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Builder doing church restoration works recalls building industry's hard times

Left: Tools of the trade. Scrapers and a pal, the latter used to firm stones after they are laid on lumps of cement and, right, chisels of various shapes and sizes help give the stone the required shape. Pictures: Chris Sant Fournier

Left: Tools of the trade. Scrapers and a pal, the latter used to firm stones after they are laid on lumps of cement and, right, chisels of various shapes and sizes help give the stone the required shape. Pictures: Chris Sant Fournier

Working in the building industry is not half as laborious as it used to be a mere three or four decades ago, but the bad name the hard work gave it has stuck and few want to work in it, Lolly Mifsud said.

Mr Mifsud, who has been in the trade for 40 years, is the contractor doing the restoration works at Ta' Giezu church and convent in Rabat.

He has a tough job, replacing individual stones marked on a plan approved by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority. The stones he is replacing have been damaged by rising dampness, most of which is the result of the stones having been covered with mosaic years ago.

"Machinery has made our job much easier. It is only when doing such kind of restoration work that we go about it in the old way to reproduce stones as they were made originally," he said.

Each stone is measured and a new one fashioned to replicate it. The old one is then removed and the new one put in its place.

Mechanical means have done away with the sieves which were used to sift sand and limestone dust used as additives with cement for mortar. Cement mixers of all shapes and sizes have long done away with the mixing of cement by means of hoe and spade.

Stone slabs are now cut by electric saws and are much smaller and consequently lighter to carry than in the past.

"When I started in the trade, the smallest slab used to be two feet four inches long. It broke one's back to lift them. Today, the biggest ones are one foot ten inches long. A truckload (vjagg) used to have 44 large stones. Today it is a mere 15. Besides, six- and seven-inch stones are regularly used today instead of nine-inch ones," he said.

Mechanical cutters have practically meant that most of the old tools used in stone cutting and dressing have, like all the other tools, been laid to rest and are rusting in some garage.

But Mr Mifsud is keeping his old tools busy.

Looking at bucket loads of implements, he says he had them made by a blacksmith in Siggiewi when he became involved in the industry.

"Several blacksmiths used to make them, but today, to sharpen one of them I have to send it to Gozo, where there is the only blacksmith I know of who still does the job in the good old way," he said.

Village blacksmiths used to make all the builders' tools: l-imterqa (stone cutter's hatchet), the mannarett (hack), the pal, a huge iron, nail-like tool used to firm stones on the cement, as well as the skwerra, the set square, and all the chisels.

The hatchets and hack were made to order, depending on the weight the builder wanted them to be. The mterqa came in different weights: six, seven or ten rotolos, depending on the kind of work one was doing with it.

Blacksmiths used two types of steel, a harder type being used for the cutting edges, which were joined to the implement using heat in a forge and hammering.

Mr Mifsud said that using the old traditional tools for restoration purposes was a MEPA requirement.

"When cut mechanically, stones become smooth. When old tools such as the mannarett and the raxketti (scrapers) are used, these leave certain marks which are identical to the ones left by the tools used when the old buildings were built," he said.

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