MASONS and BRICKLAYERS
MASONS and BRICKLAYERS -- Masonry is work performed using
stone, rock, brick, and marble. Colonial brick masons or bricklayers made
and worked with brick. Stonmasons worked with stone and brick. Marble masons
worked with all types of masonry materials, but displayed their greatest
dexterity working with marble.
Stone and marble masons knew that one incorrect strike with the chisel could
shatter a valuable piece of stone. To avoid this, they taught their
apprentices to work with the grain of the stone, rock, or marble.
The master also taught his apprentice when to use different masonry
materials. An apprentice who went on to specialize in stone carving -- the
craft to which many of the intricately carved colonial archways, statues, and
columns can be attributed -- usually worked with limestone. This stone is
formed underwater from the shells and skeletons of marine organisms. It is
A master mason could transform any rock or stone into a useful building
material. Rock is harder and stronger than limestone, and was used to build
foundations, walls, and fireplaces in colonial structures. There was plenty
of rock just lying around. But it was also cut from the face of a rock quarry
by masons. The quarried rock usually required only minor "dressing", also
known as "facing", on the construction site.
A mason dressed a stone depending on his employer's wishes. Stone and
marble can be rough or smooth-faced. Rough facing entails trimming away only
enough projections from the stone to allow it to be properly laid in a
When a stone was to be rough dressed, the first tool the mason used was his
mashing hammer. One end of this tool resembles a mallet. The other end is an
extremely sharp and tempered blade. The hammer weighed about three pounds.
In using a mashing hammer, the mason relied on his swing and rhythm, not his
muscular strength. When he hit the targeted projection with the cutting edge,
chunks of stone would fall to the ground.
Next, the mason would place a "square" over the stone. This L-shaped
measuring tool is used by many craftspeople. Colonial stone and marble
masons used it for marking straight lines on materials they were dressing.
After scratching the line on the stone, the mason used either a coping tool
or a pitching tool. Both resembled chisels. The coping tool was used mainly
by marble masons to achieve perfectly squared edges. The pitching tool was
used more by stonemasons when they were rough dressing a stone.
The mason held his pitching tool on the line and swung his mallet. When
the mallet struck the pitching tool, pieces of stone flew through the air.
He continued removing unwanted bulges of stone using the pitching tool and
mallets of different weights.
Smooth facing was done using mallets and a "point". The point resembled
an ice pick, and enabled the mason to remove very tiny projections. It was
possible for him to end up with a perfectly flat, rectangular stone.
After the mason dressed his stones, he would "pull a line." This was a
string tightly tied to two stakes. One stake was placed at each end of the
proposed wall. The craftsperson relied on the line to determine the length
and height of the wall. He also used it to keep the top of his wall straight.
As he went along, the mason used true artistry to develop his wall. To do
this, he followed several rules. He never laid in a row more than four or
five stones that were the same size, shape, or thickness. He concentrated on
one small section of the wall at a time. He laid the back stone first, then
the front. He filled spaces with small stones. His greatest accomplishment
was dressing rocks to fit together so perfectly they required no cementing
material. This was called a dry wall. When needed, he added mortar to hold
the rocks in place.
The slang term for mortar is mud. In colonial times it was a dry mixture
of lime and sand reinforced with animal hairs. The mason added just enough
water to form a ball. Then he molded the mortar around the rocks and allowed
it to dry. He completed laying the foundation a foot or two above ground.
Now the home owner had the colonial version of a frost-free refrigerator.
The cellar stayed cool year-round.
BRICKLAYERS -- Foundations, walls, and chimneys were some
items made from brick as well as stone or rock. Bricks were easier to work
with than stone or rock because they were one size and shape. They didn't
have to be dressed. They were small and easy to handle. By combining bricks
and stones, colonists could build structures such as arches and vaults.
Colonists made all bricks from clay. Clay is a common mineral substance
made up of very small rock particles. It is frequently mixed with other
substances such as sand and silt. Clay was readily available throughout the
colonies, especially in lake and riverbeds. When it is wet, clay is easily
shaped. When it's dry, it is hard and stonelike. At temperatures of about
850 degrees F., it changes chemically and no longer turns to mud when wet.
Colonial bricklayers sometimes mixed animal hair or straw with clay to hold
it together and strengthen it. Water was added to the clay, and it was
blended until it had an elastic texture. This mixture was put into wooden
molds and air dried for several days. The dried "green" bricks were removed
from the molds and baked in ovens called kilns. At 1,000 degrees F., the
clay turned a different color.
The color of brick could range from nearly white to red or reddish-brown
to dark purple or blue. The color depended on the amount of iron and other
impurities in the clay, as well as the method of baking the brick. The
color darkened as the temperature rose.
Like other masons, the bricklayer first pulled a line. He then laid his
bricks in a horizontal layer called a course. His mortar was mushier than a
stonemason's, and was applied with a trowel. This is a flat-bladed tool with
a wooden handle. The thin horizontal and vertical layers of mortar between
bricks are called joints. Stronger walls are built by having the vertical
joints of one course stand in the centers of the bricks below. The bricklayer
used a light pressure to set his course. He tapped bricks into alighment with
the handle of his trowel.
Since it was important that a wall or chimney be straight, the mason placed
a spirit level on top of each course to ensure that the bricks were properly
laid. The level had a clear tube that held alcohol or some other liquid.
The liquid contained an air bubble. If the course was even, the air bubble
stayed in the center of the tube. If the bubble was not centered, the mason
knew he had to make adjustments to the wall.
Additional bricks and mortar were carried to the bricklayer in a hod. This
resembled a small trough with one open end, and was mounted on a long pole.
It was usually carried over the shoulders of the bricklayer's apprentice.
Information from the book
Colonial American Craftspeople
by Bernardine S. Stevens
by Sandra S. Bray