How do I find the right mason for my job?

When it comes to hiring masons, there are a lot of choices, from the neighbor guy who does it as a way to earn extra money to old pros with gnarled hands and many examples of excellent work.

Before the mortgage papers were pushed, we knew our house needed a new chimney. The home inspector had told us that much, as if the bricks falling off the chimney, bouncing off the roof slates, skittering off the eaves, and plunging three stories into our back yard weren't enough of a clue. Or the fact that the chimney leaned precipitously northward, shaped less like a straight-standing chimney and more like a decidedly un-chimney-like banana.

Our hundred-year-old chimney had fallen prey to a fatal combination of forces: First, the fuel oil we burned created smoke that ate at the mortar between the bricks. But only on one side, it turns out, because prevailing winds blew the bad stuff to the north, keeping the south side of the chimney's mortar pretty much intact. It was really interesting stuff — to our mason, not really to us. We were just ready to get the thing back together and for the bricks to stop busting up the roof slates en route to cracking our skulls if we happened to be down below in the yard.

When it comes to hiring masons, we learned, there are a lot of choices, from the neighbor guy who does it as a way to earn extra money on the weekend to old pros with gnarled hands and many examples of excellent work they can show you on a driving tour of your city or town. At minimum, it's probably a good idea to hire a mason who:
  • Is a member of a local or regional trade association
  • Has a satisfactory policy for cleanup and for repairing damage caused by moving his heavy stone materials around your property
  • Provides references (which you will call)
  • Guarantees his work and offers sensible make-goods if you are unhappy
Beyond that, it's really up to you. Masons that do basic work are cheaper than the hardcore artisans at the other end of the ability-creativity scale. Of course those artisan types — God bless — have expensive tastes in materials and often charge higher hourly rates. But if your budget can accommodate more, think about doing it. It's stone we're talking about here, something that everyone who comes to your home will see and admire for decades and decades to come. So if you cheap out, that's fine, but you'll have to live with it, don't forget.

Here's another group of trades people who can demand 50 percent up front and 50 percent after the job's done, so have your war chest — or at least your home equity line of credit — in order before signing up for masonry work. One online tipster suggests that more reputable masons will let you pay 50 percent up front and 40 percent upon completion of the job, leaving the last 10 percent for a specified period (say, a month) so you can make sure you're happy with the work. Good luck with that — but if you can negotiate that into the contract, good for you!

The only real mistake in mason-hiring is not to shop around. When interviewing your best candidates, be sure they are all talking about the same work and using the same materials, so you can get a good apples-to-apples comparison. As is the case with a lot of contractors, the materials cost for masonry can vary widely, which can be confusing to consumers trying to figure out which is the best for their home.

The work we put in on researching masons paid off in spades. Our guy built an elaborate scaffold for the benefit of the roof slates, and he put the chimney back together in two days. Careful to a fault, he managed to reclaim all the vintage bricks that had fallen except for a few that didn't survive, and he also built a couple of new lines into the pattern that were more appropriate to the era in which the house was built than the plain-Jane chimney the original builder had slapped together. He also, at no extra charge, cut a door in the chimney's bottom in our basement to shovel out the oil soot, something the original owner hadn't done. (For your reference, over a 102-year span, about six feet worth of soot built up). This guy is good: The door is made of vintage-looking cast iron that fits right in.

For his efforts, we were forced to fork over about $1,600. When it comes time to rebuild retaining walls or do other masonry work on our property, stuff we know is coming up in future seasons, we'll probably find someone less expensive, with less experience. But for this job, it was worth it to spend a little extra, because who wants to send another guy up on a slate roof any more often than you have to?

You can probably get similar work done more cheaply in other parts of the country, and you may even be able to have your own plain-Jane chimney built for even less. It's all up to you. The key to mason-shopping is investing time in the enterprise — the more you shop, the more choices you'll get and, most likely, the happier you'll be in the end, compared to your satisfaction if you just pick the first guy you find to do the work.

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