A Star Out of Stone
July 2002

“A Star Out of Stone,” Friend, July 2002, 18

A Star Out of Stone

They brought great stones, costly stones, and hewed stones, to lay the foundation of the house (1 Kgs. 5:17).

Have you ever taken scissors and tried to cut a star, or maybe a perfect circle out of paper? Can you imagine being asked to use a hammer and chisel to cut a star onto a 1,000-pound (450-k) stone, or to make a ball 3′ (.9m) in diameter out of hard granite?

That was exactly the job of Peter Howell and many other stonecutters who worked on the Salt Lake Temple.* The outside of the temple is made entirely of granite, and each piece had to be cut and shaped with hand tools.

It took 40 years to build this temple to the Lord, and it required the skills of hundreds of workers. It was built to last, with walls 6′ (1.8 m) thick. But the pioneers also wanted it to be beautiful. That is one reason why it has tall spires and carefully carved designs in the stone walls.

Carving a large granite stone took a great deal of strength and skill. A stonecutter’s tools included a granite ax to flake off layers to help make the stone more smooth or square. They also included a chipping hammer and several kinds of chisels, with flat or sharp points on the end, to carve into the rock. The cutter pounded on one end of the steel chisel with a heavy sledgehammer so that the sharp point on the other end would chip out a piece of stone.

It took a heavy blow with an 8-pound (3.6-k) hammer on the chisel to make even a dent in the granite. To cut careful corners and points on stars took a strong arm that could keep pounding, as well as great skill with the chisel. A stonecutter also used trueing blocks to make sure that the stone had the exactly-square sides it needed to fit snugly into the walls of the temple, and that it matched the marks made on it by the pattern maker.

Pounding on stone dulls chisels and axes quickly. It took 6 to 8 blacksmiths working on the temple grounds beside the stonecutters to keep all the tools sharp and ready for work. All of the crews worked summer and winter.

The workers on the temples weren’t all older men. Many teenage boys were apprentices, or helpers, to the stonecutters, blacksmiths, and masons who put the stones in place on the temple walls. In those days, it was common for a boy of about 14 to get a full-time job with a skilled worker who could teach him a trade like stonecutting.

Stone for the temple came from Little Cottonwood Canyon, more than 20 miles (32 km) away. Crews at the canyon rock quarry worked 6 days a week to cut large blocks of granite from the hillside. A row of holes was drilled into the rock, then wooden wedges were pounded into the holes to split huge blocks away from the mountain.

The blocks sometimes were as big as their log cabins and weighed many tons. The stone had to be cut into smaller pieces of 2 to 10 tons (1.9 to 8.5 k) before being carried by wagon down to the temple area. In later years, a railroad line was built from the rock quarry to the temple grounds.

Once on the temple grounds, the stones were examined by supervisors for quality and size, then marked by the pattern makers. Each was given a number identifying exactly where in the temple it would be put and what size and shape it should be. Then the stonecutters went to work. They cut stone walls, stone steps, lovely curved-topped windows, and beautiful spires.

There are 145 stones carved with a star. A star stone sits above each of the tall windows, and some stars decorate the spires. There are 7 small stars carved onto the west side of the temple, arranged to look like the Big Dipper constellation. Around the lower level of the temple are 50 stones with a round Earth carved on the side of them.

One of the very last tasks of the temple stonecutters was to make the balls that decorate the tops of the 6 tallest spires. One of those balls would be the base for the Angel Moroni statue. For Peter Howell, who had worked 23 years on the temple, it was a great honor to be asked to cut some of those balls, to use the skills he had spent most of his life learning. For Brother Howell, and for most of the workmen, this wasn’t just a job. They were building the house of the Lord.

[Temple Blessings]

President Gordon B. Hinckley

“No member of the Church has received the ultimate which this Church has to give until he or she has received his or her temple blessings in the house of the Lord. Accordingly, we are doing all that we know how to do to [hurry] the construction of these sacred buildings.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley
(Ensign, November 1997, page 49.)

  • See Wallace Alan Raynor, The Everlasting Spires—A Story of the Salt Lake Temple, pages 107–147; Public Works Collections, Church History Archives, “Temple Stonecutters Time Book, Mar. 1879–1887”; Peter Howell obituary, Deseret News, July 9 and 10, 1929.

Illustrated by Mark Robison