Cement masons, who usually work for contractors in the building and construction industries, apply the concrete surfaces in many different kinds of construction projects,
ranging from small patios and sidewalks to highways, dams, and airport runways. Cement masons’ responsibilities include building forms for holding the concrete, determining the correct mixture of ingredients, and making sure the structure is suitable to the environment. Approximately 209,000 cement masons, concrete finishers, segmental pavers, and terrazzo workers are employed in the United States.
Cement masons put the finishing touches on the foundation for a
Cement has been used for thousands of years as a hard building material. It is made by mixing such elements as powdered alumina, silica, and limestone with water to make a solid mass. One could say that the ancient Egyptians and the Greeks were cement masons - both groups made cements. The most effective masons were perhaps the Romans, for they developed a kind of cement made from slaked lime and volcanic ash and used it throughout Europe in building roads, aqueducts, bridges, and other structures. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, however, the art of making cement practically disappeared.
In the 18th century, an English engineer named John Smeaton developed a cement that set even under water. Smeaton successfully used this cement in building the famous Eddystone Lighthouse in Devon, England. Later it was used in some parts of the Erie Canal, the waterway built to connect the Great Lakes and New York City.
Joseph Aspdin, an English stonemason, developed the first portland cement mixture in 1824 by burning and grinding together limestone and clay. He called his product “portland” cement because it resembled the limestone quarried on the Isle of Portland. It soon became the most widely used cement because of its strength and resistance to water. The first American portland cement plant was built in 1871. Cement manufactured today is essentially made of the same material as Aspdin’s portland cement.
Masons seldom use cement by itself in large quantities. More often, they mix it with another material, like sand, to form a mortar to be used in structures such as brick walls and buildings. When they mix it with gravel or crushed rock, it forms concrete, a cheap, versatile, durable structural material. Today concrete is one of the most widely used building materials in the world. With the development of ways to reinforce concrete with metal and the appropriate machinery for handling it, concrete has become useful in building many structures, including fence posts, swimming pools, sculptures, roofs, bridges, highways, dams, helicopter pads, and missile launching sites.
The principal work of cement masons, also known as concrete masons, is to put into place and then smooth and finish concrete surfaces in a variety of different construction projects. Sometimes they add colors to the concrete to change its appearance or chemicals to speed up or slow down the amount of time that the concrete takes to harden. They use various tools to create specified surface textures on fresh concrete before it sets. They may also fabricate beams, columns, or panels of concrete.
Cement masons must know their materials well. They must be able to judge how long different concrete mixtures will take to set and how factors such as temperature and wind will affect the curing, or hardening, of the cement. They need to be able to recognize these effects by examining and touching the concrete. They need to know about the strengths of different kinds of concrete and how different surface appearances are produced.
In addition to understanding the materials they work with, cement masons must also be familiar with blueprint reading, applied mathematics, building code regulations, and the procedures involved in estimating the costs and quantities of materials.
On a construction job, the preparation of the site where the concrete will be poured is important. Cement masons begin by setting up the forms that will hold the wet concrete until it hardens into the desired shape. The forms must be properly aligned and allow for the correct dimensions, as specified in the original design. In some structures, reinforcing steel rods or mesh are set into place after the forms are put in position. The cement masons then pour or direct the pouring of the concrete into the forms so that it flows smoothly. The cement masons or their helpers spread and tamp the fresh concrete into place. Then they level the surface by moving a straightedge back and forth across the top of the forms.
Using a large wooden trowel called a bull float, cement masons begin the smoothing operation. This process covers up the larger particles in the wet concrete and brings to the surface the fine cement paste in the mixture. On projects where curved edges are desired, cement masons may use an edger or radius tool, guiding it around the edge between the form and the concrete. They may make grooves or joints at intervals in the surface to help control cracking.
The process continues with more finishing work, done either by hand with a small metal trowel or with a power trowel. This smoothing gets out most remaining irregularities on the surface. To obtain a nonslip texture on driveways, sidewalks, and similar projects, cement masons may pass a brush or broom across or embed pebbles in the surface. Afterward, the concrete must cure to reach its proper strength, a process that can take up to a week.
On structures such as walls and columns with exposed surfaces, cement masons must leave a smooth and uniform finish after the forms are removed. To achieve this, they may rub down high spots with an abrasive material, chip out rough or defective spots with a chisel and hammer, and fill low areas with cement paste. They may finish off the exposed surface with a coating of a cement mixture to create an even, attractive appearance.
Cement masons use a variety of hand and power tools, ranging from simple chisels, hammers, trowels, edgers, and leveling devices to pneumatic chisels, concrete mixers, and troweling machines. Smaller projects, such as sidewalks and patios, may be done by hand, but on large-scale projects, such as highways, power-operated floats and finishing equipment are necessary. Although power equipment can speed up many tasks, most projects have corners or other inaccessible areas that require hand work.
