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“I love old buildings,” says stonemason Andy Oldfield, the master stonemason who acts as mentor to three unskilled enthusiasts in the Friday 19th March episode of Mastercrafts. Andy, until recently, worked at the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall, one of Britain’s most spectacular Elizabethan houses. “I was taught the skills of the stonemason by Hardwick’s master mason Trevor Hardy. Working at Hardwick was a challenge and a privilege because the work done repairing and conserving the stone will last for generations.”
After what he describes as something of a mid-life crisis, Andy retrained as a stonemason at the age of thirty-one. Before that he’d worked in a succession of different jobs. But nothing captured his imagination in the way that stone carving did.
“I loved it from the first day of my apprenticeship,” he says. Like most apprenticeships the work of the stonemason starts with the basics, as Andy explains. “It’s quite simple really. You go to the quarry and get a rough block of stone. You then have to turn that rough block into a fairly precise cube. It’s a process known as ‘bonding in’. You make a flat surface on one side of the stone, using a simple chisel and mallet combined with special wooden blocks that are effectively depth guides to stop you taking too much stone away and to ensure that your finished surface is level.” He insists that once you are able to make a perfect cube – no easy task – you have all the basic skills necessary even for complex carving.
Andy is immensely proud of the long tradition of craftsmanship of which he is part. The materials from which the stonemason’s tools are made may have changed here and there over the years, but in terms of their basic design, they would be instantly recognised by a medieval stonemason. “Stonemasonry tool skills go back a thousand years and more,” he explains. “In addition to the skills needed to work stone, there is the knowledge of stone itself. Different stones have very different qualities. Sandstone, for example, is relatively easy to work because it is soft, whereas granite is difficult because it is very hard. That’s why granite chisels tend to be made in a far more resilient way. Once the stone is down to its basic shape the finer tools come into play. Decorative carving is difficult, there’s no doubt about it. We use fine tools and round nylon mallets – the heads of the mallets are round because it means they can be used from all angles. Stonemason’s mallets were once made from fruit wood, but nylon lasts much longer – perhaps as long as ten years.”
Andy is now concentrating on private commissions for stone carving and sculpture, and passing on his skills to others through courses. His business The Fringe Workshop is based in the Peak District.
Here is an inspiring video in which Andy talks about the turning point of his life when he managed to get an apprenticeship in stonemasonry with the National Trust.
Andy is featured in the tie-in book to the Mastercrafts TV series. You can find more information about the book and order it for £14 (RRP £20) here.