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.
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.
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.