Carving National Memorials

American Artisans, Featured Article, People
on January 16, 2012
Courtesy of John Stevens Shop Nick Benson uses a pneumatic hammer to inscribe a Martin Luther King Jr. quotation into granite.

Amidst the din of a roaring sandblaster and commotion of construction vehicles, stone carver Nick Benson examines the inscriptions on a large crescent-shaped granite wall, inspecting each letter that he and his crew have etched into the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“I study all of the finishing touches and envision how the public will experience the memorial when they see it for the first time,” says Benson, 47, admiring the monument, which was dedicated in October.

To suggest that Benson has a passion for letters and their form would be an understatement. A third-generation carver and calligrapher from Newport, R.I. (pop. 24,672), Benson has devoted his life to decorating stone markers and monuments with masterfully carved inscriptions, using tools and techniques handed down by his father and grandfather.

Last spring, Benson and four fellow carvers engraved more than 2,200 characters on the King memorial’s 450-foot-long wall, which features 14 quotations by the slain civil rights leader.

“Dr. King’s quotes are topical and timeless,” Benson says. “These inscriptions are truly take-away messages for the ages.”

As owner and creative director of the John Stevens Shop—established in 1705 in Newport and one of the nation’s oldest continuously operated businesses—Benson has left his mark on hundreds of projects from small slate gravestones to the massive National World War II Memorial, also located in Washington, D.C.

Because Benson knew a memorial honoring King called for something special, he devised a font for the newest national memorial. “The font is greatly influenced by classical Greek letter form, out of respect for Dr. King’s love of Greek philosophy,” Benson explains.

Ed Jackson Jr., the memorial’s executive architect, recalls being immediately impressed with Benson’s skills after reading a letter from him. “It was a wonderful hand-script letter, in his own calligraphy,” says Jackson, 62. “I had never seen a letter so artfully designed.”

Benson began his stone-carving career at age 15, working under his father’s tutelage. After high school, he studied art at the State University of New York and the Schule für Gestaltung in Basel, Switzerland, where his appreciation for letter carving grew.

“My time studying in Switzerland had a huge influence on me,” Benson says. “And I had a fresh set of eyes when I came back to the shop.”

Though computerized machines do most contemporary letter carving, Benson carves by hand, using techniques that originated in ancient Greece and Rome. He begins by drawing the characters onto the stone. Then, he painstakingly engraves each character with a chisel and mallet. For larger projects, such as the King memorial, Benson uses a pneumatic hammer as well.

Regardless of the tool, skillfully carving a letter requires a smooth, steady motion. “It’s not unlike a carpenter running a plane over a long piece of wood,” Benson says. “Your body becomes a machine itself.”

Benson’s motivation to excel is in his blood. His grandfather and father both were master carvers who left their own marks in the nation’s capital. Benson’s grandfather, John Howard Benson, worked on the Marine Corps War Memorial, and his father, John Everett Benson, helped engrave the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Nick recognizes their significant contributions to the stone carving craft.

“I think about the legacy of the shop and the high standards my father and grandfather achieved,” he says. “All I hope is that I’m doing the legacy proud.”