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Cutting Stone with Water and Light

Lasers and waterjets open up whole new worlds of stone-cutting to the creative sign builder

By Charlie Fletcher
Reprinted with permission from Sign Builder Illustrated

Engraving and cutting in stone have come a long way since the times of the mallet, chisel, and saw. Today's computer technology has opened up lucrative new areas of business for sign makers, and when you add in the fact that prices for stone have fallen dramatically in recent years, you have the makings of a great new product line for your sign shop-making stone artwork for the commercial and residential markets.

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  • Paul West, sales manager for Crone Monument, in Memphis, Tennessee, has watched in wonder as his commercial and residential signmaking business has gone from nearly nothing to about 25 percent of his business in about five years with no active marketing. "I guess it went from monuments to civic memorials, and then we'd done enough of this stuff that people started getting to know us and contractors started coming looking for our work," he says.

    On the other hand, the architectural industry is waking up to stone, says Mark Eisenwinter, administrative manager for Granite City Tool Company of Barre, Vermont. "More and more commercial and residential projects are using granite," he says. "The reason is that there's a lot of stone imported from India and China on the market." The imported granite is so cheap, in fact, that the price differential between the stone and tile or Formica countertops Eisenwinter sells is nearly nonexistent. What's more, imported granites have brought a rainbow of new colors into play for designers-blacks, reds, and pinks that were rarely seen in the United States until now.

    Best of all, modern computers, lasers, waterjets, and CNC controls bring into play a whole palette of new techniques that will not only allow you to be more creative, but create finished art more cheaply than ever before. At the foundation of any modern stone cutting operation is the computer. For some work, it may be necessary to invest in a CAD program to work in three dimensions, but many successful designers are simply producing their artwork using programs such as CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, or Macromedia FreeHand, all of which produce two-dimensional output.

    You see, today's most advanced stone-cutting devices are really just fancy printing devices for your computer. "I had a venture capitalist from Silicon Valley here taking a look at my operation a while back," says Jim Bellilove, CEO, president, and director of Creative Edge Corporation, of Fairfield, Iowa. "This guy had been involved in a number of computer company startups. He took a look at our waterjet system and how it was running jobs off the computer and said, 'This is the most amazing output device I've ever seen.'" Two stone-cutting tools stand out from the rest to bring you the widest range of artistic capabilities: the laser engraver and the abrasive waterjet. Neither tool is terribly new on the market. However, with materials costs coming down and labor savings taken into account, both are becoming logical choices for the craftsman who is serious about stone.

    Laser engraving systems are excellent tools for etching small letters and high-quality graphics onto black granite, says Scott Steckman, president of Steckman Memorials. Steckman had been etching portraits onto granite for many years using the services of a staff artist who did the work by hand. "We'd had a lot of problems with the artist's interpretation. Sometimes people didn't think the etchings looked like the people they were supposed to represent," he says. "Also, the cost of having an artist do that is high in comparison to the cost of doing it with a laser." Steckman now etches digitized artwork, photographs, drawings, whatever the job calls for right onto the stone. The art can be etched at resolutions as high as 1,200 dots per inch in 256 shades of gray. It's literally photo-realistic art printed on stone.

    Steckman finds the laser engraver particularly useful for etching small type sizes onto stone. Although he still uses sandblasting for most of the lettering he engraves, when it comes to letters less than 1/4-inch high, Steckman goes to the laser. In fact, the laser engraver can successfully etch legible letters onto stone at sizes ranging down to 1/16-inch in height. Because the system is computerized, you can set your type in any font you desire. Most laser engraving systems use carbon-dioxide lasers at a wattage between 10 watts and 100 watts. However, the best results for etching granite are achieved with 25-watt or 50-watt systems, according to Josh Siegel, sales and marketing director for Vinyl Technologies, Inc., of Littleton, Massachusetts. The company markets a line of laser engravers under the VyTek brand that are especially designed for large-format work, such as stone engraving. "We find that we get the best results with the laser when it's operating at full power," Siegel says. "If you're operating the machine at, say, 25 percent of full power, we've found that you won't get a high-quality beam. Since you only need 25 watts to 50 watts to etch stone, we recommend that power for our engraving systems."

