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2 Cathedral Workshops & Masons'Training

One of the main sources of stone work in the UK is the restoration of historic buildings. A cathedral is in constant need of repair because stone erodes, sometimes beyond all recognition. A combination of scholarship and detective work is needed to figure out what form some of the stones might have had. Exact measurements of the eroded stones are recorded and the space that the original stone took is carefully calculated. New templates are drawn up and new carvings are prepared to replace the eroded stone. Calculating precise measurements is easier now with new computer techniques that can photograph the face of any complex stone surface without perspectival distortion. Masons double-check their information by comparing the digital image with direct measurement.


Modelled in clay these full size gargoyles will be function as scale models for mason who will carve the images in limestone. The carvings will be built into Gloucester Cathedral, England.In the Karmenskola Masonry School young students initially learn to carve limestone by hand using tools and bankers that support the stones. The bankers reputedly date back to Roman times.


Cathedral workshops can be credited with both preserving and rediscovering stone working skills. Stone teaches the mason; tool use and sequences can be worked out by looking at work from the past. In Gloucester Cathedral, Master Mason Pascal Mychalysin noticed how often the stone axe was used in the past and is attempting to reintroduce the it in restoration work. He is searching for appropriate replacements of gargoyles by first modelling them in clay, and then carving them in stone.

The sense of devotion is evident in cathedral workshops too: even when it is not articulated, it is manifested in many small ways. The deep seriousness does not exclude playful moments. Sometimes when a face needs to be put onto a carving that has eroded beyond any hope of reconstructing the original, the masons will depict someone they know, perhaps an annoying bureaucrat, or a respected colleague. As long as it is appropriate to the original meaning of the carving, this strategy is entirely in the spirit of the original masons.

Under the guild system, which dominated stone working education in the Middle Ages, a young person would spend seven years in bonded apprenticeship. As soon as apprentices got their freedom they would spend a year or more moving from place to place. They were, in fact, designing their own education seeking to learn as much as they could through a sequence of masters with other approaches and options. This was probably formulated because masons in earlier times had often moved from country to country looking for work and was discovered how such travels broadened and enriched their skills. This spirit of a self-directed education is characteristic of a number of British sculptors who began their careers by working in cathedral restoration. They were seeking skills beyond those that art schools could provide.

The apprenticeship and journeyman structure that existed in the past is now gone. A stonemason's education today is likely to begin in a trade school instead of through any kind of formal apprenticeship. Now, in more conventional classrooms, a student learns theoretical knowledge such as drafting and reading architectural specifications. Desk learning is integrated with hands-on work. On leaving such training the young masons are able to work in numerous private masonry firms. A few young masons hunger for something else and seek jobs on cathedral restorations. When they are lucky enough to work on cathedrals from different time periods, these masons become expert in the nuances of architectural history. In the UK there are nine workshops attached to heritage cathedrals. The managements of several of these cathedral workshops are joining together to establish the Cathedral Workshop Fellowship to trainmasons in the particular issues, and rigour, required for important restoration projects. In this four-year course the student learns carving, masonry, setting out, architecture and conservation. The stated aim of the Cathedral Workshop Fellowship is to produce the best masons in Europe. For this kind of work that invariably means the best masons in the world.

Most of the restoration work done on the cathedrals is by 'banker masons'. These masons work inside workshops on individual workbenches or platforms (called bankers) and specialize in using templates to carve stones to replace eroded architectural masonry. Bankers are usually made of stone, wood or cement blocks. A beautifully simple design is in use at the Karmenoklesarka Skola, where young masons are being trained in Croatia. Here, barrels are filled with stone rubble that both cushions the stone and can hold it at any angle. This design is unchanged since the time of the Romans. The first task of the apprentice mason is to make a flat surface. This trains the eye as well as the hand and is considered the foundation on which all subsequent work is based.


A good example of building with limestone mortar. St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney, Scotland.Trowels and spatula for lime-bed mortaring and pointing around stone.


Very specific skills are needed by the 'fixermasons' who specialize in fitting there placement stones into the original place in the building. They have tools unique to them and are experts in using lifting tackle. Fixer masons need also to know about lime mortars and grouts, and how to balance the mortar with the hardness of the stone. If it is too hard, as cement is, the stone erodes more quickly. Mortar ingredients varied from place to place. Some medieval masons are reported to have included egg whites. The recipe used in StMagnus Cathedral in the Orkney Islands combines one part red quarry dust, one part blue-grey quart dust, one part sand and one part lime. The stones are kept covered while the mortar cures.

More than grout is needed to anchor some stones to each another. Iron or woodfixings can crack the stone if they get wet and expand or rust. In the past this caused many restoration problems. In an attempt to avoid the effects of humidity on their fastenings, contemporary masons use stainless steel. Their predecessors sometimes used seashells, which are chemically similar to limestone, or molten lead poured into carved keys linking two stones.

Keeping humidity out of stone is a problem. The purpose of buildings is to shed water, but even if the main walls stay relatively dry, wind-blown rain or humidity from the air will be absorbed into limestone. Stone breathes. A limestone cathedral might weigh many more tons on a wet day than on a dry one.

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