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I Love My Job – The Stonemason

Jonny Rayfield runs Rayfield Stonemasonry which is situated on the borders of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. Sharon Barnard reports.

 

Old buildings have always fascinated me, and growing up in Oxfordshire you get to see a lot of nice architecture.

 

I studied art and design at Oxford College and at 19 years old, after backpacking in Australia, I managed to gain a traditional architectural stonemasonry apprenticeship with a great company in Reading. I also trained part-time at Moulton College, Northampton for my Level 3 NVQ in banker and fixer masonry.

My apprenticeship was strict and classic – and I took it seriously as I could already tell that that type of teaching and quality was becoming rare. The money wasn’t great early on, but the skills I learnt were hugely valuable. 

In the last 10 years modern stonemasonry has really been dragged into the 21st century, and CNC (computer numerical control) machinery is everything to modern business. I respect and understand that with modern deadlines, but it's not my current direction and I don't think it will be.

I started my own business four years ago with the intention of keeping the hand skills alive and doing nice work that I can be proud of. I now have my own workshop and direction and I focus on my craft and producing genuine pieces. I have a part-time apprentice, Drew, but mostly work alone.

I cut commercial lettering for trade and have good relationships there. I also have a number of like-minded subcontractor masons that I regularly pull together for bigger jobs and vice versa. 

Bespoke memorials and carving are a kind of a sanctuary for my skill set in a way. I love producing bespoke memorials as it’s everything I've trained for. You name it, I'll carve it – bumble bees, anchors, family crests, flowers, dogs – that’s what it's all about in my opinion.

I particularly like nice typefaces. You can't beat a well-balanced letter perfectly cut. So I suppose it’s the lettering itself that I find particularly satisfying about producing.

I love restoring war memorials. I've probably carved around 3,000 names on many war memorials and it's something I’m proud of. September to October is always a busy period to ensure they're not forgotten.

You can't beat a well-balanced letter perfectly cut

I think every memorial mason loves a clean-up job to see the major transformation, but some stones like Portland or York stone lend themselves to a bit of ‘natural maturing’,  though that might just be me. 

Welsh slate, Westmorland Green slate, Portland and York are my favourites. I like to push the British ones. I get them from source and shape all of my own memorials. The tight grains lend themselves to crisp, deep, hand cut lettering and carving. 

The greatest challenges I face are sore hands after a long day, dust levels and heavy lifting. But, ultimately, it’s daily concentration. Letter carving is probably more of a head game than a physical game. You've got to be in the right place every time. When I'm carving I'm very loose and ‘in the zone’. 

A lovely man approached me two years ago, he was an artist himself. This was a first for me where the client had been poorly. He told me casually over a pint exactly what he wanted as his memorial. At first I was taken aback but I knew it was important to him and his family to get it right.

Upon his passing I produced the stone and honestly it is something that I think will stay with me for a long time. They aren't just stones we make, if you know what I mean, they're people, characters.

www.rayfieldstone.co.uk

This is a preview of a feature article.

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