There’s a ratio of body surface to foot size for vertical adhesion that would require the average human to have a size 114 foot and some sticky stuff to walk on a vertical surface. That is one Big Foot. As it is, the largest animal capable of walking on vertical walls, unassisted, which rules out Spider-Man, is the gecko. The smallest are mites, and then there are spiders, grasshoppers, houseflies and millions more with microscopic pads, hair and little claws with sticky pads and natural oil for grip.

The horizontal human body stuck with the feet would be perpendicular to a wall, and that simply isn’t conducive to reaching the surface with tools, bricks and mortar. Ladders and scaffolding are about as old as construction, with even some paintings on the ceiling of caves 17,000 years ago hinting at a form of scaffolding to facilitate reaching the ceiling surface.

Though he considered himself a sculptor, Michelangelo was ordered by Pope Julius II to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. When he protested, the pope responded: “You’ll do a great job. I’ll have my architect Bramante set up the scaffolding for you.” Between 1508 and 1512, Michelangelo produced what became the cornerstone of High Renaissance art.

“Traditional scaffold has a frame and brace that are assembled like LEGO® pieces. System scaffold is made of vertical and horizontal pipes stacked together to build your scaffold and plank each level,” explains Bill McBrayer, U.S. Sales for Scanclimber. The company’s rich history includes being founded by the Polish State in 1964 and later privatized. It has won many IAPA (International Awards for Powered Access) awards, including “Project of the Year” for its multi-platform system on the IB-Tower in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and “Product of the Year” for mast climbing work platforms on the Eiffel Tower refurbishment.

Performance and Productivity

Enter the mast climber. This clever, efficient piece of equipment does all the vertical walking you need, carrying along workers, tools and supplies up on horizontal work platforms. It’s a modern marvel on the modern construction site, which provides optimum workspace and levels with a real ergonomic advantage.

“This kind of elevating equipment has been very popular in Europe since the mid-1950s,” relates Kevin O’Shea, Director of Safety and Training at Hydro Mobile. Despite the Irish name, the man hails originally from Scotland. “It was invented in Europe for light weight jobs like glass, renovation, stucco. Once being adopted in North America, the units became much heavier duty to accommodate masonry jobs on more massive, taller buildings.”

Contractors are embracing the mast climber for many reasons, among them:

  • Improved stability
  • More ergonomic worker positions
  • Materials move without need of crane or boom
  • Heavier loads can be accommodated
  • Possibly smaller ground impact
  • Self-contained powering (gas-powered)
  • Adaptable to tight spaces and curved walls
  • Faster travel for masons and supplies
  • Auxiliary power in emergency situations
  • Ease of transport and set up
  • Added safety features like guard rails and speed control

“Time is money” may be an overused cliché, coined by the sharp-witted Benjamin Franklin, but the veracity of it bears frequent attention, especially in the building industry. “Construction is big business,  and because so much is at stake, those who engage in construction must guard against costly error,” states Hank Kaiser, founder of Federal Publications.

Thus, evaluating project site equipment that carries stone masons, bricks, mortar, tools and supplies up and down efficiently, quickly and safely is imperative. While mast climbers cost more to buy, lease or rent than traditional scaffolding, the advantages in increased productivity may offset the expense, even on small jobs.

The P-Series mast-climbing platform from Hydro Mobile is a good example. The company is headquartered in Quebec and couples cutting-edge technology and proven product excellence with a focus on contributing to hazard-free work environments. “The P-Series is the perfect tool for smaller jobs that require high capacity or for restrained work areas where most climbing work platforms cannot fit. With its high load capacity (6,000 lbs at 28′ length) to size ratio, it is ideal for multi-residential or small commercial masonry jobs between 15′ and 100′ in height.” [www.hydro-mobile.com]

These Hydro Mobile mast climbing work platforms offer an attractive price/performance ratio. They are portable and easy to set up. The work platform adapts to angle configurations and climbs at 10 feet per minute. Reducing labor costs and set up times, the P-Series can provide an estimated 30% increase in productivity. Other industry estimates run as high as 45% for increased productivity using mast climbers of any size.

The EZ Compact Mast Climber was designed for areas where you couldn’t get mast climbers before, like inside shafts,” says Clint Bridges, Vice President at EZ Scaffold. Based in Columbia, Tenn., the company routinely engages mason and contractors for input on needs and wishlist items for mast climber products. More space, better cables, additional flexibility and more have been heard and subsequently incorporated into design and development.

“Tight spaces like stairwells and shafts require the scaffold to fit perfectly. You need a mast climber with enough adjustment to fit the wall,” Bridges continues.   Every job is fast track these days and many times the general contractor wants the building to start before the shafts are finished. This eliminates the ability to scaffold from the outside.”

Power and Motion

Both the electric and gasoline-powered mast climbers operate with push button control, though most are self-propelled. “High voltage electricity is not always available,” states Jacques Lainé with Fraco, based in Quebec. “Gasoline feeds the hydraulic system which makes the work platform go up or down. With the electric motor comes a rack and pinion arrangement where a pinion turns and moves along the rack, which is like a bar with lots of teeth. The teeth support the whole platform weight.”

