Career Overview and Job Description
High job growth is expected in this area in coming years. Most of the work is performed outside, and often involves heavy lifting or working on scaffolding. Working as a mason requires little formal schooling and most people learn from practical experience. A major draw is that over a quarter of masons are self-employed.
All types of mason are involved making appealing, long-lasting buildings and exteriors. Their work is varied, and could be as simple as laying a stone path or as complicated as installing an elaborate surface on a major downtown building. There are two main types of masons.
Brickmasons use a variety of procedures in their work. Using a corner lead means that masons create a pyramid structure of bricks, called a lead, in the four corners. Leads are extremely difficult to construct and require meticulous and skilled masons. After the leads are complete junior masons then draw a line connecting the leads to show where each line of bricks, called a course, will go to fill in the wall.
Since leads are difficult to construct they are more expensive, and so many masons prefer to use corner poles or guides. These make it possible to build a whole wall at once. Masons place corner poles vertically to show the lines the walls will take and connect the poles by a cord, thus outlining the walls. The lines show where each course will go. The masons then use a mixture of cement, water, and sand called mortar which they apply with a flat tool called a trowel, to create a base for the bricks, which are then laid. Masons may need to size bricks using a chisel or saw to make them fit around doors and windows or to make them end neatly. Then, masons use specific joining tools to smooth out the mortar to give the bricks a polished, clean look. Masons may also build arches out of brick around openings like windows instead of using steel lintels. This is more difficult but also more visually appealing.
Stonemasons frequently have highly detailed blueprints that number each individual stone. Assistants may identify and transport the appropriate numbered stone to the stonemason. Large stones may require a the use of a derrick.
Building a wall out of stone begins with setting the first course into a thin prepared bed of mortar. Stonemasons then use wedges, plumblines, and levelers to set the stones in the straight line, and then hammer them it with heavy rubber mallets. They repeat this process, trading layers of stone and mortar. As the wall grows, the masons remove the supporting wedges, fill in gaps between stones, and use a tuck pointer, a sharp tool, to even out the surface of the mortar. Stonemasons may have to bolt large stones to anchors in the wall to keep them in place. When they’re finished, masons thoroughly clean the stones, removing all stray mortar and dirt.
Stonemasons also construct floors. To begin they lay a bed of mortar over the surface. Then they lay the stone. Floors usually use larger and heavier blocks of stone, which are places using crowbars and mallets. Finally, they fill in the spaces between blocks and clean the new floor.
Many stonemasons cut their own stone. Cutting stone is difficult work that requires precise tools. Using specially constructed hammers and chisels they follow the natural grain of the stone to create the shape desired. Stonecutters may use a special diamond-bladed saw to cut through particularly hard and valuable pieces of stone. Many masons specialize in an area like cutting marble. Masons of all types not only build with stone or brick, they also maintain, repair, and replace their handiwork.
The majority of contemporary professional and public buildings are being constructed with new materials like concrete; stone like granite or marble; tile; glass; or brick veneer. Previously masons were only involved in the construction of divider walls and elevator shafts, but now masons are involved in more and different types of construction. For instance, many masons are now involved in putting in insulated wall panels or decorative brick accents.
There is an entire group of brickmasons called refractory masons who focus on putting firebrick and refractory tile in industrial boilers, furnaces, or other high-temperature environments. The majority of refractory masons work at steel mills, where melted steel runs from furnaces, over refractory beds, and into rolling machines.
All types of masons often work outside. It can be physically demanding as they are required carry heavy equipment and supplies; and stand, stoop, and kneel for extended periods of time. They work with dangerous tools and in dangerous environments and so need to be safety-conscious. Accidents are minimized by using safety equipment like harnesses, and adhering to safety guidelines.
Career Training and Job Qualification
Most masons are not formally schooled but acquire on-the-job training. Some attend vocational schools or courses provided by the industry. Others become formal apprentices, which provides the most efficient and comprehensive training.
Those who acquire on-the-job training usually start as assistants to experienced workers. They might also be laborers or mason tenders. Their work might consist of transporting materials, building or transferring scaffolds, or mixing mortar. As they perform these associated tasks they will pick up skills and knowledge. With experience they might be promoted to laying the stone or brick themselves. This system can take longer than a formal apprenticeship. Training programs provided by employers can last from two to four years.
Individuals can become apprentices by finding openings through local contractors, unions, or trade associations. Apprenticeships can last up to three years and involve practical experience and at least 144 of class work where apprentices gain skills in reading blueprints, layout, drawing, and math.
Being an apprentice requires that applicants are older than seventeen and are physically capable to meet the demands of masonry. No formal schooling is required, but a high school diploma or equivalent is recommended and classes in math, sketching, and shop classes are useful. Hopeful apprentices should look at the Associate Builders and Contractors and International Masonry Institute (IMI). These two organizations are a joint trust of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsworkers. They have training programs in many areas that help applicants gain the experience and knowledge they need to be successful apprentices. As there are increasing openings, the IMI has grown to draft and provide training for workers previous to their becoming apprentices. Along with their regional centers, the IMI has a central education facility in Fort Ritchie, MD, where they train individuals in brick, stone, refractory, safety, building scaffolds, terrazzo, and tile.
Those bricklayers who work primarily on professional and public buildings are usually employed by contractors, who often provide extensive training as apprentices in all areas of brick or stone. Bricklayers who work primarily on residential structures are more likely to be employed by smaller contractors and usually focus on one or two areas of masonry.
Masons can find opportunities for advancement to supervisory positions through extra training. They might even come to own businesses, and oversee the work of many masons rather than working themselves. Alternately, many masons transfer to associated fields and become construction managers or building inspectors.
Job and Employment Opportunities for Brick, Block and Stone Masons
Forecasts predict good job prospects for masons. Most demand for new masons will be the result of retirements and career changes. Also, there is little competition for open positions as the tough conditions and physical labor deter many applicants.
The number of new jobs available is expected to increase at the average rate for all jobs through 2012. Most new jobs will be created by the rising population, which demands more houses, hospitals, high-rise buildings, factories, schools, etc. Demand for masons will also be increased by the need for restoration of historical buildings, and brick is a very popular material for interior designers of new buildings who want a historic feel. Brick has always been a desirable exterior material because it requires little maintenance and is long-lasting.
The construction industry is susceptible to economic downturns. Masons may have little business during times of recession.
Historical Earnings Information
Most masons are paid hourly. The majority of masons made between approximately $15/h and $25/h with a median of $20/h in 2002. Those in the lowest tenth of the pay scale made under $11/h and those in the highest tenth made over $36.
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