Mr Raymond Toh is a second-generation stonemason in Singapore. He inherited the trade from his father- Mr Toh Ah Kim. Mr Toh Ah Kim first picked up tombstone craft skills as an apprentice at Bukit Brown Cemetery, and learned to engrave names and dates on tombstones by chipping out patterns on pre-cut stones. He learned the craft from a stonemasonry master based in Singapore. Mr Toh Ah Kim founded the stonemason company—Yeo Hoe Marble in 1966. In 1993, the company name was changed to Toh Hong Huat Trading.
When Mr Raymond Toh began picking up stonemasonry skills, he had just finished school at the age of 17. Shadowing his father, the younger Toh similarly learned to engrave names and dates on Chinese tombstones and columbarium plaques.
Today, Raymond continues to carve tombstones by hand. Though some parts of the process for creating tombstones has been mechanised- including utilising modern tools such as air-powered angle grinders, he still uses considerable strength and dexterity from his hands to carve patterns manually into stone.
The process involves several steps. First, Raymond creates a digital template of the contents to be carved out, before using this template to cut lines into white adhesive paper that covers the entire top face of the plaque. Second, he places the plaque on his work desk and uses a specialised fine craft blade to peel and remove the portions of the adhesive that forms the words and numbers. This exposes the stone underneath in the shape of the words and numbers, preparing the stone for abrasive blasting. Third, Raymond brings the stencilled stone to the abrasive blasting machine at his workshop. This sand blasting process will create grooves in the stencilled-in portions of the stone plaque, while the area of the stone covered by the white sticker will remain intact. Fourth, the carved stone is brought out to cool momentarily. After cooling down sufficiently, Raymond applies gold-coloured “leaves” (films) on the grooves to create words and numbers. Then he uses a soft brush to gently press the leaves against the grooves. This will set the gold material onto the stone grooves and effectively colour the words and numbers.
Finally, the photograph of the deceased is set in place. The oval groove blasted by sand in step three includes a white oval stone piece for the portrait of the deceased. Raymond’s wife, Mrs Toh, helps with the process of creating the photographs and pasting them onto the white oval stones.