Preserving the declining art of stonemasonry

Photos © Vince Klassen
Photos © Vince Klassen

By Mike de Palma and Hellen Diaz, BA
Stonemasonry is one of the earliest crafts in civilization’s history. Unfortunately, the ancient skills that built some of the world’s most magnificent churches, monuments, sculptures, and homes are now dying out. In medieval times, unions of stonemasons were commonplace. Now, with modern building practices and the varying materials available for use, the craft is exceedingly in short supply––largely due to the fact that as things began to shift in the global economy, artificial and cultured stone became more cost-effective and time-efficient.

The most reliable test of stonemasonry’s longevity is to look at any monument or heritage structure in the world––such as India’s Taj Mahal, France’s Chartres Cathedral, and Italy’s Roman Coliseum, all of which were constructed of stonemasonry. These structures were built centuries ago and are still standing today.

Masonry has a useful life of 500 years when compared to structures made of steel or reinforced concrete, whose lifecycle can be anywhere between 30 to 100 years. Natural stone, whether granite, marble, travertine, limestone, or slate, will not retain water or produce efflorescence over time. It is heat-resistant and, therefore, provides exceptional fire protection when likened to other manufactured products. Additionally, in the event of a natural disaster, masonry walls are more resistant to projectiles, such as debris from hurricanes or tornadoes.

Achieving a durable, elegant appearance in any building project begins with product selection. While there are many artificial stone manufacturers that try to attain a natural appearance in their product, it is virtually impossible to attain the inherent beauty natural stone offers, and few artificial products match up to their natural counterparts with respect to resilience. Natural products can be impervious to chemicals that might be found on a project site, unlike artificial materials that may fade, crack, or stain even without chemical introduction. (Natural stone is porous and, as a result, absorbs foreign material. Due to its porosity, it literally absorbs the substance and all that is needed to remove it is for it to re-absorb the substance into a different material). Further, due to natural stone’s durability, it is much easier to clean and, therefore, there is less worry of defacing the product with abrasive chemicals.

The outdoor fireplace and patio are made from natural stone. Natural stone copings cover the stone walls, and natural stone slabs were used for the hearth.
The outdoor fireplace and patio are made from natural stone. Natural stone copings cover the stone walls, and natural stone slabs were used for the hearth.

Popular belief is that natural stone is ideal for use on both older homes and newer ones. There is no greater reward found than in incorporating a portion of a home’s history into a new design that carefully considers the future while appreciating the past. There is also stone’s esthetic impact––not many materials can create pride quicker than walking into a home with a natural stonemasonry entranceway, floor, fireplace mantel, and surround.

Sustainable qualities of natural stone
The major difference between using natural stone for landscaping projects or in a home versus using synthetic materials is that stone lasts almost indefinitely. Since most artificial stone is made of cement, it typically lasts as long as any cement will––about 30 to 50 years. Most artificial stone manufacturers provide a 30-year warranty on their products. However, a stone-faced home or retaining wall, if built properly, will endure for centuries.

Natural stone also has other sustainable qualities, such as incomparable thermal insulating properties, and has reduced lifecycle costs since no painting is required. Artificial stone, on the other hand, is painted, dyed, or both in the production process. Therefore, as it weathers and begins to age, the colour also fades. This fading happens far quicker for artificial stone exposed to the elements. When this happens, repainting, dyeing, and resealing is required to maintain the desired look.

Stone formation and extraction
The formative process for natural stone begins millions of years deep beneath the Earth’s surface. A combination of heat and pressure underneath the ground creates blocks of natural stone. As the Earth’s crust begins to grow and erode, it pushes minerals up from its core, forming massive rock deposits––referred to as quarries. Geologists then locate these quarries and the extraction process begins. Before arranging the stone to form a structure, a quarryman splits veins or sheets of rock, and extracts the resulting stone blocks from the ground.

The house showcases hand-split natural stone roofing. Natural stone wall claddings and pillars were also used, and for the driveway and pathways, natural cobblestone and tile were used.
The house showcases hand-split natural stone roofing. Natural stone wall claddings and pillars were also used, and for the driveway and pathways, natural cobblestone and tile were used.

Technological advancements have had special implications on stone quarries. Advances in quarrying technology have eased the challenge of extracting natural stone and have improved productivity levels, resulting in more cost-efficient natural stone. During stone extraction within the quarry process, equipment using modern technology is able to precisely cut the stone, thus avoiding any damage. (It is estimated that 175 million tons of quarrying waste are produced in North America each year. The advantage a natural stone quarry has over other processing plants is that much of its waste is a natural resource in unaltered form, which is then used to refill the excavated pit). The decision to automate a stone quarry is brought about by a necessity for consistency and to eliminate human error.

The carving process
When individuals think of stonemasonry, an image of a mason arranging and setting stones together with mortar comes to mind. However, the job of a stonemason is much more complex than just placing stone together. Stone installation is an intricate art; the mental aptitude that is required to endure a project for two or three years and turn simple stone into a beautiful and truly unique piece of art is enormous.

Stone-carving is an ancient activity first carried out by paleolithic societies––the ritual of turning stone into sculpture is in fact older than civilization itself. In the current age of expanding digital technologies, where the machine often excels over many factors of human endeavour, carving stone sculptures is one of the few examples of why the human hand is still superior to the machine.

Due to digital technologies, natural stone sculptures are now more accessible because of lower costs associated with having a machine cut multiple sculptures in the time it would take an artist to hand-carve just one. Therefore, people that previously could not afford to purchase a natural stone sculpture now can.

Natural versus artificial stone
Most types of artificial stone are concrete aggregate poured into forms and casts, then dyed to look like stone. As a result, it does not cut like natural stone and can easily chip, revealing a concrete interior. It also has the propensity to discolour in strong sunlight. As a result, it should not be used in bright, exterior locations exposed to prolonged sunlight.

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