Various cement specialists have jobs that involve covering, leveling, and smoothing cement and concrete surfaces. Among them are concrete-stone finishers, who work with ornamental stone and concrete surfaces; concrete rubbers, who polish concrete surfaces; and nozzle cement sprayers, who use spray equipment to apply cement mixtures to surfaces.
Poured concrete wall technicians make up another occupational group whose activities are related to those of cement masons. These workers use surveying instruments to mark construction sites for excavation and to set up and true (that is, align correctly) concrete forms. They direct the pouring of concrete to form walls of buildings, and, after removing the forms, they may waterproof lower walls and lay drainage tile to promote drainage away from the building. Unlike cement masons, however, poured concrete wall technicians generally get at least two years of technical training in such subjects as surveying and construction methods.
As with many jobs, if you want to work as a cement mason you will have an advantage if you have been to high school or have a GED. Take mathematics courses, and choose shop classes like mechanical drawing and blueprint reading if your school offers these; if it does not offer these specifically, ask your teachers which classes are similar to them. It may also help you on the job if you have taken core courses like English and general science and have a driver’s license.
Sometimes, a high school diploma may not be required, but you should have at least taken some kind of vocational-technical classes. If you have no special skills or experience, you might find work as a helper and gradually learn the trade informally over an unspecified number of years by working with experienced masons. In considering applicants for helper jobs, most employers prefer to hire people who are at least 18 and in good physical condition.
It is recommended that you first work as an apprentice to acquire the necessary skills for being a cement mason because apprenticeships provide balanced, indepth training. Such full-time programs often last two to three years, and they are usually jointly sponsored by local contractors and unions. If you want to apply for an apprenticeship program, you might need to be approved by the local joint labor-management apprenticeship committee. You also might have to take a written test and pass a physical examination.
Training consists of a combination of planned work experience and classroom instruction. On the job as an apprentice, you would learn about the tools and materials of the trade, layout work and finishing techniques, grinding and paving, and job safety. Further classroom instruction involves around 144 hours each year in such related subjects as mathematics, blueprint reading, architectural drawing, procedures for estimating materials and costs, and local building regulations.
As a cement mason, you will be involved in a great amount of physical, often strenuous, work. You may be required to show your physical fitness by, for example, lifting a 100-pound sack of sand to your shoulder height and carrying it 50 feet.
You should enjoy doing demanding work and be disciplined and motivated enough to do your job without close and constant supervision. The ability to get along with co-workers is important, as most cement masons work in teams. Also, as mentioned, you should have a valid driver’s license.
Since this job involves using your hands to build surfaces and forms, you might like working as a cement mason if you enjoy building things like sculptures or even sandcastles at the beach. But you also have to use your head - you can learn more about your mental aptitude for this kind of work by taking courses like general mathematics, drafting, and various shop classes. In addition, try to find a summer job on a local construction crew to gain valuable firsthand experience. Some people are introduced to the building construction trades, including the work of cement masons, while they are serving in the military, especially with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Why not help build or repair a walkway where you live? Or ask your local parks department if you can help or at least watch workers making playground areas and skateboard hills. Keep your eyes open for construction work going on in your neighborhood, and ask if you can watch - maybe you’ll even be given a hard hat to wear!
Approximately 209,000 cement masons, concrete finishers, segmental pavers, and terrazzo workers are employed in the United States. Most cement masons are employed by concrete contractors or general contractors in the building and construction industries to help build roads, shopping malls, factories, and many other structures. Some cement masons work for large contractors for such big operations as utility companies and public works departments; others work for small contractors to construct buildings such as apartment complexes, shopping malls, and schools. Cement masons who are disciplined and skilled enough in the trade and in business may have the goal of one day starting their own companies, perhaps specializing in walkways, swimming pools, or building foundations.
You don’t have to attend college to become a cement mason. After graduating from high school or getting a GED, you can either go through a formal apprenticeship training program or get work that offers the opportunity for on-the-job training. For information about becoming an apprentice cement mason, contact local cement contractors, the offices of your state’s employment service, or the area headquarters of one of the unions that organize cement masons. Many cement masons are members of either the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association or the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. Also, don’t forget that the Internet is a valuable resource; search for Web sites in the construction and trades industries. For example, the Oregon Building Congress has a site (http://www. obcweb.com) that gives information on career descriptions and wages and applying for its apprenticeships.
If you want a job as a trainee, get in touch with contractors in your area who may be hiring helpers. Follow up on job leads from the state employment service and newspaper classified ads.
Once a beginning cement mason has gained some skills and become efficient in the trade, he or she can specialize in a certain phase of the work. A cement mason may become, for example, a lip-curb finisher, an expansion joint finisher, or a concrete paving-finishing machine operator.
An experienced mason - with good judgment, planning skills, and the ability to deal with people - can try advancing to a supervisory position. Supervisors with a broad understanding of other construction trades may eventually become job superintendents, who are in charge of the whole range of activities at the job site. A cement mason may also become an estimator for concrete contractors, calculating materials requirements and labor costs. A self-disciplined and highly motivated cement mason can eventually go into business on his or her own by opening a company to do small projects like sidewalks and patios.
