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Building trades

by Carl Walrond

Carpenters, stonemasons and bricklayers were in high demand as towns and cities developed in colonial New Zealand. When electricity and town water supplies were introduced, electricians and plumbers were also needed.

Early construction

Māori and missionary carpenters

Māori were skilled woodworkers. They used pounamu (greenstone) and other rocks as adze blades to work wood. The first European carpenters in New Zealand were ship’s carpenters aboard James Cook’s vessels. Cook also introduced steel tools to New Zealand, trading items such as axes and nails with Māori.

Getting plastered


Early missionaries had to do everything themselves as there were few tradesmen around. Missionary William Williams wrote on 2 August 1828: ‘I have been employed during the last three days, in conjunction with the rest of the brethren, in plastering our new chapel. It may be thought strange in England that we should be thus occupied, but in New Zealand it is necessary that everyone should in some measure set his heart to the work.’1


A missionary group which arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1814 included the carpenter William Hall. Missionaries not only bartered tools with local Māori, they also taught carpentry at mission schools. By 1819 four Māori had been taken to Sydney on the brig Active to learn trades – two were learning to make bricks, one to make nails, and the fourth was in the blacksmith’s shop.

Growing demand

The new settlements needed tradespeople to build them. Both the New Zealand Company and government schemes for assisted immigrants gave priority to builders. By the mid-1850s Dunedin’s electoral roll, with some 400 names, included 16 carpenters, two bricklayers and two stonemasons. The number of tradesmen grew over the 1860s. An 1863 Dunedin directory lists 122 carpenters, 21 builders, nine bricklayers and nine stonemasons. In Invercargill the following year there were 50 carpenters listed – around 10% of the trades sections of the directory. By 1870 there were eight architects, 186 carpenters/builders/contractors, eight bricklayers, two masons, two plasterers and 10 plumbers working in Dunedin. Similar patterns occurred in other New Zealand towns – urban growth created demand for tradesmen.

Opportunities for tradesmen

Some early tradesmen arrived in the 1860s as gold miners. After they had given that a shot, they fell back on their trade, which was a more reliable source of income. In the late 1800s and early 1900s tradesmen often worked for a time as journeymen (who work for a wage), then went out on their own and established their own businesses.

Plasterer to architect


Scottish plasterer Thomas Forrester knew how to ornament building interiors with decorative designs, and had learned draughting skills at the Glasgow School of Art. He set up a building partnership with businessman John Lemon in Ōamaru in the late 1860s. They constructed 40 buildings between 1875 and 1884, but only nine between 1885 and 1890, as the building trade collapsed due to a depression. The practice wound up in 1890 with just £14 in the bank – but many of Forrester and Lemon’s fine buildings still stand.


In the 1850s and 1860s some carpenters, builders and other tradesmen established themselves as architects. Ōamaru builders Forrester and Lemon built many of the town’s fine Victorian limestone buildings, despite having no architectural training. In early New Zealand tradesmen could be upwardly mobile without qualifications, if they had the skills.

By the 1870s architects were more likely to have formal British qualifications and a distinct hierarchy had been established. The opportunities for builders and other tradesmen to be upwardly mobile became limited. The architect was the professional who designed from his office and inspected work. The builder did the building. Apprentices were boys and unskilled labour was cheap.

Tradesmen could demand higher wages than unskilled workers, so learning a trade was seen as a solid career path for boys. Tradesmen were very busy during the building boom of the late 1870s and early 1880s. Immigrant tradesmen who arrived in the 1880s economic depression, when building demand slackened, found it difficult to compete with established workers. Many took jobs with established firms for wages, where possible. In the 2000s demand for tradespeople remained variable, mirroring the booms and lulls of the building industry.

    • Quoted in G. L. Pearce, The pioneer craftsmen of New Zealand. Auckland: Collins, 1982, p. 18. Back

Carpenters, joiners, painters, decorators and plasterers


The early tradesmen who built New Zealand’s cities and towns were relatively well paid. In Auckland in 1841 carpenters made 16–20 shillings per day – two to three times the rate of a general labourer. While some early houses arrived prefabricated from England, most dwellings – largely wooden – were designed and built by carpenters and builders.

