Master Stonemason: Carving out a reputation in stone

Interview with Andy Oldfield, Founder of The Fringe Workshop, Derbyshire.


Ever since reading the romantic, yet brutal, novel Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy at school, I had been fascinated by, one could say, the similarly romantic, yet brutal, craft of stonemasonry. The mixture of physical and yet spiritual, practical and yet artistic, the brute force and yet the gentle detail, needed to carve softness from such a hard material as stone seems such a juxtaposition; such a paradox. The two opposites are vital as two halves in balance to complete the whole; too much of one or the other will spoil that whole, breaking it if too brutal, leaving it unfulfilled if too gentle.

The age-old craft of working with stone is little changed over the millennia; man has for as long as he has had the means of tools, crafted his mark upon the stone around him. For thousands of years craftsmen have worked stone, just enough to create and not destroy. The idea of working in stone is, for many of us, just a romantic notion of dusty stone-yards and workshops, ringing with sounds of skilled, yet instinctual hammers and chisels. However, this isn’t just a romantic notion, as craftsmen really do work that way, even in this modern day and age. Once such craftsman is Andy Oldfield.

Andy has kindly given up some time within his busy life to explain to us the skills and passion he possesses which enable him to work the stone, employing traditional techniques and tools that have evolved over the centuries and yet carving, literally and metaphorically speaking, a modern-day relevance to stonemasonry, in terms of both restorative conservation and creative sculpture, in these increasingly contemporary times.


About The Fringe Workshop

After a self-confessed epiphany in his early thirties, Andy Oldfield re-trained as an apprentice and has reached the revered heights of Master Stonemason, working at the grand Elizabethan Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, and also setting up his own stone-working business, The Fringe Workshop, where he designs and makes sculptures in stone, runs stone carving workshops for the English Heritage and National Trust, as well as carrying out conservation and restoration work. In 2010 Andy acted as a mentor to the TV presenter Monty Don in the BBC series Mastercrafts, where he introduced Monty to the craft of stonemasonry.

Firstly, for those readers that aren’t familiar with you or The Fringe Workshop, please can you explain a bit more about yourself and what you do?

We are a conservation and restoration masonry and stone sculpture company, carrying out sculpture, repair and maintenance, using traditional skills as much as possible. We also carry out letter cutting projects for memorials, specials and one-offs. Hands-on stone carving teaching programmes are run here, and at different venues around the country, from beginner level to advanced. We run an apprenticeship programme for people to improve their skills, and we have a full-time apprentice here at the moment. We also provide work experience opportunities in collaboration with local schools. My wife works within the business, more on the artistic side, calligraphy, setting out designs and artistic drawings, but she also does letter cutting.


I understand you came to stonemasonry later in life. Can you talk through how and why you got started?

Before becoming a stonemason, I was a laser engineer in the automotive industry, and had worked my way up from the shop floor through to orchestrating work for large teams. I came home one evening and saw an advert in the paper for a trainee stonemason to work for the National Trust; I remarked to my wife at the time that I wished I was younger, as it’s the sort of thing that would have appealed to me, as I have always been interested in old buildings. A fortnight or so later I had a bad day at work as I had to make twelve people redundant, which I really didn’t enjoy doing, and I thought that was enough. I called the stonemason at the National Trust whose name was on the advert and left a message asking if it was too late to apply (the closing date had passed), so didn’t hold out much chance, but got a call from them nevertheless inviting me to spend the day with them. To my surprise, and theirs I think, it turned out that I was a natural at carving. It really did feel natural to me, and felt like I was ‘coming home’. The fact that I picked it up so quickly led the Master Mason at the time to comment that I was a complete natural. From there, I worked my way up from being an apprentice to a Master Craftsman Mason.


Stone carving and sculpture is a very complex art form. What skills and experiences did you have that gave you the confidence, that you could make a success of this craft?

To be honest, I really didn’t have any experience to draw upon; nothing to feed off. I wasn’t very practical when I was younger, but that was more a case of no one ever showing me how to do practical things when I was young, and therefore never having the opportunity to show that side of me. I did have an appreciation of old buildings and an eye for high standards though. When I started off in stonemasonry it was like a plug had been pulled, and once the opening was created, all my artistic abilities were unleashed and came to the fore. It became apparent that I had the flow, could create form, and was able to carve with feeling; carving with my mind with a few tools at hand. It’s okay to have practical skills, but you need the mind!


Who would you say has inspired and influenced you the most in your work?

There are two people in particular. The first is Trevor Hardy, the Master Mason at Hardwick Hall, the Elizabethan manor house owned by the National Trust, where I trained; it was Trevor who really believed in me and my abilities. The second was Ivan Meštrović, the Croatian sculpture, who lived between the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, and who was renowned as one the greatest sculptures of religious subject matter in the past few hundred years. I saw his work dating from the 1920s in the V&A and knew immediately I wanted to produce work like that.


Does any of your sculpture-work invoke any metaphors for you – any references to the world?

It doesn’t really invoke any metaphors as such; I mean there are no political references. I do tend to personalise the sculptures, and try to incorporate some hidden emblems or meanings within. They’re not always obvious, and can remain hidden until pointed out. It’s the artist’s and sculpture’s perk, and it goes back centuries. If you look at a stonemason’s work from hundreds of years ago, they’ve often personalised their work, such as a carving of a gargoyle on a church roof would often have the face of someone the stonemason didn’t like on it, such as the deacon of the church that they’ve fallen out with! I sometimes try and work body parts into my sculptures; I did a sculpture of a rose and stem quite recently, and if you look at it from a certain angle, it looks like a woman is holding her hand over her private region, but it’s ever so subtle.


Do you have a preference as to the kind of stone that you work with?

