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.
Masonry workers held about 280,600 jobs in 2020. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up masonry workers was distributed as follows:
- Cement masons and concrete finishers - 194,100
- Brickmasons and blockmasons - 69,600
- Stonemasons - 13,900
- Terrazzo workers and finishers - 3,000
The largest employers of masonry workers were as follows:
- Poured concrete foundation and structure contractors - 29%
- Masonry contractors - 21%
- Construction of buildings - 12%
- Heavy and civil engineering construction - 7%
- Self-employed workers - 6%
As with many other construction occupations, masonry work is strenuous. Masons often lift heavy materials and stand, kneel, and bend for long periods. The work may be either indoors or outdoors in areas that are dusty, dirty, or muddy. Inclement weather may affect outdoor masonry work.
Injuries and Illnesses
Brickmasons and blockmasons risk injury on the job. Cuts are common, as are injuries occurring from falls and being struck by objects. To avoid injury, workers wear protective gear such as hardhats, safety glasses, high-visibility vests, and harnesses and other apparel to prevent falls.
Most masons work full time, and some work overtime to meet construction deadlines. Masons work mostly outdoors, so inclement weather may affect their schedules. Terrazzo masons may need to work hours that differ from a regular business schedule, to avoid disrupting normal operations.
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
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.
How to Advance
With additional training and experience, brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons may become supervisors for masonry contractors. Some eventually become owners of businesses and may spend most of their time as managers. Others move into closely related areas such as construction management or building inspection. Many unionized Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees offer "life-long learning" through continuing education courses that help those members who want to advance their technical knowledge and their careers.
Overall employment of masonry workers is projected to decline 2 percent from 2020 to 2030.
Despite declining employment, about 24,600 openings for masonry workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. All of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
The employment of masons is linked to the overall demand for new building and road construction. Masonry, such as brick and stone, is still popular in both interior and exterior applications, but changes in products and installation practices are expected to decrease the need for masons. For example, fewer workers are needed to install innovations such as thin bricks, which allow buildings to have the look of brick construction at a lower cost. Additionally, the increased use of prefabricated panels will reduce the demand for most masonry workers. These panels are created offsite by either contractors or manufacturers in climate-protected environments, but fewer masons are needed to install the panels at the construction site.
Employment of terrazzo workers and finishers is expected to decline due to the increased installation of polished concrete, which will shift some work from terrazzo workers to cement masons and concrete finishers.
The median annual wage for masonry workers was $48,040 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $33,590, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $78,810.
Median annual wages for masonry workers in May 2021 were as follows:
- Brickmasons and blockmasons - $59,340
- Terrazzo workers and finishers - $48,680
- Stonemasons - $47,610
- Cement masons and concrete finishers - $47,340
In May 2021, the median annual wages for masonry workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Masonry contractors - $54,350
- Construction of buildings - $48,630
- Heavy and civil engineering construction - $47,890
- Poured concrete foundation and structure contractors - $47,190
Most masons work full time, and some work overtime to meet construction deadlines. Masons work mostly outdoors, so inclement weather may affect schedules. Terrazzo masons may need to work hours that differ from a regular business schedule, to avoid disrupting normal operations.