The platforms are controlled on the work platform with push buttons, which on the Fraco units are marked in English and French. But before any operation, the mast climber must be set up. “There are two configurations for our products on the ground,” Lainé continues. “The freestanding model must be situated on level ground and can have extended legs. These are for structures under 45 feet, which do not have to tie to the wall, like a big box retailer building. The other mode requires a ground base. It is not physically installed into the ground, but must be on a cement plate or equivalent for stability, then it is attached at 10 feet, then every 30 feet up to 500 feet.”

Fraco supports some 1,000 elevating units (one mast) around the world. Its ACT-8 product line has been designed specifically for stonemasons for a stunning capacity of 20,000 pounds using two work platforms in a long configuration.

“The industry is very robust,” O’Shea states, “and every manufacturer offers comprehensive training programs for set up, operation and tear down, especially for those who choose to buy the equipment. For most big masonry jobs, there could be five occupants working from the platform and two or three of them will have been trained as operators.” They have safety locking mechanisms, and many have an auxiliary power option to lower the platform if a motor fails.

The M-Series is the workhorse of Hydro Mobile’s mast climber platforms with a load capacity of 20,000 pounds for heights from 20 to 250 feet.

Being in the masonry business for over 22 years, I have used every type of scaffold. At times, I would dream you could just pull a lever and go up or down, and then I met Hydro Mobile. I now own five units. We have seen productivity increase greatly, and by far it is the safest scaffold we have ever seen or used. Room to work, adaptability to other types of scaffold, ease to set up, move,  tear down and send to the next job are only a few good points out of many.

                                     Dennis Knowlton, President

Knowlton  Sons Masonry Construction, Inc.

Clifford, Pennsylvania

In the world of restoration projects, mast climbers are invaluable in saving time and money. Old bricks, stucco and stone being removed from a building are easily collected and quickly transported to the ground. Being able to handle thousands of pounds, removal and disposal moves many times faster and much safer than traditional scaffolding can accommodate. 

Ergonomics

The human spine contains 33 bones or vertebrae. Only the top 24 are moveable, and they are not especially happy to be moved and held in a bent over position hour after hour, day after day, year after year. It is estimated that more than 80% of Americans will experience some episode of lower back pain, costing some $100 billion annually, and many of those are work-related. Low back pain is the second cause of disability in the country. Stonemasons, farriers, auto mechanics and carpenters spend much of their work time bending over, so anything designed with ergonomic qualities is quickly accepted.

The mast climber is an awesome vehicle for stonemasons because not only can the platforms be adjusted continuously to the side of a wall where the mason is working, but also supplies can be stored on a shelf just above the work site for easy reach. The platforms are roomy with 7-foot wide decks on some, and multiple workers can do the job in the same space.

“There’s a lot of innovation at Scanclimber, like being able to access offsets and exteriors that are irregular shapes” McBrayer says. “We’ve also been able to double stack and put two platforms on one mast.” It’s all about placing workers at the optimal height for best results for both the mason and the job.

Bells and Whistles

As with most construction equipment, necessity has been the driver of invention. As needs arise and masons talk about what could make their jobs move faster, smoother and safer, equipment manufacturers pay attention. “We have a platform that can wrap around a chimney or stack called the Snake,” relates Barney Hanna, Access Product Specialist with Scanclimber. This Snake platform is a hinged system, which can interface with several of their mast climbers. Sections come in 1.5 meter (4.92 feet) or 0.6 meter (1.96 feet) lengths and can be adjusted in different angles (+/- 45 degrees) safely without steps at any height. These innovative platform sections can be configured to bypass obstructions and work on round, curved and other non-flat wall surfaces.

“EZ Mast Climbers have the ability to adapt to 90 degree corners, both inside and out, as well as radius walls with our standard decks,” says Bridges. “We have adapters that allow you to adjust the decks to fit the wall. Also, with ability to extend up to 13’ off of the front anywhere along the platform, it adjusts to cut-up walls.”

Accessories for mast climbers include:

  • extra shelves for supplies
  • guard rails
  • weather shields
  • double stacks
  • outriggers
  • overhead protection
  • pie-shape platforms
  • cantilever bracket
  • shoring
  • crane arm

“A good scaffold plan is vital to the job,” Bridges points out. “Nothing is more expensive than not having a place to work.  Poor planning can leave employees sitting around or going home.  This is why we have job site layouts and have developed scaffold plans for our customers that use EZ Scaffold.”

The choice between a Big Foot, size 114 give or take, and a mast climber is clear. The mast climber wins hands down, or feet down, for its stability, strength and versatility on the construction or renovation job site for stone masons and many more workers.

Joanne M. Anderson is a nationally-published freelance writer based in Southwest Virginia. www.jmawriter.com

Words: Joanne M. Anderson
Photos: Fraco