Made To Mortar
By Mark Di Ionno
Stanley Koberski's hands are the size of a heavyweight champion's and powerful enough to render a metacarpal-bending handshake. His palms are as tough as the sunburned side of an armadillo, with skin as thick as a catcher's mitt.
"Actually, they're not as bad as they used to be," said the 58-year old Koberski. "Over the last seven or eight years, a lot of the calluses have fallen off."
If a fortune teller tried to read Koberski's hands, they would find his lifelines obliterated by decades of skin-tissue build-up. But you don't have to be a palm reader to know these are not the hands of a concert pianist.
They are, however, the hands of a skilled magician. They are deft and graceful enough to transform ordinary cement into brick, or limestone, or fieldstone. Even wood.
By trade, Stanley Koberski is a brickfacer, but in truth he is part sculptor, part inventor, part illusionist.
"It's a very unique trade. I would say that we have more brain surgeons than brickfacers in this country today," the Rahway resident said. "There are so few companies that do this."
Koberski has spent his working life with one of the biggest, Garden State Brickface in Roselle.And in his 40 years of brickfacing, he has helped take the trade to a higher dimension.
"Stanley's forte is the innovative stuff," said Garden State General Manager John Glynn. "He's always looking for a different and better ways of doing things. He literally loves to play with cement. He does it all the time, even at home, to see what he came up with."
"I always loved working with the mud (cement)," said Koberski. "One thing I like to do is take a bucket of mud and sculpt heads out of them, like gargoyles. I have them all over my yard."
When Koberski learned brickfacing 40 year, it was a fairly straightforward process. You put down a layer of wire lathe, a layer of hand-trowelled mortar to smooth the surface, an additional one or two layers of finishing cement, and begin sculpting vertical and horizontal lines into the setting cement to create an illusion of brickwork. Hence, the name brickface. "It really started in Pennsylvania, then guys from there came here and taught us," said Koberski. "When Brickface started, you could do red brickface, white, a buff color or gray. That was it."
Koberski learned the trade from Paul Hancharick, who is also still with Garden State, back when the company started in 1953. Koberski had been working as an interior plasterer, but saw an opportunity to learn a new trade.
'It never hurts to lean new things," Koberski said. "The more trades you know the better of you are if things start drying up. So at the time, I figured, 'I can do plaster, I should be able to do this stuff'".
Over the decades, Koberski, Hancharick and William (Mickey) Walker formed a triumvirate of brickface wizardry, collectively coming up with ideas and innovations that changed the industry.
Brickfacing now includes concrete and stucco surface finishes that imitate limestone, brownstone, marble, earthstone and wood. The men developed better tools of the trade and enough color variations so that nearly any surface can be matched exactly right from the work truck. They also experimented with bonding agents and elasticizers until they found cement compounds that were easier to work with.
"The veterans (Koberski, Hancharick and Walker) put a lot of ideas together," Glenn said. "One guy would have an idea, and they would figure out a way to do it."
Among Koberski's developments are a cost-efficient two-coat stucco product, the earthstone finishes that imitate a variety of fieldstones, and Rusticated Limestone, the big block, deep-grooved look best seen in many of New York's finest apartment houses on Park and Fifth Avenues.
"You wouldn't believe what we can do..basically, we can imitate any kind of surface, all with concrete or stucco." Koberski said.
As a foreman at Garden State, Koberski directed hundreds of jobs on places like Trump Tower, the store-fronts in Herald Square, the home of architect I.M. Pei and Dracula's Castle in Brigantine..all of it creating historic-looking architecture out of freshly laid concrete.
"We do keystones, elliptical arches, all sorts of things you dont see anymore except in old buildings," Koberski said.
The 58-year-old Koberski was also instrumental in Brickface University, where the company trained everyone from managers to craftsmen for 12 years beginning in the early 1980's.
"When we saw a laborer with potential, a guy that was willing to learn, we sent him to school. Eight hours a day, all winter long. The way, they really learned the trade," Koberski said.
As for the Manager, Koberski liked to give them an idea of what it felt like to be a craftsman.
"Yeah, we'd get them up on the scaffolding, make them walk around a little bit. One class, I started out with 25 guys, then we went up on the scaffolding. The next day, I had 10 guys left."
Koberski estimates that Garden State trained about "75 percent of all the brickfacers in the country."
Koberski estimates he taught 200 men the craft, many of whom still work at Garden State.
"Some guys try to go off on their own, others get tired of it because it's hard work."
The school has since closed, as Garden State scaled down during the recent recession, and craftsmen are now trained on the job.
"We don't need as many guys as we used to," Koberski said. 'We used to have 15-men crews, but the technology makes it easier, so you only need eight or nine now."
These days, Koberski works as a senior surveyor for the company, going out to pre-inspect jobs and brief crews on potential problems.
"You don't want to send the crew out there blind," he said.
There are times when he'll still pitch in and get his hands dirty to help out a crew, but mostly he scouts jobs and spends a lot of time on the toad.
"I go anywhere in about a 300-mile radius...New England, Pennsylvania, Virginia. The company car I have already has 148,000 miles in it. It's a '93.
"When I'm not on the road, I'm in the office, but truthfully, I'd rather be out working with the mud."