Canadian Contractor

Steve Maxwell   

The best hand-guided trowel work I have ever seen

The skilled trade workers I met in South Africa were supremely skilled at precise, hand-guided work

Different cultures express craftsmanship differently, and it can be surprising how good some trade workers get with tasks we never see here in Canada. The trowel skills of black South African masons is a case in point.

My wife and I traveled to South Africa back in 2008 to pick up our adopted daughter Ellie. We travelled to the city of Durban, and it wasn’t long before I was wandering around home building sites with my camera. This led me to a contractor named Dave Scates. He’d been building in the same Durban neighbourhood for a quarter century. No job was ever more than five miles from his home. Ten minutes after shaking hands, Dave was driving me around in his truck, proudly showing me a handful of residential projects he had on the go.

There are no tract homes in Durban. Each house is unique and built using traditional masonry techniques that came originally from Britain. All walls – both exterior and interior – are built with clay brick, several courses thick and plastered to create a smooth surface inside and out.

Until the mid-1990s, it was illegal for any black man to use a trowel professionally. Building work was reserved for whites, some of whom traveled down from Europe for work. All that changed when laws demanding racial segregation under apartheid were dismantled. This opened the floodgates of labour onto the construction market, causing wages to drop by at least 90 per cent. They’ve been down there ever since. These days you never see a white person involved in construction. The entire home building workforce is black. Contractors like Dave Scates are white, and so are electricians, plumbers and specialized trades. That said, the black workforce brings something surprising to their work.

For cultural and historical reasons no one understands fully, black trade workers in South Africa are exceptionally good at using trowels. Whatever the reasons, the precise, hand-guided results of these workers speaks for itself. It’s beautiful and detailed in a way that goes way beyond what you can accomplish with forms or precast components. The hand-troweled cap of the food court separation wall pictured above, is what I mean. It was even more impressive in real life than it is in this picture. Results like this are done entirely with hand-guided work. No forms, no guides.

We tend to get narrow minded after a while when we think of manual skills. I don’t know about you, but I love the idea that somewhere out there are people who can do amazing things with trowels, even though it’ll never matter much in Canada. Do you know what I mean?



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