Shaun Cooper has dedicated two decades to the painstaking craft of preserving stone masonry for centuries to come. He spoke to Paula Lester; portraits by Richard Cannon.
‘I’ve seen lots of modern contraptions designed to speed up the re-pointing process, but, when it comes to traditional lime mortar, you can’t beat good old-fashioned hand tools that differ little today from those used centuries ago,’ explains stone conservator Shaun Cooper.
Having spent 20 years high on scaffolding surrounding some of Somerset’s most treasured period buildings, Mr Cooper, 40, knows exactly how much time and effort it takes to restore old stonework to its former glory. Based in Castle Cary, he spends weeks on each job, carefully raking and chiselling out old cement mortars (which can damage the softer stones, as cement is too hard and acts as a barrier, trapping moisture within the walls) to a depth of 2½ times the width of the joint.
Next, he wets the wall (the damp helps to bed the new mortar in) and makes his own lime-putty mortar mix, using differing amounts of local stone dust and aggregates such as chalk to match any existing original lime mortar.
He then compresses the new mortar into the gaps between the stones, keeping it moist so he can continue to manipulate it into crevices, and finally scratching it back to achieve the ‘full-flush pointing’ method (as pioneered by William Morris, founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in the late 1800s) that protects stone for 100-plus years.
‘If you can’t see what a conservator has done, they’ve done a good job,’ muses Mr Cooper, who started out as a cabinetmaker, but ‘fell into stone conservation’ when he got a job with a company tasked with conserving Somerset’s fine church towers and soon found he preferred working outside.
‘I feel as if I’m doing something positive to preserve precious old buildings,’ Mr Cooper enthuses.
‘I love what I do and once did a lot of work on churches, but what I do now is very varied – anything from rebuilding a retaining wall to laying flagstones – and I don’t miss being up a tower in the howling wind and cold, although the views are spectacular.’
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