Sunday, 31 January 2010

Block Head

As I may have mentioned in the past, I am a stone-carver in 'real' life (if I didn't, then count this as one of 7 revealing things, Heather!), so I'm going to use this post as a bit of an international advert.

The head in the picture above was made by me some years ago, and last year I persuaded one of my customers to let me make one for him as a water-feature in his large, 18th century garden. The fact that the one I am currently making is about 30 inches high, and weighs about three-quarters of a ton, means that I have to work on it outside of my studio, as it's too damn big to get inside. Also, because I didn't finish it last summer, and we have just had one of the coldest winters since 1963, I have been at home for more time than I had intended, which goes some way to explain how many posts I have put up here in the last month or so.

I spent quite a few years as an ordinary mason, which - if you have ever met an ordinary mason - is also a revealing thing about anyone's character. Masons are the same all over the world it seems, and have been since the days of Solomon. If you want to get a potted and concise insight into the psyche of the average stonemason without having to go through the tedious process of talking to one, then you would do well to read a book called 'Stone Mad', by Seamus Murphy. Although it was written by an Irishman about 100 years ago, every detail within it still rings true to this day, and the reading of it is a lot more fun than gleaning the information from a taciturn and miserable, British worker of stone.

If you have ever had the misfortune of having to deal with more than one stonemason on any matter at all, you will have quickly come to the conclusion that it is impossible to be one without having a complex array of serious social and psychological problems which inevitably spill over into your working life, detrimentally affecting the outcome of any job or commission.

I have never yet met a stonemason who has not had an issue with either his marriage, or alcohol, drugs, finances, personal relationships, etc. etc. - but I have met many who have had all of these problems running concurrently, each one exacerbating the other. It is the same for female masons too, though there are far fewer of them.

If ever there was a trade, skill or profession to which the term 'love-hate relationship' could be applied, then it is stonemasonry. For a start, it is a hard material. Secondly, it is a heavy material. Bath stone weighs about 140 pounds per cubic foot, and it is one of the lighter ones. This means that most masons (before all the H&E regulations took hold of building sites), would regularly be expected to carry about 2 CWT of stone up a ladder - that's 224 pounds in weight, often more than the actual mason weighed himself. He might have to do this about 20 times a day, if there was no gin-wheel attached to the scaffold.

A self-employed mason usually has to be his own 'setter-outer'. The person who does the 'setting-out' for a job, essentially does all the thinking for the mason, as he makes the templates and moulds to exact size for the job in hand, and these can be quite complex - even to interpret. It is an obvious fact that masonry is the process of taking away unlike clay modeling, where you can build it back up again as you go along, so you have to know what you are doing before you start. A carver will usually or often make a clay model with which he works out all his mistakes before he approaches the stone, especially if it is 'free-carving' involving no straight lines. All it takes to throw about three days work down the drain, is to place a cut-out template mould on the face of the stone back to front, which is another one of the reasons that most masons are so miserable and bad-tempered.

Most young masons like to exploit the traditional 'mystique' of the work, and compare themselves to the builders of the pyramids or Solomon's temple. There is a good reason for this. The hourly rate that a mason can charge to a customer is higher than a carpenter's, simply because the customer practiced woodwork in school, and reckons he could do it just as well. If a young mason came to me for work, and his portfolio contained an attempt by him to copy a 'Green Man' roof-boss from a famous cathedral, then he would NEVER get the job. There are enough doe-eyed, frustrated sculptors around as it is without me encouraging them, and I wouldn't want one hanging around my workshop, getting on my nerves.

So I have established that the act of cutting stone is a long and drawn-out battle which the mason is required to win every time. This means that he goes to work every morning, knowing that there will be a fight on his hands, and often it will be a bloody one to boot. He knows that - after a life-time of this potentially crippling activity - he is destined to eventually lose, and it will be left to a younger fighter to carve his name and life-span in to yet another lump of unforgiving material.

There used to be a small yard near a complex of quarries in Bath, and two extremely old men were to be found in it, sawing massive lumps of un-hewn stone with 5 foot saws known as 'frigbobs'. They must have been over 80 years old, but each day they would turn up at around 7.30 am, and saw through lump after lump, turning it into fair-faced, 3, 4 and 6 inch 'ashlar' blocks ready to lay as a building material. They were the last practitioners of an age old tradition of hand-sawyers, and were put out of business by old age, as opposed to all the modern, water-fed, diamond-bladed power saws that arrived long before they eventually stopped working and died. They typified the dogged and stolid mind-set that has to be attained and maintained if the stone is to be shaped according to your will, and not the other way round.

Right now, when I am not working on the large head, I am replacing small, white marble leaves and roses for an 18th century, tablet wall-memorial in a church on the Severn Estuary. Although this extremely light work is often a welcome break from the other sort, it is not without it's problems, as I spend half the day chasing a 3 ounce piece of delicate and brittle white marble around the work-top with a tungsten-tipped chisel, and the smaller it gets, the lighter it becomes, and the lighter it becomes, the more I chase it. The more I chase it, the more valuable it becomes, and the more valuable it becomes, the greater the chances of breaking it. Even if I am using power-driven abrasive tools on it, there is a high chance that it flies out of my hand and onto the concrete floor, or into a nearby bush, never to be seen by anything but rabbits again. When it does break, I have to start the chase all over again.

So the next time you're in the pub, and an elderly, drunken stonemason tells you to 'f*** off' for no obvious reason that you can discern, just bear in mind that he may have had a hard day in what is undoubtedly been a hard life.


  1. I WAS one of those bog-standard masons. Window openings, doorways, fireplaces, and not a leaping nymph or shepherd in sight. Tedious, tedious, tedious.

  2. Blimey - you kept that a bit quiet.

    When I had a workshop in the middle of town, I would be pestered by US tourists, all saying "How wonderful, I wish I could do that". Then, one day, an American man stood there and watched me for about 20 minutes before coming over and saying: "My God, that must be SO boring!" I almost kissed him.

  3. 6 more to go Tom! I like you answer to the meaning of life too.

  4. Thanks, Heather. I hide my lights under a bushel, so you may have to be patient for the other 6.

  5. wonderful, Tom. ;-)
    i've carved stone, too. maybe that's why my hands are so rheumaticky nowadays: unfair wear and tear. a paintbrush is now my preferred tool of choice - but i still have a fondness for anything in stone, including the giant granite outcrops in the Scillies...

  6. Thanks Cat. I've never been to the Scillies, mainly because it is so damned expensive to get and stay there! I would like to go though. My hands have got off quite lightly, with only a few weird bumps to show for it. Sorry to hear about yours.

    I've posted a comment on your latest which is now awaiting your approval. Sound advice, I think you will find...