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Oldie But Goodie
Stonemasonry is one of the oldest trades in the world. Mason Nick Tonks says little about it has changed.
By Samantha Simma
Photography by Cole Buckhart
“It’s dirty and it’s really hard work. But I’ve never done anything so rewarding.” This is how Nick Tonks, a mason and owner of Tonks Masonry, describes his job. “What attracted me to it is seeing the fruits of your labor.”
Tonks gets great satisfaction at the end of his projects, when the scaffolding is removed, the stone is washed, and he can stand back to admire the beautiful result of his hard work. Working with the raw, natural materials and the variables that come with them, “It is an art,” Tonks says. “And it’s a system with a lot of moving parts. You’re not working with straight vertical or horizontal lines.” Bringing together materials of uneven sizes and surfaces, he says, “You either have an eye for it or you don’t.”
While Tonks Masonry employs around 50 people and Tonks could spend all his time delegating and managing, he makes sure to work on projects himself. “I build a lot of our fireplaces and focal work, but everything ends with my sign-off.” When selecting the projects he wants to personally work on, “I really like projects that challenge me,” he says. A challenging project for Tonks could include work with large boulders or a big stone mantel and hearth. About the latter he says that even though it looks like a giant puzzle, “It doesn’t really go together like a jigsaw puzzle: You have to make the pieces.” (More on making pieces later, but here’s a hint: To achieve a natural aesthetic, it’s all done by hand.) A challenge of pretty much every project Tonks Masonry takes on is meeting the combined visions of architects, homeowners, interior designers, and landscape designers. “You’re trying to put together the vision of several people—that’s a big challenge,” Tonks says.
While many aspects of architecture and building have been aided by automation and machinery, masonry is very much as it always has been. And that’s saying a lot, since stonemasonry is one of the oldest trades in human history. Famous buildings crafted by stonemasons over the millennia include the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Great Wall of China. “We try to automate what we can,” Tonks says, but for the most part, “masonry hasn’t changed since they built the pyramids.” The few things that have changed—like lift towers—make moving stone easier. Lift towers allow today’s stonemasons to lift up to 3,000-pound totes.
Unchanged is that stones are hand-picked and hand-laid. Tonks says, “Every stone is still worked by hand, picked out of a field by hand, put on pallets by hand, unloaded by hand, and put on the wall by hand.” While modern saws can cut stones, Tonks says the saw lines interfere with the natural aesthetic clients want from stone. “Every change has to be made with a hammer and chisel,” he says. It’s no surprise that stone is one of the most expensive materials for homeowners.
Tonks got into stonemasonry after working as a carpenter and an excavator. His grandfather was a builder, and would sometimes bring a young Tonks to a job site. “He’d take a block of wood and hand me a box of nails and a hammer and tell me, ‘I don’t want to see one square inch of this wood—pound these nails in,’” Tonks says. After he grew up and began to work in construction himself, Tonks says the bricklayers on projects fascinated his mathematically inclined mind. He learned everything he knows from older stonemasons and soaked in whatever they would teach him. “I was a sponge, I wanted to learn,” he says.
Tonks Masonry usually has between 15 and 20 projects going on simultaneously, and the average project lasts about two years. Tonks’ longest was four years. “We’re right in with the concrete guys at the very beginning, and we’re next to the landscapers as the last ones out,” Tonks says. At the beginning, stonemasons work on fireplaces, which are structural components. At the end, they clean the last stones of patios and pathways alongside the landscapers.
Tonks says that the average interior job his crew works includes large, focal fireplaces and hearths, stone archways, and spiral stone staircases. On an exterior, Tonks might work on stone or brick veneers, patios, pathways, water features, and retaining walls. One client wanted a three-sided outdoor space that looked like it rose seamlessly from the landscape. “They wanted [the walls] to look like they’ve been there for one hundred years,” Tonks says.
Just as Tonks grew up going to job sites with his grandfather, his two oldest sons, ages 21 and 15, and his 24-year-old son-in-law have experienced work “on the wall.” (Tonks also has a 7-year-old son, but “obviously he hasn’t worked for us yet.”) Tonks says he can drive around any corner in Jackson and see a project he has worked on. “And when I’m driving around with my grandkids, they’ll still be there,” he says. “I can’t take all the credit, there’s a lot of hands in it. It’s really rewarding when people look at what you’ve done and they love it. That’s why I keep doing it.”