Charles Savage creates functional art in stone
For mason Charles Savage laying rock, brick and block comes as natural as breathing.
He was practically born a rock layer as he began learning as a youth, tutored by one of the best around, his father Waivie.
It could be more than coincidence that the men live in Flat Rock, a small community on the western edge of Smith County.
The duo worked side by side for a solid 25 years, until Waivie retired seven years back.
"I started doing this in the summer months when I was out of school and big enough to go, about 12 or 13," says Charles, 49. "Basically I picked up a trowel and started out laying mud for my dad.
"I took a trowel and put it on. That made it twice as fast. You got to learn how to spread the mud before you lay the brick. Then when I got the mud spread all the way through, I turned around and started laying brick back toward him.
"He said, 'The more you do it, the speed will come,' and before you know it, I was meeting him halfway."
As for how he does it, well, Charles states it quite simply: "You just pick one up and lay it down and pick another one up and lay it next to it. Next thing you know, it's a rock wall."
But make no mistake, Savage is a master of his trade and knows how to use his tools: masonry level, trowel and hammer; like an artist handles a paintbrush.
Hearths of stone
After Waivie, 83, retired in 2008, Charles kept their business, Savage Masonry, going full speed ahead. He builds fireplaces, chimneys, mail boxes, stone patios, retaining walls and entrance ways.
"We enjoy doing chimneys. That's probably what we're best known for," said Charles, who estimates he's raised a good 45 to 50 of them as he practices his craft in Smith, Wilson, Trousdale and DeKalb counties.
Waivie, who grew up in Gainesboro, Tennessee, commenced to laying brick and rock for a living at 20 years of age.
"Way back I helped my dad build rock chimneys. We used plain ole clay mud for the mortar," he says of his beginnings as a rock man. "I had 54 years of it."
Along the way, he earned a respected reputation as a bricklayer and bricked more than 50 homes in the Denny Hills subdivision in Mt. Juliet, putting fireplaces in the majority of the houses.
"Yeah, I laid brick," he says modestly. "One man helped me. I wasn't in no hurry. Contractor wouldn't let me quit."
The key to laying brick or rock right?
"You got to have a good eye for one thing. Know straight from crooked. The main thing it's gotta be plumb and level," said Waivie.
The Savage men worked skillfully over the decades with brick, block and stones. Today, Charles works about three-fourth of the time with rock, mostly native Tennessee limestone.
"We done a little rock work all along. As time evolved, people wanted more stone. I just as soon be laying stone as brick, if not druther now," he said.
"Most people who want stone work have got a farm and have stone on the farm. If not, you buy it or quarry it out. We're doing a job now, using four or five tractor-trailer loads of stone out of Nashville," Charles said of a project that included a chimney for a two-story log cabin and a 300-foot-long retaining wall.
Practically all of his clients come to him via word of mouth. One of his repeat customers is Hal Bone, who lives on a farm near Lebanon.
"Charles and Waivie have rebuilt a rock fence for me. They've done rock columns, patios and multiple chimneys. They're really good at laying flat stone. It's really hard to find somebody who will do that type of work," said Bone.
"Charles has an eye for choosing stones that give a fireplace or chimney the character it deserves. He's pretty versatile with brick or stone. He can lay a 10-foot chimney in one day's time so he's relatively quick.
"Outside of their stone work, Charles is really good at building log cabins, and he's put together three log cabins for me so far. He doesn't mind working with the rougher lumber and restacking the logs and cutting them. He's just well known in the community for working with log homes. It's a unique trade, and I enjoy being around him," Bone said.
Skilled carpenters, as well
As for the pleasure he receives after completing an assignment, Charles says, "I enjoy being able to take a rock that looks like something you couldn't do nothing with and turn it into something enjoyable to look at."
These days his nephew Jay Winfrey assists him, while Eric Roberts, a cousin, helps from time to time.
Charles also has skills as a carpenter, a gift that comes handy when the weather turns bad as he cannot lay rock when it rains or the temperature gets below 32 degrees.
"I'd rather be working as sitting around myself. I been lucky for last couple of years to have some inside work to do, rechinking old log cabins," he said. "We put up old log cabins, chimneys and chink them. We do it all to try and stay busy."
His work in stone and timber may be evidenced in profusion at his own place. He lives in a restored log cabin with fireplace and chimney and a wraparound porch. Out back he has put up five other log structures, using century-old logs to build a garage, smokehouse, barn and one-room guest cabin.
While he obviously enjoys the ambiance of a log cabin, the man known for his work in stone shares the notion, "If I ever build another one, I will probably make a rock house."
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.