BELFAST — Consider the alphabet as art.

The beauty, form and spacing of letters and words impact the way we receive information. An attractive presentation is easily read and, if done well, can shape or alter perspective. Belfast letter cutters Douglas and Sigrid Coffin have carved a career of making letters perfect.

A letter cutter is, quite simply, one who engraves letters. The Coffins have transformed this craft into an art form.

The father/daughter duo hand engrave headstones, monuments, buildings and donor walls. They work worldwide and and are in great demand. The pair employ an engraving technique that dates back to the Roman Empire.

Sigrid Coffin gilds her hand-engraved letters in 23-carat gold at the Bobst Library in New York City. Photo courtesy of Douglas Coffin

“We’re making letters and spacing really beautiful,” said Douglas Coffin. “They are subtle distinctions, but the beauty of the letter augment what you’re reading. We translate someone’s vision or need into stone.”

Those visions are translated personally. Douglas and Sigrid Coffin are hand engravers. They interact with their client’s vision for the stone and, through the magic of form and spacing, create art.

There are roughly 40 or so hand engravers in the United States. Much of the engraving industry has gone the way of the sandblaster, laser and catalog of choices.

When it comes to custom stone hand engraving, few possess the background, talent or specific eye for minute detail as the Coffins. Most of their work is done with cemetery headstones, making the entire experience more personal.

“We get to know the family,” Sigrid said. “We correspond and try to understand their vision before we start. The process takes some time.”

Douglas Coffins says, “It was important to express the beauty of Randall Thompson’s wonderful musical creation, “Alleluia.” Photo courtesy of Douglas Coffin

The Coffins often ask clients, who are still in the grieving process, to take more time before making decisions about engraving designs.

Once a client’s vision is finalized, the Coffins add their unique nuance to the form and spacing of letters and decoration. Douglas has been hand-engraving for 34 years; Sigrid served an apprenticeship with her father in 2009 and has been engraving for the last 12 years. Both have a specialized eye for spacing, and both have a background steeped in creativity.

Douglas Coffin’s experience includes calligraphy, topography and graphic design. He was a syndicated cartoonist and a cartoon editor while also doing freelance graphic design. His route to the hammer and chisel began at age 40 when he heard England’s Richard Glasby lecture about letter cutting in stone. That lecture triggered his fascination with the history of letters and letterform.

“I thought to myself, I can do this. I had all the tools. I worked in a shipyard as a kid, so I knew how to use them, and how to move heavy objects, and now she does,” Douglas said with a nod toward Sigrid.

Sigrid Coffin’s background is in painting, drawing and music. She dabbled in graphic design in California and went to Syracuse for two years before moving back to Maine in 2009. She served several years as a registered rock-climbing guide, interacting with rocks in a different way. Like her father, Sigrid is captivated by letters.

“Everything was about letters,” Sigrid said. “Even when I was at Syracuse for a couple years, it was all letter work.”

Beyond the love of letters, they share a specialized eye for form and space — and the unique skill of hand-carving impeccable letters and decorative designs. While they collaborate on certain projects, they operate individually.

“She developed her own job and brought it here,” Douglas said. “She runs her own shop.”

Their preferred medium is slate. They also work with limestone, marble and granite.

The process of hand engraving commences when letters and other elements are brushed out on the surface of the stone calligraphically and fine-tuned using a paper overlay.

With the surface prepared, the Coffins begin their design work using a one-pound hammer driving a carbine-tipped flat chisel. Typically using a V-cut pattern, they engrave the letters and other decorative elements. The decorative work includes a wide range of handmade chisels — each leaving a different effect in the stone. Most of the work is done standing and the stone is cut from bottom to top with letters and decorative elements carved from the inside out, one stroke at a time. Letters ordinarily take about 15 minutes to design and an hour to carve.

This stone includes a hand-engraved house in which the clients hope to be interred. Photo courtesy of Sigrid Coffin

Hand engraving is a complex procedure that requires a variety of skill sets but adds customization and character that cannot be achieved through other methods. One significant factor helps guide the Coffin’s work.

“A well-carved, poorly spaced letter is much worse than a poorly-carved letter, well-spaced,” Douglas said, with Sigrid chiming in, “In other words, good spacing is critical.”

The Coffins will often “tweak” the letters in a design to ensure spacing is precise and pleasing to the eye. Sometimes gilding is added to make a letter or element reflect light.

The pair do about 20 projects a year on average and have a waiting list of over two years. Their reputation is such that many clients are now requesting their gravestone carving services in advance.

From the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to a legendary novelist’s family plot, their client list includes prominent individuals, families and organizations. They gravitate toward projects with a personal touch.

“I prefer studio work to hopping on a plane to do a donor wall and attend a gala,” Douglas said. “I like talking to people and hearing their stories.”

This stone, with a decorative osprey, was found in a Monson quarry. It was hand-engraved as it was found, by Douglas Coffin. Photo courtesy of Douglas Coffin.

Those stories guide the Coffins’ work and leave a lasting impression.

“We’re getting to know the character of their loved one,” Sigrid said of their interactions with many clients. “When they share those intimate details, it’s humbling.”