Opportunities are sometimes limited for high school students to directly experience work in the field of bricklaying and stonemasonry. It is fortunate, however, that student groups exist that provide opportunities for experience and exploration. One such group is the National Association of Home Builders Student Chapters Program, which has chapters in high schools, career technical schools, community colleges, and universities. By becoming a member, you get to experience the "real world" of construction, including bricklaying and stonemasonry. Some groups visit construction sites; others participate in repairing homes; others help organize repairs on their own school buildings.
Hands-on experience is one of the best ways to explore the building trades. If you are too young to get such experience, at least contact others who have already started their careers. For example, try to contact participants from the International Masonry Institute or visit its Web site (http://imiweb.org/training/) to read a blog and comments from participants and view photographs.
When bricklayers and stonemasons begin work on a job, they usually first examine a blueprint or drawing to determine the designer's specifications. Then they measure the work area to fix reference points and guidelines in accordance with the blueprint.
If they are building a wall, bricklayers traditionally start with the corners, or leads, which must be precisely established if the finished structure is to be sound and straight. The corners may be established by more experienced bricklayers, with the task of filling in between the corners left to less experienced workers. Corner posts, or masonry guides, may be used to define the line of the wall, speeding the building process. A first, dry course may be put down without mortar so that the alignment and positioning of the brick can be checked.
In laying brick, bricklayers use a metal trowel to spread a bed or layer of soft mortar on a prepared base. Then they set the brick into the mortar, tapping and working each brick into the correct position. Excess mortar is cut off, and the mortar joints are smoothed with special tools that give a neat, uniform look to the wall. In walls, each layer, or course, is set so that vertical joints do not line up one on top of another but instead form a pleasing, regular pattern. The work must be continually checked for horizontal and vertical straightness with mason's levels, gauge strips, plumb lines, and other equipment. Sometimes it is necessary to cut and fit brick to size using a power saw or hammer and chisel. Bricklayers generally use extra steel supports in the walls around doors and windows.
Bricklayers must know how to mix mortar, which is made of cement, sand, and water, and how to spread it so that the joints throughout the structure will be evenly spaced, with a neat appearance. They may have helpers who mix the mortar as well as move materials and scaffolding around the work site as needed.
Some bricklayers specialize in working with one type of masonry material only, such as gypsum block, concrete block, hollow tile used in partitions, or terra-cotta products. Other bricklayers, called refractory masons, work in the steel and glass manufacturing industries and specialize in installing firebrick and refractory tile linings of furnaces, kilns, boilers, cupolas, and other high-temperature equipment. Still others are employed to construct manholes and catch basins in sewers.
Stonemasons work with two types of stone: natural cut stone, such as marble, granite, limestone, or sandstone; and artificial stone, which is made to order from concrete, marble chips, or other masonry materials. They set the stone in many kinds of structures, including piers, walls, walkways, arches, floors, and curbstones. On some projects, the drawings that stonemasons work from specify where to set certain stones that have been previously identified by number. In such cases, helpers may locate the stones and bring them to the masons. Large stones may have to be hoisted into place with derricks.
In building stone walls, masons begin by setting a first course of stones in a bed of mortar, then build upward by alternating layers of mortar and stone courses. At every stage, they may use leveling devices and plumb lines, correcting the alignment of each stone. They often insert wedges and tap the stones into place with rubber mallets. Once a stone is in good position, they remove the wedges, fill the gaps with mortar, and smooth the area using a metal tool called a tuck pointer. Large stones may need to be anchored in place with metal brackets that are welded or bolted to the wall.
Similarly, when masons construct stone floors, they begin by spreading mortar. They place stones, adjusting their positions using mallets and crowbars and periodically checking the levelness of the surface. They may cut some stones into smaller pieces to fit, using hammer and chisel or a power saw with a diamond blade. After all the stones are placed, the masons fill the joints between the stones with mortar and wash off the surface.
Some stonemasons specialize in setting marble. Others work exclusively on setting alberene, which is an acid-resistant soapstone used in industrial settings on floors and for lining vats and tanks. Other specialized stone workers include composition stone applicators, monument setters, patchers, and chimney repairers. Stone repairers mend broken slabs made of marble and similar stone.
Bricklayers and stonemasons sometimes use power tools, such as saws and drills, but for the most part they use hand tools, including trowels, jointers, hammers, rulers, chisels, squares, gauge lines, mallets, brushes, and mason's levels.