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Choosing the right stonemason

Last updated 27th Jun 2017

From the grandest of cathedrals to the humblest cottages, stonemasons have helped to craft some of the most beautiful and long-lasting buildings we have.

With such a specialised and distinctive trade, it’s vital that you find the best possible stonemason to perform your work. We spoke to some of the experienced tradesmen recommended on MyBuilder to find out the key things you should know in order to make the right choice:

  • Look out for experience as much as accreditations
  • Make sure you are comfortable with them
  • Ask questions about how they’ll approach your job
  • Get quotes that cover everything and establish a payment plan
  • Check their familiarity with planning permission and building regulations
  • Agree what aftercare will happen after the build

Keeping these points in mind can help you focus on what to look for when you’re meeting with tradesmen and getting quotes for the work. Carry on reading for more details on how to go about finding the right tradesman for your job.

Look out for experience as much as accreditations

Stonemasons can carry out a wide range of work - everything from building and maintaining traditional stone walls, either for homes or in a garden, to creating bespoke lintels, doorsteps, and other stone finishings. Although general builders, handymen and other tradesmen such as landscape gardeners may be able to carry out some tasks, such as constructing a basic garden wall, a specialist will always be best placed to carry out these kind of jobs.

When looking for a tradesman for your project, it’s sensible to speak to ones who have performed plenty of similar jobs to the one you have planned. As well as seeing previous examples of their work that they can show you as part of their portfolio, you may also be able to arrange through them to visit their previous jobs - they should be happy to put you in touch with previous clients they have done work for before.

As well as checking their references, there are other things you can do to check their experience. On MyBuilder, you can read honest feedback on the jobs they have undertaken for homeowners, as well as seeing pictures of the jobs they have taken on. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions as well, about any qualifications they may have, their length of time in the business, or how they’ll approach your own particular job. Many will have specific qualifications, such as NVQs or City & Guild diplomas. Others may have spent time working at established centres of stonemasonry, such as on cathedrals, which operate the Cathedral Workshop’s Fellowship, or have undergone courses run by the National Heritage Training Group. Others will simply have learnt on the job as an apprentice, with another, more experienced stonemason.

Some tradesmen may belong to trade associations. Stonemasons may belong to a number of trade bodies, which can cover a variety of different disciplines. These include:

  • Federation of Master Builders (FMB): The UK’s largest trade association for the construction industry, all members are inspected by the body and expected to uphold standards and follow a code of conduct. There are different levels of membership, with the highest, Build Assure, offering the option of an insurance-backed building work guarantee.
  • Guild of Builders and Contractors: Members of this body who become a “Trusted Member” have to demonstrate three years of trading with customer and financial referees, and abide by certains standards such as providing written contracts and clear payment plans.
  • Guild of Master Craftsmen: Covering a variety of trades, each full member is assessed in person by the Guild to ensure they are reaching high standards of work. The Guild also provides a conciliation service for disputes between homeowners and member tradesmen.
  • National Federation of Builders: Members must provide business and financial references, have public liability insurance and adhere to a code of conduct. Although it does not offer a guarantee against work, it operates a complaint procedure.
  • FairTrades Association: Established in 1983, the FairTrades Association covers multiple trades and works to ensure standards, encouraging its members to offer insurance-backed guarantees on their work. 

Membership of a body such as this is a good indication that a tradesman is competent and working up to certain standards, however, there are many experienced tradesmen who do not belong to these bodies - there is no obligation to be signed up, unlike membership of the Gas Safe Register, a legal requirement for tradesmen who work with gas in the home. While trade body membership can be seen as a good seal of approval, it is experience that is the most important thing to look out for. 

Nick Kilshaw of Kentish Builder, a bricklayer and stonemason with nearly 300 positive pieces of feedback on MyBuilder said:

What I recommend is really checking out the feedback people get, and looking at their photos and seeing what experience they’ve actually got. Don‘t just go by some nice pictures though - look to see if they they have pictures of a similar job, and ask them questions about it, make sure they know what they’re talking about. When I show people pictures I can talk them through everything, and they’re free to ring the previous jobs and hear it straight from them as well.

Nick Kilshaw, Kentish Builder

For bricklaying I have NVQs, up to level three. Then I went into the restoration business, stonemasonry - that’s my real trade. There aren’t as many qualifications out there for stonemasonry, so it comes down to experience. People hire me based on feedback and reviews.

Barry Grayson, Aspire Stone Cleaning and Restoration

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Make sure you are comfortable with them

As well as knowing if they are experienced with your kind of job, you should simply assess how comfortable you feel with the potential tradesmen. You can do that from your first contact with them; are they polite on the phone, do they arrive for meetings at the scheduled time, do they ask lots of questions about the project?

Depending on the scale of the job, stonemasonry projects can take some time. Being able to maintain good communication throughout the project is essential. You shouldn’t aim to become best friends with them, but you should be able to have a professional relationship - you must feel comfortable speaking openly about any concerns that may arise, and dealing with any issues. Nick said:

Getting on with a tradesman is key. They should be really open and happy to talk you through everything, tell you what they will do and how they do it. If they seem reluctant to put you in touch with past clients or explain everything, I’d think that was a bad sign. There are plenty of good people out there.

Nick Kilshaw, Kentish Builder

Ask questions about how they’ll approach your job

A bit of knowledge can go a long way when it comes to building projects, and being prepared to ask questions of your potential tradesman can help you to judge how they’ll approach the job. No one wants a tradesman who is happy to cut corners or take shortcuts. As well as asking about previous jobs, ideally going to see them, and checking their past experience, reviews and references, ask about their day to day processes - how they’ll work on site, what a typical day consists of, how they carry out the specific task needed, such as repairing loose stones or doing some repointing.