The earnings of cement masons vary widely according to factors such as geographic location, whether they do much overtime work, and how much bad weather or local economic conditions reduce the number of hours worked. Nonunion workers generally have lower wage rates than union workers. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that in 2004 cement masons earned a median wage of $15.06 per hour. A mason doing steady, full-time work at this wage would earn $31,330 annually. The department also reports that at the low end of the pay scale 10 percent of masons earned less than $9.58 per hour (or less than approximately $19,920 annually). While at the high end, 10 percent earned more than $25.86 hourly (more than approximately $53,780 yearly). Since the amount of time spent working is limited by weather conditions, many workers’ earnings vary from these figures. Apprentices start at wages that are approximately 50 to 60 percent of a fully qualified mason’s wage. They receive periodic raises, so in the last phase of training, their wage is between 90 and 95 percent of the experienced worker’s pay.
Benefits for cement masons typically include overtime pay, health insurance, and a pension plan.
Cement masons do strenuous work, and they need to have good stamina. Many work outdoors and with other workers. Although cement masons might not work much in rainy and snowy conditions because cement cannot be poured in such weather, they might frequently work overtime because, once the cement has been poured, the finishing operations must be completed quickly. Temporary heated shelters are sometimes used to extend the time when work can be done.
Masons work in a variety of locations - sometimes on the ground, sometimes on ladders and scaffolds. Cement masons may need to lift or push weights, and they often are kneeling, bending, and stooping. To protect their knees, they routinely wear kneepads; they might also need to wear water-repellent boots and protective clothing.
Common hazards on the job include falling off ladders, being hit by falling objects, having muscle strains, and getting rough hands from contact with wet concrete. By exercising caution and following established job safety practices, masons minimize their exposure to hazardous conditions.
Although most contractors hire workers for 40-hour weeks, many jobs are limited by weather conditions. Masons sometimes have unexpected days off because of rain or snow. Then employers may expect masons to help catch up by working longer than eight hours on days when the weather permits.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for cement masons should grow about as fast as the average through 2014. The number of trained workers is relatively small, and cement masons often leave the profession for less strenuous lines of work. In addition, construction activity is expected to expand during this period, and concrete will be an important building material, especially in nonresidential building and construction. Cement masons will be in demand to help build roads, bridges, buildings, subways, shopping malls, and many other structures. Although the productivity of masons will be improved by the introduction of better tools and materials (resulting in the need for fewer workers), cement masons will be needed to replace those who leave the field for retirement or other occupations.
In areas where the local economy is thriving and there are plenty of building projects, there may be occasional shortages of cement masons. At other times, even skilled masons may experience periods of unemployment because of downturns in the economy and declining levels of construction activity.
A World without Cement?
Today our sidewalks, swimming pools, building foundations, roads, and many other structures are made with cement. Yet there was a period in history—hundreds of years, in fact—when cement was not used at all.
After the fall of the Roman Empire (in the fifth century a.d.), during which time cement was used extensively for building roads, aqueducts, and other infrastructure, the use of cement in building virtually disappeared. Thirteen centuries passed before John Smeaton, an English engineer, experimented with cement mixtures to develop one that could harden even under water. He used his cement to build the famous Eddystone Lighthouse, in Devon, England. The Eddystone Rocks are a group of rocks in the English Channel that have caused many shipwrecks. Lighthouses were built at this spot to warn sailors of the danger of hitting the rocks. The first lighthouse was destroyed by a storm in 1699; the second, because it was made of oak, was destroyed by fire in 1755. Smeaton’s Tower was built with stone, using a cement to bind the stones together. This lighthouse was perhaps the first structure made with cement since the fall of the Roman Empire. (The stones and cement began crumbling in the 19th century, after which bronze bolts were used for reinforcement.)
Can you imagine a world without cement? Do some research and try to find out why cement was not used for so many centuries. Were other materials more popular? Was it too difficult to find the raw materials needed for making cement? Was there just no need for cement structures? Use your imagination and research skills to think of some concrete possibilities.
For more information
For information on apprenticeship and training programs, contact
Associated General Contractors of America
2300 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 400
Arlington, VA 22201-5426
Email: [email protected]
For information on an annual masonry camp for chosen apprentices, contact
International Masonry Institute
The James Brice House
42 East Street
Annapolis, MD 21401-1731
email: [email protected]
For information on available references and publications, contact
International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers
1776 Eye Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006-3700
Email: [email protected]
For information on education and research programs, careers, and apprenticeships, contact
Mason Contractors Association of America
33 South Roselle Road
Schaumburg, IL 60193-1646
For information on apprenticeship and training programs, contact
Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’
14405 Laurel Place, Suite 300
Laurel, MD 20707-6102