Brick masons do their level best Teams of craftsmen compete for regional title

Tender Cory Albea (left) and mason Donny Goodman, of Columbia, were among the teams competing Friday in the Bricklayer 500 regional in North Charleston.

The starter horn blares, but the racers don’t sprint.

Each mason on the seven teams spreads mortar with a trowel, reaches for a brick and carefully sets it straight.

With any luck, the team will have set 500 or more such bricks in tiers before the horn sounds again in an hour.

Bricklaying isn’t something you do in a rush. Masons don’t tend to move much faster than cement slurries — even if this is a regional for the SPEC MIX Bricklayer 500, the Indy of bricklaying, with a trip to the national, cash-and-truck-prize competition in Las Vegas up for grabs.

Ace teams came from across the region Friday to Tideland Equipment and Supply in North Charleston. Paul Wilson and mason’s helper Larry Bennett were up against it.

The Wilson & Sons team from Cross had something more on the line: They were the sole representatives of a proud Lowcountry tradition of fine brick craftsmanship, a legacy that dates back a few centuries.

It’s no happenstance that one of the judges for this regional is Chalmers Duncan of Summerville, whose creative brickwork is legend.

The reputation of Lowcountry masons is so well established that when Duncan went to New York to work in the 1960s, “if you said you were from Charleston, you got a job. If you said Summerville, you really got a job,” Duncan said.

“There’s a lot of good masonry here, a lot of great masons,” said Nick Blohowiak of Spec Mix. “We wanted to get into this market to see if we can find a crackerjack to win this whole thing,”

The pace is deliberate, but the Bricklayer 500 is about speed. The winner is determined by the number of bricks laid.

Except, quality counts. Bricks are deducted — en masse — for workmanship flaws, such as missing plumb points, uneven mortar joint thickness or holes in the mortaring.

There’s craft to the trade. Duncan notes that a good mason works stepping backward, so the sweep with the trowel spreads mortar more evenly.

The competition is keen — Jerry Goodman and Heidie Alvea, of Blythewood, S.C., would be the winners. With 15 minutes left, Bennett takes his first break from shoveling mix, peeks and grins. The Kentucky team next to him has laid twice as many tiers.

Wilson, 60, is maybe the oldest competitor out there. The grizzled veteran agreed to compete mostly as a favor to a local Boral Bricks sales group who cheer him on. He hadn’t had a trowel in his hand for six months beforehand.

“I’m the boss. I give orders,” he said. He doesn’t do walls anymore. He supervises as others build them. “If I don’t like one I kick it down.”

He acknowledges representing the Lowcountry bricklaying tradition with a quiet, proud nod, just as Duncan did.

These men have lived the craft legacy, generations old and passed father to son.

Bennett gestures to the wall they just laid.

“If you go by traditional,” he says, “that’d be the best brickwork right there.”

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on Twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.