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My Journey to Becoming a Stone Mason

James Ryan

Before officially starting my apprenticeship in 2019 with LandArt Landscape Contractors located out of Beamsville, Ontario, I knew very little about the trade of stone masonry or the many different facets of specialization. It was only after having a conversation with a friend of mine, Colin Robinson, who also happened to be the Construction Coordinator at Niagara College Canada, that I even considered masonry as a potential career option.

Why?

According to Colin, masonry had the highest average age of any other trade, meaning that in the very near future, as many aging workers would eventually retire, there would be a major shortage in the existing and available workforce. He also pointed out that there was no shortage of work, and therefore, as the demand for skilled and experienced masons continues to grow, so will the wages.

With lots of work and lots of money to be had for the right individual, I had to wonder why more young people weren’t already signing up for this trade in droves. According to Colin, it’s because… as he put it, “Young people generally don’t want to work hard.” They expect to enter into the trade and they all want to start building right away, but none of them want to pay their dues. They end up labouring for a year or so because they lack experience, but then quit because the work is too difficult and they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel – they lack patience. After speaking with Colin, I knew right away that I’d be able to do it.

Fast forward to 2018, and I took my son, Jacob, on a hiking trip to Ireland as a way to celebrate his recent graduation from high school. It was during our visit to the famous Wicklow Mountains where we observed several demonstrations of the ancient trades – stone masonry being one of them. Up until that point, I had only ever thought of masonry as an extension of the construction industry – never as something creative or artistic. I was enthralled and knew right then and there that I was going to pursue masonry as a new career, despite the fact that I was already in my mid-40s.

“But what sort of creative opportunities would be available back home?” I wondered.

Then, one day, there was an advertisement on-line from a local landscaping company (LandArt) looking for a person who’d be interested in becoming a registered masonry apprentice. This immediately peaked my interest, so I went to their website.

Their motto was: Beauty – Set in Stone, and I could tell right away that they prided themselves on being artists and craftsmen of the trade – exactly what I was looking for. The more I read, the more I was convinced that this was an area of masonry that I wanted to be a part of – landscape design and construction – natural stone creations.

“Turn your estate into a work of art,” they said.

I ended up applying for the job, going through several different stages of the interview process, and was eventually hired on as the Masonry Lead Hand, working directly under the only Red Seal mason on staff, Nick te Bokkel (a graduate of Conestoga College).

As an apprentice, my main responsibilities included: mixing batches of mortar, lifting and transporting heavy materials and equipment, measuring and cutting units (block and natural stone), chipping stone edges, jointing, using various hand and power tools, as well as cleaning and organizing the worksite. I would also assist with surveying and excavation when needed, and was never discouraged from learning or asking questions.

Various projects included: walkways, patios, water features, outdoor barbecues, decorative wall features, archways, driveways, entranceways, natural stone staircases, flagstone porches, pools, hot tubs, cabanas, pillars, coping, stone veneers, and so on. While many landscape companies seem content with only using dry-stack interlocking bricks in their projects, LandArt only ever uses natural stone and mortar in their projects and are committed to producing a high-end, one-of-a-kind result for their customers. Since the majority of the work is at ground level (or slightly above), Working at Heights certification is NOT required.

In terms of personal protective equipment, LandArt provided the following: hard hat, safety glasses, hearing protection, dust masks and gloves. I was responsible for my own safety boots, measuring tape and utility knife. Uniform shirts and any necessary tools were also provided by LandArt.

The most common tools that were used on the jobsite were: various trowels, hand levels, tape measures, laser level, string line and blocks, chalk line, quick-cut saw, angle grinder, paddle mixer, wheelbarrow, mortar hoe, shovels, buckets, mortar boards, grout bags, jointers, slickers, brick hammer, mini sledgehammer, dead blow hammer, hammer drill, bolsters, pitching chisels, soft brushes, steel square, rafting square, plumb bob, a sponge, and various heaters during the winter months (diesel indirect space heaters and electric forced air) to keep sand and projects well above freezing temperatures. Scaffolding was rarely ever used and never beyond one level.

