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How technology is preserving our ancient craft skills

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Masons have been active at York Minster for more than 800 years. The skills and techniques employed by them today have been passed down through the centuries as they continue to be responsible for the ongoing care and restoration of the cathedral and its surrounding precinct.

Every stone is still cut by hand onsite at the Minster using similar type of mallets and chisels as their medieval predecessors possessed.

Today, we believe that it has never been more important that these ancient skills are sustained through continuous investment in the next generation of skilled cathedral stonemasons. Key steps in achieving this are through investment in new technology and investment in the facilities we provide to our craftspeople.

“The start of building work at our Centre of Excellence for Heritage Craft Skills and Estate Management marks an exciting opportunity for York Minster to lead the way globally in harnessing modern technology to support and underpin the renowned craft skills that form a vital part of the cathedral’s future,” explains York Minster’s Research and Partnerships Manager, Laura Cotter.

Advances in technology in stonemasonry are in fact nothing new. Although traditional craft skills have remained broadly similar since York Minster was originally built, a key development since the early 20th century has been the use of mechanical techniques for lifting and sawing stones.

Laura adds: “York Minster is today one of only thirteen Anglican cathedrals in the UK to retain its own dedicated body of craftspeople. Collectively they are part of the Cathedrals Workshop Fellowship which is committed to creating a new generation of craftspeople equipped with the specialist skills required to care for the nation’s cathedrals and historic buildings in the 21st century.

“We are proud to be playing a leading role in this cause through the introduction and advancement of technology in a religious setting.”

Although stonemasons at York Minster have frequently visited other stoneyards, places of worship and sites across the world to keep abreast of new machinery and technology over the years, the development of the vision for the Centre of Excellence from 2018 has accelerated the requirement for knowledge exchange and learning.

This has especially been the case as the detailed plans for The Works and Technology Hub and The Heritage Quad – key components of the Centre of Excellence – have developed.

Lead Fabric and Conservation Mason Lee Godfrey said: “Alongside continuing to teach based on traditional craft skills, the Centre of Excellence will also house and deliver training in modern techniques and processes, working with cutting edge digital facilities including modern saw technology, data scanning and computer aided design.”

The Works and Technology Hub, housed on the site of the current stoneyard, will create space to house two state-of-the-art 5 Axis CNC saws and a new wire saw. New lifting systems will be installed by Streetcrane, and additional space created to reinforce our supply of stone on site.

To support the introduction of these facilities, members of the York Minster team have completed factfinding visits and informal training at various locations in both the UK and overseas in recent times.

For example, Richard Bossons, our mason who designed and created the statue of Queen Elizabeth II that now sits in a niche adjacent to the South West Door on the West Front of the cathedral, spent time at Abbey Masonry in Wales as he was working on the piece.

Since then, Lee and fellow Lead Mason Peter Arts, alongside our Digital Surveyor Luke Snell, have returned to visit Anthony Kleinberg at Abbey Masonry on several occasions to learn how to use Pegasus computer aided manufacture (CAM) software in preparation for the arrival of the Centre of Excellence’s saws next spring ahead of its completion later in 2024.

Invitations to share our Centre of Excellence vision with the international community have also helped foster new partnerships and learning opportunities. Laura and Alex McCallion, the Minster’s Director of Works and Precinct, visited Mike Kennedy of the Easy Stone Centre in Virginia, America, alongside Washington National Cathedral’s Head Stonemason Joe Alonso.

Mason Carver Dave Willett spent time at Schwarzenberg Stonemasonry in Aachen, Germany, alongside Cologne Cathedral’s Deputy Master Builder Albert Distelrath, which helped open the way for Peter and Luke to spend a week there for further informal Rhino 3D CAD training. A team from the Minster has also visited Lefevre Stonemasonry in Paris.

Most recently in September, Lee and Peter attended Marmomac, the major natural stone industry conference held in Verona, Italy. This was a valuable opportunity to meet supply chain partners including Michele Padovan and Fabio Bragagnola from stone cutting technology pioneer Breton, which is supplying the two 5 axis CNC saws.

The pair also met Ugo Dario from MD Dario, which is installing an articulated wire saw as part of the Centre of Excellence, and Simon Bradbury from Stone Industry Group, which is supplying two stone processing water recycling plants and a water wall suction system.

Lee adds: “I’ve worked at York Minster for 33 years now and there are always cycles of change. This latest one with the Centre of Excellence is groundbreaking. It has allowed us to build a huge network of supportive international partners and for our apprentices, the working environment they’ll experience is going to be truly incredible.”

To further their knowledge of the new software being introduced, Lee and Luke are currently spending one day a week with Milo Cherrington at Lapicida in Knaresborough which is proving to be hugely valuable.

Laura adds: “Thanks to the Minster leading the way through the Centre of Excellence and its adoption of new technology, a commercial element of the stoneyard will be more firmly established, supporting other ecclesiastical institutions, country houses and private clients, in turn enabling the Minster to become more self-sufficient commercially as the running costs of the Minster continue to increase. Our measures are indicating 40%-time savings using the technology and if we can pass that benefit on to other institutions this will be a success for the wider heritage sector.”

For Luke, a relatively recent university graduate, the introduction of new technology offers him excellent opportunities to further his personal development.

“Having this level of technology in-house rather than outsourcing it is unique for a cathedral of our size and will ensure the quality of everything we produce continues to be first rate,” he says.

“The Minster’s use of modern working practices and its response to innovations such as digital technology, data scanning and CAD are exemplary and will enable me as a younger member of the team to learn in an amazing environment and help ensure we remain at the forefront of stonemasonry and other vital craft skills.”

Peter concludes: “Our new statue of Queen Elizabeth II has been created using all of the technology which will be installed in the Hub, and it has been hugely exciting to learn more about the positive opportunities the machines will bring to our work.

“As skilled craftspeople passionate about preserving the history and heritage of our industry, we are extremely grateful to York Minster for the way it has collaborated with us on how new technology and tools can complement and support our work, not take away from it. Masons have always used the best technology available to them and this is no different.

“Each stone that comes out of the Centre of Excellence will continue to be hand finished after being cut to size by our new machines. This is really important to us and will ensure an 800-year tradition at the Minster not only continues but creates a sustainable future for generations to come.”

To find out more about the York Minster Centre of Excellence and donate to its fundraising campaign, click here.

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