Sean MacMillan of Bangor was looking for a wedding gift for a friend when he saw granite vases in a gift shop and thought, “I bet I can do that.” “I’ve been collecting granite for a while,” said MacMillan, 38. “I’ve always had this thing for rocks. It’s kind of neat to think how old they are — they’ve been around for millions of years — and to make them into something.”
An employee of S H Bridges Construction Inc., MacMillan collects rounded granite rocks he finds at work sites.
“I’ll be watching them dig the holes at work, and I’ll be like, ‘Stop! Wait, wait, wait! I need that rock right there,’” he said. Sometimes he startles his co-workers, who are careful not to hit underground pipes while digging.
Transforming a rock into a vase was harder than he expected.
“I probably break about one-fifth of them when I’m drilling through. They split in two,” he said, laughing.
He sold his first vase four years ago and has perfected his technique through experimentation. This year, he sold 35 vases at his first art show, the WLBZ 2 Sidewalk Art Festival on Aug. 7 in downtown Bangor.
“I did pretty well,” he said. “I was surprised. I was hoping to sell some and I sold all that I brought with me except a couple.”
At the show, some people asked whether he had a website, and he replied, “I’m not that big of a deal yet.”
“I don’t know if I’d call myself an artist. A stone mason, I guess,” said MacMillan, who uses his own tools and machines to work with the stone.
With a diamond-bladed saw, he cuts off the bottom of the rock and sets the rock upright under a drill with a hydraulic motor. Then he marks the center of the future hole with a magic marker.
“What I use is a machine that we use to drill through concrete walls at work,” he said. “I just modify it a little bit. I tip it the other way to make it a drill press.”
He drills downward through the top of the rock, which is anchored with wedges. Water runs through the drill to keep it from overheating and the diamonds from breaking off the blade. The moisture also keeps the rock dust down.
It takes about 15 minutes to drill down 6 inches.
“It doesn’t come out well if the bit is spinning too fast. It needs to be slow grinding,” he said.
The drill only cuts the outside edge of the hole. With the bit pulled out, a rock core is still attached to the bottom of the vase, so MacMillan taps the rock column from side to side until the bottom breaks off, leaving a 6-to-8-inch cylindrical pit for flowers, kitchen spoons, candles or pencils.
On Sept. 3, MacMillan placed fairy wands in one of his vases for his daughter’s fairy-themed eighth birthday party.
Most of the time, SH Bridge’s Construction’s garage in Bangor is his stonework studio, but one day, MacMillan brought the drill to his backyard.
“I thought there was something wrong with the machine. I didn’t realize how loud it was,” his wife Virginia said.
As a finishing touch, the vase is power-washed and coated with stone enhancer, which reveals the granite’s colors and pattern and makes it appear wet.
As soon as MacMillan fine-tuned his vase-making technique, he began donating his stonework to charity auctions. His first auction was for Upward Bound at the University of Maine in Orono, where his vase sold for $250. And he has donated to the annual YMCA auction for the past two years and plans to continue.
Several of his flower vases were displayed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in February. The vases held flower arrangements made by his sister-in-law, MFA flower associate Molly Bidstrup.
“People like them,” he said. “This is just a side hobby. I dig the stone up at work, pile them up and drag them home.”
“His inventory is a little low right now,” said Virginia.
Though MacMillan collects stones year-round, he doesn’t always have time to transform them. In the summer, he works for the construction company full time. When the ground freezes and construction jobs are slow, he works with granite. Last winter he made about 50 vases.
“I’d make a lot more but the rocks are hard to find,” said MacMillan. “Maybe I could make it a full-time business, but I can’t find the stone. It’s kind of hard to find rocks that are shaped like a big dinosaur egg.”
Granite is a light-colored igneous rock made up mainly of quartz and feldspar speckled with other minerals such as mica and hornblende. Much of Maine’s granite, formed from molten rock, emerged during the Silurian and Early Devonian periods, 440-390 million years ago, according to the Maine Department of Conservation Geological Survey last updated in 2005.
MacMillan typically uses granite that has been naturally rounded through erosion. Though vases make up the bulk of his stonework, he has experimented with making stone bookends, lamps and bowls. The size of the original rock determines the size of his vase, bowl or sculpture.
On his front patio steps is a large white and black speckled granite bowl filled with soil and planted flowers.
“My wife gets to keep the best pieces,” said MacMillan. “She didn’t let me sell this one.”
Bowls are more difficult to make because drilled core is too big in diameter to break away from the bottom of the bowl. MacMillan split the first bowl he made when he hit the large core with a sledgehammer. The gray bowl, pieced back together, sits as a companion to the white bowl on his front porch. Now, he drills small holes and slowly chips away the rock.
He gets masonry ideas by observing what people are selling at gift shops and online.
“Everyone likes the small pieces, but I kind of like the big ones myself,” he said.
The smaller vases cost approximately $20; bowls, $125; and lamps, $100. Prices vary depending on the rock size, pattern and color. For information, call Sean MacMillan at 852-0623.