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

Restoration

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.

York stone steps, Wimbledon

Transformation of a house front

‘Wacky’ Ben Russell and the new York Steps

Ugly old concrete steps were leaking and very past their sell-by-date. The steps were very uneven in their dimensions – the heights and depths (goings) were very irregular (see below). They had  been patched up many times over the years.

We scalped the layers off and opened a veritable Pandora’s Box. Layer upon layer of materials – old St Bee’s sandstone steps appeared to be the originals, but some had rotted away and been replaced with reinforced concrete spanning the entire width.

A flying buttress running beneath running along the middle of the steps acted as a brace for the steps above, and enabled us to  insert some concrete lintels to support the new York stones.

Steps have to be equidistant (especially when I’m doing them!) and it can be quite a complex process of working out bed heights, falls and goings. Being a bit of a worrier I tend to have to do this a couple of times per job, and keep taking measurements throughout the process.

Building during the winter

We used an anti-freezing additive in the mortar as there were some very frosty nights, and of course we laid down a British Standards approved damp-proof coursing, covering the rest in a tarpaulin overnight.

Nearing the top here and the steps are looking very smart indeed. We have yet to remove the plastic spacers and point at this stage.

The last steps can be quite awkward to put in. Everything must be nice and close and retain the ‘fall’ or degree of slope that the steps need to cast off rain water.

And here is the finished article.

York stone steps installed in Wimbledon Village – Before and After

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