Ian Scales: Stonemason

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MASTER OF
THE STONE AGE

STONEMASONRY IS ONE OF THE OLDEST CRAFTS IN HUMAN HISTORY AND INVOLVES BUILDING WITH STONE FROM THE EARTH. THE HISTORY OF STONE WALLS IN WALES IS AS OLD AS THE NORMAN INVASION.

WE STUMBLED INTO WELSHMAN
IAN SCALES ON A RECENT VISIT TO PEMBROKESHIRE. HE IS A TRADITIONALLY-TRAINED STONEMASON AND SHARES HIS
PASSION FOR WALES, WALLS AND
WATER HOLES.

CURATOr and photography BRISEIS ONFRAY | INTERVIEW WITH IAN SCALES | COUNTRY WALES

WHERE DID YOU GROW UP AND WHERE DO YOU LIVE NOW?
I grew up in a small coastal village called Lydstep but am now living only a stone's throw away in Manorbier. Both are on the coastal walking route of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.

IS WALES YOUR HAPPY PLACE? IF SO, WHY?
Wales is rugged and wild yet peaceful and beautiful all at once. The scenery and moods are always changing, especially here in Pembrokeshire. We are exposed to the elements here. Something about the sea makes the air always feel crisp and clean. And the countryside. It’s so beautiful.

WALES IS THE SMALLEST OF BRITAIN’S ISLAND KINGDOM, YET RICH WITH HISTORY AND TRADITION, INCLUDING ITS OWN LANGUAGE OUTSIDE OF ENGLISH. DID YOU LEARN WELSH AT SCHOOL?
“Cael diwrnod da." (Or in English, "have a good day.”) I didn’t learn Welsh at school. My mother spoke and wrote Welsh which is where I learnt, but I am not fluent. Thankfully, our school system has reintroduced the language back into the curriculum, restoring our tradition. These are the things that are irreplaceable once lost, so it is lovely to hear the Welsh language spoken so frequently again.

BEING A STONEMASON IS NOT AN EASY TASK, NOR IS IT CONVENTIONAL BRICKLAYING. HOW DID THIS CAREER EVOLVE FOR YOU? AND WHO TAUGHT YOU THE TRICKS OF THE TRADE?
I always had a fascination for castles and an interest in building things from an early age and I guess it evolved from there. Starting out, I had worked with a great mentor as his building apprentice. He is no longer alive, but he taught me the technique of building with stone. Limestone mainly. It’s quite a specialty field and there are not many of us in the region. I think he would be proud. I am also proud with the work I do, knowing that his legacy lives on through the many walls that have been restored by my bare hands since. He was a good teacher and I was lucky to learn with him.

THE HISTORY OF STONE WALLS IN WALES ARE AS OLD AS THE NORMAN INVASION OF WALES. THAT'S GOING BACK TO 1081. THEY HAVE STOOD STRONG OVER CENTURIES OF WILD BATTLES AND WEATHER. WHAT MAKES IT THE PREFERRED OPTION TO RESTORE THESE WALLS BACK TO THEIR ORIGINAL STATE NOW, RATHER THAN BUILDING SOMETHING MORE MODERN?
These walls hold a rich past of history and tradition. It’s part of our heritage and adds to the unique charm of Wales overall. It’s hard work, but restoring these walls to their original state is something most locals are very proud to preserve. They are irreplaceable really.

EVERY STONE IS LAID BY HAND. IT’S PHYSICALLY LABOUR INTENSIVE WORK. UNLIKE BRICKS, THESE STONES ARE ROUGH SIZES, SURFACES AND SHAPES. WHAT IS THE SECRET TO REBUILDING WITHOUT CHANGING THE APPEARANCE TOO MUCH?
We use the same type of stone and technique as used centuries ago. Except rather than using a mix of mud, straw and manure to bond them together, we use cement (thank goodness). Sometimes the stones used are sourced from a quarry in the region, but often the stones are reworked from the original site. 
It may not be noticeable to most, but every stone is laid by hand with care and consideration, and in relation to how it fits with the one laid before and after it. It’s a real process and takes focus and an eye for detail. My eyes are engineering the next stone move all the way. But if I get stuck or it’s not working, I walk away. When I return, it all comes together somehow. It’s like a giant puzzle. It takes a lot of time and requires a lot of patience.

WHAT ARE THE TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES USED?
There can be incredible amounts of stone tonnage that we need, but there are not actually that many tools that we use. My tool box consists of an axe/hammer, trowel, pick, hose pipe and water spray bottle. That’s it. After all of the planning, the stone selection and cementing of each stone into place individually, there are the finishing touches. ‘Topping’ is the layer of stones placed on top of the completed wall. There is ‘pointing’ which is how we press-set cement between stones to compact the setting. ’Dressing the stone’ is where we chip away any unruly or protruding edges at the end of the job, with an axe/hammer and pick.

WHAT WOULD YOU LOVE TO BUILD?
I love walls. Scale doesn’t matter. Like a castle wall. Now that would be something. We have many castles here in Wales, but when I was younger I spent 10 years working in Germany near Stuttgart. Nearly every Sunday I would go for a drive to visit all of the castles in the area. I just loved the history and the way they were built. I mean really… how did they build these incredible buildings that are still standing, and so long ago? Much like the Pyramids. It defies everything about building by hand. I have so much admiration for the skill involved and the tradition of stonemasonry. 

PLEASE FINISH THIS AS A SENTENCE. ‘STONE IS…’
Stone is natural and organic with beautiful earthy colours and when it rains the depth of colour is so lush! Stone comes alive in different light and with each season. In summer it turns muted and dry, but during winter it is mostly glistening. As an object from the earth they hold warmth and soul.

Shibui &Co