Mark Phinney has always collected rocks and stones.
In fact, he spent his 25th anniversary with his wife, Jennifer, picking up stones in several places. But they wanted to write on the stones with pictures of how and where they found them –– so Mark started experimenting on engraving stones.
“This is all his vision and I thought he was crazy because he wanted to do this,” Jennifer, who works as a business license inspector for James City County, said. “Then he actually had a brain aneurism in 2016, so he was sidetracked for a little while.”
But after “a lot of trial and error” working on his craft, Mark started Stone and Chisel Engraving LLC based in York County in March 2018.
“She calls it perfecting and I call it playing with rocks,” Mark, who also works as a project manager for Ability One, said. “I’ve just always liked stones, it’s been my favorite.”
“My neighbors think I decorate with stones,” he added. “I probably got about eight tons in my driveway.”
Jennifer helps him, acting as his cheerleader, “paperwork person,” and most importantly, his memory.
Mark works in his garage sanding down rocks, using dental tools and his hand held engraver “that sounds like a dental drill” to create custom pieces from memorial benches and wedding glasses to store signs and pet rocks for kids with little painted eyes.
He uses many kinds of rocks from Colorado River Stones to Virginia Blues and a lot of the stones come from Charlie’s Amazing Stones in Toano.
The most popular requests are pet memorial stones, something Mark started doing after the family’s pet, Breezy, an 18 year-old Pomeranian, died.
Mark has engraved wine bottles, awards and personalized housewarming gifts. He engraved a 3.5-foot boulder with a man’s address in Richmond and if you stop by Shorty’s Diner at the takeout line, you’ll see his handiwork there, too.
Each client comes with a story and he does his best to keep in touch.
One couple wanted engraved wedding glasses and a smaller cup for their daughter. Another client wanted Mark to put a tattoo of his son’s name on a stone in the shape of Fort Monroe.
But his favorite project to date is a memorial bench made out of an 850-pound stone. His clients –– a brother and sister who had lost their father –– had asked Mark to engrave their dad’s name with a bear claw.
Most of his business comes from word of mouth but he does frequent local art shows like 2nd Sundays and the Queens Lake Community Arts and Craft Show. His business cards are displayed at vet clinics and the business has an Etsy page, too.
Mark also works with glass, steel, metal and most recently, wood.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected his workload and custom orders as many shows canceled.
“We’ve been down probably 80 percent,” he said.
But it also gave him a chance to heal from his wrist reconstruction last year and he started experimenting with a new medium: Wood.
His daughter, Megan, who works as a graphic designer for local museums, showed him how to make vector artwork so he could create designs on the computer for clients before he engraved the pieces by hand.
The couple was supposed to go on a cruise for their 30th anniversary this year but it got canceled because of the pandemic. So they spent their anniversary helping out Mark’s parents in Alabama after Hurricane Sally.
Mark decided to redo his parents’ neighborhood bricks and now advertises the service on his website.
“They had bricks that were not going to outlive them,” he said. “I mean truly, I made them new bricks, I like them to last.”
Jennifer said her husband takes pride in his work and when people order from him they can expect beautiful, quality pieces.
“They will well outlast a Red Lobster gift card,” he added.
Right now, Mark does special requests, mostly orders for memorial pieces so he bought a hydraulic crane to help him deliver the items to people’s homes.
His goal is to open a physical location, a shop.
“It’s definitely not a soon thing right now,” he added. “We got to get the world back to normal and that is a dream right now.”
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