The following are just a few of the projects that I was personally involved with:

1 stairs hamilton 3 niagara falls 4 niagara falls 4 5 grimsby 7 staircase hamilton 8 stairs grimsby
[Photos courtesy of LandArt]

My employment with LandArt lasted right up until my in-school level one apprenticeship started at Conestoga College on March 9, 2020, but that only lasted for five days before COVID-19 managed to shut it all down. Not only did I lose out on my opportunity to attend school and gain valuable training, but I also lost my job/sponsor. For the next two months, I kept in constant contact with LandArt in the hopes that I would be called back, but in the end, they were forced to lay me off permanently, as there were no new masonry jobs on the horizon (so they said). Obviously I was disappointed, but I wasn’t going to give up on my goal of becoming a mason, so I spent the next few months bouncing around between carpentry and bricklaying jobs, but nothing that ever had the potential of becoming permanent. For the most part, they were all labouring positions on short-term projects, but still, I was happy to be working.

Then, for a brief two month period during the summer months, I landed a temporary position as a first-year mason with a unionized commercial masonry company (FOX Group) out of the Barrie area who were contracted to build a third level concrete block rooftop addition onto the top of a retirement home located in the Niagara Region. I had responded to a job advertisement for a labourer, but once they found out I was a registered apprentice with actual goals of being in the trade, they were more than willing to give me a shot on the wall. Apparently, in a unionized environment, the labourers do all of the labouring, and the masons only do the masonry work with very little overlap between the two. For example, only the labourers would mix the mortar, and only the masons would use the saws to cut the units. It was all quite specific and at times very strict, although as time went on, I would sometimes help the labourers, particularly in the areas of scaffolding and cleaning, and some of the more experienced labourers would operate the saw if I was unavailable.

FOX Group had a few different jobsites on the go at the same time, all spread throughout many parts of Ontario, each location staffed with different crews and lead by various foremen. Whether they were building something new from the ground up, creating elevator shafts in tall high-rise buildings, or constructing entire floors onto pre-existing structures, the one thing that was consistent across the entire company was that they only dealt with concrete block units – no brick and definitely no stone. There was nothing artistic to what they did. It was simple production work where speed was the main objective above all else, including quality.

I once asked the assistant foreman, Laddy, if he preferred working with block or brick and without hesitation he answered, “Block.”

“Why was that?” I asked.

“Because you could lay 500 bricks in a day and it still won’t feel like you get as much accomplished as when you’re building with blocks,” he said. To be honest, this struck me as a bit of an odd answer, but I understood what he was getting at. He liked the appearance of doing more.

As a first-year mason, my main responsibilities included: measuring and cutting block units, lifting and transporting heavy materials and equipment, cutting rebar, jointing, spreading mortar, adding grout to walls, cleaning and organizing the worksite, using various hand and power tools, assembling and disassembling scaffolding, and occasionally (if I were lucky) laying block. For the most part, everybody got yelled at, and if I ever had a question or was unsure on what to do, I was looked at by the foreman like I had two heads. Even though I didn’t have a lot of fun at this job, I can honestly say that learned a lot.

Various block units included: stretcher blocks, breaker blocks, half blocks, ashlar blocks, bond beam blocks and knock-out blocks. Cuts would often need to be made to accommodate any electrical additions. Also, if materials were low, I would occasionally be required to cut bond beams or ashlars from skids of stretcher blocks.

Safety was always a top priority with FOX, and since a great deal of the work was performed along the rooftop’s edge, having a Working at Heights certification was absolutely necessary. FOX provided the masons with a harness system, although some of them preferred to bring in their own personal equipment. Even though I lacked proper certification, I was allowed to work with a harness system on a few separate occasions under the direct supervision of the site foreman.

In terms of personal protective equipment, FOX provided nothing beyond the harness systems. I was required to supply the following: hard hat, safety boots, safety glasses, hearing protection, dust masks, gloves, knee pads, high-visibility clothing, and my own set of hand tools.

The most common tools that were used on the jobsite were: various trowels, hand levels, tape measures, string line and blocks, chalk line, quick-cut saw, standard masonry saw, portable chop saw, mortar boxes, mortar boards, grout scoops (hogs), shovels, wheelbarrows, line pins, line stretchers, twigs, buckets, jointers, slickers, brick hammer, carpenter’s hammer, nails, and soft brushes or carpet. Frame scaffolding was used in abundance, as well as hydraulic pallet jacks to help transport and lift the mortar boxes onto the scaffolding planks.

Here are a few examples of the tasks that I was able work on:

1 block wall 2 3 4 5 7 8 9

 

UPDATE

I have now completed my Level 1 Brick & Stone Mason Apprenticeship at Conestoga College in Waterloo, Ontario, where I was fortunate enough to receive the Weston Family Scholarship in the Skilled Trades.

grades

 

weston letter
I am currently employed as a stone mason doing landscape masonry (predominantly natural stone), and I hope to continue my education and eventually earn my Red Seal.

 

James Ryan
James Ryan

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