The country’s only private, nonprofit masonry school is a dream come true for its founder, Stephen D. Mitchell, who opened its doors in 2005. Since then, Mitchell has taught hundreds of students the fundamentals of laying brick and stonework, empowering everyone who graduates with the skills to start his or her own masonry business — after nine months of intensive instruction.
“It’s hands-on from the beginning,” Mitchell said. Students must complete 1,350 hours of coursework, including 35 or more assigned projects.
The art of masonry is becoming a lost skill in a time when the demand for masons is high. The school has begun to change that by teaching new generations in the craftsmanship of stone masonry.
“The demand for masons is far greater than how many of us are out there,” Mitchell said. “This is a trade that has been handed down from generation to generation. But within the last 30 years, kids have turned away from the profession. We’re losing 2,000 masons a year throughout the United States and only training 200 a year. We’re doing our part, but really want to do more.”
Students who want them have jobs lined up through the school before graduation.
Ancient pyramids, the Washington Monument, Maine’s State Capitol or any other stone or brick building that marvels visitors never could have been built without experienced masons. The level of complexity involved in masonry work varies from laying a simple wall to installing an ornate exterior, patios, brick ovens, garden walls, the perfect chimney, ornamental stonework or a high-rise building, and always will require the skill and precision of a mason. No automation here.
“We’ve got so many talented workers out there looking for a good lifelong job. Masonry gives them that opportunity. They can take that skill anywhere and set up shop,” said Mitchell.
Being able to offer new generations a future in an age-old profession is a passion with Mitchell, who travels to schools throughout the state.
“We give a four-day course on masonry,” Mitchell said. “There is always a demand for skilled masons, anywhere in the world. Plus, the higher the level of craftsmanship the higher the paychecks.”
Not long ago the school received an inquiry from Long Island, New York, asking for graduates to come work and earn $65 an hour.
Becoming a quality mason is more than ensuring a plum line is exact when leveling out a brick or stonewalls, although every student has to learn these basics. It’s a craft that requires sensitivity to the materials and that only comes from good training and experience.
Like any other art, the mason has to have an instinctive feel for the craft. Mitchell has a talent of bringing out those innate abilities in his students as they build projects in the workshop.
“The more artistic the work is, the more money there is to be made,” Mitchell said. “It’s a physically demanding job as well as being very creative. It’s a rush when students realize they are creating something that can last through history.”
The future masons come from nearby and as far away as Texas, Wyoming and Montana. Mitchell accepts up to 12 students every year from various backgrounds and all ages.
Most days, inside the 4,000-square-foot building students are eagerly building projects. Their fireplaces, chimneys, walls and archways will be taken down in the fall brick-by-brick to be used by the next class. Classwork mortar lacks an element that cements it, making it easy to take apart.
Recently the school expanded its programs and outreach to offer historic stone/brick renovation and preservation classes.
Restoring historic buildings is a specialized skill that demands good wages. And, while all across the country historic buildings are in need of renovation and the materials for historic renovations are readily available, there is a shortage of trained quality craftspeople to do the needed repairs and restoration work.
The new courses take students through materials and processes of proven methods to conserve, repair and preserve stone and brick buildings, statuary and monuments.
In partnership with the owners of historic landmarks and with the state’s approval, Mitchell and his students have begun work on restoration and preservation projects at the Kennebec Arsenal, Fort Knox, The Old Wiscasset Jail and Rangeley’s Historical Society.
Students at Maine School of Masonry also learn the value of volunteer work and have given their talents and time to community projects in Phillips, Farmington, New Sharon, Madrid and Wilton. They’ve left their mark on churches, community buildings and town halls.
“This trade is not just to make money, but also to help people,” Mitchell said. “Buildings help create the foundations of communities.”