Rock Star

Anita Socinski has carved out her niche as a respected stonecutter

by Cal Workman

Working with stone runs in Anita Socinski's family. Her Uncle John Socinski owns Rutland Marble and Granite and holds a government contract for cutting American veteran grave markers. Her father, Anthony Socinski, recently retired from Densmore Monument, a custom-carved headstone business he's owned since 1976.

Third-generation stonecutter Anita Socinski, owner of A&M Stoneworks in Colchester, is one of very few women in her field.

Like Socinski, her brothers, Bucky and Adam, have grown up in the family business. Bucky has taken over Densmore Monument, and Adam still works with him at the South Burlington shop custom-carving memorials and interior countertops.

Even though Socinski was born into the stonecutting business, she is still something of a maverick. In a field dominated by men, she flew against stereotype. After learning the trade from her father and brother, in 1996 she broke away from the family to open A&M Stoneworks.

Using a bridge saw, an edge profile machine, diamond blades, specialty abrasives, a sanding drum and other tools of the trade, Socinski coaxes giant slabs of marble and granite into elegant frames for a fireplace or hearth, carves sensuous kitchen sinks out of soapstone, and custom-crafts countertops, cooktop cutouts, backsplashes, vanities and tub-surrounds from more than a hundred distinctly different types of stone.

A&M Stoneworks houses all the necessary fabrication equipment on site; some of her competitors create a template and then farm the work out to Canada, where the dollar goes further. What they give up is quality and jobs for Vermonters, says Socinski.

"I'd rather do quality work and make less money than rush through jobs just to get them done," she claims. "Suppliers won't send me crap because they know I'll just return it. I pay attention to detail and look at the whole slab and make the best use of it," she says. Shaking her head, she adds, " I've seen so many jobs that I'd call unacceptable, like a one-eighth-inch grout joint in a countertop. You just don't do that, but the average person may not know the standards that a trained eye would," she says.

Socinski's investment in good tools along with her practiced eye and experienced hand have earned her a reputation as a top-quality artisan in construction and architectural circles. She is often called in to source and fabricate centerpiece interior features for multimillion-dollar homes in Vermont, and her work can be seen in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

She recently finished fabricating and installing a cashmere white granite kitchen countertop and island for Jim Cicaloni and his wife in Essex Junction. A retired field superintendent for Whiting Turner Construction in New York, Cicaloni was impressed when he saw examples of Socinski's workmanship in her showroom.

"I've spent my whole life in the trades, so I know quality work when I see it," says Cicaloni. "I've worked with carpenters with 30 years' experience, but they're still not really carpenters. You're either made for it or not. Like me, Anita was born into the work and what she has is a gift."

Socinski has what it takes to turn out "jewelry box construction," agrees Ricardo Santamaria, job manager for Roundtree Construction in New Haven. The two recently finished working on a four-week job to shape and install a Bulgarian limestone staircase in a Shelburne home. Santamaria says to cut, grind and manipulate stone is an amazing process. If cut incorrectly, stone can crumble into a rubble heap, whereas "Socinski's finished work is a sculpted masterpiece."

Socinski's state-of-the-art machinery is a far cry from the $150 Skil saw and $50 straight-edge she used when she was starting out. She is pictured here changing the blade on her Cougar bridge saw.

Socinski has spent a good deal of time fine-tuning her craft. At the tender age of 7, she was part of her father's crew. She and her brothers poured concrete foundations in cemeteries with her father while her sister, Eve, worked in the office.

"I was quite attached to my father," she says. "I really liked riding around with him in his Falcon. We'd go to cemeteries in the middle of nowhere and he'd pull out his flashlight to look for an old marker to match it to one he'd work on back at the shop or to scope out a spot for our next foundation. We had a lot of fun. Afterwards we'd go to the store and get sandwiches and ice cream."

Anthony Socinski was from Proctor, where his extended family ran Artistic Monuments. He and his young family moved north to Winooski, where he took a job teaching history at Winooski High School. He sold monuments on the side under the name of Art Craft Memorials. Soon the monument work became a full-time job and he left teaching to build the business.

In 1976, he purchased Densmore Monument from Reginald Densmore, who was retiring from a business his family had owned since 1911. The Socinsky children, including Anita, pitched in to help after school and in the summer.

"I held the flat hammer with a bevel," says Socinski, "and my brother Bucky would slam the sledgehammer on it. I had to hold it just right and steady to break the stone. We also did a lot of digging and building forms and filling foundations in all kinds of conditions. Once the ground thawed, we'd dig eight to 10 holes a day and then go back the next day and fill them all in. There was always a big push to get markers in by Memorial Day," Socinski remembers.

Upon graduation from high school, Socinski wanted to do something different. She worked for six and a half years as a unit secretary at the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont making about $9 an hour. She married, and in 1986, her first son, Tim, was born. While she was pregnant with her second son, Nicholas, her marriage fell apart.

Socinski was thrust into the role of single parent and primary provider for her two youngsters. She remembers it as a very turbulent time in her life.

"I struggled as a single mother. There was no child care to cover my 7 a.m. and weekend shifts, and it was a big tear on me to leave my young kids and go to work. But I couldn't just throw up my hands and say, 'Well I'll just be a welfare mom.' I decided to take the talents that I had and do something with them."

