The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Despite accelerated changes in technology that have revolutionized almost every industry known, masonry has changed very little over time. Of course, builders a hundred years ago didn't use hydraulic mixers, and the crews working on the Egyptian pyramids would have killed for a telehandler, but the elements of masonry have remained relatively the same.
Although hand tools today are much like those of decades before, the years have brought minute changes to each of the traditional devices to make them more efficient for the person welding the tool, as well as more profitable for the contractor who employs them.
Here are just a few of the tool tweaks that we've found around the industry.
More Comfortable Performance
W. Rose has been in business since 1798, manufacturing trowels and other masonry tools since 1864. This long-standing company, now a subsidiary of the Kraft Tool Company, understands the slow changing process that these tools reflect, but says that, even though they've been around for hundreds of years, they're far from being passed over.
"I really don't see anything taking the place of a trowel," says Kraft Tool's Sales and Marketing Manager, Steve Cook. "There have been reviews on how to automate masonry projects, but nothing has really worked well like a trowel because of all of the peculiarities that you find on-site."
Over the years, W. Rose has made several changes to their trowels to make them better tools, from forging their trowels out of one piece of steel to creating a flexible blade that returns to a flat position every time.
"There's a lot of different kinds of trowels and I think sometimes people, even in our business, are not always aware of all of the different trowels out there," says Cook.
One such feature that W. Rose has recently introduced to their line is the ProForm grip handle, available on their Narrow London, Wide London and Philadelphia trowel patterns.
"The ProForm process is done with a hard material on the inside and then a soft material on the outside," Cook explains. "I would say it's more comfortable, and masons are able to grip it better."
Boosting Precision and Quickness
Frustration can sometimes be the best path to innovation, and that's exactly what led to our next tool.
Irish inventor and Owner of Marshall Tools Ltd., Noel Marshall, wanted the ability to lay a quick and perfect bed of mortar every time, much like a well-trained mason. Obviously he wasn't the only one wanting this perfection, as he's sold over 53,000 of his invention, the Bricky, since its creation over two years ago.
The Bricky consists of two forms, one horizontal and one vertical, made out of ABS-molded plastic. Once a course is completed, the horizontal form uses spring guides to lay perfectly on top of the wall. A center cut in the form allows the mason to lay a perfect, 3/8" recessed joint, while the two bubble vials keep everything level. Masons are able to slide the tool down the wall without disrupting the mortar. The second form is used to create a perfect vertical joint.
"The ABS plastic is a very durable material," says Marshall. "A mason laying 1,000 brick or block per day will use the tool for at least a full year before any significant wear is noticed."
Readers may balk at the amount that Marshall is speaking about, but he says that it's actually a fair statement. The tool was specifically made for Do-It-Yourselfers, but he claims it can speed up production time by 300% in the hands of a pro.
Another timesaving feature of the Bricky is that it helps keep mortar right where it's supposed to be. Rather than wasting mortar down the face of the wall or into the wall cavity, this innovation has guards on all sides to keep the mortar in the bed. Marshall claims that the Bricky can not only save contractors money by speeding up production, but that 40% less mortar will be wasted and cleaning down the wall will be a snap ? sometimes even unnecessary.
"Before the Bricky came to market it was very difficult to prevent mortar from dropping into the cavity as the wall was being built," says Marshall. "The Bricky eliminates all mortar waste as it ensures you lay a perfect bed."
Keeping Up with Design Trends
If you're laying block and not using a Bricky tool, then you'll probably need to invest in a masonry wallscraper and joint cleaner from SLIP Industries.
Made out of light-weight aluminum with a grinding disc, SLIP's wallscraper not only makes quick clean-up of everything from dust to burrs, but also helps with ergonomics and safety issues as well.
"In the past, bricklayers have used a 2x2 stone block to clean the joints and scrape the burrs off of the block," says Charyl Dommel, President and Owner of SLIP Industries. "Some of the crewmembers would end up with carpal tunnel syndrome, because it's a wrist action. Our wallscraper tool keeps them away from doing that, with a six-foot handle that they can hold with two hands, using their shoulders and arms rather than their wrists.
"The handle also keeps them down off the scaffolding because it not only has a six-foot handle, but also a six-foot extension, so they can get about 12 feet over their head," adds Dommel. "Therefore, you can take the scaffolding down and they can still clean a 14- or 15-foot wall from the ground."
The disc on the wallscraper is made of the same material as what you would find on a grinder disc. How long that disc lasts depends a lot on your crew, though.
