By: Sharon Kiley Mack
Jan. 27, 2007--The popularity of granite surfaces in the home is soaring. One doesn't have to watch too many home-improvement shows on television or look at very many design and decorating books to know that granite is hot, if not hip.
Capitalizing on granite's popularity, a small monument company in Skowhegan has shifted its emphasis from headstones to countertops.
LePage Memorials, which for 25 years has marked final resting places in the area with its headstones, was joined in 2002 by LePage and Eaton Inc. In the last five years, the new business has grown to become one of the state's premiere granite countertop makers, producing up to three units a week at its busy Skowhegan location.
Three countertops a week might not sound like much, but in this labor-intensive business, it represents quite a feat. Nearly every process is done by hand -- from cutting to buffing to shaping to polishing. Start to finish, an average kitchen countertop of 50 square feet takes about three days to produce.
Richard Eaton and Herbert LePage used a loan from Somerset County Economic Development Corp. and a grant from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development to buy the specialty equipment they needed and then borrowed from the bank to build the $140,000 warehouse to put it all in. They employ five other men to help meet the demand for their product.
"These guys started out in a garage," said SEDC Director James Batey. "They are doing some incredible work."
"It was just a natural progression to add the countertop line," LePage said recently. "We knew granite."
The memorial business LePage and Eaton have operated together for more than two decades still operates in the small building and showroom next to their new building on Eaton Mountain Road. But Eaton explained that the process of creating countertops required very different machinery, although some buffing machinery is the same. The cutting and edging machines used for the countertops deal with flat slabs rather than blocks of granite, and most headstone edges are sharp rather than shaped.
The new product line includes granite kitchen islands, fireplace surrounds, window sills, vanity tops, granite pads for under wood stoves, and cutting boards.
The company's commitment to quality is proving itself in a landslide of orders. At one point there were 35 orders waiting to be created for customers and contractors from Millinocket to New Jersey.
One recent day, the warehouse hummed with the sound of diamond saws carving out shapes, sanders grinding sharp edges into roundness, and routers slashing out sink holes.
"We are the only granite countertop company in the country that uses a 45-degree cut on our backsplashes," said LePage, explaining that corner pieces fit and look better together. "Our work is not butt-joined."
In addition, he said, each countertop is sanded and polished not just on top but underneath as well, to provide a smooth transition.
"If you do quality work, you never have a problem," Eaton said. "Things are going really well for us."
Prices for countertops range from $75 a square foot to $127 a square foot, with the average countertop measuring 50 to 60 square feet, according to LePage.
The granite slabs that the company uses are all imported from Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Canada and other countries. Their colors are amazing, their names alluring: blue eyes, tropical green, black galaxy.
"No two slabs are the same," Eaton said. "We won't use marble or anything else. They are all too soft."
A crane and heavy-duty vacuum system with suction pads allows workers to latch onto, lift and easily move 1,200-pound slabs around the workshop and onto a cutting table.
Precise patterns are designed from customers' requests and the dimensions are cut using a diamond blade. A $65,000 buffer then "kisses" the granite top, softening the edges and rounding them to the customers' specifications.
From there, the granite is moved to the hand-buffing stations, where men in rubber aprons and boots use hand grinders, continuously softened by water, to put the final polishing touches on the work.
LePage said that offering free specialty edges and free under-edge sanding has helped give his company a step up on the competition. "Everywhere else they are charging up to $17 a foot for that service," he said.
When LePage and Eaton first started their new business in 2002, they only took $400 a month for salaries. At the time, both men still made headstones and also worked full time in paper mills -- Eaton at Great Northern in Millinocket and LePage at S.D. Warren in Skowhegan. Neither would say what he's making now. "We plowed everything back into the company, invested it in tools and equipment," LePage said. "We now have a quarter of a million dollars in this building and equipment.
"But we grew so fast," he added. "It was surprising, even to us."
Both men have since left their mill jobs and LePage, who is suffering some health problems, is getting ready to hand the business reins over to his daughter Michelle Gillo and partner Eaton.
Sliding his hand over the rounded edge of a granite countertop, LePage said he is extremely proud of his work. "It's beautiful, isn't it?"