6 Lessons from a Master Bricklayer

Rylaan

Photo of project management, steps for managing, foundation, work. family, grandparent

My grandfather, Amos, died a few weeks ago at the age of 95. We gathered as a family to mourn and celebrate his life. In the week after his death, we spent many hours with my grandmother, sifting through his possessions and reflecting on his life.

Amos worked as a masonry contractor for 50 years in a small city in Oregon and retired at the age of 75 – he specialized in building fireplaces. He identified with his craft until the day he died. We even found a bag full of masonry tools behind the seat of his little red pickup, which he drove down the hill each morning for his 5 a.m. cup of coffee with the regulars at Starbucks. His tool bag contained trowels, gloves, and measuring tools.

The lessons I learned while working on a brick project with my grandfather seem to apply equally well to my projects at work.

About a dozen years ago, I had the opportunity to work on a brick project with my grandfather. He was already into his 80’s and I wanted to learn about his craft. My parents agreed to have us build a brick column around a light post in front of their house. I had no idea then of the lessons that were in store for me:

Start with Planning

“So, what do we do first?” I asked.

“First, we have to plan,” my grandfather replied.

And so we measured, calculated, and cleared space. Then we went shopping, gathered the necessary materials, and set up our tools in the driveway.

Take Time to Build the Foundation

“What’s next?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “we need to make sure that we start level. A small error at the foundation will get worse as we build up.” We measured some more and ensured that our foundation was level.

Ready the Resources

Next, he showed me how to mix mortar. “This is important,” my grandfather said. “We have to add a cap full of dish detergent to make the mortar easier to work with. You have to keep it from setting up too fast.”

Show Others How

“Now,” he said with a smile, “we can begin to lay the bricks.” And with a sure and steady hand, my 83-year-old grandfather dipped his trowel into the mortar, laid some of it down, and set a brick. After demonstrating this process a couple of times, he handed me the trowel and asked me to try. It looked easy, so I was shocked to find out how difficult it actually was. What took him seconds, took me minutes.

He patiently corrected my movements and gave me space to continue. Every now and then he would demonstrate again.

Ensure the Work is True

Layer after layer, the brick column began to rise. After each layer, my grandfather would ask, “Is the layer level? Is it square? Is it plumb?* We have to make sure we are building it true.”

He taught me how to use the level on more than one plane, how to test whether it was plumb, and how to make sure that what we were building was true.

Finish It at Every Step

“In masonry,” my grandfather said, “finishing occurs throughout the project. As you lay each layer of brick, you have to use a pointing tool to make the mortar look good.” I learned that you have to think about what it will look like at the end from the beginning of the project. You can’t be sloppy and go back to clean it up later – mortar doesn’t work that way.

And so we finished our column as we went.


The lessons I learned while working on a brick project with my grandfather seem to apply equally well to my projects at ACHIEVE. When I set out to accomplish something, I should:

  1. Start with Planning
  2. Take Time to Build the Foundation
  3. Ready the Resources
  4. Show Others How
  5. Ensure the Work is True
  6. Finish It at Every Step

Twelve years later, that brick column I built with my grandfather still stands in front of my parents’ house. It’s beautiful. And it reminds me of the things I learned about work from a master craftsperson, my grandfather.

What lessons have you learned from the master craftspeople in your life?

* “Plumb” refers to whether the structure is vertically straight or true to a vertical plane.

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The Author

Eric Stutzman is the Managing Director of ACHIEVE and co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. The book is available on our website.

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