Socinski returned to Densmore where the schedule was manageable and she could show up at work with a basket of laundry under her arm and run a load of laundry in the house while she worked out back.

She admits she still had a lot to learn.

"I knew how to read a tape measure but not to the precise detail that's required in this line of work. I made mistakes, but I fixed my mistakes and eventually got better and better."

Socinski shadowed Bucky, who fabricated countertops primarily, and she learned by paying close attention to his technique. Bucky left the business for two years to fulfill a government contract fabricating monuments in California, and while he was away, Socinski's confidence and reputation as a stonecutter grew.

When Bucky finished his contract and returned, tensions within the family grew. Socinski attributes much of it to the newfound attention she got from trade publications. A female stonecutter piqued the interest of editors who were eager to spotlight her in their publications. Socinski wasn't comfortable with the attention and felt the more experienced stonecutters like her brother should be covered instead, but a female stonecutter is a real novelty in this business.

"There are very few women in the construction field and the number of successful women stonecutters is an extreme minority," says Santamaria. He adds, "When you see her work, it isn't segregated by whether she's a woman or not; it's simply top quality."

Friends and contractors urged Socinski to start her own business, and in 1996, she took the plunge with a job from Steve Sisler of Sisler Builders to fabricate a limestone tub deck and bathroom vanity in Stowe. He was familiar with her work and confident she could do the job. She was not so sure.

"It was very scary at first, and I had wicked anxiety," she says. "I woke up a lot in the middle of the night thinking about jobs, but I didn't have anyone to lean on, so I just stepped up to the plate and did it. At first the contractors had me shakin' in my shoes," she says with a smile. "They're under time pressures and they'd holler at me to hurry up." She adds "I'm really indebted to the contractors. They have been so supportive of me over the years."

Jeff MacPhee, a full-time journeyman, recently completed a one-year apprenticeship with Socinski.

Today Socinski has as much work as she and her staff of two can handle. Jeff MacPhee works full time as a journeyman, having recently completed a one-year apprenticeship with Socinski. Carol Behrman runs the office, oversees the showroom and helps with sales and bookkeeping.

Socinski does not take success for granted. She's invested in a $100,000 state-of-the-art edge machine and a $60,000 bridge saw and has monthly payments. A far cry from the $150 Skil saw and $50 straight-edge she used when she was starting out, the tools make it possible for Socinski to perform precision work in a fraction of the time. What used to take six hours to bullnose 10 linear feet of stone by hand now takes about 45 minutes with her edge profiler.

Typically the team works on about five jobs simultaneously, spending a week in the shop fabricating and a week out of the shop at an installation. They can fabricate three kitchen countertops and backsplashes in a week and a soapstone sink in a day. Prices range from $85 a square foot for an installed medium-range quality granite counter with a simple edge, to $170 a square foot for high-end materials and detailed edging. Granite countertops, soapstone sinks and new, free-standing masonry heaters efficient wood burners made from soapstone are in demand.

A job usually begins with a visit to the showroom at Creek Farm Plaza in Colchester, where the walls are covered with such a wide variety of granite, marble, travertine , slate and limestone that it looks like a geologic exhibit at a museum. Stones are quarried all over the world, and Socinski has worked with most of them, from Vermont Verde Antique marble from Rochester to Calypso Green granite from Turkey and Juparana Persia granite from Saudi Arabia. She even has an arrangement to buy reclaimed floor tile pulled from French and English barns and castles.

As far as selection, Socinski is particular. She keeps a close eye out for cracks, tiny imperfections that occur in the finishing process, warped slabs or poor cuts.

"After working with tons and tons of stones for so long, you get to know which ones are nice and which stones you need to be very careful handling. A lot of places have evolved into delivering really good quality material, but there was a time when you could see the top of a slab was one thickness and the bottom another. That wasn't a good day for whoever was running the machine. They still have good days and bad days and I watch for that."

Socinski's two boys, now ages 16 and 12, can be spotted in the shop on occasion. Both have an affinity to stone and an aptitude for working with it.

"I was a single mom, so they were both with me all the time, tearing up the shop or hanging out in the office playing on the computer. Nicholas watches exactly what I do and then mimics it. If I take him to an installation, he already knows what tools I need, and without asking for them, hands them to me. Tim started working with me when he was 10 and now he can run the bridge saw and do fine-edge finishes."

Both would do well in the business, says Socinski, but she wants them to finish their studies and enjoy their friends and other experiences before they decide whether they want to pursue stonecutting as a career.

When Socinski isn't outfitted in her goggles and dust mask huddled over a 10-foot slab of granite, she might be seen setting cedar ribs onto the Adirondack guide boat she's been building for three years. It sits in the center of her showroom and serves as a reminder that her favorite outdoor pastimes sailing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking and biking will be beckoning soon.

She's reluctant to travel very far, though, or for long periods without making it work for her children. Instead, she's thinking about picking up some hand tools and trying her hand at stone sculpture. If her sculpture turns out anything like her stone construction, she'll be one mighty busy person.

Originally published in May 2003 Business People-Vermont