The Red Mason: Heritage expert calls for more holistic and broad-base masonry trades training

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    Gerald Lynch
    Gerald Lynch

    Ottawa Construction News staff writer

    A British expert on historical masonry took an Ottawa class of about 30 designers, engineers and craftspeople through a journey encompassing the past and future, revealing both the heritage and opportunity in traditional craft skills.

    Gerard Lynch, who holds a PhD for his knowledge of the topic, put on an apron and prepared some mortar before demonstrating “top pointing” with specialized tools adapted from traditional practices, and provided other classroom and workshop demonstrations during the two-day program at the old Ottawa Technical High School on Albert St. This is the second time Lynch has visited Ottawa for the instructional program co-ordinated by Construction Specifications Canada’s (CSC) Ottawa chapter.

    Lynch has studied and rediscovered long-lost masonry craft skills, vital knowledge for the growing demand in heritage renovation projects, notably the extensive multi-year Parliament Hill work. He has become known as the “Red Mason” because of his historical knowledge of red (brick) masonry and his now-grey but formerly red hair.

    The heritage craft skills remain reasonably rare, he said. “The work I’ve been doing over the past 25 years has advanced the situation form almost zero to (the point where there are) a number of good craftsmen and women able to do this type of work,” he said. “It’s been very much a journey of discovery.”

    Lynch has combined on-the-job craft experience with academic research, notably pouring over old documents and guides to the craft. He discovered gaps – for example, historical documents explaining masonry techniques left out important details, which he needed to rediscover through practical testing.

    The original masonry publishers “were holding on to craft secrets and mysteries they didn’t want to completely share,” he said. These skills and secrets were passed on from generation-to-generation through traditional apprenticeships.

    “When you signed an apprenticeship deed, you agreed you will not divulge the mysteries of the art.” This limitation on knowledge-sharing served two purposes. It preserved the trade’s value and careers for practitioners. More importantly, he said, in a practical sense some of the advanced knowledge would only be useful after the mason had mastered the basic skills, because a little of this advanced knowledge, learned too early, could do more harm than good.

    Lynch says he is pleased that a new generation of heritage masonry craftspeople are learning the trade on Parliament Hill, but he is concerned about the process of training young masons, where expediency and production efficiency don’t leave much room for more traditional or deeper knowledge.

    “We need the holistic craftsman, with an all-around perception and ability in the craft, with knowledge of the old ways and modern techniques,” he said.

    However, the trend today is for “accreditation on short courses” – training more than education.

    “People are saying it costs too much money (for a full education),” he said. “They rationalize: ‘Why can’t we get these people in and out quickly.’”

    The result: Tradespeople don’t have an appreciation of the history, and they “don’t have any empathy . . . they won’t have an appreciation of the materials and techniques if no one picks them up on them.” These semi-skilled masons will use incompatible or inappropriate materials, and inadequate work will result in more harm than good.

    “No one ever made money in apprenticeship,” Lynch said. “But when you under-train people, they cost you a huge amount of money. Bad work costs an inordinate amount to put right. It’s cheaper to do it right in the first place.”

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