Shaping real stone into art |

Shaping real stone into art

Laura Brown

Parallel drill marks on the granite face of the Nevada City Winery are still visible where dynamite was used to extract the rock from quarries 150 years ago. Local stonemason Dan Reinhart has left his own fingerprints in the rock he recycled at the winery, alongside the time-weathered stone left a century ago.

“You’re just a little blip in time working with the same stones in this historic town that’s trying to cling to history. I really like that,” Reinhart said.

He has done much of the stone work in Nevada City for the past 20 years. He is a rare breed among stonemasons because he refuses to use anything but the real thing.

For the last 30 years, cultured stone or artificial rock has replaced most real stone work because it costs half the price.

“It’s easier on your elbows,” said Nancy Behr, whose husband Mike Behr has been a stonemason in Nevada County since 1976.

Homeowners have been clamoring for cultured stone so much that it now makes up the majority of Mike Behr’s business, especially in large developments like the one he is working on in Meadow Vista off Interstate 80.

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The trend to use cultured stone is worrisome to Reinhart, who has been studying the craft for 40 years and doesn’t see many young faces in his line of work.

“I can see it kind of dying out,” Reinhart said.

It’s hard on the body, especially the back, and it takes years of study to learn the trade. Reinhart is self-taught and has learned through trial and error.

“I can understand why people go for it,” said Reinhart ,speaking of cultured stone and the cost savings it brings to the consumer.7

As much as 90 percent of stone masonry work these days is done with cultured stone, Reinhart said – including million-dollar houses whose owners tout the stone work.

Advancements in the look of cultured stone have improved significantly in the last 10 years, said Nancy Behr, who said even she has a difficult time discerning differences between real and faux.

“They really want this cookie-cutter look without any surprises,” Reinhart said, referring to the cultured rock’s uniformity.

Reinhart said he refuses to work with anything created in a mold and painted with an airbrush. His loyalty to his craft has made him the premier choice among historic preservationists and eccentrics.

City of stone art

A tour of Nevada City in his pickup truck is like a walk through a gallery showroom of granite and serpentine.

The town is a collage of his work: abutments of the Pine Street Bridge, Pioneer Park’s band shell, Seaman Lodge, Nevada City Winery, Nevada City Carriage Barn and sections of Callanan Park.

Though it’s back-breaking work. Reinhart prefers to sift through local rock quarries or drive to the high Sierra to find specimen pieces.

He trucks the rock back to the job site where he uses drills and chisels and the old time wedge-and-feather method to break them into workable blocks.

Reinhart said he feels a deep connection with the natural elements in the work he does, from the 1,000-year-old rocks that have come tumbling down creek beds to his knowledge of how temperature determines the strength of his walls.

It is time-consuming work. A recent 4,500-square-foot house with outbuildings took Reinhart out of circulation for five years and had many wondering if he had moved out of the area.

But he’s still here, working on a section of a rock wall at his own house adjacent to Pioneer Park, an extension of himself that will be around probably longer than he will.

“I think we all strive for a sense of permanency about our lives. We know it’s kind of fleeting, so whenever we can see that we’ve made something that’s going to last for a while, there is an innate human joy in that,” said Reinhart.


To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail or call 477-4230.

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