By Nicolette Toussaint
Sopris Sun Correspondent
Driving by, few would guess that the boxy-looking building at 398 Merrill Ave. houses what may be the most technologically advanced manufacturing facility in Carbondale.
During a recent tour, Balentine Collection International Operations Manager Whitney Linman opens the door to a vast room. “We fabricate and finish stone here to make kitchen counters, vanities, fireplace surrounds, table tops and benches. We have even made a few memorial headstones; the shop can do some engraving. … Watch your step. There’s water on the floor.”
As the shop’s five huge machines carve, cut and polish, they spew out finely powdered stone. To settle the dust and cool the cutting blades, water constantly sluices across the machines’ work beds and runs onto the floor. Both the water and the dust are recycled.
On this day, most of shop’s 12 employees are carving a massive, curved staircase out of native Colorado sandstone. The finished staircase, bound for Aspen, will have five radially-curved steps. Each will be about 50 feet long and made up of multiple, pie-shaped pieces that must be cut with precisely angled joints.
Antonio Abarca runs the newest addition to the slab shop: a van-sized Omag Mill 98 machine. Abarca programs the Italian-made CNC (computer numerical control) machine to translate three-dimensional information into machine tool patterns. A computer guides the Omag’s steel blades, angling them to spin on five different axes. The machine can create extremely complex patterns; recently it was programmed to create a lion’s head statue that is on display at the Balentine Collection’s Aspen showroom.
“It takes a long time to learn to run the CNC machines,” Linman says. “Antonio has been doing this for five years, and I’m told that he’s one of the better CNC operators in Colorado. He’s been in the stone business so long! Now he knows machines too, so he understands how the machines and the stone will interact.”
“Most of the guys here have started from ground zero and we train them. We have a tight crew, and I’m proud to say that there’s very little turnover in the slab shop.”
Near Mill 98, a large bridge saw prepares slabs for the Aspen staircase while the CNC saw and a five-access saw churn away, cutting granite counters for some of Aspen’s Burlingame affordable housing units.
Around the shop’s walls lean slabs of stone: granite, limestone, slate, sandstone, marble and occasionally, even semi-precious stones such onyx and tiger’s eye. More five-by-10-foot stone slabs are stored in the adjacent yard. Shipped from places as distant as China and Italy, most of the stone has been ordered for specific customers, but Balentine also sells remnants at marked-down prices.
“These new, computerized machines are fast and allow the shop to be very competitive. We are turning out lots of work for mid-valley and lower-valley clients,” says Linman. “We do a lot of Aspen stuff, but that doesn’t mean that our prices are high end.”
Opening a plastic, dust-proof doorway, he leads the way into a separate handwork room. Here, craftsman are assembling and finishing a custom farmhouse-style sink. A hole has been cut to fit the chosen drain; it’s routed so that the drain’s ring will lie flush to the surface. Linman runs his hand over the bottom of the sink. “This has been sloped on all sides so that the sink will drain.”
“This limestone will have what we call a ‘leathered’ finish. That comes from sanding it using diamond-tipped brushes with increasingly fine grit.” Linman displays a collection of foot-wide, circular steel brushes. “When it’s done, the sink will look like this.” The finished sample of Belgian limestone he hands me is buttery to the touch. Its deep blue-black color, slightly wavy surface and satiny sheen contrast markedly with the in-progress sink, its stone now the color of concrete and as dull as a cardboard box.
The slab shop is busy. It runs eight to 10 hours a day, five or six days a week. A couple of years ago, Linman saw fabrication firms coming up from Denver, looking for work in the Roaring Fork Valley. “No more,” he says. “They are too busy in Denver.”
“I see an uptick in the valley’s business,” Linman continues. “That’s exciting.”
In addition to recently celebrating the remodeling of its Aspen showroom, the Balentine Collection has reopened its showroom here in Carbondale.
“We are fabricating and installing work in Glenwood Springs, Silt, Rifle and in Carbondale,” say Linman. “With the showroom open, we can service downvalley clients much better.”