It takes three years to complete an apprenticeship as a stonemason, but ten years before you can consider yourself proficient, according to Steve Hughes, managing director of Joslins Stonemasonry.

So when he and fellow directors sat in their office at Long Hanborough last autumn, realising that their company would soon be technically insolvent, it was the thought of the unique expertise of their workforce — responsible for many of the carvings on Oxford colleges — that kept them going.

“The recession was starting to bite and things had gone from bad to worse,” said Mr Hughes.

"It got to the point that the company was going to be insolvent."

He and fellow director Brian Green — who met as apprentices at Axtell Perry Symm in Oxford — felt they had no choice but to put the company, J Joslin (Contractors), into administration after the owner, who has not been named, decided he could not sustain the business.

There were a tense few weeks just before Christmas when it seemed everyone would lose their jobs.

“The owner tried to find a buyer, but there was not a lot of response. Another local rival, Davidson Masonry, went down last summer — and that had been a thriving business,” Mr Hughes said.

“Rather than close everything down and 25 people lose their jobs, we thought of this highly-skilled workforce we have and how we could not allow that level of skill to die away.

“We were going to lose our jobs as well, but we looked at it and thought there was a good little business here,” he added. Their request for financial backing was turned down by four banks, but a lucky break came after they enlisted sub-contractor Sean Harris as the third director.

He knew Nigel Brooks, of Lloyds TSB, through their mutual involvement in Witney Vikings boys' football club and Mr Brooks suggested they apply.

They were successful, gaining approval for £150,000 backing and formed a new venture, Joslin Stonemasonry Ltd, to buy the assets.

Mr Green said: "Lloyds could see there was potential and they were very helpful."

The wind-up resulted in just one redundancy and the company now employs 22 staff, including two who have recently completed apprenticeships following three years' day release at Bath College.

Mr Hughes said costs had been cut and the company was now on a secure footing, though competition was tough.

"We used to have a consultant and a full-time lorry driver. Now we are all hands-on. The contract manager will jump on the lorry or handle a saw if necessary. We have looked at everything and the management has taken a reduction in wages."

Having negotiated a rent reduction, they aim to buy the premises in the next three years, including a former stone quarry behind, the source of many of Blenheim estate's drystone walls.

“The stone is no good for us because it splits," said Mr Hughes. Instead, the disused quarry will store stone bought from Bath and Portland.

Clients, who include many Oxford colleges, have also been supportive. Some suppliers were owed money by the old company, Mr Hughes said, but when the situation was explained they had been ‘very positive’.

Joslins started life in the 1890s, producing memorial stones on a site between two graveyards in the London suburb of Finchley.

It moved to Oxfordshire in the 1970s when it was bought by the owners of Oxford builders Benfield and Loxley, then became an independent company.

Nowadays, some designs are done by computer, but masons still need an artist's eye.

Joslins’ drawing team visits crumbling carvings to copy the shape of the gargoyles and grotesques created by their counterparts many centuries ago.

Since the re-launch, Joslins has won a contract to replace a parapet at Christ Church, taken down from the Oxford college’s Meadow Building a few years ago for safety reasons. Mr Hughes explained: “They supplied us with some historical documents and we had to come up with a drawing.”

Another big win is a new extension for Wellington College near Reading. The company is also working on four carvings for Magdalen College.

“Our carver came up with some sketches that he thought would be in keeping. You could make out the shape, but you could not make out the detail so he had to use his imagination.”

Mr Hughes says people are always fascinated by gargoyles — strictly speaking, a carved figure that takes the rainwater from gutters and spews it out through the mouth, but now used to describe any weird carving of a face or animal.

He added: "There is a lot of satisfaction to working on historic buildings and you get to see things that normal people do not.”