Stone Masonry: A Very Brief History

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Stone masonry, just like natural stone, is really very old! Okay, granted it’s not hundreds of millions of years old as natural stone is itself; but as far as trades go it is very old. Some say stone masonry and prostitution are about the two oldest professions in history! (We only specialise in one)

Only by understanding the evolution of stone masonry can we can see the depth of heritage as well as the extent of innovation in modern times… opening our eyes to the beauty of an ancient, well-preserved and highly skilled art-form.

Stone Masonry’s Not So Humble Beginnings

Some 6000+ years ago, man was taking rock from the ground and shaping it with primitive tools, primarily for building. As skills and knowledge of the material grew, tools and techniques and equipment developed allowing stone to be worked in more and more complex shapes and designs. Man was now creating structures that were hugely important to nations and civilisations, and many are still visible to this day. The great pyramids of Egypt, the Inca temples in South America, Greek architecture, Roman architecture and then the medieval cathedrals of Western Europe are prime examples of this.

Egyptian Stone Mason Tools

It is the medieval mason that we can relate most to in the UK as their legacy—in both their work and hierarchical organisation—is still evident today. It was the Norman period around 1000AD that saw the first of the great cathedrals being built, leading into the Gothic period of the 12th & 13th centuries. Some of the most amazing examples of stone masonry and carving in this country were created during this period.

Medieval Stone Masonry

The Hierarchy of Masons

The medieval masons were structured into three groups:

1. Mason Master

Literally what is says on the tin! A very highly skilled professional, time served and would train an apprentice

2. Journeyman

A skilled mason, who had completed an apprenticeship and was now free to travel or “journey” (see below)

3. Apprentice

A trainee stone mason, being nurtured by a master mason for a period of 7 years… with no pay!

These skilled men (it was a male-dominated field back then) were immensely proud of their work and had a huge commitment to their craft. It was from here that the Masonic societies originated. Groups or “societies” of these skilled masons would travel the land to work on the prestigious projects of the day. Led by master masons (who would take their apprentices) and joined by “Journeymen” who had completed their apprenticeship and were free to “journey”, they banded together and created beautiful & amazing works that we still see today.

Modern Stone Masonry

I started my journey as a stone mason when I was 10 years old. Here’s the evidence…

Ian Knapper Stone Mason

I still find it amazing that until around 150 years ago, the tools and techniques used to work stone had remained largely unchanged for 5000 years! A piece of stone was simply extracted from the ground and shaped to whatever was required using a mallet or hammer and chisels. The advent of steam and then electricity meant that machines could be produced that helped the cutting and sometimes shaping of the stones.

Modern stone masons, like ourselves, are spoilt with a raft of electric & pneumatic tools that assist in reducing time; and from a personal point of view, help me to create the simple sculptural forms that I am particularly fond of. Saying that, our workshop and stone masons’ inventory still includes the same chisels, mallets and other hand tools that would have been used by generations of masons before us…… something that may well remain unchanged for many more years.

If you are interested in stone masonry—whether it’s for a project or a passion—we’d love to hear from you. You can talk to our experts on 01538 722 733 or alternatively send us an email via our contact form.