Carpenters worked with traditional tools such as chisels, saws, augers and planes, crafting the material for the building themselves. This changed in the 1860s when framing, weatherboards and trims for wooden villas began to be mass-produced by steam-powered saws. Carpenters put up ready-made frames and weatherboards. They also fitted pre-fabricated doors, window sashes and mouldings constructed by joiners in sawmills. The carpenter was becoming more of a builder than a craftsman. Kit-set house components became more widespread and simpler when the bungalow supplanted the villa as the most common house design from the 1920s.

A 2003 estimate put the number of carpenters at 18,000. Around 30% were self-employed, and many alternated between working for a contractor and working alone on small jobs.

Newspaper wallpaper 

Poor people could not afford wallpaper so they improvised: ‘The inside of the house was papered in the usual Weekly News pictures, pasted to the back of the wall slabs and around the studs with flour paste. There was no such thing as internal lining. The ceilings were somehow done the same way, the paper being pasted to the underside of the shingles and framing and although it was a bit draughty, this was the accepted way of doing things.’1

Paint and wallpaper

In the late 1800s and early 1900s both interior and exterior paints used lead as a drying agent. Early house painters mixed their own paints, adding pigments and white lead to linseed oil. Internal linings were mainly scrim (coarse lining fabric) and wallpaper over rough boarding. Wallpaper was often textured and highly patterned. Internal walls could be painted, varnished or stained.


In the 1860s and 1870s house exteriors were usually painted in soft hues taken from the landscape – soft fawns, greens, red-browns and yellows, with white for ornamentation. From the 1880s to the First World War colours became darker and richer for weatherboards, with trims painted chocolate, maroon or green.

Poisonous paint 

Concerns were raised about the health effects of lead in paint at a 1917 conference of painters and decorators. From 1945, white lead was progressively replaced by titanium dioxide. Yet lead pigments remained common in some types of paint until the mid-1960s. White lead was not banned until 1979. 

Rooms were also painted different colours – in Victorian times red was popular for dining rooms and green for libraries. Internal wall linings in more expensive houses were lath (thin strips of wood) and plaster, or internal wood panelling such as tongue-and-groove. Product suppliers, who called themselves oil and colour dealers, often also offered services such as painting, paperhanging and glazing.


Ceilings were typically board and batten (wooden slats). Grander houses had plastered ceilings in the best rooms. In rare cases workmen were brought from Italy to do ornamental plasterwork for the affluent. From the 1900s the most popular decorative ceilings were pressed-metal panels, which gave a highly decorative finish for a lower cost and could be installed by local tradesmen. Ornate moulded fibrous plaster ceilings were also installed by plasterers from the late 1890s in Dunedin and the early 1900s in Wellington, where they were known as Carrara ceilings after the company that made them there.

Plasterboard was invented in the 1890s, and imported from North America in the early 1900s. It was commonly installed by tradesmen from the 1920s, and manufactured in New Zealand from 1927. From 1931 it was called Gibraltar board. The 1951 census recorded 1,553 male and 10 female plasterers.

    • Thomas Murray, A collection of memories: recollections of Otau, Ness Valley, Clevedon, and World War One. Clevedon: Fraser Murray, 1989, p. 20. Back

Stonemasons and bricklayers


European stonemasonry began in New Zealand with the construction of the stone store at the Kerikeri mission station from 1832 to 1836, built from Sydney sandstone and local basalt. The construction was supervised by mason William Parrot, who came out from Sydney.

From 1840 masons found work in Auckland, with its ample supplies of basalt. Within 10 years they had constructed many buildings there. They also built dry-stone walls (without mortar) – a considerable feat of skill and craftsmanship. Before the use of concrete from the 1870s, stone was also used for building foundations.

Snails and squirrels


One of the outstanding buildings constructed by masons in the mid-1800s was the Canterbury Provincial Council Chamber in Christchurch. Work began in 1858 and it was finished in 1865. Master mason William Brassington oversaw the stonework, and added exquisite touches – hidden in the carved stone foliage were carved squirrels, frogs and snails. Master masons left little touches as a signature of their work.


Māori workers excelled as stonemasons, helping to construct the Albert Barracks and Fort Britomart in Auckland in the 1840s. By the 1860s more elaborate structures such as churches were being built, and these required very skilled masons. Stone was mainly quarried locally due to the costs of transport.

