Sara Walker talks to Ian Knapper about modern stonemasonry and why his craft is so timeless.
These days, most career officers wouldn’t put ‘stonemason’ at the top of the list when talking to young people about their aspirations – but for Ian Knapper, it was all he ever wanted to do.
“When I was about 11, I started helping out at a local quarry, just with a bit of sweeping and fetching and carrying,” he says. “The chap who ran it specialised in plain products, such as blocks for dry stone walling. A couple of years after I started, he hired a trained stonemason to do the more intricate work, and that was it, I was hooked. I’ve got no family history or connection with the craft, but I knew it was what I wanted to do. I combined working at the quarry and doing on-the-job training through college to learn more about the design side, such as technical drawing, geometry and how to produce a balanced piece of work.
“Stonemasonry is one of the oldest professions in the world, and I love that feeling of heritage and connection. Up to the turn of the 19th century, stonemasons were still using the same techniques first honed in mediaeval times. It was a very manual process, from removing the stone from the ground to producing a finished product.
Around 100 years ago the process started to change, with the introduction of mechanical and pneumatic equipment. In the last 20 years or so, the rate of change has become much quicker and like all other professions stonemasonry has benefited from advances in modern technology. Previously, we’d have had to make a full-size template by hand for any work and that needed a lot of space. Now, we can use a computer for the design, and we can mock up a model with a 3D printer. We can also use a computer for some of the actual cutting.
Where human experience comes in, though, is understanding the material you’re working with, what it can and can’t do and how it all fits together to make a cohesive whole. It’s much easier for a trained stonemason to learn how to use a computer than for an IT technician to try and understand stone! A lot of the finishing off still needs to be done by hand, as well.”
In the past, Staffordshire-based Ian has worked as a restoration stonemason with English Heritage and the National Trust, but now specialises in architecturally stunning staircases and fireplaces. His staircase designs are curved, spiralled or climb up without any visible means of support, appearing to float up to the sky.
“I think stone is still a very relevant choice of building material for modern homes,” he says. “It’s very natural, and it makes you feel secure and grounded. I think that makes it an antidote to the throwaway society we live in. It’s also a pure material, which is environmentally friendly – it tends to come straight from the ground via just one or two artisans, so it retains that connection with the earth. It’s very durable, but unlike materials such as concrete it doesn’t have to be processed, poured or mixed. We have surviving stone buildings in the UK from 1,000 years ago, and a lot of people like that feeling of legacy.
“Modern technology means we now have the perfect combination of a versatile building material and the ability to work it in new ways. One of the most challenging projects we’ve done recently was a staircase with scalloped semi-circles cut out of the treads – we weren’t sure we were going to be able to make it work, but computer modelling gave us the ability to design something stunning that was still practical.”
In his years in the trade, Ian has worked on some memorable projects including designing and making a set of gargoyles (“great fun!”) and a series of plinths for Westminster Abbey to display objects such as the death mask of Henry VIII (“a bit nerve wracking as we had to be so careful to be accurate, but incredible to feel we were a part of history”).
“As a building material, stone has such broad appeal that it will fit into any décor, style or age of building,” says Ian. “We don’t supply an ‘off the shelf’ range, as we like each client to be able to have exactly what they want. Clients tend to come along with the seed of an idea – something they’ve seen online or in a magazine – and we use that as a starting point. Once we’ve agreed on the design and the budget, we’ll produce detailed elevation drawings and perhaps a three-dimensional model before starting the cutting. For a fireplace, the production process could take around six weeks, longer for a staircase. It can be a pretty labour-intensive process.”
In Ian’s case, though, that labour is clearly a labour of love, reflected in his stunning designs and finished products. This modern-day stonemason may have his roots in the past, but his designs are very much part of the future. To find out more about Ian and his work and to view photos of previous projects, visit www.ianknapper.co.uk.
All images (c) 2019 Ian Knapper1