Useful Guide: What You Need to Know About Natural Stone Masonry

Just 50 years ago, when a construction manager asked for a mason to create something out of stone, you could trust that they both understood what that was.

Today? Not so much.

Over the last few decades, more and more types of materials have made it into the “stone” category, and because of this, there is quite a bit of confusion around the term. 

Don’t worry!

Regardless if what you think you know about stone is correct or not, we’re going to cover everything that a mason or aspiring stoneworker should know about stone.

From the basic definition to comparisons with other materials, and even installation tips, you should walk away with a basic idea of stone and how to approach a project with it.

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What is Stone and What Isn’t?

In a perfect world, if someone came to you asking if you could make something out of stone, you’d both be talking about the same, rocky material. We don’t live in a perfect world, unfortunately, so it pays to understand the different types of stone along with the manufactured versions that look like stone. 

It really is that simple. Natural stone will be rough, with imperfections made by Mother Nature herself. Manufactured stone uses molds and casts to try and replicate those ridges and texture in a way that is easy to piece together for a mason.

Understanding the Terminology

Now that we’ve gotten the clarification about natural and manufactured stone out of the way, let’s talk about the terminology people like to use when talking about stone and stone masonry. 

If you’ve worked around the U.S. over the last 75 years, you’ll know that not many buildings use stone as their actual support structure. These days, stone is used purely for aesthetic reasons, serving as a façade that looks pretty. 

Many stone companies will use natural stone simply to clad a project. There are a few different types of stone for these uses, including full veneer stone and thin veneer stone. 

Typically, full veneer will have a bed depth of three to five inches. Thin veneer, on the other hand, typically has a bed depth of just ¾ inch to 1 ¼ inch. Even though both of these types are made of natural stone, there are a couple of differences between the two worth knowing. 

Notably, the installation processes for the two are different. When installing full veneer natural stone, you need to have a ledge incorporated for the stone to rest on. You also need to anchor the stone to the wall using wall ties or similar anchoring system. 

For thin veneer, you don’t need a support ledge, and all you need to do is stick it to the wall with some sort of masonry adhesive. 

Understanding the Work

Not every mason will be a good fit for natural stone. working with stone is more like an art than using any other material because it’s so hard, difficult to shape, and requires that the mason spend a great deal of time piecing it together to interlock the pieces like a puzzle. 

This, of course, goes against the natural time clock running in the back of a contractor’s head, so it’s easy for many inexperienced stone masons to try and rush through the job to save money, only to produce less-than-stellar results.

For this reason, it’s important to understand going into any natural stone project that it’s going to take a ton of time and dedication to doing it right. 

Communication is typically where any project, especially natural stone projects, can go right or wrong. There are a lot of pieces (literally) involved in creating a natural stone wall.

Every piece needs to fit together well and the blend should be appealing. If the entire team isn’t on board with the pieces from the start, once the stone mason gets to work assembling and installing the wall, they’ll run into bottle necks and trouble. 

This is why it’s crucial to assemble a test panel to start, and for every member of the team to meet and understand how the stone will come together in the end.

When the expectations are set correctly from the start, it’s easier to avoid any potential mishaps down the line.

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Installing Natural Stone Tips and Tricks

If you’ve been awarded a stone masonry job, it’s important that the mockup is consistent with the rest of the project. Make sure that all decision makers have viewed and approved your tester wall before getting started with the rest of it. 

If the mockup was made for you before you arrived, find at least a picture of it so you can match it and keep the entire look of the wall consistent and uniform. 

In general, for natural stone it’s best to keep your horizontal joint under four feet long. If the wall is smaller, make sure that the joint looks good and doesn’t run more than half of the length of the wall. For vertical joints, you’ll want to keep two things in mind.

First, never have the vertical joints less than four inches apart. Second, don’t use long vertical joints to begin with. 

The joints really stick out if they’re long and stacked on top of each other if less than four inches apart. Try to keep the 2:1 or 3:1 pattern in mind as you assemble the wall. 

The tools that you use are important as well. Every good stone mason needs to have a set of good, sharp, reliable chisels. 

You’ll know it when you use it, because the chisel will just feel “right.” You’ll use these chisels to delicately trim and shape the edges of the stone without slamming a huge chisel into it that might crack or split the stone. 

The final, and most important every stone mason should know is to keep decision-makers in the loop. We all think that we’re artists and know what’s best, but at the end of the day, they’re the ones signing our checks. 

When you first start, make sure to take a picture on your phone and send it to them. This ensures you don’t put in a week’s worth of work only to redo it once they see it.

Summary

Working with natural stone is more like art than any other material. It takes a certain level of dedication and detail to get it right, but when you do, the results are satisfying. Take your time, select the right stone, and communicate with the right people for project success.

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