BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Rhythmic tap-tap-tapping fills the room as Casey Winningham chisels into a slab of limestone. The sound is more metallic than you might expect.
A moment before, Winningham replaced wire-rimmed spectacles that had been pushed up on top of his head with another set of lenses — he calls them his high-powered glasses. Then he leaned in, carefully positioned the point of his chisel, and began chipping the stone out of the short horizontal stroke in a stenciled letter F.
The limestone surface he’s cutting into is bathed in light from two lamps fixed close overhead. The light borders on harsh, but Winningham’s voice takes on a soft, serene quality as he works.
“See how that flaked out?” Winningham says as his chisel dislodges a bit of stone. “It’s always going to flake out. So you have to plan ahead and make it flake out where it’s OK.”
Winningham is a gravestone carver, one of a small number in the country who work by hand with chisel and mallet, The Herald Times reports. He cuts exclusively into Indiana limestone, crafting historically appropriate replacement stones for cemeteries or newly designed markers for clients planning burials.
He works from his home to the west of Bloomington, just across the Monroe-Owen County line. He started lettering three years ago and has now created headstones for graves in Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee.
Winningham, a 60-year-old who spent much of his life as an artist-blacksmith, is fascinated by old graveyards. He’s done work documenting aged headstones that are in danger of being lost. When he started seeing orphaned graves without headstones, he started to create markers for them.
His work began spreading by word of mouth. Clients contacted him about creating stones for family members. He started having conversations with cemetery restorationists. Last year, one restorationist gave him a commission for 46 headstones in a Catholic cemetery in Batesville.
At first, Winningham didn’t expect to hand carve gravestones for a living. He thought he’d do it for orphaned graves as a way to help. That changed as he started receiving inquiries from people who wanted him to make headstones for new graves.
“That really surprised me,” he said. “There are people who want these old 19th-century techniques. They like the way they look. These are people that appreciate old gravestones.”
Making limestone headstones using a chisel and mallet is becoming a lost art, according to Jeannie Regan-Dinius, the state of Indiana’s cemetery and burial ground registry coordinator. Granite headstones have largely replaced limestone ones in popularity, a move that started in the early 1900s, she said. Hand carving has given way to lasers or sandblasting.
Still, those who make or appreciate hand-carved headstones are a dedicated group, Regan-Dinius said.
“Most consumers want granite with the laser,” she said. “But there are some people who are attracted by this old look, this historic feel.”
Winningham can run through the differences in style between new and old carving techniques. Modern machine carving typically creates a rounded groove bottom that doesn’t have the same light play as his handiwork, he said.
“You have what’s known as the V-groove, and you have the shadows,” he said of his hand carving. “It gives a real bounce to the lettering.”
New techniques have one apparent advantage: speed. It can take Winningham several days to etch the front of a headstone, he said.
It took him much longer to learn to letter. Educational sources are few and far between, Winningham said. He gathered a few books. He spoke with cutters he knows in the area limestone industry, which is rich in tradition.
After that, it was a matter of practice making perfect.
Back at his home, his mallet and chisel ringing, Winningham recounts the long process of learning to letter.
“I was busting out of my lines and being very frustrated,” he says. “This technique is called chiseling. You just sneak up on the side line. You maintain that angle, that depth, and you just go down till you’re finished. Always go toward the middle. This way, nothing bad happens.”
The mallet he uses looks less like a hammer than it does the pestle from a mortar and pestle. Its rounded shape requires him to deliver precise, on-center strikes, he says.
Carving stones for those orphaned graves was an early breakthrough, according to Winningham. He knew that his work would be better than what the graves had previously, which was nothing.
“I started getting success with those and getting encouraged,” he said. “Then I started stepping out and doing more difficult things like carvings with hands, motifs.”
Now Winningham is preparing to instruct others in his craft. He’s going to teach lettering at the Association for Gravestone Studies national conference this year, which is being held at Franklin College in June.
Taking part in the conference will probably get him a little more exposure and help him grow his business. He’s also looking at doing shows for genealogy groups and history centers.
Keeping a steady flow of work has been a challenge. Sometimes Winningham will have a glut of work, other times orders come close to disappearing.
Winningham has reason to hope for a business boom, at least according to Joy Giguere, Indiana chapter chairwoman of the Association for Gravestone Studies. Handmade headstones could be ready for a renaissance, she said.
“I think we’re probably going to see a greater turn toward people being interested in having these kinds of handmade stones,” she said. “There are people around the country who work in different materials.”
Winningham has other hurdles to overcome as he tries to grow his business. One is shipping his headstones, which can weigh hundreds of pounds. His 24-year-old son, Caleb, who helps move the headstones, put the problem in simple terms.
“There’s a reason there’s no company that offers free shipping on stone,” Caleb Winningham said.
Challenges aside, Casey Winningham said carving stone puts him at an intersection between history and craft. And he remains fascinated by old cemeteries and gravesites.
He mentions one such site as he finishes demonstrating with the chisel and mallet in his home. He suggests a quick visit.
The gravesite, which was recently discovered, is less than a 2-mile drive from Casey Winningham’s home. It’s in a lightly wooded area and contains a pair of headstones bearing dates from the early 1800s.
Standing beside the graves, Casey Winningham points out a backwards “S” on one headstone. Clues like that tell him the stone could have been homemade. He finds it endearing, a reminder of a time when people were often buried on family land with homemade stones.
“It’s a treasure,” he says.
Ask Winningham whether he thinks the stones he carves are going to be a part of history, and he has an answer.
“That crosses my mind,” he says. “I’m leaving something for many generations to come.”
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