"If you have nice, clean masons that don't throw slop as they go up the wall, it's going to last a little longer," laughs Dommel. "The joint cleaners are made out of carbide, which is the hardest thing you can get. We've had some out for four years and they haven't needed to replace them ? they've just bought more for additional teams. Probably the biggest problem with them is they get legs and walk away."
SLIP Industries has a new twist on an old favorite, introducing a new joint cleaner to their line to keep up with industry trends. Many of the talented masons are now throwing a V-shaped joint into their bag of tricks. The problem is, most tools are unable to clean this new shape... until now.
Extra Moving Muscle
Another example of small innovations to traditional tools is the introduction of the Springbarrow. You won't find this product out on the market just yet ? the patent is pending and the inventor is looking for a manufacturer. You will likely see this innovation on wheeled devices everywhere in the near future, though.
The concept is relatively simple: Why push a heavy load when you can have a device pull most of it for you? That's the idea behind the Springbarrow, which uses a heavy-duty spring action to assist the user in pushing a wheelbarrow up steep inclines and over rough terrain. The device is wound with a foot crank in seconds, and the power assist will last about 40 to 50 feet before rewinding is needed. Another added bonus is the fact that drawing the device back down the incline will load the spring up for the next run. Just set the hand brake, fill the bucket, release the hand brake, and off you go!
"The spring assist works like an extra helper," says the Springbarrow's inventor, Nick Benton. "If you have a very heavy load, it will feel like another person is pulling while you push.
"My brother builds cell-towers, and his crew does a lot of concrete work," Benton adds. "He often would have two crewmembers on a wheelbarrow full of concrete, weighing about 300-400 pounds. The spring assist helps to get the heavy load going in the right direction, giving the user better balance and much less back strain for sure."
Benton says that not only will mason contractors and their crews benefit from using a Springbarrow, but that other wheeled devices, such as brick and block carts or mortar tubs, could also be easily fitted with his invention.
Built to Last
Even the traditional hods, which have been around for over a century, still have a long-standing place at masonry sites. According to Tom Hannick, President of Czar Weld, hods were traditionally made out of wood, but after World War II there was a surplus of aluminum.
"They last for a pretty good amount of time," says Hannick. "They're made out of high-quality, aircraft-style aluminum.
"It just so happens that when I started building these things 17 or 18 years ago, the back of the brick was a little bit different configuration, so I changed the hod for a place to put your hand," Hannick tells us. "This past year I had a new home built and the front of it is brick, and they had ? and they didn't know I built them ? two or three new hods, as well as one of the old ones that had to be at least 18 years old because it was the old style."
Czar Weld makes all sorts of parts for other industries, but he says that the hods are one of his biggest sellers, with about 200-300 sold each year. Although they've really never marketed their hods heavily, it could be that the way they're built speaks for itself.
"Everyone here are welders and manufacturers," Hannick states. "I don't have a degree in sales or anything like that. We just build our products from a welders' point of view, not always the cheapest or most marketable way, but as well-built items."
Tom Black Masonry's innovative Grademan tool builds upon the best assets of the tape and transit system and the laser system, making a grading system that's perfect for masons. Black told us that the Grademan is so innovative, that he's having a hard time getting people to understand how much it can assist them in their masonry work.
"For the masons who use a laser level, they can best appreciate how the Grademan can make life a lot easier when it comes to setting the grade for a wall," explains Black. "The Grademan is 66 inches tall, has a built-in story pole, is placed over the grade stake, and supported with the marking ring and the stake brake. The stake brake allows the Grademan to be moved vertically and locked on a grade elevation ? typically that would be the height of the first row of blocks being set in wet concrete for a masonry wall foundation. If the wall is long, more stakes are required to attach the masons' line and keep the wall straight and level. The Grademan can be taken from stake to stake very quickly for the placement of elevation marks for the string line to be attached."
The Grademan will not only help you accurately mark off your elevation, but you can do it with only one crewmember, rather than with two like other systems.
"If you can imagine holding a piece of wood six feet long with a laser receiver on the top on a windy day, it's almost impossible to hold it steady and get a good accurate step," says Black. "The Grademan holds itself and, once you lock it on the grade, it won't go anywhere until you move it."
He finishes by explaining why his product, and as well as other innovations, are so important to the masonry industry.
"In my humble opinion, I believe masons have the most general knowledge of construction than any other trade, reason being we deal with structures from the ground up," says Black. "Our work must be level and plumb in order for a project to be successful."
About the Author
Jennie Farnsworth is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and editor. She is a former editor of Masonry magazine.