Ask the Builder: Don't Call Brick Building: DIY Reset

Ask the Builder: Don’t Call Brick Building: DIY Reset

In the past week, I’ve had no fewer than five phone calls from the homeowner with the same bleak news. They found it nearly impossible to get quotes from contractors for fairly simple repairs.

The stress level of each caller was high. Fortunately, I talked everyone through what they needed to do to complete the repairs themselves, saving a cumulative total of about $30,000 by my best estimate.

This is what I try to do every week: to reduce your anxiety, save money, and give you confidence so you can cut the rope between you and the contractors. I only do this when I feel you can make a repair on your own.

It is true that some tasks are beyond your capabilities. But many tasks, even scary ones, are not.

Replacing worn-out mortar between stones, concrete blocks, or bricks is something you can do. This is called re-fatting or, in many parts of the United States, extension (although this is technically a different thing). Let’s get started.

What I love about Restore Hope is that it requires very basic tools. Here is a list: a half-inch cold chisel, hammer, 12-inch brick trowel, and 1/2-inch or 3/8-inch remodeling trowel.

If you have a lot of rickety mortar to replace, it may be helpful in spades to invest in a small rotary hammer drill that you can outfit with a chisel bit instead of a drill bit. This tool can save you hours of time and prevent injuries if you get tired and hit your hand with the hammer instead of the cold end of the chisel.

The first step is to use a chisel to remove crumbly or decaying mortar. You will find that it is easier to add the new mortar if you cut the old mortar 1/2 inch or so. There is no need to go deeper unless the mortar is in such a poor condition that it can be removed with a stick.

Save at least half a cup of old mortar. You’ll need it to help you match the color of the new mortar.

Actually, let’s discuss it now. Before you start removing any mortar, look at it closely. Odds are it’s been weathered for decades and you can clearly see the individual bits of sand in the mortar. Note the color scale and the shape of the sand. These grains of sand combine with the mortar paste, bonding each piece of sand with other pieces to create the color you see.

When the mortar was new all those years ago, it was a uniform gray, perhaps pigmented some other color, because every grain of sand was coated with the mortar like a bar of ice cream dipped and coated in chocolate.

Over time, Mother Nature removes this coating just as it bites off the chocolate coating from ice cream. Once it’s gone, you’ll see what’s under the paint. Your task is to locate a gravel pit that is mining the exact same sand. The sand you use to repair the joints must have the same color range and grain size, or you will do yourself a lot of damage.

If you’re repairing bricks in an old building built in the late 19th or even early 20th century, the original brick builders likely used slaked lime. This is different from the modern bags of brick mortar we see today. You can still get slaked lime, which is a great ingredient to use when mixing new mortar. You can mix this lime with modern mortar mix to create different shades of dried mortar.

I have always had great luck making a strong mortar by combining three measures of sand with one measure of lime or mortar mix. The Brick Industry Association (BIA) has a treasure trove of technical notes on its website. I urge you to read many, if not all, of them to discover other mortar recipes and installation tips.

The basics of slurry recasting are simple. Once you’ve removed the old, worn-out grout, the next step is to use a brush to scrub the deep joints to get rid of all the dust and loose grit. The third step is to mix the new mortar, but as much as you can install it in an hour. Avoid adding water to the mortar, which is starting to harden. This added water will weaken the mortar.

If you can spray the joints you are about to fill with clean water, this will go a long way to adding strength to the new mortar. Spritzing just means getting the old bricks and mortar slightly damp, not saturated with water. Do not spray rocks as they have almost no suction. Brick and concrete block have suction. Suction allows some of the water to leave the fresh slurry so that it begins to harden only slightly. This allows you to use the mortar before it gets too hard.

Avoid working in direct sun on hot days. This will set the new mortar very quickly. Watch a few videos on the BIA website or online to see how the professionals do a grout reset. Watch how they slide the mortar into the joints with the narrow repositioning trowel. You will do well, and I guarantee you will save a lot of money and feel good about your success!

What can I help you with? What issues around your home worry you? What do you want me to discuss in my next columns? Go here and tell me. Make sure you type the word GO in the URL:

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