In 1888 there were more brick and stone houses in the Otago area than the rest of New Zealand, because of the availability of local stone for building. The first masons working with Ōamaru stone were not used to it – British limestones were much harder. Ōamaru stone could be cut with a saw, although it hardened as it weathered. Most stonemasons were multi-skilled, also working as builders. Some also supplied monuments, memorials and headstones.

The demand for stonemasons declined in the late 1800s as fewer buildings were built with stone or required extensive stone ornamentation. Construction using reinforced concrete became common for large public buildings over the 20th century and relegated the stonemason to the role of a niche craftsman.

In the 2000s there was an increase in the popularity of suburban stone walls in Auckland, mostly built by groups of Polynesian stonemasons. Skills as a mason have traditionally been learnt on the job or passed down through a small number of families. In the 2000s Otago Polytechnic offered a one-year course in stonemasonry in Cromwell.


Bricks were common for early commercial buildings – especially larger ones – in Wellington and Auckland. There was a lot of work for bricklayers – not just on buildings, but also for lining wells and tunnels and erecting chimneys. In early Wellington bricklayers put up large stores, churches and a hospital. Earthquakes in 1848 and 1855 destroyed many buildings, leading to a preference for rebuilding in wood. Brick-veneer building also developed – a structure was built with a wooden frame and bricklayers added a brick façade, which was not a structural feature.

Brickworks were an early city industry. The introduction of a new kind of kiln (called a Hoffman kiln) to New Zealand in the 1870s greatly improved the quality of bricks. Consistent, well-fired bricks made the work of the bricklayer much easier and led to more houses and other buildings being constructed from bricks. On many large commercial building sites the bricklayer was a familiar sight, with his hod (a three-sided box of bricks), mortar and trowel.

Cement blocks were a larger form of brick which made it much quicker to build walls. The first machine-made New Zealand concrete blocks were produced by Firth Concrete in 1938.

In 1951 there were 760 bricklayers in New Zealand – just one was a woman. A 2003 estimate put the number of bricklayers employed in New Zealand at 3,200. During the 1990s and early 2000s bricks were increasingly used in construction, partly because leaky buildings had recently become an issue, and partly because bricks were cheap. There was strong employment growth for bricklayers during this period.

Gasfitters and electricians

Gas and gasfitters

Coal gas was first made in Dunedin in 1863, Christchurch in 1864, Auckland in 1868 and Wellington in 1871. Gasfitters installed street lights and lighting within houses, which transformed life after dark. The kitchen’s coal range – not gas – was still used for cooking and heating water.

By the late 1880s gas ovens were competing with coal ranges. Gasfitters took ranges out of kitchens and replaced them with gas ovens and burners. Swedish ‘primus’ cookers, which had three burners, were being installed by 1890. For householders who wanted to keep their coal range, there were small bench-top burners, ideal for boiling the kettle. Many people were suspicious of gas, fearing explosions or poisonous vapours.

Electricity arrives

By the late 1880s electricity was used to light some Wellington streets. Telegraph wires on poles, which had been erected in the early 1880s, were now joined by power lines strung up by electricians.

Yet it took decades for electricity generation to develop and for public supplies to arrive. Much of the work for early electricians was commercial work in the mines, or servicing tramways, public buildings and factories such as freezing works. It was only in the 1920s that electricity arrived in many New Zealand houses.

The first domestic electricians were often established gasfitters or plumbers who extended their range of services. In existing houses they ran the wires in iron conduit pipes up walls and along ceilings. In new houses electricians ran the conduit within the framing – only the shiny porcelain or brass switches and the lights were visible.

Electric fascists


In 1952 one electrician recalled the old inspectors of the Council of Fire Underwriters: ‘I have been connected with electrical installation work for 40 years and more and when I started the Underwriters had wiring rules and registration of contractors. Unless contractors were listed by the Underwriters they might not be permitted to carry out wiring work in an area and their work was not necessarily accepted … and the powers of their inspectors (were) those of Mussolini in his prime.’1


Early electricians’ regulations

Electricians, known as ‘wiremen’, had a large increase in work as power boards extended their area of supply and demand for electricity grew. Early rules for electricians were laid out by the Council of Fire Underwriters of New Zealand. Electricity suppliers also licensed electricians working in their areas, but refused to accept licences issued by other authorities. It was clear that nationwide registration was needed. This occurred in 1926, and the following year the first set of mandatory government wiring regulations came into effect.

