By Caryn B. Davis

008caryn_b_davisThe art and craft of stonemasonry has been around for thousands of years, coinciding with humankind’s ability to make tools and use them. Primitive people utilized stones to build houses and walls; the latter, born out of a necessity to clear a field for farming or contain livestock. Walls and shelters were constructed through a dry laid technique by piling stone upon stone; but when mortar, plaster, and cement were introduced, the designs became more intricate and the edifices greater in size.

“The Ancients relied heavily on the stonemason to build the most impressive and long lasting monuments to their civilizations. The Egyptians built their pyramids; the Persians, their palaces; the Greeks, their temples; and the Romans, their public works and wonders,” as cited on Wikipedia.

Stone has been used for practical purposes and artistic expression, bearing witness to humanity’s ingenuity and desire for beauty. There are a myriad of iconic structures – marvels of engineering – that illustrate the varied ways stonework has become so intrinsic in our society. Among them are the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Notre Dame, Stonehenge, Versailles, Michelangelo’s David, the Mona Lisa, Machu Pichu, Windsor Castle, the Trevi Fountain, the Empire State Building, the Library of Congress, and Easter Island statues.

While the Freemasons of Medieval times passed along the secrets of the stone trade through the degrees of Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master Mason, these skills are not as widely practiced as they once were. Like many other forms of time-honored craftsmanship, traditional stonemasonry is becoming lost to modern means.

But Karl Kaufmann of Kaufmann Masonry in Ivoryton, Connecticut, is helping to revive this art form through his own business and through his work with the Stone Foundation, an international organization and community of masons and people passionate about stonework and stone art.

“We are always trying to recruit the younger crowd, who for one reason or another, are slightly drawn to the stonework. We try to focus them on proper stonewall construction. There are outfits that start out mowing lawns and maybe lay a brick walkway or something. The next thing you know, they are asked to build a wall – so they read a book and slap one up. We try to avoid that and give actual training,” Kaufmann says.

Kaufmann stumbled upon the Foundation after seeing photographs online of an exquisite handmade stone cabin.

“One of the people who worked on it said to me, “If you appreciate that, you should look into the Stone Foundation,’” says Kaufmann who attended his first symposium three months later in Vermont.

“The second I met these people I realized we all spoke the same language and had the same outlook on life. It’s been quite a relationship ever since,” says Kaufmann who is now on the advisory board. “These are some of the best masons in the world. They represent the more artistic, craft side of masonry, concentrating on carving, sculpture, letter cutting, and tight stonework.”

016caryn_b_davisTwo years later, he attended another symposium in Ventura, California on the Japanese Anoh method of dry stonewalling. The projects workshopped are usually public to entice everyone from the novice to the expert to participate. They also encourage education so these skills can be preserved. In this case, two ramparts “flanking a stairway in a public park” were built. As described on the stone’s website, “Similar in form and style to Japanese castle walls, they were constructed as those were, with large stones assembled according to principles that have evolved over centuries.”

For this practicum, Jyunji Awata and Suminori Awata, 14th and 15th generation stonemasons who specialize in the restoration of medieval castle walls were invited. The father and son duo rebuilt these walls in their home country of Japan to withstand seismic shock, which is also a frequent occurrence in California.

Kaufmann has been drawn to stones his entire life. He learned about masonry under the tutelage of master stonemason, Stan Bates before branching out on his own.

“The stone talks to me. It’s subconscious. If I am building a wall, I look at the stones and know where they need to go. It is like a puzzle, but even more like a chess game because you have to be able to plan a few steps ahead,” Kaufmann says.

Through the Stone Foundation, Kaufmann became associated with the Dry Stone Wall Association of Ireland and recently returned from Inis Oírr in the Aran Islands, where he learned the Irish way of dry stonewall construction, sculpting, and letter carving. He assisted the group with a wall they have been building along a football pitch (field) for the past three years.

ireland-184“On this island, they lay the stone vertically. They stand them up. When people first moved there 3000 years ago it was a limestone lump on the edge of the North Atlantic. They took all the rubble from the ground and built an incredible network of walls. Then they hauled seaweed and sand up from the shore and mixed it with manure to make soil,” says Kaufmann. “The walls protected the soil from the driving wind so you have these small fields surrounded by stone. They absorb the heat during the day, and it makes everything grow much faster.”

Part of the experience of being in these places is learning about the history that is directly tied to the stonework and interacting with the local community.

“We tend to attract real life island people who have lived there for generations. They come out of the woodwork. They may not want to talk to strangers, but they want to talk about their walls and their farm. They know we are not there to try and make money off of them. We are there to help preserve their culture. We get invited into their kitchens and living rooms and get to hang out with them,” Kaufmann says.

In his own business, Kaufmann performs general masonry, which can include stonework, brickwork, patios, walkways, and chimneys. Although he will build whatever his clients wish, he believes in educating his customers regarding the benefits of dry stone construction.

“When it’s done right, dry stone construction doesn’t hold water so it’s not as effected by freeze and thaw. A lot of people are cutting corners and going back to mortar; so in these freeze/thaw cycles the stone takes the abuse of the weather, not the mortar. Joints can crack, and the faces can spall off allowing more water in,” Kaufmann says. “In 50 years it will be falling down so I always try to direct people toward dry construction and I give them my 300 year guarantee. I am that confident with my work and doing it properly.”

Lately, he has been indulging his artistic side, teaching himself how to craft stone fountains, bird baths, and other objects for the garden that are large enough to make a visual impact, but small enough to be easily maneuvered with a hand truck.

“You never stop learning. I am just going to keep working with stone until I die. I have no plans to retire. I just love it. I am obsessed. Just ask my wife,” laughs Kaufmann.