Soundings: Tenino stonecutter shares his love for the craft

It’s easy to picture Keith Phillips in another era, perhaps working as a stonecutter or quarryman at one of the three turn-of-the-20th-century sandstone quarries in Tenino.

Phillips, white-haired and 68, is a throwback to a simpler time — before technology grabbed hold of the construction industry, before concrete replaced stone as the building material of choice.

He’s carved out a unique career as a modern-day stonecutter practicing an ancient craft he learned in the mid-1980s from master stone cutter Lorenz “Larry” Scheel, who in turn had learned the craft from Tenino’s Hercules Stone Quarry owner Andrew Wilson in 1925.

Working in a modest, three-sided woodshed in Tenino, or at the site of major restoration projects such as the state Capitol where ornate sandstone features were damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, Phillips has gained an unparalleled reputation for his meticulous, artistic treatment of stone.

“He’s a cultural treasure,” marveled Marygrace Jennings, cultural resources manager for the state Department of Enterprise Services. “He’s our go-to guy. He loves the Capitol building and he loves the stone. He is careful with his work and picky about the stones he uses — they must be faultless.”

Often using antique hand tools, Phillips described his pace of work this way Thursday to a standing room-only crowd at the Schmidt House in Tumwater, home to the Olympia Tumwater Foundation’s monthly historic lecture series. “You have to dial it down. It’s not like going to McDonald’s.”

His work graces so many buildings in South Sound: the repaired balustrade on the old Capitol building next to Sylvester Park in Olympia, monuments in front of Tumwater City Hall and Violet Prairie Grange, storefronts in Tenino and a 9-foot stack of stone books with an Ionic Cap that sits outside the famous Powell’s City of Books in downtown Portland.

Raised in Auburn and Tacoma, he’s come a long ways from his first piece of work — an address marker he carved for his father out of a foot-square piece of Tenino sandstone.

When not engaged in time-consuming public works projects, he can be found in his simple Tenino shop juggling work on three or four projects at a time for homeowners and other clients, including birdbaths, garden benches and fireplace mantels.

History buffs Chuck and Suzanne Hornbuckle have hired Phillips to carve a mantel to place behind their free-standing woodstove. “Usually he signs his work on the back,” Chuck Hornbuckle said. “We want him to sign it on the front.”

Phillips’ love of the history of stonecutting and stonecarving shined through in his one-hour presentation Thursday. He told the story of a tool of his called a penny hammer that he found, masked in orange paint, at a Rochester antique store more than 20 years ago. He stripped the paint off the tool, and then grew even fonder of it after reading “Stone Mad,” written by Irish sculptor and stone carver Seamus Murphy. The book tells the story of Murphy’s seven-year apprenticeship in the 1920s, learning the ancient craft of stone masonry.

Phillips paused to collect his thoughts and his voice trembled slightly as he read an excerpt from “Stone Mad” in which Murphy described his loving relationship to the durable, versatile penny hammer.

Fortunately, Phillips’ penny hammer, chisels, wooden mallet and other antique tools of the trade were not among the missing items March 20 when someone he had befriended stole from him — saws, generators, even a trailer.

“He stole big tools from me that were replaceable,” Phillips recalled. Only four of 30 were recovered. However, the Tenino stonecutter’s many friends rallied around him with a fundraiser that helped him restock his inventory of modern day tools.

“I was able to flow out of that experience without too much trauma,” Phillips said.

It’s truly a joy to listen to Phillips talk about his craft, offering such pearls of wisdom as: “ Always cut to the center toward the strength of the stone.”

It’s also a joy to watch him work, which is something the public has an opportunity to do at his carving shed on Olympia Street in Tenino from 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.