Belfast-based father-daughter business uses ancient technique to carve letters in stone

Posted Aug. 07, 2014, at 5:13 p.m.

Most days, Doug Coffin and his daughter, Sigrid Coffin, can be found in their studio on a dead end street in Belfast, working on the day’s various projects. The soundtrack to their work is a steady, rhythmic, non-stop, painstaking tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, tap.

The Coffins practice a trade that goes back as far as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans: letter cutting, the craft of carving beautiful letters into stone. For the past four years, Coffin and Daughter, their business, has written names, phrases, poems and other memorials into stone, to preserve for posterity.

Unlike typical memorial businesses that use sandblasting to carve letters, however, the Coffins do it all by hand, with a mallet and a chisel. Tap, tap, tap.

“I’ve always liked letters. Woodworkers are drawn to wood because they like the material. Letters are a material,” Doug Coffin said. “Doing it in stone is particularly exciting, because you’re not just writing it on paper — you’re making the letter. By carving it, you’ve made the actual letter. A furniture designer isn’t making a picture of a chair. He or she is making a chair.”

Before Doug Coffin got into letter cutting, he was a graphic designer and calligrapher, a craft he still practices. In the late 1980s, Coffin’s ex-wife’s father was a sculpture professor at Penn State and suggested to his then son-in-law he audit a special class at the school on letter cutting.

“The class was taught by this letter cutter from England named Richard Grasby, and within a minute of watching him, I thought, ‘I could do this in my dotage back in Maine for the rest of my life,’” Coffin said. “Or with my daughter, if she wanted to. And eventually, thankfully, she did.”

Sigrid Coffin, a Belfast native who is now 30, joined her father in the family business in 2010.

“I moved back to Maine from San Francisco five years ago. And a year after that, Dad offered me an apprenticeship,” she said. “It made a lot of sense. I studied calligraphy growing up and bookbinding in college and always had a penchant towards letters. I wanted to make a living with letters, somehow, so this was a good fit.”

The Coffins have a relatively easy-going working relationship; most of the time, they’re quietly carving — quiet, except for the tap, tap, tap. Their distance in age affords them some business stability as well.

“I’m 66, and I often get clients that are around my age that are having a headstone carved, and they ask me, ‘Well, what happens with the death date? What if you’re not around?’” Doug Coffin said. “I can tell them that Sigrid will do it.”

About 80 percent of what Coffin and Daughter cut are grave markers. They do get requests for more architectural work, and sometimes they work with churches and centers nationwide to create huge plaques, often involving gilded lettering or even raised letters — though most of the lettering the Coffins do is “V cut,” which means the carving is done at an angle, which gives the letters an almost 3-D quality.

Generally, though, the Coffins prefer to work with families.

“We like working with families and working on a smaller scale and working here in Belfast,” Sigrid Coffin said. “It’s exciting to go on site, but it’s also challenging. I remember being on the side of a church in Cambridge in October, and my fingers froze. That’s hard.”

“The sandblasted memorial shops around the country do what they do, and that’s one way of doing it,” Doug Coffin said. “But we can work with a family to craft them what they want and at a cost that’s not much higher than going to a sandblasting shop.”

The Greeks and Egyptians were to first to cut letters, but the Romans perfected the craft, and brought it with them to Great Britain. Letter cutting remains much more common in the U.K. than it does in the U.S. — the Coffins are two of only about 25 professional letter cutters in the nation.

One of the oldest continually operating businesses in the country is the John Stevens Shop, a studio in Newport, Rhode Island, that opened in 1705. One of the later owners, John Everett Benson, rose to prominence in the 1960s when he cut John F. Kennedy’s memorial stone at Arlington National Cemetery out of black slate quarried from Monson. Benson’s son, Nick Benson, a 2010 MacArthur fellow, now runs the shop.

Brooke Roberts, one of several apprentices at John Stevens over the years, is a longstanding friend and colleague of Doug Coffin’s. Roberts has had a decades-long appointment at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to carve the names of donors to the center into marble. On several occasions, Roberts has called on Coffin to take his place in the yearly appointment; last month, Coffin spent several weeks cutting letters at the Kennedy Center.

“These are [2- or 3-inch] letters in Carrara marble in the Great Hall of Nations, and you’re up there on scaffolding and people walk by and watch you,” Coffin said. “The hall is beautiful. It’s a great gig.”

Stone carries with it permanence. It will last longer than any human life, any wooden building, any book or other organic thing, whether it’s Maine granite or slate, or marble quarried from Vermont or Italy.

“Letters in stone have a particular authority,” Doug Coffin said. “When they are in stone, it’s a powerful material that we respond to. If you see it in stone, it seems to belong there, much more so than on just a piece of paper.”