Country Stonemasons North Liberty, Iowa
"There’s a new challenge every day."
All photos courtesy JB Barnhouse and Country Stonemasons
By K. Schipper
NORTH LIBERTY, Iowa – More than 20 years ago, JB Barnhouse had plans of becoming a math teacher. A summer job working for Ames, Iowa-based Country Landscapes changed the direction of his life. Having grown up on a farm west of Des Moines, Barnhouse knew about growing things. What caught his eye was the hardscapes – the stone walls, fireplaces, and patios the design/build company installed. At the end of the summer, he asked what he would have to do to secure a full-time job there after graduation. The following year, Barnhouse returned and began fine-tuning his knowledge of hardscapes. However, wanting to know more, he also investigated further learning opportunities, spending almost two years overseas in London attending Building Crafts College and then serving an apprenticeship in restoration. Back in Iowa, where he now heads the Country Stonemasons division of Country Landscapes, Barnhouse and his team of ten are called upon to do everything from building dry-stack archways to carving and repairing sculptures to, yes, even fabricating and installing countertops. It’s a career he never thought he could achieve.
". I went to my boss and said, ‘What do I need to do to make this my job?’"
Fate has a strange way of dealing with people sometimes. For Barnhouse, it’s been helpful to have friends. “I got a summer job through a friend who had just gotten hired by Country Landscapes,” he explains. “He was in landscape architecture at the time, and I was in education. I was working with the plants, but it was the hardscape stuff I fell in love with. I went to my boss and said, ‘What do I need to do to make this my job?’” A year later, freshly armed with a degree in landscape horticulture from Iowa State University, Barnhouse was back working for Country Landscapes, but at its North Liberty division where he became a crew leader doing large stonework projects. A lot of the jobs involved huge retaining walls and hand-cut patios, but there was also a more artistic side to the work, including landscape sculptures which Barnhouse particularly came to love. Researching ways to enhance his skills, Barnhouse stumbled upon Building Crafts College. He applied and was accepted, but when he called to give his two-week notice, company owner Rhett Faaborg said he wanted to talk to Barnhouse about it, and the two men met the following day. “We hatched a plan for me to go do what I needed to do and learn what I wanted to learn and then come back and apply it to his company,” Barnhouse say. “Everything was done on a handshake.” Once in London, Barnhouse says the experience wasn’t really what he had imagined. The school offers NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) diplomas, qualifying him in both stone carving and stone restoration. “In their terms, I was a banker mason, which meant I was making templates after I would cut a piece of stone out of a building, and then re-carving it by hand,” he explains. “But I also had the ability to do the work of what they call a fixer mason, which meant I could install it back in the wall.” Barnhouse completed the two courses with enough time left on his student visa to allow him some work experience. Again, thanks to a friend who had just been hired by Stonewest, one of London’s leading stone restoration and masonry companies, he found himself working at the Palace of Westminster, seat of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. “I wanted to get some hands-on experience around people who were masters of the craft, and they were more than happy to have me,” Barnhouse says. “I had zero experience, but they took me in and put me right on it. I was surrounded by some great guys that I’m still in touch with today.”
“Luckily, there are a lot of cool people who give me a lot of artistic freedom.”
