How I Became a Stone Carver

Stone Carving certainly didn’t feature in my school career advice, or run in the family! Keep reading to find out how I got involved and how serendipitous my career has been!

Where It All Began

Way back in 2007 I completed a degree in fine art and moved back home to look for some work. I tried out a few different jobs (barristers clerk being one of them!) before I started working for a local company who made and fitted granite work surfaces. 

Little did I know this was the beginning of my career working with stone. 

I quickly realised I loved the workshop environment and making beautiful products for clients houses. I also really enjoyed using tools and machines, as well as driving the forklift truck! 

Zoe Standing next to the first front door step she made out of stone

Horrendously cheesy photo, but this is literally my first step in stonemasonry, made from a lovely red sandstone with a very attractive bullnose edge on it! (2008)

Stone Masonry Apprenticeship

A year later a local stone masonry firm offered me an informal apprenticeship. I spent the next three years learning the skills of a stonemason. I trained using hand power tools to produce architectural masonry, whilst also learning how to fix stone on site.

Stone masonry was incredibly hard work! Whilst I really loved it, I found being out on site very physically demanding. I was determined not to use being female as an excuse, but even with the best will in the world there is only so much stone I can carry up a scaffolding!

My skills and size meant I was better suited to being in the workshop. I really got to grips with making decorative mouldings, fireplaces, door surrounds and stone mullion windows.

Zoe fixing a fireplace she made into the clients sitting room

Fixing a stone fireplace I helped make in situ in 2010. (It was perfectly level of course!)

Fixing a stone fireplace I helped make in situ in 2010. (It was perfectly level of course!)

When One Door Closes…

Unfortunately in 2013 I was made redundant. Not one to be easily disheartened I set up on my own as a self-employed mason. A very fortuitous meeting landed me a job making stone mullion windows for a large extension on the Welsh border. Looking back on it, this was such an amazing opportunity at exactly the right time.

The house I was working on was enormous! Thankfully it suited Simon, the owner really well for it to progress at a slow but steady rate, which I could just keep up with! Simon was incredibly kind and became a very good friend, I love going back to see what the current project is! Since leaving he’s developed the courtyard where my workshop used to be into the most wonderful wedding venue!

The finished house

Next, Letter Carving!

I really loved working by myself, and seeing the house develop. The work was challenging, but thankfully not so much to make it alarming! A second fortuitous introduction happened around the same time, with renowned letter carver John Neilson. 

Johns’ workshop was only about 5miles away from mine, he kindly agreed to teach me how to draw and carve letters in exchange for some dusty masonry work he needed doing. Once trained up I worked quite often for John, carving headstones he’d designed, which allowed him to take on more work. 

It was working with John which opened my eyes to a more creative side of working with stone. Instead of solely working from architects drawings, I was able to make my own drawings and that got my creative brain ticking. 

Zoe Wilson drinking tea with John Neilson

I don’t have many photos of John and I working together, but there was a huge amount of tea drinking and flapjack eating which went on so this felt like an appropriate photo!

City and Guilds of London Art School

In September 2013 I left the rolling hills of Shropshire and moved to London, Hackney to be precise! I had gained a place at City and Guilds of London Art School on the diploma course in historic stone carving

Whilst moving to London was admittedly a bit of a culture shock the course and the college was more than I could have hoped for. I was fortunate enough to move in with two lovely girls, both on the course in the year above me. Anna and Ruby kindly helped me get to grips with living in London, and were a great help with the work at college as well. (not to mention they were both fantastic cooks too!) 

I’ll write another blog at some point about my experience at the Art School, but in summary its probably been my most enjoyable three years! I still feel slightly amazed by how much It’s possible to learn in three years. It was incredibly hard work, but so much fun! You can see some of my final pieces on my gallery page.

Zoe measuring her clay model

Careful measurments being taken of my clay model cartouche to help with the carving.

A lack of finances!

 

I had always been careful with my money and saved really hard for the year before moving to London. However when I started the course I didn’t have anywhere near enough money for me to complete the three years, let alone to pay for living in London. For someone who really likes to have a plan, this weighed pretty heavily on me!

I knew pockets of funding were available, including a bursary from the college. Determined to finish the course, I made it my job to search out and apply for funding. 

I found some really supportive charities and trusts who all helped support me. However, the massive break through came when I was awarded a scholarship from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust.

It’s a huge honour to receive a QEST scholarship. Initially I focused on the financial relief as it payed for my rent for two years and towards tuition fees. However, I am still being supported by QEST all these years later.

 

Zoe Wilson speaking at the V&A

QEST Panel discussion at the V&A hosted by Dr Jonathan Foyle about the state of British Craft.

Always Learning

Straight after graduating I move to Brunei with my husband. I had the opportunity to make some really wonderful commissions for the community and also for individuals. Running the business and learning how to communicate my ideas effectively with clients was a bit of a steep learning curve, but something I now really enjoy.

The move also gave me the time to play and experiment with my own ideas. The diploma course was really structured to ensure we had the opportunity to learn all the different skills for carving. This meant I had a couple of sketch books brimming with ideas of areas I wanted to explore further.

The New Business!

Since returning back to the UK in 2019 I have developed a new body of work. Although I have worked with stone for many years, I feel like it was at this point that I stated my new business. To me my work feels more cohesive, with direction and purpose. In the last year I have worked really hard learning more business skills. Marketing, website building, photography, networking, its been a busy time!

During lockdown I attended a weekly online geometry drawing class run by the School of Traditional Arts. I have recently received some funding through Visual Arts Scotland to enrol on an Adobe Illustrator computer course (and buy an A3 printer, which is hugely exciting!) I’m also hoping to polish up my guilding skills later on in the year.

Finally I am always experimenting with new products, techniques and ideas in the workshop, I feel like I am always learning.

This is a time lapse video of me experimenting with a new metallic glue 

Head back to the Blog page to read more!