One of the earliest professions in civilisation, stone masonry has come a long way over the decades, producing stunning engineering feats, advancing technologies and more customer personalisation, all whilst remaining true to its beginnings.
Testimony to the longevity and appeal of stone are the works of master craftsmen which remain standing around the world today. These days, however, stone isn’t just the material of choice for Mughal emperors in the creation of their ivory-white mausoleums. When worked, designed and constructed well, the effect of stone can be just as stunning but, thanks to advancements in production and design, it is much more accessible for today’s architectural creations and customers.
Ian Knapper is a team of specialist stonemasons who have been designing and building beautiful bespoke staircases and fireplaces in stone for over 25 years. “Stone is widely regarded as the premier building material due to its character as well as durability. If you look around the world today, stone creations which have been standing for nearly 500 years, still leave us in awe. It’s a tactile and elegant material which still fascinates me, and as a team we have always strived to see how far we can take stone with new and innovative designs.”
With an early career working with The National Trust and English Heritage restoring historic buildings, Ian now combines the skills of the earliest profession with a passion for creativity leading a team that produce majestic sweeping staircases, bespoke solid natural stone fireplaces and even commissioned extra pieces.
“Stone can be a versatile interiors solution that by its nature creates a dramatic natural centrepiece for a space,” enthuses Ian. “The craft of shaping a natural stone to form structures – has not changed radically in many years. The same things that were achievable by a hammer and chisel in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries remain achievable today. The same intricate details and architectural design from skilled craftspeople. Modern day advancements, however, are making the production process easier for today’s stonemasons. Rather than taking years, decades even to complete, technology in the primary cutting has sliced this to days and weeks, depending of the project, of course.”
One of these modern-day advancements is in production and the introduction of the five-axis saw, revolutionising the cutting and initial shaping of stone. It takes away the huge physical element associated with creating a basic shape.
Indeed, the most proficient stone masons can create 80 per cent of a structure or construction using the programming of the robotic arms of this machine. The remaining 20 per cent of refinement delivered by skilled craftspeople. Ian is quick to point out though that hand-finishing cannot be replaced. “For me, though, there is no replacing the finish of stone by hand and that is something that will never change in true stone masonry.”
The expansion of the materials portfolio, in turn, allows a widening in customer options and giving them what they really want in terms of design. “Our team is constantly travelling and collaborating with other like-minded businesses, to learn as much about the advancements as well as the opportunities within the world of natural stone. Each time we de-brief there is something new to learn or think about. In some fields, stone is considered a very traditional material suitable for a historic house littered with coats of arms. It can be, of course, but it can also be used to create the most stunning statement floating stone staircases for the modern home. We are constantly pushing the boundaries in design.”
Ian continues, “Technology and choice have now meant that we can now construct a solid staircase in Carrara Michelangelo Italian marble, which would have been time and cost prohibitive beforehand.”
Stone masonry has also seen huge progress in abrasives alongside the introduction of machinery. With the rapid development of abrasive pads for both hand finishing and high-speed and ultra-precision grinding technology, has meant the team at Ian Knapper can achieve the precision finish saving time and cost.
Moving away from production and to design, the introduction of CAD thirty or so years ago really came to the aid of stone masons. Rather than having to draw and create templates in true size, designers can create on screen, scale-up and print out. Ian whole-heartedly agrees with this but is quick to point out; “It is not paperless, and I don’t think ever should be due to the hand-finishing, but it is hugely more effective.
“The same goes for advancements in digital surveying, the ability to extract information about buildings, to understand them, and their parts, better is making it easier to get the requirements correct and provide real solutions, not sticking plasters. Take the rebuilding of Note-Dame de Paris, the digital surveys will be guiding the stone masons to recreate the roof spire and vaulted ceilings in their former splendour. This science behind the stone and behind the building is happening all the time, allowing architects and stonemasons to research and comprehend more effectively the material and what is truly required.”
And just as the stone mason industry is advancing, so are the engineering capabilities of what can be achieved. Advancements in steel tension for the creation of stone staircases has been achieved and work on a composite of stone and carbon fibre, producing strong, ultra-thin elegant structures is bearing fruit, improving the performance of the material and its further application.
Then, there’s the treatment of stone. Chemical advancements in the treatment of stone have added durability. Gone are the days of slapping varnish on to repel water and having to have a stippled effect finish to prevent slipping. Today, repelling stains and creating a non-slip surface can all be applied onsite, easily and much more effectively.
In today’s ‘customer is king’ world, this can only herald increased application of stone and ultimately the satisfaction for clients who want a statement staircase installed. And future advancements and upgrades in the robotics and software will only strengthen the potential applications and options.
It is true, of course, that the craftmanship of stone masonry has evolved to suit our age. Production and design are more technologically advanced, and only likely to get even more so. However, the true understanding of stone remains at the core of the craft. Yes, we are using more scientifically advanced ways to understand the material and the structures it creates but that, as it continues, can only make for more exciting times ahead as the applications expand the opportunities for masons increase.