What I Think About When I Think About Stone

Training to be a stonemason offers several lessons in disappointment.  I’ve kept telling myself that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially at this early stage.  There’s no way around it.  Mistakes must be made – it’s part of the process.  If it were easy, everyone would be chipping away at their perfect bit of stone and building lovely houses for themselves.  A stone mason’s skill is a slow learn.  But like all slow learns, the pay off will be all the sweeter for it.

“Don’t you get bored just chipping away at one bit of stone?” my dad asked a few weeks ago.

“No,” I replied.  The confidence in the immediate aftermath of my answer seemed to reverberate back through me.  I wonder whether dad caught a sense of that.

It occurred to me in that instance that this is exactly what I wanted to do.

I make it sound as if stone masonry has been some sort of divine calling.  The thought didn’t strike me like some thunderbolt.  I don’t want to make a Hollywood script out of it.  This so-called thunderclap of inspiration could have come straight from Ikea: its light, its electricity and all of its other component parts came flat-packed.  And there was me, with no set of instructions and no screwdriver.  In short: I’ve spent the last seven years in an office trying to figure out what it was I wanted to do.

I cannot say that the technique is coming naturally to me, but I am enjoying the process.  Having made a flat surface out of one side, I’ve turned my stone over and I am now working on my second of three flat surfaces.  It’s not in the slightest bit boring, which gives me a lot of encouragement.  Having never worked on stone before this course, I was afraid that I’d pick up the tools, start on my block and simply not connect.  Both financially and emotionally, I’m glad that this isn’t the case.  I feel at ease when I’m working on the block.  I’d never felt that in the seven years I was in an office.  The tap-tap-tap of tools on stone is very much a meditative act, while office work offers no such pleasures. It’s the best (and, I daresay, only) U-turn I’ve ever made, and one I am certain will pay dividends.

Now that I’ve fully invested in the idea of becoming a stone mason, I didn’t see any harm in investing in some of my own tools.  My first real love is language, and letter carving seems like a very obvious way of combining my new-found passion with my well-established one.  I’ve ordered three letter cutting chisels (⅛, ¼ & ¾ inch), a 500 gram iron dummy and a 200/400 grade diamond sharpening block, as well as  a leather tool roll that John at JP Masonry Supplies has kindly thrown in for free.  I should expect to receive them through the post during the early part of this week.

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Words of Encouragement From a Fellow Stone Masonry Trainee

Sam White slid these words of encouragement across the classroom table during Friday morning’s theory lesson.  

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I’ll file this one under “Stone Banter”.  

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Stones That Talk, Stones That Sing.

Stones have been around for a while.  So have words.  One perhaps a little longer than the other.  The point is: they both exist and have had enough time to introduce themselves.  It’s not surprising then that, at some point over the course of time immemorial, there should be the occasional overlap.  Without a large quantity of smelling salts, a stone will remain silent for the rest of eternity, but the human race has been rather fond of carving words in stone for a fair old while.  Similarly, they also like singing about them.  Rather than going into a history of hieroglyphics, I will settle for a contemporary example of words written in stone.   You only have to go as far as Milsom Street in Bath to find Allyson Hallet’s poem “Arise” carved into the pavement, which was commissioned at the beginning of this century.

Image   As for my favourite song that references a stone, it has to be Laura Marling’s “Old Stone”, which includes the fabulous line: “Old stone, ten thousand years and you’re still on your own.”

The stone I’ve christened “Colleen” at the beginning of a stone masonry course at The City of Bath College is a bit older than 10,000 years old.  She was born in the Tithonian Stage of the Jurassic Period, so she’s been alone for 151 to 146 million years.  That’s rather a long time to be a spinster.

Can anyone else think of songs that reference stone in some way?  I’d love to hear them!

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Stone: From Rough Block to Flat Surface

I’ve been having some problems with Colleen.

Sam (of A Noble Craft fame) walked over as we were clearing away our things at the end of Friday’s practical session. He considered her for a second and shook his head.

“I’ll be honest, mate,” he said, stifling a snigger and patting her bump. “She’s looking shit.”

And I had to agree. Even after three weeks of going at her hammer and chisel, she’s still as rough as they come. What’s more, she looks two to three months’ pregnant…again.

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Sam with Peggy-Sue

Oh, how rude of me.  You haven’t been formally introduced: Colleen, reader; reader, Colleen.  Colleen is my block of stone. She’s a limestone from the Tithonian stage of the Jurassic period, or so Wikipedia tells me, and hails from the isle of Portland, Dorset.  And she’s a tough old nut to crack – Paul, our lecturer at The City of Bath College, even said as much. She must come from the tough end of town – the Hell’s Kitchen of Portland, if indeed there is such a place – because she’s rougher and tougher than all of the other ladies (Sam’s Peggy-Sue, Greg’s Angelina et al). But I’m proud of her heritage. So much so that I made a promise when I first cracked her in two – now over three weeks ago – that I would stay true to her.  Or at least until I’d made a flat surface out of three of her six faces.  