Modern electricians

In 2009 all electricians had to be registered and hold a current practising licence, renewed annually. In 2001, 66% of all electricians were employed in the construction industry, with 15% in manufacturing and the remaining 19% scattered across a wide range of industries. A 2005 estimate put the number of electricians working in New Zealand at 13,867. Around one-third were self-employed.

    • Quoted in Alec Mill, History of the electrical wiring regulations in New Zealand. Wellington: New Zealand Electricity, 1979, p. 27. Back

Plumbers and drainlayers

Roof workers

In the mid-19th century a plumber’s work was mainly keeping water out of buildings. Plumbers in the mid- to late 1800s worked in roofing – especially constructing flashings and downpipes. Flashings, downpipes and gutters were cut from sheet metal and soldered together. By 1872 there were eight plumbers and 11 tinsmiths in Auckland, seven plumbers and eight tinsmiths in Dunedin, four plumbers and two tinsmiths in Wellington and seven tinsmiths in Christchurch – plus 21 others who were both plumbers and painters.

Plumbers’ smoke concerts


In the early 1900s Dunedin plumbers socialised through ‘smoke concerts’. These ‘generally provided for the entertainment of the male gender only and were often held by all manner of business, sporting and like groups which saw them as an acceptable and fun way of “letting off steam” in a relaxed and casual manner. At a “smoke concert” one would eat, drink, smoke and usually be merry. There would often be speakers and story tellers and maybe a toast or two.’ 1


Water to houses

Most houses in New Zealand cities had no town water supplies until the 1870s (or later), nor sanitary plumbing until the early 1900s (or later), so at first there was little demand for plumbers. Until the late 19th century most toilets were outhouses. There was no running water in the house – water was carried from wells and rainwater tanks. The first tanks were wooden barrels. From the 1880s large corrugated-iron tanks, usually on a stand at the back of the house, became popular. The next step was to pipe the water inside.

In 1879 Wellington plumber George T. Hall was advertising his services for laying water pipes. Galvanised pipes from the water tank to the kitchen sink were a major innovation. Once water was piped into the house the next step for the plumber was to install water heating. At first a copper tank was fitted alongside the firebox of the kitchen range. It was filled from above by bucket, and a big brass lever tap dispensed hot water. Once high-pressure town water supplies arrived, plumbers installed separate, larger copper cylinders connected to the water supply. Pipes circulated water to and from the coal range. The cylinder was usually in an airing cupboard beside the range, with pipes running to the bathroom and kitchen sink. These developments increased demand for plumbers and changed the nature of their work.

Installing bathrooms

While most people still bathed in the kitchen in a filled tub, from the 1880s and 1890s houses began to have bathrooms. The first toilets installed by plumbers were known as water closets. They used the town water supply to flush away waste, but at first it was only into a backyard cesspit (hole dug for waste), as sewerage systems often lagged behind water supplies by a decade or more. By the 1890s the lavatory, whether a water closet or an earth closet (a bucket which was covered with earth after each use), began to be built onto the end of the laundry or outbuilding, or the end of the back verandah on newer houses.

The installation of sewerage systems created work for drainlayers, and extended the art of plumbing to include sanitation. Professional associations formed at the provincial level from the late 1890s. The emergence of sewerage systems and town water supplies ensured that there was a steady stream of work for plumbers to maintain these systems. There was increasing demand for their services during building booms. Plumbers also worked as gasfitters.

The Plumbers Registration Act 1912

In the late 1800s and early 1900s local councils required that plumbers hold a licence. Some required an examination, while others just collected a fee and handed out the licence. Once sewerage systems were established and the public health risks of raw sewage were better understood, plumbers, public health advocates and engineers lobbied government for better legislation. The Plumbers Registration Act 1912 required all plumbers to be registered and to hold certain qualifications, be licensed as a plumber by a local authority, or demonstrate competence as a sanitary plumber. The New Zealand Plumbers Journal, first published in 1948, kept plumbers up to date with developments in the industry.

