We live in such a fast-paced world today. Things change in a blink of an eye with the advancement of modern technology. When I need help, the first place I go is to my kids. They give me great advice on how to use my phone, computer, and even things as simple as setting the clock in my car.

I admit it I can’t keep up. I’m sure there are a lot of you out there who feel the same way. Whether we like it or not, we have to change with the times concerning technology or we are left behind. I still reserve the right to be my opinionated self on certain life or political issues, but when it comes to change on how we do business I have to change with it. This has never been truer in our business of masonry. We are not immune to change. Whether it’s with the mortar pre-mixes, aggregates, installation techniques, water management materials, there is always something new that is being introduced to the market.

I’ve written about the changes in stone veneer with the introduction of thin veneer to the market place, of which I will touch on again, but that is not the only product that has added some significant growth to our business. Thin brick veneer and concrete pavers have opened up many opportunities to the masonry business. The last 10-15 years have seen a significant growth with these products especially in the manufacturing advancements of concrete pavers.

Before moving forward I would like to state for the record that I honestly believe that there will always be a huge demand in masonry to keep it “old school.” Brick and stone will always be with us. They add warmth to any room in the home or office. Is there anything nicer than a brick exposed wall in a city co-op, condo, or office reception area? A thin stone kitchen island, wine cellar, or pool grotto is achievable at lower costs, and less waste. The ideas and designs are numerous. No major weight constraints to worry about at 15 pounds per square foot and with the right preparation the work will stand the test of time.

Architects and builders will continue to spec certain jobs that require us to work with the products we have used for centuries. Let’s be honest, nothing can replace the look of brick and stone no matter what advancements are made to the products we work with. On the other hand, there are some great benefits associated with the advancements in pavers, thin brick, and thin stone veneer. I have seen it first hand in my business. It has opened up many opportunities for my cousin Derek and me throughout the years.

Let’s start with concrete pavers. The first concrete paver I can remember was a distant relative to the shape of a brick but wasn’t even in the same league as a paving brick. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. The paver was pink, fake, colored just on the top layer, useless, nauseating, and worthless. Is that a fair description? When my uncle, who was my mentor, first saw it he said there is no way this will last and he would never do a job using it even if a customer begged him to install it. He would never associate his name and reputation with such an inferior product. Fast forward to today. Concrete pavers have become a huge part of the masonry/hardscape business.

Before I go any further I want to make something very clear. Like I said earlier, if you think I’m going to tell you that concrete pavers are so advanced that you will never want to use stone or brick again for patios and walkways you are wrong. That will never happen. What I can tell you is concrete pavers have made huge strides since the pink brick phase of old. Whether the job is commercial or residential they are here to stay.

If you haven’t jumped on that train you should. The choices in color options, textures, and sizes are numerous. They have also advanced in strength averaging at least 8,000 PSI. Some even have permanent color layers that won’t stain, which are a great option for high traffic driveways. With the growth of the business there are many top-notch manufacturers that stand behind their products and are willing to give the masons support through education with hands-on training and advising on jobsites. Here at Plymouth Quarries we are constantly having classes sponsored by our dealers. They are on the cutting edge of installation techniques, and product advancements with things such as permeability, which is becoming big in our area, especially in seaside communities.

Let’s cut to the chase and talk about money. The bottom line is always profit. Concrete pavers have opened up many profitable opportunities for masons. How many hotels have you been to where the pool areas consist of concrete pavers instead of just poured concrete? Driveways, walkways, landings, and outdoor living areas all need quality skilled masonry tradesmen and tradeswomen to make them happen. The best jobs are installed by those who have some kind of masonry skill, with years of experience working with brick, stone and concrete pavers. This enables them to incorporate these elements within the over all design.

The other thing that has helped our business grow is the exceptional quality of the top paving manufacturers. They have truly kept up with the advancements in manufacturing with high strength additives and colors. The concrete paving business is highly competitive, and because of this it has helped keep costs down. Lower cost enables us to increase our profit margins.

Another benefit with the growth in this market segment is how it has allowed us to bring our work and designs to all phases of the business. Whether it is commercial or residential, a large budget or a tight budget, we can deliver any kind of outdoor living area built within a reasonable cost. The market is wide open to all takers. If the design is right, pavers can give you a rustic, contemporary, or something in between design.

Not every commercial or residential project has the budget for stone, but most will find some part of their designs able to incorporate pavers. In turn, we will satisfy the needs of the customer by giving them a higher end and higher quality job. I have done numerous jobs with all types of concrete pavers and have never had a bad experience working with any of the top manufacturers’ products. It has been a large part of the installation and design business over the years and now that my cousin and I are running the sales and marketing department at Plymouth Quarries, it has become a very large part of our everyday business.

