Bricklaying is a trade that requires skill, precision and a willingness to work outside, often against the elements. But more than that, it’s a trade with lots of transferable skills and one that’s in demand not only all over the UK but abroad as well. With these possibilities, we wanted to chat to a bricklaying expert who had really done great things with their knowledge and gone places with the skills they had gained through training.
Craig Phillips was definitely our guy. Having, in a relatively short space of time, made himself the name in DIY; on screen in programmes like 60 Minute Makeover, House Call and Trading Up, and off screen with his product endorsements and appearances at trade and home shows, he certainly suits the title ‘expert’. Starting out as a bricklayer himself, before going onto win the first ever Big Brother series and making himself a household name, Craig has come a long way from his humble beginnings in Liverpool. We’re always talking about how taking an apprenticeship can be a springboard to great things and this is one man that proves there really is no limit to what you can achieve once you’ve got the training.
Obviously Big Brother was what made you famous initially but you’re not famous for being a reality star, you’re more of an expert than that! So can you tell us a bit about the journey you took in your career before you ended up on TV and how you learnt so much about construction and DIY?
I was about 18 and I had just finished travelling around Europe with one of my friends and I came back to the UK and got a job as a labourer. After a few months working for a bricklayer I just got really attracted to the skill itself, seeing the way different bricks were laid and the techniques involved. One of the guys I was labouring for said to me, ‘Craig, you’re a good lad, you seem switched on, you don’t want to be a labourer all your life, you need to get a trade.’
Now, for me, the idea of getting a trade was quite intimidating because I knew I’d have to go to college. I’ve got to be honest, I hated school. I struggled with my exams and reading and writing so it was really scary to think that I would have to go to college. I never really thought I was cut out for it because none of my family had ever been to college or university. But I still pursued it and became an apprentice. I went to work for four days as a labourer and I’d go to college for one day a week. I did this for a few months and I really started to like it and within eight or nine months of the course, I was taking on additional courses – learning about the make-up of the bricks, stone masonry, even a little bit of civil engineering as well.
I think that gave me a good head start and I ended up becoming a sole trader and then setting my own company up. And actually, the bricklayer who encouraged me to go to college ended up working for me for seven years! My business just got bigger and bigger really; when I was 25 we had topped a million pounds in turnover.
Wow, that’s amazing – that’s real evidence of where an apprenticeship can take you!
It was good because I was getting hands on with the tools and getting experience but also I was learning from the tradesmen as I would labour alongside them. I believe to this day that if I hadn’t gone to college and learnt those skills I wouldn’t have been successful with the media side of things. I mean, I’ve been on over a thousand makeover shows, right the way around the world now, and if I hadn’t developed those skills I would have never had the opportunities I’ve had.
So, from Big Brother, how did you manage to turn your media career to focus on the skills you’ve already got? Obviously a lot of reality stars just go on to do more reality shows, so how did you manage to avoid that?
Well I had lots of opportunities when I came out of Big Brother, you know to release songs or other deals or whatever, but I had to keep my feet firmly on the ground to work in the media. I realised I had to develop it around what I know best and that’s building houses really. The BBC knew I had a building background and they approached me and said would I like to do a makeover show. And I’ve got to be honest, I didn’t even know what a makeover show was – I hardly watch TV!
The show was House Call and I remember the first time it aired. It was on the 2nd of January, straight after New Year in 2001 and I only had a little slot on it. The things they were asking me to do, I could do with my eyes closed! Then the BBC signed me up to this two year exclusive deal with them – I think I did about 500 shows – so I didn’t really have to run my building company anymore.
So I just focused on the media stuff and in between shows I would buy property and do it up. Then I’d rent it out. That way it kept my hands on the tools and kept me up to speed with all the health and safety regulations, any new brands, new techniques – because if I’m going to be on TV advising millions of people about it, I need to know what I’m on about.
How difficult do you find it to carry out your job with the TV cameras watching? Do you find it a bit off putting?