Modern plumbers

In the 2000s registration as a plumber and gasfitter could be achieved through an overseas qualification; by serving five years continuously and then passing practical and theory tests; or via technical study and an 8,000-hour apprenticeship. In 2005 there were an estimated 6,900 plumbers employed in New Zealand (excluding apprentices). According to the 2001 census around 40% were self-employed. Around 75% of plumbing work was residential, with around two-thirds of residential work involving new construction, alterations and additions.

    • Otago Master Plumbers’, Gasfitters’ and Drainlayers’ Association. The Master Plumbers of Otago: commemorating the first hundred years. Dunedin: Otago Master Plumbers’, Gasfitters’ and Drainlayers’ Association, 1997, p. 128. Back

Trades culture

Friendly societies

Especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many tradesmen belonged to organisations such as the Freemasons, Druids Order, friendly societies, Oddfellows and other lodges. These ritualistic fraternal societies were men’s clubs that facilitated business between members and acted as a social welfare organisation for those who fell upon hard times.


Tradesmen were also instrumental in setting up the first unions and advocating for better work conditions. Carpenter Samuel Parnell agitated for – and won – an eight-hour work day in Wellington in 1840. New Zealand’s first recorded trade society, a Benevolent Society of Carpenters and Joiners, formed in Wellington in 1842.

Workers led by Samuel Shaw attempted to institute an eight-hour working day in Dunedin in 1849. In Auckland, painter William Griffin agitated for reduced hours and gained the eight-hour work day in 1857. The Dunedin Building and Contractors Association formed in 1873, and many other trades banded together for common aims in different associations.

Carpenters were the first workers to combine on a national basis, forming a New Zealand Council of their union in 1876. The first working man to enter Parliament was S. P. Andrews, a plasterer from Christchurch. On Labour Day different trades often marched in parades under their own flags.

The New Zealand Building and Allied Trades Federation was formed in March 1940, as an unregistered federation of building trade unions. In 1949 the Carpenters Union went on strike due to the low wage difference between carpenters and builders’ labourers.

In the 2000s the New Zealand Building Trades Union united the previously separate unions of carpenters and joiners, glaziers, bricklayers and blocklayers, signwriters, plasterers and tilers, aluminium workers, roof tilers and roofers, building industry workers, and painters and decorators.

Bright sparks


Electricians are known as sparkies, carpenters are chippies and bricklayers are brickies. Subcontractors are called subbies. The newsletter of the Institute of Electricians’ Hutt Valley branch was titled Sparks Galore in 1988.


Clothing and language

Tradesmen are grouped in with other blue-collar (manual) workers. Modern builders often wear a leather apron which holds their tools. Carpenters and builders of the late 1800s and 1900s often sported a full white apron with a pouch at the front.

The smoko break is a tradesman’s institution, taken mid-morning and mid-afternoon. In the past it usually involved a cup of tea and a cigarette. In the 2000s there were fewer smokers and more coffee drinkers. Large construction sites often had smoko rooms or smoko sheds.

Work culture

In the 2000s many tradespeople were self-employed or worked in small companies. A lot of work was generated through informal alliances – tradesmen often recommended acquaintances to clients. They often also negotiated deals with supply firms to get goods at wholesale rates in return for regular custom.

Traditionally a laid-back work culture of ‘she’ll be right’ has been prevalent in New Zealand. From the late 20th century this was slowly changing, and more of a safety culture emerged. Since the passing of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 there have been many prosecutions. In the past many building sites were unfenced with no warning signs. Building sites became required to be secured and display warnings of specific hazards.

New Zealanders are a nation of do-it-yourself practitioners. In the past building regulations were less strict, and many New Zealand houses have illegal alterations (even additions) carried out by home handymen. Stricter regulations in the 2000s required registered tradespeople for almost all electrical and plumbing work. Many people still do their own renovations, especially jobs that require no structural work, such as plastering, painting and tiling.

Gender division

All building trades have historically been male-dominated. For example in 1971, of the 5,434 plumbers and gasfitters in New Zealand, not one was a woman. The situation does not look likely to change quickly. One measure of the future shape of an industry is apprentices. In 2008 there were 2,057 building and construction apprentices, but just nine were women. In 2006, of 146 plumbing apprentices, none were female.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Building trades', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 11 o Māehe 2010