When it comes to common stonemasonry jobs like these, many people attempt to use their DIY skills, while less reputable tradesman can look to cut corners in an effort to do the job quickly and with a minimum of work. Nick gave some pointers of things to look out for to ensure quality workmanship:

I’ve done many repointing jobs, and you get a lot of DIYers that just haven’t got a clue. They don’t know about grinding out the old mortar, how to wash out, what mix to use, what finish. It’s got to be done right - I don’t suggest it as a DIY job.

Sean Warrington of Pointing & Brickwork, a bricklaying and stonemasonry firm with more than 100 positive pieces of feedback, said:

We use mortar grinders attached to extractors, so anything that comes out the wall goes into a big machine, whereas when you get people that don’t specialise it you’ll find they just use a small angle grinder and there’s dust everywhere. I’ve actually got photos of how not to repoint because I like to show clients if it’s done badly, this is what it can look like, and it can devalue your property. It’s better to use a specialist because obviously they’ve got specialist equipment, they’re faster, neater and more efficient.

Sean Warrington, Pointing & Brickwork

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Get quotes that cover everything and establish a payment plan

While smaller jobs, such as putting up a low garden wall, will not require complex quotes, with many larger jobs, it’s advisable to meet with, and get quotations, from at least three tradesman. The detail and scope of their quotation can tell you a lot about their process. It’s important to make sure that all the quotations are like-for-like - do they include materials and labour, as well as any subcontracting the tradesman may do, and VAT? If the tradesman will be removing and disposing of any previous materials, such as an old stone wall that is being demolished, is that included? The only way to accurately compare quotations is if you are comparing like-for-like, and to get them from people who have seen the job in person.

Taking a sample of at least three quotations can help you spot any that seem unreasonably low - if this is the case, it could be the sign of a tradesman who wants to win the job, but will make up the true value by adding on extra costs during the course of the build.

On large repointing jobs, many bricklayers may subcontract, hiring scaffolders to come and erect professional scaffolding to allow them access to the whole wall. Talk to the tradesman you are interested in to see if this is necessary and how it will be worked out.

After agreeing to a price through an accurate, written quotation, make sure you have a payment plan in place that you are comfortable with. A written contract is the best way to ensure you are on the same page, with no misunderstandings.

A reputable tradesman will generally not expect, or ask for, the total value of an expensive job up front. However, a small deposit is not uncommon. While many builders buy materials on account from trade suppliers and will not request money up front to cover these costs, if it’s a small firm working on a large build with high costs involved, this may be worked into the plan.

Usually, payment will be deferred until after the work is completed. Many tradesman are happy to be paid in cash, but most will now accept cheques or bank transfers. Barry said:

I ask for a 15% deposit, I find that’s normal for the trade. It depends on the size of the job. How it works for me is I meet the clients, we discuss the work, I’ll gather as much information as I can about what they want doing. I send them a quote and a breakdown of all the costs, and at the bottom it will say ‘subject to 15% deposit upon booking’, and then I’ll give them a start date. I’ve had jobs that have gone on for quite a few weeks.

Barry Grayson, Aspire Stone Cleaning and Restoration

Nick said:

For a big job, something that is several thousand pounds and taking place over several weeks, I will ask for staged payments on Fridays to cover wages and materials. I don’t typically take any deposit. For a very small job, they might pay up front, just say here’s the £100, carry on with it. On a week’s work, usually I’ll just get paid at the end. It’s only a big job that requires staged payments. You just have to agree up front and both be happy with what you’ve agreed.

Nick Kilshaw, Kentish Builder

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Check their familiarity with planning permission and building regulations

Depending on the kind of work you are asking the stonemason to carry out, you may need to consider planning permission and building regulations. For example, if you are building a wall alongside a road or pavement alongside a road more than 1m high, you will need to apply for, and obtain, planning permission before construction begins.

However, most maintenance jobs on existing walls and repointing will not be subject to planning.

Some work involving stonemasons, such as on an extension or outbuilding, may require sign off from your local authority’s Building Control department, which administers building regulations. Other work may require a structural engineer to prepare a report beforehand. Discuss with the stonemason you are interested in hiring whether your job will be subject to planning or building regulation. Experienced stonemasons will be knowledgeable about all the latest requirements and and how they apply to your project, and how they will be dealt with by the planning departments of local authorities - they may even know planning officers to ask for advice. Beware of any tradesman who is casual about the need for planning permission or Building Control inspections - breaching regulations can lead to costly fines, and being forced to undo any work. Nick said:

I’ve been to jobs before where people haven’t realised that anything like a structural engineer’s report is necessary. They think they don’t need it, but it pays to do a bit of research and give it some thought, because it can be the first question I ask when I’m invited for a job, and if it hasn’t been sorted, then I won’t be able to come and do it.

Nick Kilshaw, Kentish Builder

Agree what aftercare will happen after the build

With any building project, there is the possibility that complications and problems may arise. Often, these issues may not manifest themselves until after the work is notionally complete, and the tradesman has moved on to other jobs. That being so, it is sensible to hire a tradesman who is happy to return to the build to follow-up on their work and make right anything that may have happened since the work finished.

Some tradesmen will put something to this effect in their initial contracts with the homeowners, while others will offer a more informal arrangement. If the tradesman is willing to put you in touch with previous clients to see their work, then it is a good sign that they have maintained good relationships, taken pride in their work, and ensured that they have followed-up on any issues that have arisen.

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