Presidential words etched in stone at Memorial

By C. Todd Lopez

ARLINGTON, Va. (May 31, 2007) -- Most Washingtonians thought the Air Force Memorial was finished when it was dedicated last October. But there was still work left to be done.

During his speech at the dedication, Oct. 14, 2006, President Bush said the Memorial will be the place Airman could visit to contemplate their contributions to America's freedom.

Stone carver Marcel Mächler uses an air chisel to carve a quote from President George W. Bush into a granite wall at the Air Force Memorial, May 24. Mächler said carving a letter 'I' into the wall might take just a few minutes, while a letter 'M' might take four times as long. He said he hoped to complete the more than 300 character presidential quote by Memorial Day.

"A soldier can walk the battlefields where he once fought; a Marine can walk the beaches he once stormed; but an Airman can never visit the patch of sky he raced across on a mission to defend freedom," the President said. "And so it's fitting that, from this day forward, the men and women of the Air Force will have this memorial, a place here on the ground that recognizes their achievements and sacrifices in the skies above."

It is that quote that stone carver Marcel Mächler was adding, letter by letter, to a granite wall along the entry path to the Memorial, May 24.

"It's a huge quote, I think they picked the biggest they could find," joked Mächler.

Originally from Germany, Mächler now owns his own stone carving and sculpture company, headquartered in Twin Peaks, Ca. He was responsible for most of the stone carving done at the Memorial, from the names of the donors, to the campaigns the Air Force fought in, to the image of the Medal of Honor.

Mächler used a combination of old carving techniques and new technology to get the president's words onto the Memorial.

"What I did was had everything laid out on the computer, including the outlines and such, and spacing," he said. "Then I traced it out on the stone -- scratched it in with a carbide tipped needle."

To cut the letters into the granite, he used a compressed air cylinder to drive a pneumatic chisel with a carbide tip. The pneumatic tool allowed him to work much faster than if he'd used just a hammer. Doing it the old fashioned way, he said, would take him six times as long. And he was on a deadline for the project.

"I'm going to try to have it done by Memorial Day," he said. He'd been working 12 hours days since May 21 to complete the project.

Each letter in the quote must be cut out of the granite face with the same sharply defined corners and center bevel as every other letter, Mächler said. But some letters come faster than others.

"For an 'I,' it's just a few minutes," he said. "For an 'M,' it takes four times as much."

But the speed of the air chisel doesn't change the concentration Mächler needs to complete his task. Concentration and control are as important to the job as the chisel, he said, because there's no easy way to fix something once its carved in stone.

"When you go slow enough, you are in control," he said. "When you go too fast, you are out of control. You have to be good at this, and just do it right. And you have to stay in control, be patient, and just do everything once ... because we can't do it twice."

Mächler picked up his craft when he was 21 years old, in the early 1980s. He had been pursuing an education at a German university at the time, and said he was unsure of what he really wanted to do with his life or where he wanted to go. One seemingly trivial incident at the time made him pause to consider what he should do next.

"I had a flat tire on my bicycle and I couldn't fix it," he said. "And I thought I have to learn something with my hands. I'm a little far removed from reality if I think about society and how people should live and I can't even work with my hands. So I thought I'd do an apprenticeship."

His love of nature made him consider some sort of craft with wood or stone, he said. But a lot of his friends were already doing carpentry or furniture building, so he chose to be different.

"I did a stone carver apprenticeship in Germany," he said. "The three years apprenticeship was very important, and I learned a lot."

During the apprenticeship, Mächler learned more than just lettering. He also learned to carve such things as fireplaces and statuary.

The Web site for Mächler's business features much of his work since the end of his apprenticeship, such as gargoyles, fireplaces, fountains, letter carving, and even work at both the Ronald Reagan and the George H.W. Bush presidential libraries.

"The George Bush senior library has a three foot presidential seal," he said. "That is carved in black granite, is three feet in diameter with a one inch deep cut, and has an eagle, the arrows, and leaves."

Mächler said the work of the stone carver is important because it is evident throughout human life -- from birth to death.

"It really entails a lot of human life, from the baptismal font to the grave stone -- really, stone carving goes a long way toward human life," he said. "It also has a kind of symbolism too, because it's one of the oldest crafts in the world. It has this tradition, it goes along with the Air Force too, with the heritage."