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SUNDAY, OCTOBER 14, 2007
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Monument engraver Rod Hayes of Trinity letters a cornerstone for the new Hartselle Church of Christ. Hayes said his work generally involves adding lettering to an existing item, such as adding the death date to a marker in a cemetery that already has the names on it.
Daily photos by Brennen Smith
Monument engraver Rod Hayes of Trinity letters a cornerstone for the new Hartselle Church of Christ. Hayes said his work generally involves adding lettering to an existing item, such as adding the death date to a marker in a cemetery that already has the names on it.

A talent
etched in stone

Trinity monument engraver stencils and sandblasts everything from RIP to a Bear Bryant memorial

By Patrice Stewart
pstewart@decaturdaily.com · 340-2446

When coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s championship years needed to be engraved in stone at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Rod Hayes got the call.

When it was time to add the names of two Athens policemen killed on duty to a plaque at the Limestone County Courthouse, Hayes was the man to do the job.

And when it’s time to add your death date to your tombstone, Hayes may handle that duty, too.

The Trinity man is one of only a few monument engravers in North Alabama, so he stays on the road.

He keeps his stenciling and sandblasting supplies and air compressor loaded on his pickup to be ready to head for sites such as Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, where the Bear is buried, and he handles a lot of tombstone work for Clark Memorials.

The self-taught engraver is a one-man operation.

“You’ve got to be an artist, mechanic, accountant, bookkeeper and more,” Hayes said.

While he is self-employed, 80 percent of his work comes through Clark Memorials of Birmingham.

“They’re the biggest monument company in the state and end up getting most of the high-profile jobs, such as the new stadium entrance with four Alabama coaches’ statues and national championships,” said Hayes.

The company also provided the controversial Ten Commandments monument to former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, but Hayes was not involved in that one. He usually handles on-site engraving work when a monument is already in place, and he hasn’t run out of work in the last five years.

“I sort of joined forces with Clark Memorials, which has an office in Decatur, but I also contract out to other funeral homes and monument companies as needed,” he said.

Those companies collect fees for the work, which starts at $175 for simply adding a death date. He does work for Decatur Marble and Granite and several funeral homes in the Valley.

“It’s hard work, but it’s never dull work, and I like riding all over the place and being outside while providing a service that’s needed,” Hayes said.

The job of a monument engraver can be a sad one, with a lot of time spent in cemeteries.

Nearly every time he goes to work on a monument at Elmwood in Birmingham, a car will pull up and someone will ask if he knows the location of Bear Bryant’s grave.

“I can take you right to it, but if you didn’t know where to look, it could take you six months to find it,” said Hayes. “It’s not what you would think; it’s very nondescript.”

It took him nearly two days at the beginning of August 2006 to letter four coaches’ championship years on a wall at the new entrance to the UA stadium.

“It was 98 degrees, but it felt like 120,” he said. That is a hazard of his work, because granite “will soak up the heat and radiate it back at you.”

Sandblasting and damp weather don’t work together, either, and he also can’t do the job when the temperature is below 40 degrees.

Honoring veterans

His territory stretches from the Tennessee line to below Montgomery, as well as a bit into Mississippi. He regularly visits a veterans’ memorial at Brookwood and adds names and information such as rank and where served.

“Sadly enough, I’ve been called on a half dozen or more times to add names of fallen police officers and state troopers in various places,” said Hayes. “But it’s good to have a part in honoring them.”

There are happier occasions for his lettering, too, such as cornerstones for new churches or plaques in Decatur’s Delano Park.

He engraved a mountain scene on a piece of limestone at the entrance to Mountain Cove subdivision in Trinity, and a possible future job in Fort Payne will pay tribute to the music group “Alabama.”

How engraving a monument works

Lettering a cornerstone for the new Hartselle Church of Christ was one of Rod Hayes’ projects for October. With his air compressor and other equipment on his truck, he works outside the office of the church contractor, Building Construction Associates Inc., with its partner Jim Drake watching, along with a reporter and photographer.

Rod Hayes’ right hand holds his sandblasting gun steady and moves it skillfully across the block of architectural stone, engraving a cornerstone for Hartselle Church of Christ.
Rod Hayes’ right hand holds his sandblasting gun steady and moves it skillfully across the block of architectural stone, engraving a cornerstone for Hartselle Church of Christ.
He deftly covers the 24x16-inch piece of architectural stone with strips of a wide, double-faced tape, then pulls off the top layer and centers the stencil he has ready with the lettering, attaching it with duct tape to the church cornerstone.

“He’s a guy of many hats,” Drake observed, watching Hayes trade his baseball cap for a blast hood, then add breathing mask and earplugs. Then, with sand in his sandblast hopper, he turns on his air compressor and adjusts his blast hose.

His right hand holds his sandblasting gun steady, about 18 inches above the stone, and moves it skillfully across the block of architectural stone, engraving the church name, dates and Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world.”

Hayes carefully maneuvers around the closed parts of the capital letters such as R’s and P’s, sometimes stopping and making adjustments with a stylus to make sure they are readable.

Then he peels off the stencil, checks and adjusts the letters and sprays the lettering with brown lithochrome. Because the stencil was made ahead of time (and the larger, more detailed stencils often are made by Clark Memorials personnel), it takes Hayes only about an hour to engrave the cornerstone.

“It’s basically done the same way everywhere: you put a stencil on it and a mat and it’s sandblasted,” he said.

“This one was a cakewalk, actually,” Hayes said. “You just try to keep from getting that stencil hot — the hardest trick to learn is to not burn up the stencil.”

Patrice Stewart

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