Working in construction can take you lots of places, old and new. Stonemasons are tradespeople who carve-out and build structures using natural stone, brick or concrete. They must pay special attention to detail and can work on intricate and creative designs in stone. Masons can choose to apply their skills to modern buildings or specialise in restoring world-famous, historic architecture.
We caught up with Samuel-James Wilson, a heritage mason, who has learned traditional stone craft techniques and developed his skills through apprenticeships and on the job training. Sam has used his trade to help him travel and work across the world.
Name: Samuel-James Wilson
What is your job? Heritage mason
How long have you been doing this job? I have been working in the construction industry for over ten years now and in heritage for just under a year.
Apprenticeship: Plumbing NVQ Level 2, Bricklaying & Construction NVQ Level 2 & Advanced Diploma Level 3, Heritage Brickwork NVQ Level 3
Interests: Live Music, Blackburn Rovers, Seattle Seahawks
What was your very first job?
My very first job was sweeping the floor at a door factory that my dad was a manager at. At the age of 13 I was up and working at 5am sweeping wood chippings.
What did you want to do when you were at school?
I always remember wanting to be a fireman at school! I only discovered my passion for stonemasonry when I started training for it.
How did you get there?
I began learning about bricklaying after leaving school at the age of 16. I trained as a plumber, but realised it wasn’t for me, so took on a job as a general site laborer. After a couple of years gaining lots of experience on building sites, I begged my employer to let me try out bricklaying, he agreed and I enrolled at Leeds College of Building at the age of 18 where I spent the next two years. I would go into college for one full week each month and complete pre-designed models, for example a complicated chimney design using only bricks. As my skills improved, my confidence grew, both in class and back on the building site. By my final year, I knew I had found my forte and I would go into college and to the building site on days off just to practice. This paid off as I completed all of my qualifications with a Distinction or Merit at the age of 20.
At 24, as a fully qualified and experienced bricklayer, I started looking for opportunities to expand my skills. Someone contacted me via my blog to ask if I might be interested in a Building Skill in Craft scholarship with The Prince’s Foundation. This scholarship gave ten lucky applicants the chance to travel the UK working with master craftsman on some of the most impressive architecture in the country, including York Minster and Lincoln Cathedral, learning the history and techniques of their craft. I jumped at the chance and after attending a rather nerve wracking interview in my first ever suit, I was accepted onto the course.
Why did you choose an apprenticeship over university?
This was never a clear choice for me. I left school at 15 and was placed in a Pupil Referral Unit (or the naughty boys school as we called it). This wasn’t due to one major incident; I had never really enjoyed school and often found myself acting like a class clown to pass the day, which all just added up.
Once I was in the PRU, I was very luckily offered a work experience placement one day a week with a local plumber and the rest is history.
What is a typical day at work like?
I am currently living and working in Australia, traveling and working, so at the moment I work just outside of Melbourne. I am working alongside a stonemason to complete various jobs on one property. I have just completed one project, which was to build two pillars with wing walls at a driveway entrance. This was completed using local stone straight from the quarry and wasn’t the easiest of tasks, but the outcome was brilliant and it’s one I am very proud of.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I had always wanted to see the world and never really got the chance until now as I had always been in college or on my scholarship, so now the best thing is simply enjoying the fact that my skills and training have given me the opportunity to travel and experiencing what life is like on the other side of the world.
What is the most challenging thing about your job?
At the moment, it’s the heat. It is not uncommon for the temperature to rise to and above 40c here in Melbourne and when your job requires you to life, cut, shape, and lay stone, this isn’t easy. Sometimes it's simply not safe to do so.
What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?
I would firstly recommend reading my blog. Not just because it’s mine, but also because it documents my whole working life from college up until my time in Australia now. I believe it gives a good honest account of what can be achieved if you put your mind to it.
I would also recommend contacting local builders. Offer yourself up for work; let them know you will work a week for free just to gain experience and show how keen you are to learn a trade. It will pay off! Spend your spare time reading up on the subject too and don’t be afraid to ask questions when you get the chance.
Set yourself goals and push yourself to achieve these. The only person who can make your dreams come true is you. Make it happen.
What advice do you have for people who are trying to decide between university or an apprenticeship?
Do what you feel is right. In my case it was definitely an apprenticeship and I would recommend them to anyone as an option to consider.
Where would you like to be in 5 years?
Still traveling the world, raising money for charity and enjoying life.