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The History of Stonemasonry

Stonemasons' mallets and chisels

The stonemason’s craft has existed since the dawn of civilisation with buildings, structures and sculpture all being created using stone from the earth. Their work can be seen in structures as diverse and ancient as the Egyptian pyramids, Greek temples, Roman amphitheatres and Stonehenge. Building castles was an entire industry for the medieval masons and the 11th and 12th centuries saw construction of thousands of churches and cathedrals across western Europe. Due to this, the medieval masons were very much in demand and were able to become members of the Worshipful Company of Masons who gave three classes of Masons: Apprentices, Journeymen and Master Masons.

Apprentices were indentured (which is a form of binding contract) to their masters as the price for their training. Journeymen had a higher skill level and could travel to assist their masters and Master Masons were considered freemen who could travel where they wished.

The Renaissance brought stonemasonry back to prominence and it flourished most in Italy where structures as varied as cathedrals, fountains and even the Laurentian Library (which was planned and built by Michelangelo Buonarroti) were constructed.

The largest changes in stonemasonry have been in the 20th century due to introduction of the internal combustion engine, bringing the ability to use lorries, cranes and forklifts for much easier moving and laying of stones; powered saws can also cut stone more quickly and with greater precision than before.

The basis of all stone masonry is a flat surface, achievable by using a mallet, chisel and a metal straight edge. The tools used have remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years; chisels found at the pyramids of Giza share sizes and shapes with those made and used today.

Chisels come in a variety of sizes and shapes, dependent upon the function and material for which they are to be used. Some remove large amounts of stone, others are used for putting a fine finish on a stone.  At Salisbury we use handmade chisels sourced from John Parsons who is an experienced stonemason having worked on Salisbury Cathedral for 25 years following a four year apprenticeship, then training as a banker mason, fixer and mould cutter.        

Masonry trowels are used for applying the mortar between and around stones to hold them together and filling in the gaps (joints) is known as ‘pointing’; for smaller joints pointing is undertaken using smaller pointing trowels, amongst other tools.

Masons’ hammers are called Punch Hammers, they are used with a chisel for a variety of purposes such as carving or profiling.

A stonemason often carves a personal symbol (called a Banker Mark) onto their stones to identify it from the others; this can also be used as a kind of quality assurance system. Sometimes marks are used by several generations of the same family with only slight alterations being made by each successive one. Our Sponsor a Stone Scheme allows people to have up to four characters carved into a stone by one of our Masons before the stone is then fixed onto the Cathedral.

For anyone interested in pursuing Stone Masonry, the Works Yard sell off-cuts of stone so people can ‘have a go’ and our Education Centre run short courses.

To arrange to buy some stone please e-mail buildings@salcath.co.uk