Before the arrival of Europeans, Māori used stone to build paths and walls, but their buildings were made of wood and other plant materials.
Most of the 19th-century colonists came from Britain, where stone and brick were traditionally used for building. Because timber was readily available in most parts of New Zealand, their earliest houses were mainly of wood. Only in areas like central Otago where wood was scarce was stone widely used for cottages and houses.
As the years passed only a relatively small number of stone buildings were constructed – mainly churches, banks, public buildings, and houses of the well-to-do in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. Building in stone was expensive, few stonemasons were available, and experience showed that stone buildings were badly damaged in earthquakes. Although the design of larger buildings until the 1950s was invariably based on European stone buildings, New Zealanders discovered that it was usually cheaper and easier to build in concrete, brick and wood.
Changing patterns of building
Most of the 19th-century stone buildings were in areas where stone was available nearby – for example, the volcanic rocks of the western Bay of Islands, Auckland, New Plymouth, Christchurch, Timaru and Dunedin. There was limestone in Ōamaru, and schist in central Otago. Many of the early buildings were of rubble construction, where roughly shaped blocks were fitted together, and the gaps filled with mortar.
After 1910 many of the smaller, local quarries closed in favour of large quarries that were worked on an industrial scale, and often stone was transported over long distances by rail or by sea. Volcanic rocks were less used, being replaced by Coromandel granite, Tākaka marble, Bluff norite, Putaruru ignimbrite, and Ōamaru limestone. From this time onwards almost no buildings were entirely constructed in stone, but it was used for frontages, base courses, pillars, facings around windows and doors, and ornamental panels. Stone has also been used for a number of bridges as well as the seawalls around harbours in the main centres.
The only New Zealand stone being worked on a large scale in the early 2000s is Hinuera ignimbrite and Ōamaru limestone, both soft enough to be sawed into blocks and panels.
Chips and pebbles of many other rock types are set in concrete and made into panels for exterior cladding. Stone from local quarries is used for paving, fireplaces and chimneys, walls and a variety of decorative work. Sheets of imported stone are also used for cladding in many commercial buildings.
Splitting and trimming rock is a traditional form of prison labour. Most of the kerbing stones used on streets in the central part of Auckland were produced by prisoners held in Mt Eden jail.
Working as a stonemason has never been a popular trade in New Zealand. In the 19th and 20th centuries the work was heavy and dirty, eye injuries were common, and employment depended on the relatively small number of stone buildings constructed. As a consequence, most stonemasons were multi-skilled, and also worked as builders. A number of Dalmatians emigrated to the Auckland area to work as stonemasons in the 1920s. Also at that time, stone workers from northern Italy began migrating to Auckland, where they dominated the manufacture of terrazzo (flooring of marble or stone chips) for several decades.
In recent years there has been an increase in the popularity of stone walls in the Auckland area, mostly built by groups of Polynesian stonemasons.
Skills as a stonemason have traditionally been learnt on the job or passed down through a small number of families. Otago Polytechnic offers a one-year course in stonemasonry.