the block. Then feathers and wedges are used to separate the stone, and a pry bar is used to finish removing the slab from the block.
Hydraulic splitters - also referred to as “guillotines” - are also a key component of the process. These are used to break stone pieces into finished products such as ashlar or roughly squared/roughly rectangular veneer stone. The stone is loaded onto the conveyor by machine, and it is positioned by hand to be split using Hydrasplit splitters from Park Industries as well as splitters from Cee Jay Tool Co. Any further trimming takes place by hand, and the stone is then placed in containers to be taken to the packaging area.
Material taken from the guillotines that do not meet the ashlar or roughly squared/roughly rectangular specifications are passed on to the splitting bays to be trimmed by hand to meet other specifications.
The hand splitting of stone is done in the timeless, but labor-intensive, method of using a hammer and chisel. A sprinkler system is in place at the splitting bays to keep fugitive dust levels down and provide a cooler environment for the workers. Once material is split to specifications, it is loaded into containers and moved to the packaging area. Products that are split by hand include “mosaic” (irregularly shaped) veneer, flagging and wall stone.
Finished materials are transported from the splitting area to covered bays for sorting and packaging onto pallets, and then weighed, labeled and placed in rows to be shipped to dealers or directly to the jobsite. Due to the volume of work being produced, the shipping area must be extremely well organized, and bar codes are in place on the pallets to record the product, weight, date of packaging, and any special order information. This information is scanned into the inventory system in “real time,” so the company’s salespeople know the exact status of every order. As a backup to the bar code system, which has been in place for about a year, the palettes are still marked by hand with pertinent information.
Within the quarry sites, the areas for stone extraction can be quite extensive. At the Fort Ann quarry site, where all four varieties of granite are quarried (Summit, Van Tassell, Corinthian and American), extraction sites are connected by a network of roads that were created with the quarry byproducts.
Moreover, the Fort Ann quarry site rises in elevation by 400 feet from the road. “When you consider that the benches of stone are 30 feet high, and you divide 400 by 30, that’s a lot of benches,” Morey said.
The quarries operate from March 1 to late December, and a smaller crew remains over the winter to do maintenance work on the equipment, among other tasks such as running the guillotines. Many of the workers are immigrants from Mexico, who live in New York during the quarrying season and return home when the quarries are closed. These workers come to the U.S. with H2B and H2R work visas sponsored by Champlain Stone, and they live in company housing.
Although Champlain Stone has steadily expanded its quarry operations over the years, it remains cautious in its expansion. “We turn down a lot of [offers to buy] quarries,” Morey said. “We don’t want to introduce a material to the market unless there is a 50- to 100-year supply. Some of our stones have a 500- or 1,000-year supply. It takes three to four years to open a new quarry, so you’re only as good as your prospecting.”
In terms of safety, the company has an in-depth employee safety program in place, and it also works with government agencies to ensure it meets all standards. “We try to be proactive and work with MSHA to get their specifications and share this information with the machinery manufacturers,” Morey said.
The company also strives to be environmentally conscious. “We want to work in harmony with the mountains,” Morey said, adding that the quarry sites are well camouflaged from any nearby roadways. “We’re our own best neighbor.”
Custom sawingIn January of 2005, Champlain Stone built a new plant at the Fort Ann quarry location for sawn products, including thin veneer as well as architectural work. The company currently offers thin veneer in its American, Corinthian and Van Tassell granites as well as South Bay quartzite. These veneer products weigh 15 pounds or less per square foot, and they do not require a bearing shelf. Products include thin sawn “flats,” which are sold by the square foot, as well as thin sawn corner pieces, which are sold by the lineal foot. Due to the skill required to produce these pieces, some of the workers in the plant specialize in corner work. Additionally, hand select thin veneer is a split product, offering two usable faces.
Architectural production includes items such as lintels, sills, mantels, hearths, thresholds, stair treads and other architectural pieces. Finishes include honed, thermal, polished or sandblasted.
In addition to a series of smaller saws, the plant features a large-scale Predator saw from Park Industries, which can be equipped with blades up to 60 inches in diameter. It also has a 10-ton Zinter overhead crane, which can maneuver pallets of stone around the space.
The new plant is just the latest chapter in 25 years of advancement for Champlain Stone, which is continually reinvesting in itself. “This can be a strange market, with soft spots in the economy,” Morey said. “But if we keep diversified, we can keep ahead of that. One key for us is to always have fun in the business. At the same time, we want to be the best we can possibly be. I’ve always considered us to be a small local company. Obviously, we’re not a small company anymore, but we want to have that mentality. We also put a lot of our resources into further developing the company.”