Chip off the old block!

Just a few years ago Laura Wood wasn’t quite sure where her working life was heading. (It looked like nowhere. Fast.) Then she discovered her passion – with a little help from dad. She’s now one of just a few female stonemasons in the country – and loving it. Steven Russell reports

IT was “in at the deep end” for Laura Wood. She was asked to lend a hand when her dad’s stonemasonry firm needed some design help. It was no run-of-the-mill job. For this project involved the major revamp of an airfield memorial, to better honour the British and American servicemen stationed there during the war. She had to research and draw the badges and crests of the units, so they could be etched onto striking panels of black granite. The unveiling ceremony would be attended by officials from Langham Parish Council – which was behind the improvement work – the U.S. air attach�, the chief of staff of Colchester Garrison and representatives of the RAF. No pressure, then.

Not that father Andrew was worried. He recognised his daughter’s artistic flair and was confident she’d come through with flying colours. And so it proved.

For Laura, it marked a new beginning and a fresh direction. She’s now an apprentice at the family firm on the Essex-Suffolk border – dividing her time between working locally for the business and spells away studying stonemasonry at Moulton College in Northampton on a part-time basis. Laura’s already reached level two – the certificate arrived a few weeks ago – and is now setting her sights on the level three qualification.

She’s the seventh generation of the family to work in the craft – and, if all goes according to plan, she’ll take over the running of the firm from her dad when the time comes (although that day is far in the future).

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Laura was working in a supermarket when she began to realise she was in something of a cul-de-sac and needed to branch out. But how – and where? “I never clicked that my dad was the solution until he said ‘You can draw, can’t you?’ And I said ‘I’ll give it a go. What do you need?’”

The original images of the badges and crests involved in the Langham commission were so old that a machine in the workshop couldn’t “see” them – particularly as the designs had to be enlarged. The images broke up and were not crisp enough for the machine to produce “rubbers” – stencils, basically, that are then used during the sandblasting process to etch the design onto the granite.

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Which is where Laura’s good old human ability to draw proved invaluable. She copied the badges, in the larger dimensions required, and carried out considerable research to make sure the details were accurate. At different points in history, for instance, crests showed slight variations. The responsibility to get it right wasn’t something that could be taken lightly.

“It followed from there, with dad suggesting ‘Try a bit of carving . . .’” says the 22-year-old.

Today, Laura’s effectively in charge of the monumental side of the Wood for Stone business – memorials, headstones and so on – while also getting involved in work on large carved fireplaces and the like.

“I’ve found my niche now. It’s what I was born to do, if you like. It’s something I know how to do.

“When I was in other jobs I used to get confused and stressed, because they just weren’t what I wanted to do and I’d get bored. But here I know what I want to do and I can focus on it and do my best.

“I’m a real perfectionist when it comes to things like this. I have to get it right and the stone smooth – I can’t have any chisel marks! It’s the perfect job for me, because things have to be spot on. I’ve done Tudor roses that have to be identical. I love doing that: the precise copying.”

Laura was born in Ipswich. Her dad’s work then took the family to Norwich, before a return south. As a little girl she was always arty, enjoying copying characters from the Simpsons cartoons, for instance.

She wasn’t really sure what she wanted to do after leaving Manningtree High School, though did have thoughts about going into the stage make-up line. (Mum is a drama teacher.)

She had two years at Colchester Institute, studying for a national diploma in art and design, and after that a bit of a limbo time, with various jobs.

Although her dad comes from a long line of stonemasons, Laura wasn’t aware of the depth of the family history when she was growing up. But it gradually seeped further and further into her consciousness.

“My art teacher at school always used to say ‘Ah, I love what your dad does; you ought to try to get into that,’ and when I went to college they all used to say ‘You should do that.’”

Becoming the seventh generation, then, was really no surprise – even if it took a while for the penny to drop.

On the Moulton College stonemasonry course everything is done by hand. Students draw their designs and then take up mallet and chisel to make the vision reality.

“I didn’t find it too hard, the carving side,” admits Laura. “I could see it in 3D and picture what I was going to take out. Once I’d got the hang of it I was off.”

