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Building blocks for the new LDS hall
Idaho shop cutting 14,000 to 21,000 tons of granite

IDAHO FALLS -- The stone-cutting operation of Idaho Travertine is ill-lighted. Rock dust and water combine to produce copious amounts of mud that spill all over the floor. The noise is ear-splitting.

Burly men wearing hard hats hunker over hulking machines or large blocks of granite -- cutting, drilling, adjusting, monitoring, 24 hours a day, six days a week.Workers groan as they strain to move stone pieces weighing many hundred pounds just a few inches on a pallet. Machines whine and roar and scream as they cut through granite boulders, each weighing several tons, and then through the resultant pieces. It's an operation built on pure, brute strength, human and mechanical.

"It's almost a spiritual experience," says Idaho Travertine owner and general manager Ted Orchard.

Whoa, say what?

The remark may sound incongruous given the environment, but Orchard has reason to feel the way he does. The result of all this animal effort is the elegant granite pieces used to face the new assembly building of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now under construction just north of Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

It is not, shall we say, a small job. Last year the church's contractors hired Idaho Travertine to quarry 14,000 to 21,000 tons of gray granite from Little Cottonwood Canyon -- the same stone used to build the Salt Lake temple -- haul it up to its Idaho Falls plant, with some going to a smaller Salt Lake cutting operation, and cut and shape it into the symmetrical blocks used to face 350,000 square feet of building.

Making the job harder is church officials' desire to have the stone appear decorative rather than merely functional, meaning Orchard's men have to sculpt all kinds of curves and indents and touches into the stone blocks.

That's not easy, considering that the saying "hard as granite" applies perfectly here.

"The windows and doors, they all have special embellishments that make it more difficult," Orchard said.

When Idaho Travertine won the contract for the assembly building stone work, Orchard, accustomed to working with the travertine stone from which his company derives its name, had to buy several new machines and expand his work force from 20 to 65. Crews work 12-hour shifts, two shifts per day, to supply the proper amount of stone to the marble setters, who are installing the larger block facings on the south and west sides of the building, and the brick masons, who are installing the smaller, brick-like blocks on the north and east sides.

"We're on the phone with the installers four or five times a day," Orchard said. "This job is more critical on scheduling than any other we've done."

LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley has set April 2000 General Conference as the deadline for completion of the building. Orchard jokes that they'll be installing stone until midnight the day before.

Idaho Travertine workers obtain the stone from loose boulders in the Little Cottonwood Canyon quarry. They split the boulders and load them onto semi trucks (about 20 truckloads a week, each about 24 tons) and make the four-hour drive to Idaho Falls, where they are cut.

Upon arrival, the split boulder is first cut into slabs using machines much like band saws, whose "blades" are fast-moving diamond wires, diamond-encrusted cables as thick as your little finger that cut through the stone at a rate of three-quarters of an inch per minute.

The slabs' thickness, ranging from 1 1/2 inches to 12 inches, depends on what pieces are ultimately going to be cut from the stone. Using more conventional diamond-bladed saws, each slab is then cut into one or several of the 1,129 (so far) different shapes used to face the building.

"It all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle," Orchard said.

The total number of pieces (many will duplicate each others' shapes) will ultimately be 45,000 to 50,000, not counting the brick-like pieces.

The face of the stone is smooth when cut, but Idaho Travertine workers roughen most of the pieces for aesthetic purposes, using a machine with an acetylene torch that sweeps the face of the rock, partially melting and chipping out feldspar components of the granite.

The pieces are then trucked to the assembly building job site, where they are installed. Orchard goes to Salt Lake City once a week to see how things are going.

After this job, Orchard, a member of the LDS Church, says he wants to retire and go on a mission with his wife. But the project itself is sort of a mission.

"It'll be something my grandkids and great-grandkids can look at and say, 'Grandpa did that,' " he said.