What is masonry? Webster defines it as something constructed of materials used by masons. I’d like to think it’s more than that. Masonry is literally the foundation upon which we have constructed our lives. From the homes we live into the office buildings where we work to the awe-inspiring architecture of an ancient castle, masonry is fundamental to our social and societal framework.
My name is Joel Guth, a 30-year, third-generation mason by trade. Masonry is my life. My first memories are of my father bringing me to his job sites, watching the rising sun crest over the hillside as we inhaled the fresh air, preparing for the long day’s work ahead. I was no stranger to hard work. From my childhood days into my teens, I was working for my dad’s masonry company. Growing up in the trade, it felt like a natural step to follow in my father’s and grandfather’s footsteps in construction. I committed to learning everything I could about masonry and forge a career for myself.
This was easier said than done. My dad put me to work as a laborer, in a ditch with a shovel and cleaning up the job sites. Trust me when I say I got no special treatment. Inheriting my father’s work ethic, I worked my way up to foreman by the time I was twenty years’ old. As a young man, I envisioned myself becoming a contractor and owning my own company one day. This vision became a reality in 1984 when I established my first masonry company.
Over the years we specialized in commercial, industrial, and institutional construction and there was no shortage of challenging projects to take on. My company began to flourish and, as we expanded our operations from California to Arizona and Utah, our projects were becoming equally larger and more complex. Detention facilities, retail centers, schools, and industrial complexes filled our project board. As our project list grew, so did our team.
At the pinnacle, there were over 150 employees under my direction, working tirelessly to meet our deadlines and budgets. Their dedication was evident in the quality of their work. Over the course of my masonry career, our projects were featured on magazine covers and garnered award-winning accolades throughout the industry. My crews worked hard for me and being responsible for so many people weighed on me immensely.
Worker safety is paramount on every job site. We all know this. Safety precautions became ingrained in me over the years it invoked in me a sense of duty to make sure I had the most up-to-date safety protocols in place for my crews. This is no easy task! From OSHA regulations to state and federal laws, the requirements to be in compliance can be daunting and arduous. As I delved deeper into the world of safety, I recognized the enormous information gap about safety within the industry.
Back in the 70s, 80s, and even the 1990s, Personal Protective equipment or PPE, was not commonly used by construction workers, especially on smaller job sites. Protecting your eyes, ears, and lungs was not a high priority and, in some cases, was looked down upon as though you weren’t a real man’s man type of construction worker. As a contractor, it can be very challenging to get employees to adopt the best work practices and use proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The ever-growing number of employees not implementing these safe work practices has given rise to the number of construction workers overexposed to preventable health and safety risks.
As a masonry company owner, I knew how much time, effort, and money was required to have a functional safety program. I also knew how little time is actually spent on the safety component. This led me to create a company specializing in job site safety, committed to providing contractors with the most current standards, information, techniques, and protocols to keep their crews safe. Times were changing in the construction industry and we needed to change with them. The issues related to health and safety were beginning to take center stage.
With the advent of laser welded, dry cut blades back in the 1980s, the construction industry was revolutionized. No longer were the days of wet cutting only, dealing with the mess and slurry runoff to which we had all become accustomed. Everyone was using these new blades, putting them on every saw you could think of. I watched this revolution unfold and realized that this had become the new norm: dry cutting.
After many years in masonry and countless projects using this new practice, We became frustrated by the inefficient processes that slowed the completion of jobs. At that time, we masons would cut block on fixed masonry table saw stations, sometimes hundreds of feet away from where we were building. This process meant that our masons would wait in line, cut the block, then carry the cut block back to the work area. This process was repeated multiple times each day, resulting in inefficiency and lost productivity.
My wheels were turning. I started to envision a lightweight, portable masonry saw that could be used to cut right where my crews were working. There was nothing like it on the market, so I decided to work with a friend Richard Sweaney to build one myself and for my team. There was an immediate increase in productivity on my job sites.
I saw how this tool could further change the industry, so I approached MK Diamond Products, Inc. to produce a more refined version. Through collaboration with a design firm and contractor input, the first purpose-built dry cut masonry saw known as the BX-3 was developed. This new masonry saw was a game changer and a win-win for contractors. But this new saw created a new problem; dust. Masons who were now able to cut right where they worked became enveloped in what we call “The Dust Cloud”. It quickly became the norm to see these dust clouds on masonry projects everywhere. But, what’s the harm? It’s just a little dust, right?