Andrew reckons it’s unusual to have such a natural eye for carving and balance. “That is not an easy thing to teach, so you do need a certain amount.”

Following her first period at college Laura was able to work on a traditional carved headstone for her former art tutor: a sad experience, naturally, but a privilege to be able to assist the family.

What’s it like having her father as her employer, and does she feel any weight of expectation as the latest link in a lengthening chain?

“I don’t really think about it. Most of all there’s the pressure that, because my dad’s the boss, if I make a mistake I know the consequences: he’ll have to buy a new piece of stone, or spend time re-facing it. In those circumstances I’d worry about it.

“But I’m just privileged to be the seventh generation – though I don’t think ‘Ooh, I’ve got to carry it on.’ Dad’s always said ‘I’m not offended if you don’t want to take it over, and simply want to work as a stonemason. You don’t have to run the business.’ But I think ‘Why not? Why not give it a go?’”

With this in mind she’s learning about the office set-up, the workshop and other areas of the enterprise.

There are very few females involved in stonemasonry, says Laura. There’s another woman studying at Moulton, but mostly doing it as an artistic endeavour, she thinks, rather than with a view to a job. Her dad points out that a female stonemason is in charge of Canterbury Cathedral’s stoneyard. “But there are not a lot of girls doing it,” reflects Laura. “It’s not a sort of girly job, I would say.”

Does the public really view it as a male preserve?

“I suppose people look at it and see there are machines involved, and heavy lifting. It’s not that they believe women can’t do it, but they don’t want you to do it, in a way.”

Is it physical?

“I found it quite difficult, initially. The first time I picked up a mallet was at college, and they have massive mallets! One I’ve got here is lighter and you can go all day with it, but these were huge. The aches I had! And the rust chisel-marks on my hand . . .

“I’ve got hard skin now where the mallet rests. Yes, physically it was tiring. I was sweating on the first day, and I was only doing a little chamfer! (A shallow, angled cut.) But you get stronger and I can lift more now. And if you can’t, you get someone to help you!”

The biggest challenge, in fact, was using machines at work, where she deals mainly but not exclusively with limestone and sandstone.

“I wanted to stick to working by hand,” admits Laura, with a smile. Machines, of course, can save time with some techniques. “I just had a bit of fear of them – because of the noise, and you’ve got to be strong to hold them. But I’ve started using them now. You just have to be confident with the machine and you get the same sort of finish, really.”

Pals think her choice of career is fantastic and are very supportive.

“One friend is a teacher. She’s got some careers days coming up and she’d love me to come in and talk about it. She’s got some girls who want to be mechanics and things like that, and she says ‘If you come in and say “Just go for it! Don’t worry about the sort of male aroma. Just get in there and make friends”,’ she says that would help others.

“Plus, I’m very dyslexic. She’s got students who don’t think they can do anything and have lost confidence – which I went through as a child – because they think they’re thick and get told they’re thick by friends. She said ‘You succeeding in a male environment job, and being dyslexic, is something it would be good for them to hear about.’”

A rich heritage

LAURA’S father started training as a 16-year-old apprentice under the watchful eye of his grandfather. Cyril Wood was a master mason who started his own business in 1922 in Lincolnshire. Cyril’s father was stonemason to the Earl of Ancaster, with workshops that today are run by Andrew’s uncle.

Andrew’s own dad was in the trade for a while, before moving on to other ventures. “It wasn’t quick enough for him,” he smiles. “He was more of a dynamic-type person and didn’t have the patience to sit by a headstone and chip a name out of it, whereas I was quite happy to do that.”

After its origins in Lincolnshire, Andrew’s career took him to Ipswich, Norwich and then to the Essex-Suffolk border – a handy move, as both his mum and his wife’s mother lived within reach.

At about the turn of the millennium he decided to make the jump and become self-employed, starting off in a workshop at the back of the house in 2000. Business built quickly and Andrew soon took a unit at Jubilee End in Lawford.

Wood for Stone today offers a wide range of services: from architectural renovation to bespoke granite kitchen worktops, stone fireplaces, porticos, arches, steps and stairs, windows, doorframes, coffee tables, garden furniture and ornaments, marble bathrooms and memorials.

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