Memorial stone in slate

Welsh Slate

I was commissioned by family friends to inscribe a memorial for their daughter. Stone used was Welsh slate (the best to letter-carve).

I received the slab from Wincilate based in North West Wales, known for providing for the finest letter carvers in the UK. It is incredibly fine relatively soft and unlike other slates which can pluck, Welsh slate doesn’t pluck quite so much.

Design Process

Although the end design was relatively simple, the process was quite painstaking. The clients were very particular about the shape which was a Drop Arch (where the radial points of the arch sit outside the opposite springing points) which was then repeated as a moulding around the edge.

The typeface was Trajan Roman and the type would be justified.

The final design

Starting the masonry

I designed the type by hand and transferred it to the slate using carbon paper. The vertical lines are guides for me when carving.

I started the carving tentatively.

Below, the (almost) finished lettering

I then gilded the slate with 24ct gold leaf using a 3 hour size.

The stone was installed in Cambridge by myself and my stepson Ben.



Ball Finials

What is a Ball Finial?

Ball finials. They’re everywhere. Usually on gate piers – but a masonry feature that provides a function – as they all do – of compression or weight being applied to a wall or pier to stabilise the structure. Over time, these functional features were increasingly decorated and became the crocketted spires on churches and cathedrals or as in this case ball finials.

Rust Makes Work for Masons

I was called in February to a lovely house in leafy East Sheen where during a storm one of the balls had fallen off its stand or base and smashed a stone bench. What had happened was the mild steel pin attaching the ball to the base had rusted and burst the stand. Quite a weight with these balls: around 50kgs falling from a height of 3 meters. That’s going to do some damage.

Remnants of the stone bench smashed by the ball

Cracked and patched up bases. The repairs have failed and the balls are loose on top. A precarious and dangerous situation.

What was weird was the bases were comprised of several parts (see below).

Close up of one of the bases with the rusted pin attached to the ball (it’s upside down), Note the roundel is a separate piece to the neck of the base.

Construction of New Bases

I wanted to make a proper base out of one piece of stone. It would be better structurally and aesthetically. In fact, as we took the bases down they had a separate base plate, bottle neck and roundel. Altogether 4 parts. An absolute mystery to Fyfe and myself.

So here’s how we make a new one:

All masonry starts with a block of stone ‘sawn 6 sides’ – nice and square. We apply templates and remove stone in geometrical blocks

This is the top of the roundel and also provides a point of contact for the middle of the neck


Quite a bit later and the basic form is being revealed.


A finished finial base. 2 more to go!

How to lift a ball into position

With a square object, lifting straps can be wrapped round which bite and will not slip as it is raised off the ground. A smooth round object presents new problems where the straps have zero opportunity to bite and will therefore slip off. The solution was a hooped rope around the base of the sphere with 3 looped straps wrapped around the ball to the shackle on top, and we used a block and tackle to patiently lift and then lower it into position. The use of 3 straps and no less ensures that the ball cannot pop out of its harness.

The ball, heavily-strapped and being raised into position by block and tackle


We cleaned the ball sections with a poultice and water and placed the new bases on top of the brick gate piers, bedded on lime mortar. The balls were carefully lowered into position  with use of the block and tackle, which gave us a gentle and sure movement, and great precision.

Afterwards, in order to give the impression of antiquity, we washed both the ball and the new bases in pond water and dirt which will, over time, attract bacteria, algae and lichen in order for them to blend in with the rest of the historical architectural features.

The newly restored bull finials

Things to consider before you commission any stonework (Or how to tell a stonemason from the rest)

Are they a stonemason?

A simple question. After all, anyone can get business cards printed or paint it on the side of their van. But a stonemason is an ancient trade or craft and while it can take only 2 years to qualify, it takes a lifetime to master. It incorporates carving, sculpture, letter-carving, rubble-walling, fixing or building with the stone, and multiple other disciplines.

Do they have a track-record in working with natural stone?

I qualified in 1995 and have worked ever since in the stone trade. Knowing how to handle the stone (which is surprisingly fragile) and even how to carry it on your own or with another person is of paramount importance. After all, it may take weeks to work a single stone for a cathedral, and only a few seconds to ruin it with clumsiness or bad/rough handling.

Will they be matching the original stone?

I recently went to a distinguished building where I had contributed new coping stones to the various gables. I had, however, lost the next pitch to another company who I won’t name. When I revisited the site they had replaced a single Bath stone mullion with a brand new Portland one. Both limestones, yet utterly different in colour and texture. Absolutely shocking. The company involved should be ashamed of themselves.

A Portland stone mullion in a Bath stone window surround.

Do they know what the stone on your house is?

I’ll bet you I do. And if you live in London and the builder mason says your house is made of sandstone, then you can take it from me that in 99% of cases he’s full of sxxt.

Do they know the difference between limestone and sandstone?

Again, a lot of prestigious buildings such as St Pancras Hotel comprise on the exterior of sandstone, limestone, brick and terracotta. It’s not particularly advisable to mix the 2 as the lime from the limestone can adversely affect the sandstone. It’s very unusual for a London house to contain sandstone in its fabric, the majority of which use Bath stone for their decorative features.

Do they use lime mortar or cement?

When I first started we used sand and cement mortar and add hydrated lime to prevent the mortar from drying really stiff and damaging the stone. This was a practice left over from the Victorian era. Nowadays there has been a volte face and all masons use lime and sand in their mortar, whether its hydraulic lime, lime putty, hot lime or other techniques.

Do they bond their stonework in 3mm or 12mm joints?

Bricklayers work on the standard 12mm joints. Precast stone (or concrete as Masons dismissingly refer to it) is manufactured for bricklayers to assemble with 12 mm joints. As a result, we masons can spot it a mile off. Masons work to much smaller joints – 2-4mm. We colour match the mortar too so as to make the joints disappear.


Just a few points in my occasional blog. There are no doubt lots more. Please drop me a line with questions or amendments. Thanks.

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