One project, however, would change the course of my career, mission, and life. My masonry company, MTI, was selected to build the masonry for Chino Hills High School. The BX-3 was the tool of choice and the dust clouds were again being generated. During this time, the Santa Ana winds were exceptionally strong. These harsh winds were blowing dirt from the area and the dust from our project to a neighboring middle school. When the mother of an asthmatic daughter complained that the dust was aggravating her daughter’s condition, the job was immediately shut down. We needed to figure out a solution to this problem, and quickly.
We started searching for a dust collection system that could capture the dust from dry cutting. Enlisting my brother Paul for help, he took on the search for a dust collection system on the “internet”: a search resource that was in its infancy compared to the internet of today. We found nothing. Again, I found my company needing to build something to change the way we were working.
We ended up fashioning a blower onto a rolling cart and hooked up a masonry saw to see what it would look like and how it would work. We took pictures of this new contraption, copied them on to transparency paper, and Paul began to draw a conceptual dust collection system. We went through extensive modifications, tinkering, and testing. Within the next few weeks, we had completely developed and built an original version of a vacuum system, filter system, and dust containment for a masonry saw.
The Chino Hills High School project was back underway, and the dust issue was solved. After completion of this project, I went back to MK Diamond Products, Inc. and asked them to manufacture this new system. I even offered to be the first customer and buy the first ten systems. MK did not see the demand for this new system and declined to manufacture it, however, MTI still continued to use this new invention on our projects.
It was also during this time that the hazards associated with dry cutting were becoming a focus for OSHA. Silica dust generated from dry cutting garnered a lot of attention. It really hit home for me and I began attending silica seminars, reading standards, and learning as much as I could about the issue. Recognizing that dry cutting was harmful to my crews, I was more determined than ever to give the construction industry a tool that would capture this harmful dust.
I spent the next year evaluating my safety programs, work practices, and methods and knew that even more changes needed to be made. It also became very apparent that an entire line of tools would be needed to make these important changes. This led to the creation of a new company called Industrial Manufacturing. I leased some space adjacent to my construction office, hired additional staff, and brought on my brother, Paul on full-time to develop these new products. Thus, Masonry Tec Products, Inc. and the JackVac product line was born, giving the construction industry what I had envisioned for so long: the world’s first masonry saw with an integrated vacuum system, filter system, and dust containment.
We sold our first units at a tradeshow and continued to develop new tools over the next several years. It became clear that other facets of the construction industry would benefit from saws with dust collection technology. This led to the rebranding of Masonry Tec Products, Inc. to iQ Power Tools. iQ manufactures a full line of tools with integrated dust collection systems for masonry, hardscape, and now tile. The innovation still continues today with a focus on the health and safety of construction workers in all trades: a legacy of which I am truly proud to have spearheaded.
I am and have been many things throughout life: a son, a father, and a husband. I am also an inventor, entrepreneur, and, a mason through and through. I have dedicated my life to the masonry trade and the construction industry; an industry that has shaped me into the man I am today. In an effort to give back, I have made it a point to join and serve the associations that serve the industry and its members.
Having served on the MCAC Board of Directors for ten years, I was part of the coalition that helped prevent an all-out ban of dry-cutting and also helped to rewrite the Cal/OSHA Silica Standard between 2006-2008. I have also served as President of the California Conference of Masonry Contractors, now known as the Masonry Contractor’s Association of California. Realizing the lack of recruitment of youth into the masonry trade, I founded and was past President of MITA, the Masonry Industry Training Association. MITA’s mission is to introduce and promote careers in the masonry industry by providing training, education, and opportunities to the youth of today.
As I embark in 2019 and the decade beyond, my commitment to the education in the masonry trade remains unwavering. When I was asked to write this column, I had to take a hard look at myself, my career, and this industry to determine what is missing and where best I can contribute. My goal is to bring an eye-opening perspective to the past, present, and future of masonry. The Past: In order to learn where we are going, we have to learn where we’ve been. The lessons, mistakes, and innovation that bring us to today are invaluable resources to draw upon. The Present: what we are doing as an industry to be effective, safe, and efficient in our work practices. Where can we improve and how can we empower the construction industry to work at its best? The Future: Innovations in the trade, the future of masonry techniques and work practices to help us to work smarter, safer, and longer.
Together, we can change the industry. Are you ready?
Words: Joel Guth and Stephanie Civello