Thin stone and thin brick veneer are top quality products that have become commonplace in the masonry world. Whether it is a job inside or outside they have taken over a huge chunk of the veneer marketplace. Thin veneers have enabled us to install and complete jobs faster, with less prep, less waste, and most importantly less strain on our bodies. The more years you spend working in our business, you figure out pretty quickly that the less damage you inflict on your back, hands and knees, the longer you stay in the game. It is a heck of a lot less taxing on your body doing a thin veneer stone job than it is doing a full bed job. In all honesty nothing looks better than a stone or brick job done with full size brick or full bed stone. With that said, when thin veneer or thin brick is done right it is pretty darn close.

If you are a true purist there is nothing I can say or do to convince you otherwise, so I won’t even try. These veneer products have benefited our business in many different ways. First off they have made any job possible, whether it is for a home or a large building. Masons can make very dramatic changes to facades, interior walls or something as simple as repairing old damaged steps. Just like concrete pavers they have been a large part in the growth of our business over the last ten years. Today fireplaces that need a facelift are easily fixed with less demolition and less prep. The popularity of gas fireplace units has become one of the fastest growing parts of our everyday sales, which wouldn’t be possible without the advancement in the thin veneers. If we had to price out every cathedral fireplace with block and full bed veneer there wouldn’t be many homes, restaurants, and hotels that could afford those amazing works of art.

On the other hand it hasn’t been all positive. One of the negative aspects with the introduction of thin veneers is the toll it has taken on Band-Aid sales. No more bloody knuckles from having your carbide chisel slip, which makes your knuckle especially on your pinky finger get ripped to shreds. On second thought is that really a negative?

I do have one pet peeve, which is probably because I’m older and learned from my uncle working with only full brick and full bed veneer. The thing that bothers me is what I call the “tight joint syndrome.” Thin veneers are so easily cut with diamond blades there tends to be a great deal of over cutting. I truly appreciate the time and effort it takes to make pencil thin joints, I really do, after these jobs are done they look more like a tile job then a veneer job. No matter the size of the job I want the finished look to feel like it was built with full size brick or stone.

Experienced masons will always be able to tell the difference between thin and full veneer, but the general public shouldn’t be able to know the difference. For those of you who work with full bed stone veneer you know there is no way to make pencil thin joints unless you are working with a ledge or strip stone, but even then there has to be some kind of joint. As you know joints do serve a very important purpose especially on outside applications. They help with changes in the temperatures that cause expansion and contraction. I believe nothing looks better than consistent half inch or slightly less on most veneer jobs. Then again maybe that’s just me?

In the masonry world, technology and advancements have helped us in so many ways. I know each of you out there have experienced more positive than negative with these changes. If we are still in the business five years from now I’m sure there will be other things that will make it even better. I have learned to keep an open mind to new products and I am always willing to take a look and try them out. We all have our own ways to get the job done no question about that. Let’s just say “us” masons tend to be a little stubborn or maybe a little rough around the edges. That does help us to keep moving forward whether we are working in the freezing winter or the dog days of summer. On the other hand that shouldn’t hinder us from being open to the new advances in our business.

I have to keep up and be open to new products and techniques because I don’t ever want my competition to have a leg up on me. It took my cousin Derek and me a few years to even consider working with these pavers, brick and stone. We considered ourselves purists, whatever you want to call it we were. We started to see the light when we were not getting the work our competitors were getting, and to be honest there was definitely a pride thing going on. Once we let that go and actually started to branch out we grew our business faster than we could keep up with. I’m not going to say that every new product introduced to our marketplace will be good, I’m sure there will be a lot of fly by night junk. But I still want to be open to see what is new and to give some of them a shot.

Concrete pavers, thin brick, and thin veneer are here to stay and I’m a big fan. They have done right by me both for my customers and my business. I’m glad I gave them a chance. Like a lot of you out there I have been working in this business for a long time. There is still something magical about the work we do. Not everyone can do it and we all have our unique touch that we add to every job, large or small. It takes a lot of years of hard work, and sacrifice to work in this great trade of ours. If we are open ourselves up to working with newer products that make our trade accessible to more people, increase our productivity without losing quality and giving us a break physically. I say bring it on, show me what you got!

Words: Dean Marsico
Photos: Arriscraft, General Shale, Pine Hall Brick Company, Speedymason