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How this firm got the edge fixing the stone-faced characters in Ottawa

Stone carver John-Philippe Smith of Smith & Barber Sculpture Atelier, works on a piece in Ottawa. ‘Our philosophy is to remain competitive using traditional tools and methods.’

Graham Hughes/The Globe and Mail

On Parliament Hill in Ottawa you see a lot of ugly, stone-faced characters, and Smith & Barber aim to fix this.

John-Philippe Smith and Danny Barber are not politicians, they're stone carvers.

Between now and 2017, which will be Canada's 150th birthday, their company, Smith & Barber Sculpture Atelier, is restoring and repairing the gargoyles, grotesques and distinctive leaves and lettering that grace the Parliament Buildings.

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"We're basically responsible for replacing all the stone-cut elements and all the moulding elements," says Mr. Barber. The firm on site consists of Mr. Smith, Mr. Barber and three employees.

Their work is part of a larger restoration scheduled to continue to the late 2020s. While Smith & Barber won the contract to work on Parliament through competitive bidding, both partners believe the key to their success is not just price, but the fact that they work the old-fashioned way, by hand.

"Our philosophy is to remain competitive using traditional tools and methods," Mr. Smith says. "Everything needs to be hand finished. It's particularly important when you're working on a heritage building."

Fewer than 100 people in Canada know how to do this work, he adds, which is why both men also teach the craft at Algonquin College in Perth, Ont., near Ottawa. The skilled-labour shortage also means that carvers are brought over from Europe.

This labour shortage doesn't even show up in the projections of organizations such as the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, which says that by 2016, Canada will have 1.3 million skilled-labour job vacancies. In construction alone, an estimated 219,000 workers will retire before 2020 and there aren't enough people to replace them.

Their skill is not one of the 150 or so regulated trades in Ontario and is one for which there aren't a lot of schools or teachers.

In addition to Smith & Barber's team, there are about 200 stonemasons from other firms on site, restoring buildings block by limestone block. Carvers are not masons, they say – it's a different type of work.

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Some stone firms mix traditional methods with modern robotics and computerized design, and both Mr. Smith and Mr. Barber say they are well versed in modern auto-CAD (computer-assisted design) methods. But when it comes time to actually do the work, they use hammers and chisels, working from hand-drawn designs.

Mr. Barber, 44, said he came to the carving craft through his family business, making grave markers and monuments. He found it boring to stamp out here-lies-so-and-so onto tombstones, and so he went to Weymouth, England, to learn how to create architectural artwork.

Mr. Smith, 38, found he had an aptitude for carving when he was young and studied at Algonquin College. With a dearth of courses in Canada to learn how to do this work, he also learned from working on projects in Britain and France.

Smith & Barber see a growing interest in their work among builders and purchasers of high-end luxury homes. So they're branching out with hand-carved, distinctively Canadian fireplace designs for upper-crust houses and cottages.

They are also selling the experience of being involved in producing a work of art in stone. To that end, they participate in stone-carving festivals, such as one held in Queenston, Ont., at the Willowbank School of Restoration Arts in late summer and another scheduled for August across from Parliament Hill.

In addition, they encourage high-end clients to be involved in the work. "This means having them visit our shop and meeting with the craftsmen directly," Mr. Smith says.

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"They'll work with us as a team to help design and create the vision. This is an approach that sets us apart from the competition, who are typically processing pieces in a highly industrial environment the client never sees.'"

The company's biggest investment, rather than equipment, is in training crafts people, Mr. Smith says.

All of the Parliament Hill team members are craftsmen right now, he adds, "but there are some excellent women carvers in Europe."

What is it like to smack a piece of limestone and turn it into a work of art? Mr. Smith is enthusiastic.

"It's understanding the lights and darks, the textures you can get with your tools, the foliage and anatomy you're depicting," he says.

At the same time, in a way, it's not as special to them as it looks to outsiders, Mr. Smith says.

"People have been cutting and carving stones like this for thousands of years. It's just that in this day and age it's considered special because no one does this any more. Really, we're just doing the work, the same way it was done in the past."

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