For many log home owners, the centerpiece of their home is the fireplace or woodstove.  Getting the right look in stonework can put a unique stamp in the living areas of your home.  We spoke with Jeff Wagner, stonemason at Katahdin dealer Cabin Run Contracting in Romney, W.Va.  He’s been a stonemason for 24 years, and working with Cabin Run for the past four years.

Stone work is an art and requires patience when working with a stonemason. Jeff often rates his progress saying “Today will be as good as the stone gods treat me.” Some days he’ll be able to fit stones together quickly, but on others, he says “it feels like I haven’t found a fit all day.” Understanding that artistic side of stonemasonry will help to keep expectations in line with progress in spurts and stalls.

Two types of materials
Jeff was able to answer some of the questions his clients often have when considering stonework in their homes.  He works with both architectural (manmade concrete) stone and natural stone. Each has is pluses and minuses, and a lot may depend on the local sources you may have for natural stone.  Jeff likes to work with architectural stone because it offers a wide range of colors and textures, as well as a certain amount of consistency in size. 

Natural stone can be expensive because of transportion costs, so if the type of stone you’re considering is Maine granite and you’re in South Carolina, you may find costly to obtain that look. Natural stone can be difficult to source, depending upon the local market for stone. Your stonemason will likely have sources he works with, who can provide a consistent quality and grade of stone for your fireplace. Jeff prefers to work with stones about dinner plate sized to maximize the stonework and minimize the mortar. In comparing costs, Jeff says that each type of stone ultimately ends up costing about the same—natural stone is a less expensive material than architectural stone, but the labor costs may be higher with natural stone since it is less consistent and heavier to place.

Also be aware that stonemasonry is a personal expression, and many stonemasons have developed a particular “look” based on the way they construct their walls.  You’ll want to take a look at some work samples to see if you like a stonemason’s style before moving forward.

Preparing to lay the stone
Preparation for a natural stone and architectural stone fireplace are very different.  With natural stone, the concrete block foundation and carriage walls need to be constructed first to support the extra weight of the stones.  Architectural stone is a thinner facing layer and is applied to the exterior of a frame, so it doesn’t require as much prep work.

The frame for architectural stone is built as 2 x 4 studded walls with 16-inch spacing. The frame is covered with plywood both inside the home and out, then builders felt is applied as a moisture barrier. Then the mason will stretch a diamond twist stainless steel wire lath over the felt and apply a thin coat of mortar, called scratch. When the scratch mortar is dry, then the architectural stone can be applied.

The most dramatic difference between natural and architectural masonry is the stone laying process. With natural stone, a mason will work from the bottom up, as he is actually laying up the stone with mortar like a wall.

With architectural stone, the mason will work from the top down because the dust and debris that’s part of the process will not fall on the stonework. The acid used to clean natural stonework affects the color of architectural stone, so it is constructed in this manner.

As far as functionality in fireplace design, some homeowners opt for a traditional fireplace opening enhanced with a heat form to capture some of the heat from the fire and blow it into the room. Others may opt for a wood stove, which can really provide some quality winter warmth, as well as a pleasant fire effect.  Give some thought as well to the mantelpiece and other decorative elements you’d like to incorporate into the face of your stonework. One of Jeff’s favorite projects is pictured above right—the mantle has a sleeping bear carved into the wood. Your stonemason will have some great ideas to make your fireplace thoroughly unique.