I wouldn’t say it’s off putting, because I’m kind of ok now with TV cameras around me, but it can be a bit difficult if you’re on live TV. They’re giving you a countdown to complete an item; you’re trying to do the job and concentrate on what you need to do. You’re trying to focus on what camera is on you; you’re hearing talking in your ear about whether camera one is on your hands or camera two is on your face...There’s a lot to think about! On the other hand, live TV does get the adrenaline going.
Back to bricklaying, what do you think is the hardest thing to master when learning it?
I wouldn’t actually say it’s massively hard to learn at all. If you’re getting the experience, once you start understanding the principles of laying bricks and how they fit together, you start to develop a knowledge of structure and how weight loads hold and how they spread. Once you’ve mastered laying bricks, it isn’t very hard – you can usually get that in 12 months of training and on site learning. Once you’ve got that, there’s no limit to what you can build. Once you’ve got the foundations you can just keep building higher and higher. There’s no difference from building at ground level to building five or six stories up.
Do you think you need to be physically fit to be a bricklayer? Because we’ve spoken to joiners and plasterers and they say that in those trades you do...
To be honest, I would agree. You do have to be relatively fit; and strong as well. It’s not an easy job; it’s physically hard. It can be cold because a lot of the time you’re working outside and exposed to the elements. It’s rough on your fingers too – you’re handling bricks and mixing cement and sand.
So as well as your TV work, you’ve become an ambassador for Silverline Tools; how did that come about?
Well I had heard of the company for several years, even before I went in Big Brother and used their products and when they saw me using them on TV they approached me to see if I would work with them as an ambassador. I’ve tested the products and they can do the wide range of jobs I do, both on my own houses and on TV programmes.
Do you get called upon a lot by friends and family for DIY jobs?
Oh it’s endless! I mean, obviously I look after my mum and step father, and my sister and her children, but it means the jobs in my own houses get left until the end! I’ve actually got about 60-odd tenants in my houses at the moment and in between my TV jobs I’m always having to put things right that have broken or do odd maintenance jobs. Then my personal house, that I live in, that gets left to bloody last!
Is it falling apart then?
No, not quite. It’s a new build; I only built it a year ago so it’s still in good stead!
Have you got any DIY blunders that you’d like to confess to yourself?
Oh I’ve got hundreds but I’m not telling you!
Oh go on, tell us a secret!
Ok, here is one. Years ago, before Big Brother, I was up on a ladder, trying to paint this building – and nowadays you wouldn’t be able to go up a ladder that tall; it was a four storey building. So it was about 14 metres high and I had a tin of paint on an ‘s’ hook on the top of a ladder and I’m tip toeing and my shirt unhooked this five litre tin of gloss paint. It came out, hit the window sill on the way down, dripping half way down the building, then, when eventually it did hit the floor, it exploded like a bloody bomb! It splattered all the walls of the building, about four or five parked cars in a line and the lad holding the ladder at the bottom. I had to climb down and there were cars and buses beeping and laughing at me. Absolutely horrible it was!
That sounds like something straight out of a comedy!
Yeah, it put me off ever looking at a paint brush again! In fact, now I use Wagner paint sprayers instead!
My last question then is; what advice do you have for people who might want to follow in your footsteps?
I would 100% advise people to get a trade. Go to college, get an apprenticeship somewhere, learn a trade. Because when it’s with you, it’s with you for life. You can use it basically anywhere in the world. I mean, let’s face it, ever since the caveman age we’ve always had to live in some form of houses; we’ve always had to build something around us. Whether it’s one of the core trades, bricklaying, carpentry, plastering – start with that, then if you do master them, I would advise everyone take on some more. That’s the main key to my success, being multiskilled. Bricklaying was the start for me – I learnt how to build houses first. But then I learnt how to put the roofs on them, tile them, plaster them, fit the windows and then do all the carpentry inside too.
That’s a really good answer – starting in one place and just learning and learning to progress your career! Thanks Craig!
If you’d like to learn a trade and work in construction, bricklaying is a popular place to start. Have a look at the bricklaying courses available here.