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Brickmasons, Blockmasons, and Stonemasons - What They Do

Brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons create attractive, durable surfaces and structures. For thousands of years, these workers have built buildings, fences, roads, walkways, and walls using bricks, concrete blocks, and natural stone. The structures that they build will continue to be in demand for years to come.

The work varies in complexity, from laying a simple masonry walkway to installing an ornate exterior on a highrise building. Workers cut or break the materials used to create walls, floors, and other structures. Once their building materials are properly sized, they are laid with or without a binding material. Workers use their own perceptions and a variety of tools to ensure that the structure meets the desired standards. After they finish laying the bricks, blocks, or stone, the workers clean the finished product with a variety of cleaning agents.

Brickmasons and blockmasons—who often are called simply bricklayers—build and repair walls, floors, partitions, fireplaces, chimneys, and other structures with brick, precast masonry panels, concrete block, and other masonry materials. Some brickmasons specialize in installing firebrick linings in industrial furnaces.

When building a structure, brickmasons usually start in the corners. Because of the precision needed, corners are time-consuming to erect and require the skills of experienced bricklayers. To lay the brick, brickmasons spread a bed of mortar (a mixture of cement, lime, sand, and water) with a trowel (a flat, bladed metal tool with a handle), place the brick on the mortar bed, and press and tap the brick into place. Depending on blueprint specifications, brickmasons either cut bricks with a hammer and chisel or saw them to fit around windows, doors, and other openings. Mortar joints are then finished with jointing tools for a sealed, neat, uniform appearance. Although brickmasons typically use steel supports, or lintels, at window and door openings, they sometimes build brick arches, which support and enhance the beauty of the brickwork.

Refractory masons are brickmasons who specialize in installing firebrick and refractory tile in high-temperature boilers, furnaces, cupolas, ladles, and soaking pits in industrial establishments. Most of these workers are employed in steel mills, where molten materials flow on refractory beds from furnaces to rolling machines. They also are employed at oil refineries, glass furnaces, incinerators, and other locations requiring high temperatures during the manufacturing process.

After a structure is completed there is often work that still needs to be done. Pointing, cleaning, and caulking workers can be the final workers on a job or the primary workers on a restoration project. These workers usually replace bricks or make repairs to brickwork on older structures where mortar has come loose. Special care is taken not to damage the main structural integrity or the bricks, blocks, or stone. Depending on how much mortar is being replaced, it may take several applications to allow the new mortar to cure properly. After laying the new bricks, the workers use chemicals to clean the brick and stone to give the structure a finished appearance.

Stonemasons build stone walls, as well as set stone exteriors and floors. They work with two types of stone—natural-cut stone, such as marble, granite, and limestone; and artificial stone, made from concrete, marble chips, or other masonry materials. Masons use a special hammer and chisel to cut stone. They cut stone along the grain to make various shapes and sizes, and valuable pieces are often cut with a saw that has a diamond blade. Stonemasons often work from a set of drawings in which each stone has been numbered for identification. Helpers may locate and carry these prenumbered stones to the masons. A derrick operator using a hoist may be needed to lift large stone pieces into place.

When building a stone wall, masons set the first course of stones into a shallow bed of mortar. They then align the stones with wedges, plumb lines, and levels, and work them into position with various tools. Masons continue to build the wall by alternating layers of mortar and courses of stone. As the work progresses, masons remove the wedges, fill the joints between stones, and use a pointed metal tool, called a tuck pointer, to smooth the mortar to an attractive finish. To hold large stones in place, stonemasons attach brackets to the stones and weld or bolt these brackets to anchors in the wall. Finally, masons wash the stones with a cleansing solution to remove stains and dry the mortar.

When setting stone floors, which often consist of large and heavy pieces of stone, masons first use a trowel to spread a layer of damp mortar over the surface to be covered. They then use crowbars and hard rubber mallets for aligning and leveling to set the stone in the mortar bed. To finish, workers fill the joints and clean the stone slabs.

Some masons specialize in setting marble, which, in many respects, is similar to setting large pieces of stone. Brickmasons and stonemasons also repair imperfections and cracks and replace broken or missing masonry units in walls and floors.

Most nonresidential buildings are now built with walls made of some combination of any of the following: concrete block, brick veneer, stone, granite, marble, tile, and glass. In the past, masons doing nonresidential interior work mainly built block partition walls and elevator shafts, but because many types of masonry and stone are used in the interiors of today's nonresidential structures, these workers now must be more versatile. For example, some brickmasons and blockmasons now install structural insulated concrete units and wall panels. They also install a variety of masonry anchors and other masonry-associated accessories used in many highrise buildings.

Work Environment
Brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons usually work outdoors; in contrast to the past when work slowed down in the winter months, new processes and materials are allowing these masons to work in a greater variety of weather conditions. Masons stand, kneel, and bend for long periods and often have to lift heavy materials. Common hazards include injuries from tools and falls from scaffolds, but these can often be avoided when proper safety equipment, such as a hardhat, is used and when proper safety practices are followed.

Many workers work a standard 40-hour week. Some, however, do work more. Earnings for workers in the construction trades can be reduced on occasion when poor weather and slowdowns in construction activity decrease the amount of time the laborers can work.

Education & Training Required
Individuals who learn the trade on the job usually start as helpers, laborers, or mason tenders. These workers carry materials, move or assemble scaffolds, and mix mortar. When the opportunity arises, they learn from experienced craftworkers how to mix and spread mortar, lay brick and block, or set stone. They also may learn restoration skills such as cleaning, pointing, and repointing. As they gain experience, they learn more difficult tasks and make the transition to full-fledged craftworkers. The learning period usually lasts longer for workers who learn the trade on the job than for those who have already been trained in an apprenticeship program. Registered apprenticeship programs usually last between 3 and 4 years.

Some workers learn the trade at technical schools that offer masonry courses. Entrance requirements and fees vary depending on the school and who is funding the program. Some people take courses before being hired, and some take them later as part of on-the-job training.

Apprenticeships for brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons usually are sponsored by local union-management joint apprenticeship and training committees, local contractors, or trade associations. Apprenticeship programs usually require 3 to 4 years of on-the-job training, in addition to a minimum of 144 hours of classroom instruction each year in blueprint reading, mathematics, layout work, sketching, and other subjects. In the coming years, the focus of apprenticeships is likely to change from time served to demonstrated competence. This may result in apprenticeships of shorter average duration. Applicants for apprenticeships must be at least 17 years old and in good physical condition. A high school diploma is preferable, especially with courses in mathematics, mechanical drawing, and general shop.

Apprentices often start by working with laborers: carrying materials, mixing mortar, and building scaffolds for about a month. Next, apprentices learn to lay, align, and join brick and block. They may also learn to work with stone and concrete, which is important when using other masonry materials.

Bricklayers who work in nonresidential construction usually work for large contractors and receive well-rounded training—normally through an apprenticeship in all phases of brick or stone work. Those who work in residential construction usually work for small contractors and specialize in only one or two aspects of the job.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)
The most desired qualities in workers are dependability and a strong work ethic. Knowledge of basic math, including measurement, volume, mixing proportions, algebra, plane geometry, and mechanical drawing are important in this trade.

Brickmasons, Blockmasons, and Stonemasons - What They Do - Page 2

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