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Striking Work
Using Masonry Hand Tools


Russ Beardsley, the owner of Borrowed Ground in Bellingham, Washington, predominantly uses hammers and chisels to create his hardscape projects such as this backyard transformation in New Westminster, British Columbia. The lower patio is made of basalt. On the raised portion, the interior stones are variegated tumbled Pennsylvania bluestone. The caps, which were cut level with points (inset, left) and flat, thin chisels (inset,right), are huckleberry basalt, as are the stairs. Everything is dry laid, which works with friction to keep things in place. The key is to create as much contact as you can side-to-side, transferring load left-to-right, front-to-back.


These large quartzite pavers leading up to the house were shaped by hand. Reclaimed granite curbing was used around the plant beds on the right and reclaimed granite cobblestones were installed in an area on the left. The steps are granite and were cut with a band saw. Borrowed Ground also applied the quartzite veneer, cut with grinders and shaped with brick hammers, on the house.

Working natural stone by hand, though time consuming, can produce some of the most impressive, eye-catching hardscape creations. Technique is key to the masonry craft but so too are the tools of the trade.

Human Power
Russ Beardsley is a stonemason from Bellingham, Washington, who eschews even pneumatic tools.

"I have projects where I probably should have used them but they were one-off projects where just a hammer and chisel are still fine," he states. Beardsley came to his craft in a circuitous way. He has a fine art degree in sculpture and for a time was a metal fabricator in Denver. Wanting to work outdoors more, he explored landscaping and ornithology, the study of birds. After working with a discontented bird specialist, Beardsley chose the former. At first he concentrated on maintenance, and as happens, customers started requesting patios, walls and the like.

"I would tell them 'I don't have enough of the education, let me learn about it and I will let you know.'"

Beardsley went to workshops at the Dry Stone Conservancy in Kentucky and sessions put on by the Stone Foundation in New Mexico. Workshops with master builders around North America followed.

Stone Fest, an annual gathering hosted by stone supplier Marenakos, was another great proving ground. There Beardsley went from student to teacher, eventually instructing attendees at a high level for a number of years. During those times, a representative from tool manufacturer Trow & Holden would bring the company's wares and demonstrate, among other things, the appropriate use and care of them. He would lend Beardsley tools to evaluate for the day, and thus began a valuable relationship between the two.

Jordan Keyes, the tool-making company's director of sales and business development gives a little bit of its background.

"It was started in 1890 as a manufacturer of tools for the Vermont granite industry. Now the majority of business is with higher-end landscape contractors and pro stonemasons doing high-end residential and commercial work."


RThe bulk of this Gothic arch in Bellingham is Montana slate but the keystone at the very top center, which transfers the load left to right and pushes the weight down (inset), is granite. On the left side of the photo is a smaller arch known as an ogee arch that is constructed of Pennsylvania bluestone. The pavers and accompanying border, which is two-thirds buried, are Arkansas sandstone. Montana slate also makes up the steps and walls. When Beardsley trims stone with just a hammer, he prefers to use a 22-ounce brick hammer and a 3-pound mash hammer.


(A) The Chisel Whizard was developed by Trow & Holden as a different way to hold onto a chisel - getting hands out of harm's way and reducing shock and vibration. Its rubber loops firmly grip the tool handle but still allow for the adjustment of the blade angle. Various sizes are available. (B) The Rocko carbide hand tool was originally a custom request fabricated for a client. Based on traditional European mason's tool designs it features a specially angled blade that allows a more vertical position when striking; reducing the chance of mis-striking the head, offering more control when working on smaller or softer stone. (C) Commonly used for dressing millstones, the wood-handled carbide mill pick is also handy for chiseling lines in stone or trimming edges.

Overarching Principles
Beardsley believes that masonry should complement the architecture of the house - "two things stimulating each other and accentuating the beauty of one another" - and that the craft comes down to logic: understanding that all materials have a personality and certain attributes that you have to adjust to, including using different tools.

As for technique, "I am creative and can follow the rules and see pretty black and white," he relays. "And the rules with masonry are very clear."

Tool Tips
"I can do almost anything I need with 10 different tools," Beardsley states.

He feels that a 3-pound hammer is a good weight to swing all day, day after day. Too big of a hammer will come off the tool too fast and endanger your hand. Or you'll break the chisel or incorrectly break the stone.

"There is a direct correlation between the tool and the stone you are shaping," says Beardsley.

Also, he advises that the hardness of the steel in the hammer be different than that of the chisel so one will give way to the other. If they are the same, either the face of the hammer or the back of the chisel will break.



The granite stairs were cut with a large band saw. Both retaining walls, the lower one being 5'-tall, are dry laid granite. A crane was rented to place the boulders. Feathering wedges (above) were used to sculpt the wall stones. These are placed in holes drilled into the granite to remove big hunks or to split the stones.


To create this fireplace, a manufactured fire kit was veneered with Montana slate ledge stone. The caps, hearth and mantle of the fireplace are granite. The granite boulder on the left was lifted by a forklift on to the table of a band saw to have its bottom flattened. The granite shelves were polished at a slab shop.

Jordan Keyes reminds that a busing chisel, whose end looks like a meat grinder, is more aggressive for material removal and texturing. A cleanup chisel can be used to refine the surface of the stone.

When repointing, he recommends employing pneumatic tools instead of grinders because they simply chip away the mortar, and thus pose less risk to damaging the original brick or stone.

Another downside of grinders, especially in light of the new silica rules, is the dust they generate. Keyes says that because of the uptick in thin veneer, and the popularity of cutting it with grinders due to onset of inexpensive diamond blades, his company had to rethink their products, and developed a thinstone veneer set that will allow contractors to use hand tools to achieve the same trimming applications and get an end result that is more aesthetically pleasing. Keyes does allow that when working on a flagging project, to achieve really tight joints for a mosaic pattern, you might want to rely on an angle grinder or some sort of diamond cutting device and then use their hand tools to create at least a chiseled edge on the top portion of that joint so it looks like that stone has been cut by hand.

On safety issues, Beardsley says that rain doesn't make it dangerous but anything over a half inch slows the crew down too much. Snow and ice does present a risk though. He allows that some people don't like to wear gloves though he does. Safety glasses and hearing protection are a must however. "Especially hearing protection," he emphasizes. "It'll make you deaf in one ear."

Tool Choices
Beardsley is satisfied that among the various tool-making companies, he is able to find what he needs to get the results he wants.

"I wouldn't say there is a hole in the industry," he says.

The distinctions between tools from various manufacturers include different carbide, tool steel hardness and shapes, all of which lead to tools moving material differently.

One service from manufacturers that he is very appreciative of is tool repair, such as reshaping portions that have "mushroomed" from constant use, or soldering new carbide points into tools that have lost theirs.

Some manufacturers custom-fabricate tools. For instance, because Keyes' company does all the machining, heat treating, welding, even forging, of their tools in-house, it allows for "a lot of flexibility in working with contractors to address custom needs." And occasionally those tools get worked into their regular catalog of products.

For instance, Beardsley is researching a type of Japanese hammer that he might have Keyes' company make for him.

"It's real specific wood in context to the shape of the hammerhead. They're real long handles." relates Beardsley who adds, "I would have those guys fabricate anything for me. They've only made me better at what I do by having knowledge and tools available that are appropriate for the trade."

And he sums up his experiences in that trade succinctly.

"I love it. It's as close to making art as I have been in quite a long time."

As seen in LC/DBM magazine, March 2018.

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December 8, 2019, 8:44 am PDT

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