Martin Whittaker reports on an innovative NVQ conservation course in York for qualified stonemasons
KEVIN Calpin won't accept that stonemasonry is a dying trade. In fact, he won't have it called a trade at all. "Stonemasons are not tradesmen," he says. "Most of them are artist craftsmen."
Mr Calpin is a tutor at York College, one of just five centres in the United Kingdom offering stone-masonry courses. Now he has devised a new course allowing students to specialise in conservation work.
The full-time course - an NVQ level 3 in conservation and restoration of buildings - is being piloted at York. It is believed to be the first of its kind in the UK.
Students who are already qualified stonemasons can explore traditional conservation techniques using traditional materials.
The new course seemed a natural progression, explained Mr Calpin, especially in an historic city such as York, famed for its fine stone buildings.
"There was certainly a need to make sure we've got the right people to work on those kinds of building. Quite often, when you open an ancient building up, you find something behind.
"We want to make sure we have got people trained who are able to recognise something significant, and be able to try to save as much of the original fabric as possible.
"The students are all experienced stonemasons. They just want to increase their knowledge of conservation work."
The new course is very hands-on. In the college's construction department students work on a "ruinette" - a mock-up of an ancient building incorporating as many features and materials as they're likely to meet on the real thing.
Chris Parsons, a 22-year-old self-employed stonemason, travels from Glossop near Manchester, 60 miles away, to attend the course.
"It's a long old drag, but it's worth it. There are a lot of stonemasons around. But this is another feather in your cap. It sets you apart and makes you a bit more valuable."
He chose this career after dropping out of a building studies course at university, feeling it asn't practical enough.
Instead he got a job with a builder, who offered him the choice. "It means something to be a stonemason, rather than a joiner or a bricklayer."
His employer sent him to college on block-release of three or four weeks at a time over two years. Now fully qualified, he finds his craft is in demand.
"There is a lot of work around - it's just finding the right jobs. They tend to be in the cities - that's where the money is. And around areas of architectural interest, like York or Bath."
York College's stonemasonry courses serve a big chunk of the North, attracting students from as far afield as the north Midlands and Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
It offers courses sponsored by the Construction Industry Training Board and day-release for those who already have a job. The college currently has some 65 trainee stonemasons working their way up to NVQ level 3.
Kevin Calpin did his apprenticeship and was ancient monuments superintendent in York before joining the college 15 years ago.
To be a successful stonemason he says you need "to be very, very dexterous and patient. As well as being a virtue, patience as far as a stonemason is concerned is a great quality.
"Some of the pieces of stone they may be carving could be there for anything up to six months. Also being able to observe and communicate by sketching.
"The geometry they have to deal with can be omplex. And some of the materials we're using now are highly dangerous. You have to know a good deal about their chemical make-up."
Valerie Whyley of the trade body, Stone Federation Great Britain, said: "There is an upturn in the industry and that will bode well for taking on youngsters for training.
"The best way of going about it is to come to us initially and then to approach colleges in their particular area. We can then notify our members that these people are available."
For more information contact the Stone Federation Great Britain, Construction House, 56-64 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4JX. Telephone 0171 608 5094.