But this first side isn’t going well at all. In fact, I’m in a worse position with Colleen than I was when I finished on her last Friday. But I have to keep reminding myself that I’m still new to this. The waves of disappointment and the occasional swell of despair – a bi-hourly tide, or thereabouts – is part of the learning process.  After all, even a flat surface must have a learning curve!  I also must remind myself that Colleen is a very immediate physical manifestation of my point in the process, but it’s by no means an accurate representation of the skills I’ve picked up along the way.

Colleen: fat, unflat and furrowed.  This is how I left her on Friday.

While I was looking around Gloucester Cathedral’s stone masonry workshop a few weeks ago, I overheard one of the apprentice masons say that the mason improves with every swing of his hammer. So on that basis, I must be improving. After all, and by my own admission, I’m one of the biggest swingers in class. So even if Colleen is in need of a 30-Minute Makeover from a mason who actually knows what he’s doing, at least I’m learning from it and gradually – albeit very gradually – improving.

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Me and Colleen during a better times (the Friday before last).

I’ve come to discover that a stone mason in training requires a lot of patience. It’s like a game of snakes and ladders with the start being your rough block and the finish being your flat service. Unless the trainee has got previous experience or heaps and heaps of natural ability, he (or she) is going to get the snake sooner or later. Many more snakes than ladders, in fact. The stone very rarely does favours for hands as green as ours.

I was at a point on Thursday where I had completed the drafts on three of my four edges. As far as my eyes could tell, Colleen was looking pretty good: I’d aborted her first pregnancy with the punch chisel (she had a rather large bump at the end of the first week) and I was pleased I’d caught up with my fellow trainees in making some headway towards a flat surface. Then disaster struck. As I chiseled my way up the puzzle of progress, a snake – a boa constrictor, no less – slithered into my path. As I took an unintentional lump out of Colleen, down I slipped – almost back to the start. The work I’d done was for nothing. I’d have to take my drafts about a half-inch lower. But it’s about successfully riding the wave of disappointment and just, well, cracking on. Rome wasn’t built in a day and a stone certainly cannot be squared in a day. And everyone else has a similar amount of snakes in their path. At one moment I’ve found myself envious of Harry or Tim or Sam’s stone, only for that feeling to be reversed thirty minutes later when the snake has dealt them a backwards step.

At the moment, it’s about getting to grips with the tools and being very, very patient. I must let the new experience wash over me and focus on the technique. It’s about the challenge, because what doesn’t challenge you, doesn’t change you.  And take my word: Colleen is the challenging type.

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The Mason – a poem

On another day, I might have imagined
the hum of half a dozen masons,
huddled with plans and sandwiches
on stools in the corner.
One man would know the build by heart,
would rest in its vertices
and dream in Perpendicular.

But on this day, I am grounded by you
as we walk below the fan vaults
of their cathedral. I do not look to corners
for the master among the masons,
or seek an assurance
from the permanence above.
We breathe a now back to these cloisters

as we talk. A call from the Chapter House
retrieves us for the second half.
We take our seats and you will get the giggles,
and as you do so, I will grin to a corner
and wait for that mason to fold up his plan,
rise from his stool and beg me with a sandwich
for the seat next to you.

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Gloucester Cathedral Stone Masonry Workshop

It came as a very happy coincidence that after only two days into my two year Stone Masonry course at The City of Bath College, Gloucester Cathedral should open up their Stone Masonry workshop to the general public.  I’m lucky enough to live only a few miles away from the cathedral.  I was able to wander around quite freely, observing the masons at work and watch as Pascal Mychalysin – Gloucester Cathedral’s master mason – drawing up plans to reconstruct a wall in the cathedral grounds that had been damaged through years of erosion.

Pascal was very approachable and was happy to answer the questions I posed to him, many of which centred on Gloucester Cathedral’s apprenticeship scheme (unfortunately, the Cathedral isn’t currently recruiting).  However, he was confident that I wouldn’t find much difficulty in finding an apprenticeship in the surrounding areas of Stroud or the Cotswolds.  However, he told me that these companies do prefer their apprentices to have a basic level of skill, and calculated that based on two days of study per week that I was engaged in, I should become attractive to prospective employers in about a year’s time.  I didn’t mention that I was 27 and would have to be classed as a mature apprentice – if indeed there is such a (government-recognised) scheme, and how that would affect terms of pay.  However, any employer who is looking for an apprentice cannot dismiss a man (or woman) with his (or her) own tools, a certain level of skill and a willingness to learn – qualities that transcend something as inconsequential – in this instance, at least – as age.  That’s my theory, anyway.

In the meantime, here are a few pictures from inside Gloucester Cathedral’s Masonry workshop that I took while I was there, which should get the juices flowing.  However, do not expect anything as intricate from me; I am blogging as an absolute beginner as my  lessons in stone only began two days ago!  Expect all things rough and rudimentary in the beginning.

I plan to write about myself and the first two days of my Stone Masonry course during the early part of next week.

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