We’re taking some time today here at The Hills to look more closely at one of our growing number of fabulous directory businesses: Stoneworkz, based in Denbigh and online. This thriving business has taken an ancient craft - stonemasonry - and turned it into something thrillingly contemporary, helping their clients create beautiful, practical spaces in their home with one-off pieces of exceptional quality.
With 30 years in the stonemasonry business between them, husband and wife team Dylan and Julie Williams decided to go it alone and set up their own company selling artisan kitchen worktops, bathroom surfaces, fire hearths and more. Dylan is the craftsman and Julie manages the business side of things, as well as lending her own creative talents to their new ammonite table range, featuring limited edition pieces including a hostess tray, hand cut placemats and exquisite cheeseboards and the curation of their decorative homeware pieces.
We spoke to Dylan first to find out about how he leaves no stone unturned in the pursuit of excellence!
When did you launch Stoneworkz and why?
We registered Stoneworkz in February 2015 and started trading in the June. We’d actually worked together for 10 years in the industry - employed by a small company manufacturing and installing granite and quartz worktops where Julie ran the office and I ran the workshop. However, Julie was made redundant in 2012 and worked for another granite company for almost a year. Over time, we both realised we were unhappy at work - the constant fire-fighting was pretty draining and, more importantly, the ethos of both companies didn’t always sit comfortably with our personal values. It wasn’t a simple of case of saying, “Right, let’s try something new!”; we had a large mortgage and dependant children, and so working for ourselves was quite a daunting thought. However after many months of coming home feeling despondent, we did decide together that enough was enough.
Julie added; Between us, we knew we had as many if not more skills and experience than our main competitors, so we applied for a start-up loan and Dylan worked in the evenings cutting bricks to raise extra funds. We then found a workshop and secured a few contracts and finally, we took the leap.
Dylan when did your experience of working with stone of different types start?
I started in the industry in 2001 and Julie followed me shortly afterwards. Julie hadn’t worked in an office before and was thrown in the deep end after just a couple of weeks when her boss went away to America she was forced to hold the fort. It was a steep learning curve to say the least, but the knowledge and confidence she gained empowered her to quickly shape an important role within the company.
I’m very much a perfectionist, and I found my keen eye and attention to detail suited my role. I became a key team member and was then taken on as workshop manager despite not having any experience working with stone. I was also thrown in at the deep end in similar circumstances: five months into my new job, the owner travelled to America for a couple of weeks and was away when the 9/11 tragedy occurred and all flights were grounded for a good while, so I pretty much kept things running until his return. It was my first taste of running every aspect of a busy stonemasonry business.
What specialist skills do you need in this industry?
Dylan: The materials we work with are expensive, so accuracy and knowledge is key. They’re also very heavy, so strength, fitness and handling knowledge is essential. Although we use lifting equipment whenever possible, striving to minimise manual lifting, there’s always a ‘hands-on’ element. Carrying sizable worktops into properties often poses issues: we need to work around corners and levels to install the products, using our handling knowledge and experience to identify best practice for the site and the material, as well as a fair bit of good old brute strength! I spend time planning the fabrication and manoeuvring on every job to ensure the best outcome.
What is special about working with this product?
Dylan: Every type of stone is different and has its own unique composition. Treating the material with respect and understanding the consistency are important factors when working with stone. These days we make more quartz worktops than granite, and although we use the same machinery and techniques as we do for natural stone, there are additional issues to consider such as the tension in slabs and scorching. Understanding each material enables us to ensure best practices are carried out in the workshop. In short, natural stone varies hugely and it’s only years of experience that means we have know how to treat each unique piece.
What is your core business? And what other products do you create for your clients?
Julie: Kitchen worktops are currently the core of our business. We’ve also started to sell tiles and this has proved a great help to our clients - obviously people appreciate being able to choose their worktops and tiles together and ‘match them up’. We have a range of natural stone as well as some beautiful but reasonably priced porcelain to choose from.
The market for our worktops has changed considerably over the the last 5 years. Initially our customers were generally of an age where they’d brought up their family and were looking at spending money on their home now the children were independent. Now pleasingly, many of our clients are first time buyers with young families looking to make their homes an attractive and practical space for the family and for entertaining friends. We have many returning customers looking for vanity tops, hearths and sills from our offcut yard stock. We manage commercial projects with architectural stone for heritage buildings as well as vanities, reception desks and bar tops for large hotel refurbishments. We also offer a specialised brick cutting and bonding service for our construction clients.
Dylan: Julie is amazingly creative and has great flair for interior design. She has recently been working on the curation, design and production of a range of homeware that we are now slowly introducing into our showroom and website. Exciting times!
Which are the most satisfying products to work on out of everything you use - granite, marble, quartz, brick, slate?
Dylan: I like working with all materials, but my favourite has to be slate. It’s probably one of the messiest materials to work with, but also the most adaptable. I find the natural beauty of completed products exceptionally satisfying.
Personally, I love making the design work around the natural contours of the stone I’m using rather than moulding the stone to a specific design. This approach can create some lovely unique pieces - probably my favourite to date was a fire surround where the pieces of stone were specially selected for their natural shape and finish and the design worked around the slate rather than vice versa.
Why do you think your clients come back to you?
Dylan: In a nutshell? It is because we care. We understand that purchasing a luxury item for the home is an important decision. We feel a responsibility to share our knowledge, experience and industry contacts to guide our customers towards the best choices for their home improvement projects.
Our attention to detail is second to none, and I’m totally ‘hands on’ - I oversee each individual job from start to finish. If I wouldn’t have it in my own home, where I would see it every day, it won’t leave the workshop!
What is your dream for the future of Stoneworkz?
Dylan: We’ve been considering our work/home life balance recently and the physical pressures of the job have forced our hand slightly earlier than expected. The heavy work is beginning to take its toll on my back and the pain is often more than a niggle. We’re now looking at our business model from a different angle and considering where can make changes to be proactive and protect my health. Finding anyone with even half of my experience has proven futile, so we’re now looking at how we can put my skills in this industry to their best use without causing any more back injuries.
How? Well, our homeware products are proving popular and, helped along by Julie’s keen curation skills, we’re in the process of turning the showroom into more of a homeware boutique. Julie also writes poetry, so it seems a natural direction for her to introduce some totally unique products etched with her own words, such as garden standing stones and home and garden plaques. I have the opportunity to keep doing what I love, but also save my back by working on much smaller items. We’re also looking at offering my services out as a specialised stonemason consultant, which I would be proud to do.
Julie: We’re visualising a business where we both do the best bits of what we enjoy. Next stop: a healthy work/life balance and stability with higher and higher turnover taking a back seat.