Stonemasons prepare and dress stone, often in a decorative manner, and set the stone in buildings.
Stonemasons have been responsible for the construction of buildings, statues and structures since the beginning of civilisation and stonemasonry is a trade that still thrives today. Modern stonemasons use an arsenal of hand tools and heavy machinery to fashion both natural and artificial rock into building blocks, sculptures, memorials and many other stone artefacts. Stonemasonry can be defined as shaping irregular pieces of rock into accurate shapes for building and/or decoration, and assembling the resulting rock to build structures.
Stonemasonry is often divided into three fields: banker masonry, fixer masonry and memorial masonry. A banker mason carves the stone to the required shape whereas fixer masons specialise in laying the stones in buildings. Memorial masons carve gravestones, statues and memorials.
Stonemasonry is a predominantly male field of work, but recently there has been a push towards a strong female presence within the trade. The work is physically demanding and contracts are often less frequent in times of bad weather as stonemasons typically work outside. Along with 40 hour weeks, the work can be considered as hard physical labour as stonemasons are required to climb scaffolding, use chisels and hammers and spend all day bending, kneeling and lifting.
Stonemasons will often be contracted privately and therefore have a time schedule to keep, meaning overtime and weekend work is often necessary to meet deadlines.
A stonemason is rewarded with a small salary of roughly £8000 a year whilst completing their 3-4 year apprenticeship or training scheme. Once qualified, the salary increases to a basic amount of around £20,000 per annum.
Similar to other jobs within this field, pay increases with experience. An experienced stonemason can earn between £21,000 and £33,500 per year, with senior positions such as head banker mason, earning up to around £40,000 per annum.
Other factors that affect salary can be the type of employer. Large companies will often pay a lower but steadier wage whereas self-employed stonemasons can earn more per contract but the work can be inconsistent. Location also plays a part in salary distribution – on average, higher salaries are paid in North West England and South East England.
As stonemasons are often contracted on a job by job basis, annual earnings can vary with the ebb and flow of work available. Often there is less work in the winter months, meaning a significant monthly wage drop.
As a stonemason there are a number of responsibilities that fall into your domain. You will be required to work the stone with a hammer and chisel in order to shape the stone to fit the design required. You may be required to carve intricate designs depending on the contract. You will also be responsible for fitting the stone and may be required to clean and/or repair weathered stone (especially on building restorations). Stonemasons are responsible for the cleaning and care of equipment that is vital to the job.
Additional responsibilities include meeting project deadlines and taking the right precautions to manage personal risk, such as health and safety training, risk assessments and wearing protective clothing.
Officially, you do not need any formal qualifications to be a stonemason. Employers often consider industry experience to be more beneficial than formal qualifications. Although apprenticeships are available through colleges, on the job training is also offered.
Preferred qualifications include:
- GCSEs – A-C grades in English and Maths (and Technology)
- Stonemasonry 3 – 4 year Apprenticeship or Traineeship
- Some people also do construction or design related university degrees
Aside from the technical skills learnt through an apprenticeship/traineeship, stonemasons need to possess the following:
- Excellent team work skills
- Ability to understand and follow instructions carefully
- Ability to follow a design brief accurately
- Good physical health
- Creative mind
- Ability to use initiative
- Practical skills
- Drawing skills
- Capacity to carry out basic calculations
Stonemasonry is an extremely hands-on and physically demanding job requiring good personal health. This means the job comes with significant health risks such as Repetitive Strain Injury and back related injuries through heavy lifting. Heavy machinery and dangerous tools are a part of everyday tasks for a stonemason, creating a high risk of injury in the workplace.
Banker masons mostly work in workshops which can be extremely dusty, which can cause lung problems if care is not taken to wear dust masks. There is also a high level of noise, meaning that ear defenders are often needed for protection. Other protective clothing includes safety boots and goggles.
Fixer masons mostly work outside on building sites or private properties, meaning they have to face all weather conditions, posing health risks as well as discomfort. Additionally, they often have to work at great heights on scaffolding. This means lifting equipment (and sometimes stone) quite far which can be physically demanding.
Stonemasons usually work a 40 hour week but project deadlines can call for overtime and weekend work. Work is most abundant in the spring and summer months and tends to ease off with worsening weather.
Experience is not necessary but often preferred by employers, even if this is through on-site training. Any experience in construction or design, especially hands on practice with a mallet and chisel can be beneficial and can help to get ahead quickly. Also, a basic knowledge of architectural and building history helps to show interest and understanding to the potential employer.
Stonemasons can be employed by all types of people or businesses. Individuals can personally hire stonemasons for masonry on their private properties or for the building of new homes. Equally, cathedrals, castles and national organisations such as the National Trust often employ stonemasons for restoration projects. Stonemasons can also be hired by construction companies which will contract them to specific developments.
Once qualified as a stonemason, progression is often into specialist fields: banker masons, fixer masons or memorial masons. Example career progression comes in the form of:
- Stone Carver: considered as the more artistic of masons, they carve stone into foliage, animals, abstract designs etc.
- Head Banker Mason: co-ordinates and leads a team of banker masons
- Master Mason: foremost figure in directing construction projects
- Teacher of stonemasonry: teaches masonry in colleges or within apprenticeships
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What’s it really like?
Harriet Pace is 2 years into her 3 year stonemasonry apprenticeship and is currently working on the restoration of York Cathedral. She has undertaken the training after finishing a Product Design degree at the University of Sheffield. This is what she had to say about stonemasonry:
“With my current project, a usual day’s work includes using a mallet and chisel to shape stone to the original cathedral features, fixing the stone into the building and occasionally doing mortar repairs on weathered stone. It is a building of such beauty and magnitude that you can’t help but fall in love with your job. Not only are you making history, you’re also helping to conserve it. I’ve always been a creative and imaginative person who loves art and design and architecture and it’s like all those things rolled into one. And what make stone masonry so special, besides the stunning buildings you’re working on, is that learning a new craft is never ending and that makes every day both interesting and challenging.
Obviously, challenging is not always good. Roughing out a lot of stone by hand can be physically demanding and I find it extremely tiring. Equally, learning about every stone, where it’s used on the cathedral, why and in what style, can be draining and tedious and working during winter months with such bad weather can be testing!
Also, when becoming a stonemason, you need to think about your own physical health. It’s a brutally demanding job and those in bad physical shape will struggle to be able to cope with both the stone work and the heavy lifting. Saying that, people who are in good shape need to make sure they’re aware of the high risk of injury and make sure they’re fully trained on all equipment. If guidelines aren’t followed, people easily get hurt.
But sometimes, especially in this field, it’s those challenges that make an extra special stonemason. I mean, the more creative and hands on you are as a person, the more quickly you’ll pick up the job and the faster you’ll progress into more senior roles. This job teaches you so many practical skills that it opens you up to all kinds of trades – I mean, I can work grinders, I have an Abrasive Wheels Certificate, I’ve learnt carving and technical drawing. These skills are interchangeable with many career fields.
As far as inside information goes, if I could say anything, I’d say get as much experience with a mallet and chisel as you can. Try and get some formal work experience as this usually means more to an employer than qualifications, and do your research. There are so many buildings to learn about; having a basic knowledge of the history of stone buildings and architecture can save you a lot of work in the long run!”