Back in Iowa, Rhett Faaborg was as good as his word. The two men hatched a plan for what became Country Stonemasons and Barnhouse got back to work. Today, he’s a partner in the company. “Initially, it was very easy to see how I could play a part within the landscape company doing different stone aspects of work that we already did, as well as adding on masonry that we could offer clients,” Barnhouse says. “It might be columns outside a house or a bread oven or an outdoor fireplace. Eventually we graduated into doing a lot more traditional stone masonry, which not a lot of people in this area did at the time.” Barnhouse likes his projects big. One of his first sizeable efforts involves a collection of dry-stacked arches. The largest has a span of 28’ and rises 19’ at the apex. The blocks averaged 800-1,000 lbs. “Dry-stack stonework is not entirely my specialty,” he admits. “I employ a gentleman who’s certified by the Lexington, Ky.-based Dry-Stone Conservancy, but we do offer that as part of our services.” For sheer size, however, that pales next to one of Barnhouse’s best-known carved pieces, “The Sitting Man.” He explains that sculpture began as approximately 125 tons of Indiana limestone and finished at closer to 105-108 tons. Because of its size, the stone was delivered to a field near its destination and all the work was done onsite. “Even the smaller pieces were about 3.5- to 4-tons (each), so all of the roughing out happened before the blocks were put in place to do the final carving,” he says. “With a lot of the smaller stuff it gets done in the shop and then either shipped or we install it.” Not surprisingly, Barnhouse says there are two kinds of clients for this type of work: those who know exactly what they want, and those who don’t. “When that happens it’s nice if they allow us to present them with several different ideas,” he says. “It gives me the opportunity to get to know them and find out what they like and what might drive them to pick out something they’re going to pay a lot of money for and look at for a long, long time. “Luckily, there are a lot of cool people who give me a lot of artistic freedom.” Of course, the shop also does countertops. Sharing a space with Country Landscapes, there are always contractors coming through the door, and Barnhouse recalls the first countertop he did was for a builder who had run out of other options. “The first countertop job we did was a soapstone job,” he says. “One of the companies in the area wasn’t familiar with working with that type of stone, so we took it on. It’s kind of its own little animal, but because it’s a small scale, we’re able to do some nice custom jobs.” Even today, “we’re by no means a large-scale countertop business,” he adds, adding that much of the countertop work is done for contractors who work with Country Landscapes, although some clients call direct. And his crew is skilled enough to remove old countertops and repair cabinetry and woodwork. The big advantage he offers is that Country Stonemasons can eliminate one of the subcontractors when its parent company is doing a large project. “Otherwise, you might have four or five different subs in to complete a project,” Barnhouse says. “We’re in-house, so we can do all the masonry work under Country Landscapes, and it allows us to control the flow of the project from the beginning to the finish, as well as where the materials come from.”
"Like myself, I think that the craftsmanship aspect draws a lot of people into it.”
Today, Country Stonemasons operates out of a 60’ X 80’ building with a crew of ten, although Barnhouse would like more space and at least two more employees. For a man who’s trained in hand-carving stone – and enjoys it – Barnhouse appreciates the opportunity to utilize equipment to help with his projects. The company does laser templates and has a digital scanner to help feed a variety of equipment, not the least of which is a Park Industries® APEX® five axis CNC. The company also runs an older model Park Industries manual bridge saw and a Park Industries HYDROSPLIT®. Its most-recent acquisition: a small wire saw. “A lot of times the equipment gets added due to a project we get,” he says. “That happened to be the case with the wire saw. We’re producing some large granite boulder sculptures for a university in Des Moines and the wire saw is cutting them in half for us.” Barnhouse freely admits that some people might think the use of the five-axis CNC would take some of the “romance” out of stone carving but there’s a practical side to it, too. He cites an instance a few years ago when a vandal damaged multiple sculptures at the Robert D. Ray Asian Gardens in Des Moines. “Some of the pieces were still fairly intact,” he says. “We brought them back to the shop from the site, and then scanned them and duplicated them. To compare having to carve those by hand, and the hours that would have gone into it, versus getting the rough-out done with the CNC and finishing by hand – it’s not even close.” He attributes a lot of the company’s success with projects like that to Josh Haines, who is the company’s designer and CNC technician. While those types of positions require hiring for a particular skill set, Barnhouse admits finding workers who are willing to put in the time and labor for some of his other positions continues to get more difficult. “We used to joke that if you could hire a kid who grew up on a farm (similar to Barnhouse himself) that was the kid you wanted,” he says. “In the last ten years, a lot of agriculture is being automated, and we’ve trended out of that zone. Now, it’s rare to find somebody that’s just out of school, or in their early twenties who wants to take on a vocational category of job.” Some of his best people, he adds, are those that initially started working for other divisions of Country Landscapes and have made the switch. “Like myself, I think that the craftsmanship aspect draws a lot of people into it,” Barnhouse adds. “I’ve taken several landscapers over the years, and they’ve become masons. Two of them run jobs for me as crew leaders.” Craftsmanship is key to Barnhouse’s view of the world and his place within it. He’s a member of the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Stone Foundation, and he’s proud of the fact that Country Stonemasons is also a trusted installer for other stone artists. “We’ve had a few projects at the University of Iowa where we weren’t the artists and we weren’t the fabricators, but we were trusted to install the artwork on the campus,” he explains. “That’s cool. We get to meet quite a different network of people doing those types of projects.” And, if Barnhouse still sounds a bit wide-eyed by it all, he is. He loves the fact that he’s helping his crew achieve their dreams and aspirations outside of the shop. As for himself, he says from its conception to where the shop is today just amazes him. “It’s nothing I thought I would accomplish,” Barnhouse concludes. “It always seemed unachievable, and now that it’s a reality, I love the little avenues and twists it takes me down. There’s a new challenge every day. I’ve met some unique people along the way. It’s been a fantastic opportunity.”