Eben Armer lives up to his name. Literally.
Eben, of Hebrew origin, means stone — more specifically, foundation stone. “I found out later on in life what it meant. It was kind of ironic,” said the 36-year-old craftsman from Martha’s Vineyard. “It’s important to know I come from a long line of craftsmen. Just about everyone in my family is or was a hands-on kind of craftsmen.”
Mr. Armer is a stone artisan.
When he was around the age of five, his father, Eric Armer, brought him to a jobsite in Falmouth.
“I remember as a kid my dad was building a boat for two or three years. It was out in a field and there were tools everywhere. He would be building his boat and I would be right alongside him building my own projects too,” he recalled.
“Eventually we lived on that boat,” Mr. Armer said. “There was very little space so I was forced to use my mind and be creative about having fun,” he recalled.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is I always was a builder by nature and had a lot of talented people around me that influenced me growing up.”
But becoming a craftsman took a lot of hard work, Mr. Armer said. “A true mason has been run through the mill and basically killed themselves to get to that point of laying stones. It’s a grueling process,” he said.
Mr. Armer grew up in Oak Bluffs and attended the Oak Bluffs School. He graduated from a high school in New Hampshire and moved back to the Island shortly after. He then took jobs in construction, where he learned the essential trade of stone masonry work. “Masonry is more of a specialized trade,” he said.
He also learned about landscape construction. “Layout, elevations, using transits and knowing how to operate machinery, there are many components to the trade,” said Mr. Armer.
Both landscape construction and architectural masonry involve plans, layout, sourcing the right materials and forming overall strategy for the work, Mr. Armer said. There is potential for creativity in both areas. “With the landscape, you can often be free form with ideas and execution, more organic. The architectural work has different elements to consider, like aligning with structural and interior design components of the house or building,” he said.
He worked for two different masons and then led a landscape construction crew. “I wasn’t under my own flag but it gave me the skill set to go out on my own,” he said.
And out on his own he went. In 2002 he founded Contact Stone Inc., a fine stone masonry company that started as a one-man operation but eventually grew into a company with a crew of 10.
Contact Stone creates stone walls, walkways, buildings, floors, fireplaces, outdoor showers, pools, patios, steps, stairs, sculptures, stone benches and chaises. Their stonework is the sort that has people driving by pull over, or gather in front of as a backdrop for a photograph. It’s carefully crafted and elevates scenery like natural art.
State Road Restaurant in West Tisbury has the only commercial fireplace on Martha’s Vineyard built by Contact Stone.
“What I like about that fireplace is that it really feels like part of the space,” Mr. Armer said. “It has creative elements but doesn’t steal the show."
Each fireplace Mr. Armer designs and builds offers a glimpse into creativity and culture.
The first fireplace he built on the Island was at a Seven Gates Farm residence in Chilmark. In the years since, he and his crew have built over 20 fireplaces on the Island, one commercial (State Road Restaurant), and the rest in private homes.
Mr. Armer can’t talk about building fireplaces without mentioning a footing. “The most important thing with all stone work is a proper footing,” he said.
“Stone has a lot of mass to it; it’s heavy,” he said. Then comes the blockwork. “That’s the substructure,” he said. The rest of the building process depends on the specific design of the fireplace, Mr. Armer said. As with the individual stones, fireplaces are all one of a kind. The time it takes to craft a fireplace “depends on the job, the design, scale and materials.”
No two fireplaces are the same. He doesn’t visit stone yards; instead each stone is selected carefully in the field. “I go and find a farmer somewhere, or an old quarry out in the woods, and I research,” he said.
But that’s all he will say about where he finds his stone. “That’s a funny thing about stone masons. Despite the fact that I am good friends with other masons on the Island, we do not trade information.”
Like a good surf spot, Mr. Armer said, “It’s just not something you share.”
It’s April on the Island and work for Contact Stone continues to be in high demand. At a jobsite Mr. Armer reflected on the meaning behind his name. “When I eventually found out the meaning it made me feel good. It made me think I was doing the right thing.”