    Laser can cut quite deeply into stone, if the design calls for it, says Siegel. Although it is also possible to cut completely through stone with a laser engraver, because the beam can only cut about 1/8 of an inch deep on each pass, it's really not practical for stone cutting. The reason is simple: the process would take too long. The laser systems can also be used to engrave artwork onto urns and other rounded surfaces with the use of a special rotary engraving attachment. The rotary attachment takes over one axis of the machine's two-axis controls, rotating the work as needed to keep it properly positioned under the laser beam. Lasers are good for cutting all sorts of hard materials, not just granite. You can also use a laser to cut marble and ceramic tile. But don't try to cut glass or metal; both will produce disastrous results and can even damage the laser.

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    Laser engraving systems come in a wide variety of configurations to accommodate jobs both small and large. Slabs as large as 4 feet by 8 feet and larger can be successfully handled without difficulty. Large-format lasers usually come either with a stationary table and a gantry-mounted laser, or with movable table. Some systems also use conveyor belts. Prices for large-format laser engraving systems are about $70,000 for an average system.

    If you're interested in cutting completely through a piece of stone, your best bet is the CNC abrasive waterjet. Although there are several other tools on the market today that will do precision stone-cutting, for highly detailed artwork the waterjet offers some significant advantages: It doesn't heat the material being cut, it doesn't vibrate the material, and it doesn't require a starting hole. For Jim Bellilove of Creative Edge, it was love at first sight when he saw a waterjet. "We got involved with the waterjet first, and then we found a market," he says. "Our basic business concept is organized around the machine."

    Creative Edge is actually two businesses in one. Bellilove operates both in the artistic realm, serving the needs of the architectural-design market, and in the industrial realm, using his machines to do industrial cutting. He has expertise in executing complex inlays that combine a variety of materials, such as stone, tile, and metals. "This kind of equipment is the best breakthrough in stone-cutting in hundreds of years," Bellilove says. "Any shape can be cut as long as the material is flat. Any material can be combined with stone. The technology just by itself creates a whole range of design possibilities." The waterjet works by shooting out a fine stream of water at high speed. However, when you're cutting through stone, water alone is not enough. You'll also need an abrasive. The most common one used with the waterjet is garnet.

    Surprisingly little water is used by the waterjet itself . It only uses about a gallon a minute that is sprayed out of its tiny nozzle in a stream going about3,000 feet per minute, with about 50,000 PSI of pressure behind it. The waterjet stream used to cut stone is generally in the range of 0.003 inch. Since the kerf is extremely small and the material surrounding the cut doesn't heat up and warp, there is very little wasted material in a waterjet operation. In addition, the waterjet doesn't need a pilot hole to get started on an interior cut. It pierces right through the material wherever it begins, without leaving perceptible evidence of where the cut started. In order to use the waterjet and your computer together, you will, of course, need to use a CNC motion system. This handy little bit of hardware interprets the computer's digital instructions during the printing process and makes the waterjet act like a stencil-cutting machine.

    The advantages of using a CNC abrasive waterjet for precision stone cutting are many. It can cut the time necessary to produce complex stone cutting from weeks to hours. Because the waterjet doesn't heat up the stone or vibrate it, the resulting cut pieces are free of cracks and cut to a precision of +/- 0.005 inch. A waterjet is best used to make cuts completely through the material on which it is working-and it can cut through stone up to 8 inches thick.

    However, some operators are using the waterjet for specialized engraving. Brandon Gates, production manager for Precision H2O of Spokane, Washington, says he regularly uses the waterjet to etch complex designs on stone. "We've etched with no problem and gotten some beautiful results," says Gates. To cut a groove in stone, instead of going completely through, Gates increases the head speed, decreases the water pressure, and decreases the garnet flow. Because the bottoms of the grooves aren't a consistent depth, Gates fills them in with grout, leaving behind an attractive precision etching in a contrasting color.

    Waterjet systems come in a variety of configurations. Typically prices begin at about $100,000 for a basic CNC system. Although the waterjet only uses about a gallon per minute for the actual cutting, it uses another 5 to 7 gallons per minute to cool the pressure intensifier pump. While water consumption is not excessive, and there are no blades or bits to wear out, there is still a fair amount of maintenance that must be regularly performed. Says Bellilove, "There are a whole bunch of components in the system, which, because of the high water pressures, wear out quickly." High pressure takes its toll on the waterjet's hoses and gaskets. The garnet abrasive, an expensive supply in and of itself, causes the waterjet nozzles to wear out quickly, as well.

    Yet, in spite of these shortcomings, the waterjet's advantages are still weighty, and designs that could only be accomplished using one are increasing in popularity. "It's a moderately challenging technology," Bellilove says. "But architects, interior designers, and graphic designers are only just realizing that they have these options."

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