Working as a stonemason

 26 October 2012

Trevor Hardy is Master Mason at Hardwick Hall, a National Trust property in Derbyshire. He spoke about his career journey as a stonemason, and the skills needed to start out in stonemasonry.

Stonemasonry requires a high level of practical artistic skill. Image © Briony Campbell
Stonemasonry requires a high level of practical artistic skill. Image © Briony Campbell

Stonemasonry is an ancient craft. It involves cutting and repairing stone on old buildings, or working with stone cladding on modern houses and offices.

Many historic buildings are carefully restored and conserved by stonemasons, using skills handed down over the centuries. 

Heritage organisations such as the National Trust, English Heritage or Historic Scotland employ stonemasons to work on the fabric of their buildings. Monumental masonry is a particular specialism which involves working with marble or granite, as well as letter carving, mostly for the funeral industry.

After a lot of hard work and many years, Trevor Hardy achieved his goal of becoming a master stonemason. He is now Master Mason at Hardwick Hall, an Elizabethan mansion in Derbyshire and one of the National Trust’s most visited properties.

Starting out in stonemasonry

Trevor joined the National Trust as a general labourer at the age of 21. He had always worked with his hands, and liked the thought of working with stone, so when the chance to do an apprenticeship came up, he grabbed the opportunity.

"I didn’t go to college or do any courses. I got all my training from the Master Mason on site."

After two years of training, Trevor got a stonemason’s job at Hardwick Hall. He worked his way up over several years to become a leading mason on the project.

Working as a 'banker mason'

In stonemasonry there are two main types of worker:

  • 'Banker masons' work at a bench in a workshop, shaping blocks of stone and dressing them (texturing and polishing). 
  •  'Fixer masons' are the people who put the stone into position. They install the 'dressed stone' on site, following architects' plans. Fixers need to know about colours, textures and the types of mortar which can be used to ‘glue’ the stones in place.

"We don’t use any power tools, just a wooden mallet and chisel. That way of working hasn’t changed in hundreds of years."

"Banker masons at Hardwick Hall use traditional methods of working with stone. We don’t use any power tools, just a wooden mallet and chisel. That way of working hasn’t changed in hundreds of years."

Eventually, Trevor’s manager retired. Trevor applied for the position of Master Mason, and successfully won the job.

"I’m happy with the way my career has gone. That’s probably why I’ve stayed in one place for so long. It offers me everything I could want."

Carrying out restoration work

Part of the work carried out at Hardwick Hall is restoration of the existing stonework.

Trevor and his team try to preserve as much as they can. Where damage has occurred, they often ‘indent’ (cut out) parts of the damaged stone, and fix a new piece in place with lime mortar.

Mixing the mortar is like mixing cement, but the masons need to know about the different materials, colours and textures needed depending on the type and position of the stone.

Damage occurs as a result of various factors, but the worst is airborne pollution. Much of this has been caused by nearby industrial cities in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The need for new stonemasons

Trevor feels that there is a shortage of craftsmen and women in general, and stonemasonry is no different. 

"We need to get younger people into the craft."

"We need to do something about it. Otherwise, in 20 or 30 years there won’t be any traditional stone masons left. We need to get younger people into the craft. 

"As always, it comes down to funding. The National Trust recognises that we need traditional craft workers, but being a charity, money is always tight.”

The importance of apprenticeships

Recently, Trevor was able to take on two apprentices. "This is the only way to go. It gets people working alongside the experts, learning how to do it, and carrying on the tradition.

"I've run one and two-day stone carving courses, to attract people to the craft who might never have thought of working with stone. If people who enjoy the day pass on that message to others, it's my hope that we can raise the profile a bit.

“What we look for are people who show some kind of passion about wanting to work with stone. There has to be a keenness to learn.

"We had 89 applications, and we eventually chose a young guy who had been a manual labourer but had done some masonry in the past. 

"The real craft about it is that no two masons, given a similar piece of stone, will end up with the same result. You can recognise a particular mason’s work."

"The other apprentice was a young lady who had been teaching French and Spanish at secondary school level. She had always wanted to work with stone.”

While the success of his apprenticeships has been gratifying, Trevor still feels that the emphasis should be put on providing more opportunities like this, to prevent the craft of stonemasonry eventually dying out.

"When I was at school, we knew about handicrafts and the types of jobs around – carpentry, bricklaying and so on. Now that doesn't happen so in the same way.

"A good future scenario would involve craft being taught at schools, encouraging people to take apprenticeships."

5 skills for working creatively with stone

1. Be skilled with your hands   

"If you’re good with your hands, masonry will come much more easily.

"Artistic or drawing abilities are important. After about two years at Hardwick Hall, I could do a good piece of work which could be added to the building."

2. Be a problem-solver

"You need to be good at planning and solving problems. You'll need to be able to understand technical drawings."

3. Be prepared for physically demanding work

Good physical fitness and strength is important, as masonry often requires lifting. Fixer masons, especially, need a good head for heights, and they need to be ready to work in all weathers.

"Frost is the only weather condition which will hold a good stonemason up. Scaffolding towers can be heated with hot air for fixer masons if the temperatures are really low.

"Banker masons are warmer, being in a workshop, but they also have to contend with noise and dust."

4. Look out for heritage opportunities

"Heritage organisations like the National Trust are a good place to start. They need skilled specialists in order to be able to carry on the very essential work they are doing.”

5. Develop your own style of work 

"If you’re that way inclined and you’re good with your hands, it can be a very challenging but very satisfying job.

"The real craft about it is that no two masons, given a similar piece of stone, will end up with the same result – and you can recognise a particular mason’s work.

"I can still point out the very first piece of stone I worked on in the building. That’s what makes it such satisfying work.”

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