It could be that stonemasons never see the art of the original craft, “tool making”

Your hands were blistered, your head dripping with sweat. It had taken a day, or two, maybe three, to create something you now hold in your hand to secure your short-term job-site future. You likely thought about its design and function in your head as long as it took to cut and weld it together with the best steel or iron you could find. A chisel. Not just any chisel, a stonemasons chisel.

Your chisel – its size, and weight to fit your hand – an extension of yourself.  Made for the specific work you were paid to perform. Created for a specific type of stone. The chisel shape, length, and sharpness all part of its design and intended purpose to birth a dimension stone of specified measurements and texture worthy of setting into a historic masonry wall. To become an important part of another historic stone masonry building of load bearing capacity, carrying the weight of each consecutive floor upon itself as it raises from the ground on the stout foundation we never see or appreciate.

The creation of stone chisels at the construction site by the very stonemasons that use them is centuries old. And it probably is most definitely on the road to oblivion. The art of the stone masonry craft is now changed. Making tools at the construction site, or in the stonemasons workshop, was part of the trade. It was what you were trained to do 100 years ago. There were no other options. And for good reason, no one else would know what you needed for a specific project as each individual set of chisels were designed specifically for each job. If you have the privileged of knowing a retired stonemason – just look in his tool bag and confirm for yourself – there are many many chisels of various sorts.

A masonry chisel made by someone in China. This chisel purchased at a local “big box” store.

Stone chisels; however, now are made by others. People that are not in the stone masonry trade. They can not appreciate the purpose of the chisel design or its intended purpose because they are not stonemasons.

Blame it on changes in architectural design: Veneer walls and thin stucco stone are in, old-fashion load-bearing walls are out. Blame it on changes in the father-son connection: handing down the trade skills to the next generation. Blame it on the fact that nothing lasts forever, not even tool making skills of the simple chisel lodged in the brain of almost every American stonemason over 80.

True American-made stone masonry chisels can not be found at Home Depot, Lowes, Menards or your local hardware stores. But don’t blame these companies they serve a different customer base – the “Do-it-Yourselfer.”

As a professional in your trade, part of your job is to research and look for those American companies that still do exist that make the custom tools you need – especially the all important chisel.

I have known Norm Akley, President of Trow & Holden Company, Inc., for nearly 20 years. He operates a company located in Barre, Vermont that makes old fashioned hand-made stone chisels among other items for the trade. Norm understands my trade and the challenges I face in difficult projects. I draw a picture of a special chisel design I need to have fabricated for a particular project to match a historic profile finish and fax it over to him, yes I said fax!

He makes the chisel from my sketch in the correct size and weight and the rest is history! Speaking of history, Trow & Holden Company has been making stoneworking tools since 1890.

Call and Request a free Catalog 800-451-4349 or 802-476-7221

Call and Request a free Catalog 800-451-4349 or 802-476-7221

Every chance I get I try to support American companies like Trow & Holden. The experience in tool making, as well as the companies appreciation and knowledge of my stone masonry trade, make Norm and his company a very valuable partner in our ability to offer the best Historic Stone Masonry Training Programs in the United States. In the end, I believe better workmanship is a direct result of better tools in the hands of craftspeople who know how to use them correctly.

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  1. #1 by Stuart Jacobson on May 9, 2013 - 2:03 pm

    I guess one never stops learning. As a structural engineer, I always thought a chisel was simply a chisel, and I knew that they had to come in different sizes, but never knew that they were such a personal thing. I have seen the work of some really good stone masons over the years, but never had a discussion about chisels or any other tools of the trade.

  2. #2 by John Speweik on May 9, 2013 - 4:58 pm

    Thanks for the comment Stuart. As a stonemason you get personally attached to your tools. After all most of us in the trade spend more time with them than we do with our wife and kids. The true skilled and experience tradespeople understand the difference in quality and what goes into a good chisel. My father always taught me growing up that “I should work the job, and not have the job work me!” When I have the right chisel in my hand and it is sharp I can do more work with less effort than the stonemason next to me on the same task. Good sharp chisels designed for the right purpose and used with the right hammer is a key part of the best practice in our profession.