I like stone that I can do anatomical shapes and sculptures with it, such as sculpting a female torso, showing the curvature of the body. I like working with limestone such as Portland stone, Hopton Wood stone, Caen stone and Maltese limestone, as well as sandstones like Yorkshire sandstone for its hardness. The stone I prefer to work with has to have density and a tight grain, so you can easily shape it; otherwise you’re forever fighting the stone to get the shape you want.


Where do you source your stone, for both new sculptures, and for restoration/conservation purposes?

When I’m working on a sculpture, I’ll work with new stone, but the choice will be whatever is appropriate for the design, i.e. Portland stone from Dorset, marble from Italy, limestone from Malta etc.

For restoration purposes though, you have to approach things differently, and the choice of stone will very much depend on the stone used in the building you are restoring, as it needs to be carried out with care and sensitivity, so that repairs are sympathetic with the overall characteristics of the building. It’s important to get the right colour match as well as having the correct chemical, physical and mineralogical match, so that the stone doesn’t have an adverse affect on the rest of the stone (this is the study of petrography). It’s often the case that the dominant stone is found locally, but it may be the case that other types of stone were used for different parts of the construction, such as quoins or parapets, which needed to be more durable than the walling stone, as they are more exposed.


Sometimes if the right stone isn’t available then we will need to go to the nearest stone available. If the colour isn’t quite right, or we want to create an aged look, then we can tone it down using organic biotones so it doesn’t look new. If there is suitable old stone available, we can always use this instead of new stone for restoration. In some cases, we won’t use stone at all, and we’ll do a mortar repair, which is building up and creating the effect of stone using lime mortar, which can be very effective.

What are the essential tools of your craft?

I have a lot of chisels – twenty seven different types, either tungsten-tipped chisels where longer lasting sharpness is required, or firesharp blacksmith-forged tempered chisels, where I can achieve a cleaner cut of stone. They range in size, but usually from ¼ inch to 2 inches width, and are selected for their purpose, either removing large pieces of stone, or for fine work.

I use two weights of mallet; a carving mallet, and a dummy mallet, which is smaller, for finer work, and I’ve used both wooden and nylon mallets. I use a drill to aid in the splitting of stone, creating a series of holes for plug and feathers to be inserted, to enable the split to be split along a line where the holes have been drilled. I also use a stone saw to saw large stones. I sometimes use an angle grinder as well. However, my design always starts with a mallet and chisel.

These are my main tools, but I also use specialist tools with odd names, like points, jumpers, English drag and French drag, as well as the more common plumb, steel compass and spirit level.


Can you describe briefly how you go about a typical project, such as carving a design from a block of stone?

First of all, I will speak to the client and find out what their thoughts are, in terms of design style, choice of stone, dimensions and location.

I will then look closely at the location where the sculpture is to be sited, really to check on the lighting, as this will have a massive impact on the design and orientation of the sculpture. Sometimes I will spend the entire day in the spot looking at how the light changes position throughout the day.

The next stage is for me to rough out a design and drawings which will be submitted to the client, to prompt discussion as to whether it needs to be amended. I’ll then make any necessary changes.


I will then work out dimensions of the stone required, and after submitting an order, will wait for a massive block of stone to arrive.

I’ll then start taking waste away, large amounts at first, then finer amounts as we get into the detail, and shaping it to whatever design we’re working to, creating either one or more focal points. I don’t really work off complex drawings, as I prefer to work by feel and eye, as I instinctively know what works and doesn’t work.


Who are your typical clients?

Clients tend to fall into one of three categories. There are the large international companies, such as Nestle, that want entrance plaques and sculptures for their premises. Then there’s private commissions for people wanting sculptural work; memorials, words of poetry carved into stone for gardens, that sort of thing.


Thirdly, a large part of our work is with the organisations that own and run historical buildings, such as the National Trust, English Heritage and County Councils, where we get involved in conservation and restoration work.


Can you provide any advice for anyone wanting to take up a craft similar to yours, or traditional crafts in general?

Before committing, I’d recommend going on a one-day introductory course, where you’ll have the opportunity to spend the day with tools and piece of stone, and see how you get on carving. Either it will feel right, or you’ll be fighting it. Of course, it doesn’t always work like that, and you find that sometimes stonemasons are fighting stone all their lives, but it’s usually the difference between a worker and a master craftsman.


What thoughts do you have on the future of your craft?

I think the future is bright. We’re seeing the next generation of stonemasons coming through, so we’re not troubled by skills shortages, like there are in other crafts. Many of these people started their careers doing something completely different, like myself, and are having a second bite of the cherry, so to speak.

There has definitely been more resources invested in the craft of stonemasonry, both from the Government, and big businesses, which is pleasing. We have some excellent training schemes in place now, not just for those who have always committed to becoming a stonemason at an early age, but, for instance, we are running a placement programme for youths at the moment, given them a second chance, and it turns out they are much than anyone had ever thought; so there are lots of positives. I think there is a common goal to keep our heritage going, and hence why we’re seeing a lot more help.


If I’m being critical, and looking at any problems, I’d say there aren’t enough openings for people that have completed their apprenticeships, looking for paid employment. A lot of the stonemasonry companies from the past aren’t here any more, and so we’re looking at solutions to this problem right now, to see what can be done about it. I also think we need to be doing more to capture youngsters at the point they are embarking on their career, because I’m sure there are many people that would have the aptitude for stonemasonry, but really aren’t aware of it as a career choice, maybe until later in their life.


Thanks to Andy Oldfield for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. To learn more about stone carving, Andy Oldfield runs stone carving courses periodically through the year. For more information on courses or if you’re considering commissioning a project, please visit Andy’s website by clicking the link below. All images courtesy of Andy Oldfield.

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