By Don Bolding
Killeen Daily Herald
FLORENCE - Texas Carved Stone, on State Highway 195 six miles south of Florence, makes elaborate stone carvings to adorn multimillion-dollar houses with Texas limestone.
Bob Ragan and his wife, Mary Condon, started the business in 1987. They now have customers in Texas' large cities and many other states. Much of the stone is "creamstone" produced by local quarries, but some stone of different colors and textures comes from Big Spring, Leuders and Liberty Hill.
Some of the work is done in granite or marble. All of it is done with pneumatic hand tools.
"You can be going along in this business with hardly a chance to look up for months, and all of a sudden everything will stop, and you're left with time on your hands," he said. "It's typical. I usually use some of the time to do some sculpting."
Free-standing sculpture is different because the architectural work is made to order from architects' drawings with the architect, builder, stonemason and designer working together.
Texas Carved Stone's part of the work is done with two-dimensional drawings fleshed out by computer-assisted three-dimensional designs. Computers save a great deal of time with designs that used to be done entirely by hand, Ragan said.
"It blows their mind when you turn out a good job on time," he said. "That's why they keep using us."
The shop once had about 10 carvers. It's down to four now, but several carvers Ragan has trained have now become what he calls "tough competitors."
"But I'm proud of them," he said, "and it works out well because when we get a great big order that would swamp us, I can call these guys and we'll work on it together for everybody's benefit."
All of them are artists.
"All architectural carvers can sculpt," Ragan said, "but not all sculptors can do architectural carving. One guy I trained went back to his real passion, painting."
The business' office is full of sculpture and paintings, with one big portrait of Ragan himself and a soulful self-portrait by the artist who did it.
A large collection of books on art adorns one table, and several cats watch over the place.
Couple met in Austin
Ragan and Condon met in Austin. Before they moved to Florence in 1978, Ragan was working in masonry in Austin. The couple worked in remodeling here.
"A fellow at a stone mill asked me if I wanted to try architectural carving in 1985," Ragan said, "and I said I didn't think I could do it. He said he thought I could, so I tried it.
"A lot of the industry is mass-production, turning out one identical piece after another. That doesn't satisfy your high-end customers, though. There's a niche market for individual pieces, and I decided to fill it."
He said the usual house he works on is worth about $5 million, and he seldom has to travel to see it because he's working from specifications. "Only if it's in Hawaii," he jokes.
Residential work accounts for about 95 percent of orders, but the shop does some work on public building construction and restoration.
The typical house that sports the mass-produced pieces goes for about $1 million. Ragan said there is strong competition from China in that market.
"The Chinese have studied simple Italian fireplaces, and their people do them for about $3 a day. I continue to pay my people a good wage with good benefits. Our work is not cheap," he said.
Very little of the company's work is local because not many houses in this area are that high-end, and even the people who could afford custom stone carvings want to spend the money on other things.
"To me, 'local' means the Austin area," he said.
For three years, the couple have organized L'Arte Antica stonecarving competition during the Fine Arts Festival at the Vineyard at Florence, between Florence and Jarrell.
Condon recruits the carvers, who include some of the same artists that Ragan trained who now compete with him.
"We've been building it up for three years, and I get the impression it's really off the ground with this year's show," he said. "We work on the pieces right on the grounds for two days. It gets us all out of the house and gives us an incentive to do our best right there with other carvers."
Contact Don Bolding at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7557. Follow him on Twitter at KDHbusiness.