  3. #3 by Craig Talley on May 10, 2013 - 5:09 pm

    You have always been a man after my own heart John. In this case you know how I am about tools of the trade even to the point of us getting those tools specified in the construction documents right?
    I have several bags of chisels and hammers with many being my own design and many more being re purposed in the shop to improve quality and efficiency. Is up to the Mason to push his skills beyond the normal threshold of “good enough” to excellence by better tools.
    Without my training however many of those tools I work with in the shop are just chunks of steel in the hands of the uninitiated. I encourage the readers to ask the question of “is there a better way? ” and contact John for a chance to find out . I’m not over 80 but I do have 30 years in this trade and will do my best to find a better way to skin that cat. …I mean stone.

  4. #4 by Jamie Harris on May 17, 2013 - 9:16 pm

    Great article,
    I agree totally in your support for the tool makers and that the finished product is always better than a mass produced item.

    I almost ended up a blacksmith when I left school but went down then masonry route and really do regret the fact that tool making was not part of my apprenticeship, apprenticeships used to be 5-7 year affairs , now it’s all crammed into blocks at college and you are pushed through in 3 years, ultimately a college is run as a business but when you do this you cut corners and it’s the industry that pays the price in the end, a good craftsman in my view is a person with transferable skills, this is important because it gives a company confidence , flexibility and adaptability in these uncertain times.
    More time should be invested in these skills and many others.

    A great tool makers is John parsons in Salisbury, Wiltshire.
    He served his apprenticeship on Salisbury cathedral and learnt to make his own chisels, he now works as a tool maker and my favourites in my tool roll are the ones he has made.

    We can’t afford to lose this knowledge and skill, it’s very important and as a start I always support the artisan tool maker first.

  5. #5 by Brett Rogers on July 12, 2013 - 5:43 am

    Bysouth consultants mission as stone consultants is to provide the specialist advice needed by those designing, constructing, maintaining and conserving stone buildings. They provide stonemasonry and consultancy services to a wide range of clients including property developers, local authorities, architects, property managers, and private clients. Their experience covers all uses of stone in the built environment including conservation, repair, restoration and new-build.
    for more http://www.bysouthconsultants.co.uk

  6. #6 by Jay C. White Cloud on August 11, 2013 - 9:45 pm

    Hello John,

    Just found your blog this evening, and really enjoy this article about tools, (and a plug for Trow and Holden! I will make sure to mention it to Norm, John and Randy the next time I see them.) I am always driving the point home with folks I teach or demonstrate to, that the craft and artistry we do is only as good most often to the tool in our hands. I have an original Trow and Holden 3lb hammer, that is used, every day for everything from carving stone, to shaping joints in my timber frames…it is over 120 years old and still going strong.

    Regards,

    jay

  7. #7 by James Dowdall jr on September 8, 2013 - 9:45 am

    I agree that a stonemason must have the right chisel for the right job . As a young man growing up I had the opportunity to watch a stone church being built in my town and was fascinated by the masons and the chisels which they used. I was lucky enough that one old stonemason took a liking to me and showed me the basics of the hammer and chisel . Trowe n holdgen chisels as it turned out ! The fire was started in my soul that day so many years ago and still burns as im posting this . Im proud to say that the only chisels that my hands hold are those from Trowe n holdgen

  8. #8 by this site on November 26, 2013 - 12:04 pm

    Good day! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok.
    I’m absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward
    to new updates.

  9. #9 by Max Kirton on April 6, 2014 - 10:29 am

    What a great blog. As a mason I have a great tip for stone masons looking for chisels that they can
    adapt to there own liking to suit a variety of stone. You can get unused drill bits from rock drilling companies and shape the ends to your own liking. The shaft is cut to desired length and the tip with the inserted carbon bit can be simply shaped with a grinder with a dry carbon blade. The tips last forever and I like a longer shaft. Safety glasses and a resperator are a must.

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