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ONALASKA — James Flahaut’s experience in masonry goes back decades. That’s why, while opening his new masonry company during a pandemic has him worried, he’s confident he can overcome whatever is thrown at him.
Flahaut opened JF Masonry in November, based out of his house in Onalaska. He’s been in the masonry trade since 1989, starting out as a hod carrier for about 10 years. He then moved on to start a residential apprenticeship, followed by completing the apprenticeship in the union and going back and forth between union and residential work over the years.
“I just kind of hit a point where I was ready to go out on my own, be in control of the quality of work that I’m doing and have a little more freedom as to how I do things,” Flahaut said.
The main focus of work in his new company will be working with brick, blockwork, stone and a little tile. He plans to take a different approach than normally in mason work, seeking to be more hands on with homeowners and clients to help bring their visions to life.
“To let them create a vision and then we’ll put it out together, rather than just going in and slapping something up and calling it good and ‘pay me,’” Flahaut said. “I’m trying to be a little more artistic about it.”
Right now, the big fad is stonework, he said. People are wanting cultured stone often used for fireplaces and wall accents in homes and buildings. Real stone is also popular, which has the same application process as cultured stone and is put on like a veneer.
“Those have been real popular,” Flahaut said. “A lot of people like the stone because it kind of has a unique look to it.”
Currently, he’s working on a brick job, and a while back did some sand set pavers work, which involves spreading out sand and setting pavers on to the sand, which is then compacted to create a brick pathway.
He was recently contacted to build a Russian fireplace, a distinct stove built for both cooking and domestic heating, which burns at a high temperature as the bricks absorb the heat and continue to radiate warmth for up to 14 hours. It’s a difficult fireplace to build as it requires a flue, a duct for smoke and gases to twist in and around the inside of the fireplace to trap heat.
“It’s an undertaking,” Flahaut said. “It’s really expensive. I’m kind of going, ‘You really want a Russian?’”
Full brick or stone fireplaces are expensive, so a lot of people elect to go with an insert and then have masonry put in around them. Flahaut also has run into a lot of people who need their fireplaces repaired, which can mean tearing them down below the roofline and building them back up.
“That’s a little popular, too,” Flahaut said. “People are putting money into their houses, trying to fix them up.”
Creating something that lasts for years is one of the draws of this trade for Flahaut, and one of the main reasons he’s stuck with it for 31 years. Many jobs don’t involve creating a physical object. This one does.
“Masonry holds up to the test of time and there’s a lot of pride in our old trade,” Flahaut said. “The buildings in downtown Centralia and Chehalis, there’s a lot of masonry there. It was built by guys in the 30s, 40s and 50s. A lot of the guys who built those buildings aren’t around anymore, but the buildings are still there.”
As of now, JF Masonry has a few jobs on the books that Flahaut is about to start. He’s waiting for the weather to subside a bit because it’s hard to cover up a worksite out in the open, he said. It’s not so much the rain, but the wind that creates problems while completing a project.
Opening up during a global pandemic is another big concern of Flahauts, and it’s a gamble he hopes pays off. He’s still worried about it and isn’t sure what the future holds for his new masonry business.
“My thoughts were, if it doesn’t work out, at least I only had four or five months into it,” Flahaut said. “And then I can go back to the union. But, so far, it’s been pretty good. I’ve got a lot of phone calls. I know there’s not a lot of masons anymore that are doing what I’m doing.”
A lot of the old-school bricklayers are retiring now, he said, and that, coupled with a large portion of the younger guys leaving residential masonry for the union, creates a spot for his business to thrive. There aren’t a ton of competitors in Lewis County he said, although he doesn’t see them as competition.
“It’s more like we’re in it together,” Flahaut said. “With everything that’s going on, small businesses are struggling a lot. We need to help them out anyway we can. We’re all banded up together right now.”