Follow Martin's Progress

Follow Martin's Progress

November 2020

A stonemason in the making

The ancient craft of stonemasonry can only be learned and maintained by attentiveness and dedication over many years. It takes eight to ten years to make a useful all-round stonemason. I’m now three months into my fifth academic year of learning and developing all that goes into the mix of making a stonemason. This last month has been really good for honing and expanding my practical skills.

One of the elements that attracted me to the job at the apprentice stonemason was the opportunity I would get to work stone – banker masonry. The ten months I spent at the Buildings Craft College in London back in 2016/2017 was around 90% banker masonry, there was only one fixing project. Most days I would work a stone component. The course started with squaring a block of stone on six sides; learning to make chamfers, returns, mitre and stops. Then onto simple and complex mouldings. By the final months the projects included tracery, ornamentation, finials and carving.

My first nine months after college were spent with a firm in London restoring a church in near Gloucester Road. The work was mainly fixing stone – the art of laying stones in place on a building. It was a good opportunity of me to gain and practice skills in this fundamental area of masonry, but I was conscious that my banker skills might wane. It is good for stonemasons to have a good working knowledge of fixing and banker work.

In September 2017 The Prince’s Foundation came calling. I was offered the chance to spend a year one of their superb traditional building skills programmes. Via three building projects - two new builds and a restoration - I added the setting out/marking out and the construction of building from the base up to add to my skill set. New builds are not often afforded to stonemasons as most projects will tend to be the restoration of buildings. The three projects involved around 75% fixing, with modest amounts of banker masonry, working and dressing stones. There was also some letter carving. There were also opportunities to have a go at thatching and constructing walls with cob - mud and straw. During my time with the Foundation I spent six weeks on placement. One in Scotland dry stone walling; one in Scotland repointing a walled garden using hot-line and four at Gloucester Cathedral. The second half of my time in Gloucester was spent working stone. One piece was worked using an axe.

It was the rhythm, the sounds and the use of the various tools and got me hooked on masonry. I find something almost monastic, poetic and percussive, especially when I’m in a workshop or space where a few people are working pieces of stone at the same time. So, I was really pleased when I saw the job advertised at Gloucester with the chance to work stone regularly. I applied; was short-listed; was interviewed (along with a few others); and I got it!

Who wants to be a mullion-aire?!

From day one I have been working stone for the north ambulatory project. Mullions - short ones, long ones and master ones. Also shafts, sills, ‘piecings’, a corbel and a hood mould. Each piece has been a chance to practice and improve skills and techniques under the diligent tutelage of my colleagues whose patience and experience I’m most grateful for. Sometimes it has meant unlearning some methods and practices employed by previous instructors and discovering the best method for me from what I have been taught so far.

This last month feels like a stepping-stone when it comes to the working of stone. The month began with me working the final stages of a finial which I started back in June (I’m not that slow, other more pressing work overtook this). As well as improving my cutting skills, I learnt a few new methods of how to apply a pencil line to show where the mitre would be. A mitre is a line formed at the meeting of two plains or mouldings. The shape of the finial makes this a little tricky to apply, however, with some persistence, a sharp pencil, a straight-edge and the torch on my phone, I did it!

In November I became and one-mason production line for more mullions, supplying my colleagues who have been out on site rebuilding the parapet. I have made five master mullions, four small ones and two long ones.

Each mullion starts with me marking out the template on the top bed of the stone with a scribe. Then taking lines through from the top to the bottom bed from the key points marked out. Next with a sharp 10H pencil, the scribed lines are followed and marked to help them show up clearly. Then it’s on to working away the large areas of waste. For the master and small mullions, the waste in each corner of the block is cut away with a hand saw. This is one of my favourite bits of the operation. If you like slow TV, I’d recommend watching someone sawing slowly and gracefully through stone. I know, I should get out more! The saw cuts are made about 3-4mm from the face of each plain, leaving a small amount of stone to be worked. After the sawing then comes the drafts - a worked strip of stone - a marginal draft which runs around the edges of each face leaving a raised area in the middle. The drafts are made using a 15mm chisel and a mallet. The raised section is then worked away using a series of chisels. First a claw to take the raised surface down to around 1-2mm. Then a boaster (bolster), a 50mm chisel is used with a mallet to go over each plain. With regular strokes, this leaves a nicely tooled surface.

t Gloucester we go over the surface of the faces again with tooling tool which is made up of 2mm-ish comb-like teeth which leaves a more textured surface of small cheques on the faces of a stone. As the drafts and faces are worked, they are checked for being flat with a straight edge. This is applied to find any high spot - lumps and bumps - on the surface, which are then worked down. The master mullions have two small mouldings, each made up of a cavetto and a modest chamfer. First the waste in these areas is sawn out. Then the modest chamfer is worked with a chisel of about 5-6mm and a small hammer, down to the point where it meets with the mitre of the cavetto. Then the two ends of the cavetto are worked down the scribed lines. Finally, the excess stone between these two points is worked away with a claw, a boaster and a tooling tool.

It has been really good to get back into the regular working of stone. I feel I’m once again where I was at when I was at college, with the confidence re-emerging from frequently cutting stone, and now with extra skills and diligence to push me on to be consistent.

In these last couple of days of this month I had a master class from one of my colleagues in the art of fixing stones. I was meticulously tutored in the steps of fixing one of the mullions I had made. First he showed me how to carefully remove the old stone it was to replace. Then dry fixing the new stone on leads, checking the stone for plumb against the old stones above and below it. Before drilling the holes needed for the dowels and showing me a little trick for getting the dowels to drop timely into their slots. After which I was able to point up the top and bottom beds.

All the practical work has been underpinned by the theory and practical work of the CWF Foundation Degree I’m studying. This month I had onsite assessments (via Zoom) for the Setting Out and Fixing modules I did a couple of months ago and I completed my final assignment: Understanding the Cathedral Environment. This brought Level 4 to a close. There is a brief respite before Level 5 begins in the New Year, however, the practical work on site and in the workshop continues…  

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