Ned Cunningham chisels place in history as stone cutter
By Zina Kumok
It glides as easily as a paintbrush. He weaves rope, combs a lion’s mane and grows leaves.
He is an artist, a mathematician, a designer.
He is a limestone carver.
A master carver at Bybee Stone Co. in Ellettsville, Ind., Cunningham creates the most intricate designs of the company and develops the forms that other carvers use.
Bybee Stone is one of many limestone companies in southern Indiana, a business surviving the recession in an industry that has been affected by a lack of construction.
And in this factory, Cunningham continues do what he has done for 20 years: carve stone.
THE BEGINNINGS OF AN INDIANA INDUSTRY
The formation of Indiana limestone began 300 million years ago in the sea that formed in the Bloomington-Bedford area. The crushed shells of organisms living in the sea and the formation of calcium carbonate compounded with the rocks. Scientists say even the soft parts of those organisms are still embedded in the rock.
The use of Indiana limestone increased during the Great Depression. Indiana limestone still remained a popular choice even when World War II halted its production.
To this day, the industry is successful. There is enough limestone to last for another 500 to 600 years, possibly another 1,000 if quarrying extends underground.
The limestone trade has been immune to outsourcing, and Bybee Stone has grown and endured.
Today, it is one of the largest limestone companies in the state and one of the biggest producers of limestone buildings. Its clients range from the Catholic Church to the Ivy Leagues.
Bybee Stone is only one example of the limestone mills in southern
Indiana, but it is part of a trend that has changed the landscape of American — and international — architecture.
On the drive into Ellettsville, where Bybee Stone is based, there is a sign, a limestone rock with the words “Ellettsville: Builders of America History.”
In the company’s office, there is a framed Traditional Building magazine issue with Princeton University on the cover, specifically Whitman College, one of its Ivy League clients.
“It’s a beautiful campus,” someone remarked.
“Made more beautiful by Bybee Stone,” Cunningham said.
A LIFETIME JOB
Unlike the other carvers, Cunningham comes from a professional art background, with an IU Fine Arts degree.
After graduating, Cunningham began to work for Bybee Stone because his family needed health insurance.
The process to learn how to carve is lengthy. It is a business shaped like a medieval guild: start as an apprentice, move to journeyman and eventually become a master. Unlike most jobs that have minimal training, to join the stone mill is usually a lifetime decision.
There are few reasons to leave.
“No one goes into it thinking they’re going to get out of it,” Cunningham said.
When he first began, he was an old-fashioned sculptor, using marble and a hammer and chisel.
Now he uses pneumatic hammers, powered by air.
“Before using pneumatic tools, I used to look at this and think ‘How did they do that?’” he said of the shapes he creates.
A DAY’S WORK
Cunningham is finishing an urn. It is one of several that will go to a $52-million mansion in New Jersey.
“Doesn’t even have a buyer yet,” he says.
As he scrapes away the stone, dust sprays onto his forearms, which are already covered in the chalky substance.
The smell of limestone drifts in the mill air like sour milk. It’s difficult to avoid the dust; after a few minutes inside, the constant carving means dust lands on everything within the factory.
Since Cunningham began work at Bybee Stone, he hasn’t incurred any major injuries. His ring finger got mashed between pieces of slab once, but now it works normally.
To avoid common health problems the workers experience, such as tendinitis and carpel tunnel syndrome, Cunningham uses his left hand during work and daily activities. It is a skill he picked up 10 years ago.
Cunningham spent years training himself to carve with his left hand.
“I shaved left-handed, poured my coffee left-handed, dialed the phone left-handed,” he said. “Everything you do 100 times every day, I did left-handed.”
A few weeks later, Cunningham is still working on the urn. Today, it’s a row of leaves on the top of the rim.
He uses the hammer to carve out the leaves. All the leaves have to be uniform, but that’s not difficult for Cunningham. As he whittles away, the leaves begin to come out, one by one. He follows the pencil marks and indentations he made earlier in the process.
To the naked eye, the leaves are so identical they could have been done in a factory from a mold.
Limestone flakes continue to accumulate on his arms as he finishes the urn. He uses a wire brush to scrub away the calcium crystals of the limestone, which make it look darker. The black particles disappear as Cunningham sweeps them away.
The limestone turns to a cream-and-grey tone. He uses an air hose to clear away any remaining dust that sits in the bottom of the urn and around the rim. He takes a palm-sized piece of thick sandpaper and scrapes the inside of the urn. That too turns into a creamier color.
The urn is done.
He takes a few seconds to examine the work and pulls out a piece of paper with the urn’s specifications. He lifts it up and uses a black pastel to write the urn’s order number on the bottom — 030 85 NC.
He walks toward one of the workers at the opposite end. Suddenly, a pulley with yellow rope pulls up above Cunningham. The two men attach the rope to the urn, using wood wool, or “hay” as they call it, in the spots where the rope touches the stone.
Cunningham begins to pack up as the clock reaches 2:25 p.m. He puts his tools back in his red toolbox, his lunchbox in his shoulder bag.
His co-workers are also getting ready to leave. They use an air compressor to remove the limestone dust from their clothes.
But no matter how hard Cunningham sprays his clothes, he can’t remove the layer of limestone dust.
Together, the men walk to clock out.
“This is the part of the routine we’re best at — getting the hell out of here,” jokes Cunningham, who has 10 years to go until retirement.
“Through luck or whatever,” he says, “I’ve made a career of it.”