Bricks and masonry are common elements in most houses in North America. As with everything else in your home, proper care and maintenance will ensure your bricks and mortar remain stable, functional and attractive for years to come.
Since bricklaying and masonry is not the expertise of most homeowners, we asked ourselves what our community would need to know about the bricks and mortar in their homes and interviewed one of our contractors to get professional advice on this type of work. Bernd from B&B Masonry was nice enough to provide his expertise in the field and answer all of our questions. Take a look!
1) What is repointing? Tuck pointing? How do I know if home needs to be repointed or tuck-pointed?
Pointing or re-pointing generally refers to the renewing of the mortar in the joints between brick, stone or block. In order to establish a lasting and enduring result, this requires that the old joints are cut out, using a special “crack chaser” blade on an angle grinder, to a depth of about 3/4″ or down to firm mortar, employing a “plugging chisel” in some areas, especially inside corners.
Tuck pointing refers to two, contrasting in colour mortars. Where one would be the colour of the brick and the other a thin tracer to give it the appearance of a narrow joint.
2) What effect does wet and damp weather have on bricks?
Bricks are generally highly absorbent by nature, both clay and concrete. The degree of which is established by how hard the brick was fired in the kiln and on the quality of the clay or concrete. The softer the brick, the higher the rate of absorption. If the brick retains dampness for a prolonged time and the drainage is poor, efflorescence could build on the surface.
Also, a combination of dampness and frost can cause an awful lot of damage to any kind of brickwork. On a brick that is hard burned on the outside but has a softer inner core spalling (a separation of inner and outer) could occur. Frost damage is usually more evident in the eastern provinces whereas in the west there is also the added factor of a relatively high salt content in the air, affecting structures especially close to the ocean.
One other important and often ignored reality is the amounts of pollutants and the high acidity that it brings with it that we release into our environment. This is very evident in all structures everywhere (pitted surfaces) but especially so in industrial areas.
3) How do I know when my chimney needs to be repaired?
Chimneys have always been a high maintenance component of any home or building. The exposure to all possible weather conditions is the main culprit here but the extreme temperature differences between the inner and outer also has a significant bearing, especially in wet and frosty locales. The chimney fires of old and even recent, with temperatures of 2000 degrees and up, have the power to literally “explode” a chimney given the right conditions. Freezing on the outside with an inferno on the inside.
Chimneys that endured an internal fire can generally not be repaired but need to be replaced. Cracks in the brick/stone facing are usually indisputable evidence to that. If you are still permitted to have a wood fire in your hearth the choice of fuel is critical.
On the West Coast you are inclined to burn the readily available and cheaper soft woods, mainly fir or cedar, which contain excessive amounts of resin which will adhere to the flue and in time ignite to cause a roaring chimney fire. Well cured hardwood is always the wiser choice.
Try not to close your damper too far but maintain a higher temperature in the flue, thereby keeping it clean. Better yet, consider a gas insert if possible, I know it’s not the same but it’s a lot safer.
The most common reason for maintenance is the deterioration of the mortar joints, which requires a re-point. The age of the chimney as well has a lot to do in determining whether it is a re-point or a rebuild. A lot of homeowners tend to treat their chimneys as an “afterthought” when it comes to their home maintenance budgets mainly because they’re often not very visible (out of sight out of mind!).
That could potentially be a grave error because of the possible fire hazard, endangering the entire home and all those within. So please, for everyone’s sake, give them their due attention!
4) Masonry restoration vs. rebuild. When to do each?
Again, as in the case of chimneys, the age of the structure is usually the determining factor. If maintenance has been kept up on a regular basis there’s a good chance that the masonry work will stand up for a long time. The bricks of old tend to be softer compared to more recent vintage and require replacement or substantial restoration in most cases.
Besides age, a bad initial install and/or insufficient drainage and ventilation (rain screen) can also make your decision for you. Spalling is also a demanding factor for replacement. If it is only a case of deteriorating mortar joints a simple re-point will usually do the trick. Ensure that your mason does not use too strong a mortar. If the original mortar was lime based, which is usually the case in brickwork, the correct re-point mortar should also have a large amount of lime.
If unsure you can have this analyzed by architectural consultants or engineers, but a qualified mason is usually all that you need. The key word here is “Qualified”! In all cases,
do yourself a favour, fix it right the first time. Don’t waste your money on “band-aid” surgery, you’ll only go through the whole experience again in short order or worse, and you will only have compiled the issues. Moisture problems in particular will quickly transfer to the rest of the structure.
5) What causes cracked bricks and can they be repaired?
There are various reasons for bricks to “crack”. One, as in chimney fires, are extreme temperature differences. Another could be the use of inferior clay and or over-firing when in the kiln. In the case of concrete bricks is usually to be blamed on the mixture or incorrect/insufficient curing.
Exposure to the elements, especially frost could also be a factor. Individual cracked bricks should always be replaced rather than repaired. If however the cracks appear throughout the surface, rather than individually, the problems may lie elsewhere, such as foundation and/or shifting. Allowance for expansion and contraction is something else that may comes into play. If this is the case you’ll have to address the cause first before attempting any repairs to the brick or stone.
6) How often does do I need to maintain my brickwork?
There really isn’t a good formula that suits all cases and all environments. Being pro-active and using your common sense will always be better than having to face extensive and expensive repairs.
If you live in an environment of extreme temperatures the maintenance issues will be greater than those found in moderate climates. With an older home, a careful and thorough inspection by a professional once a year will probably suffice. Newer homes should not require such frequency for years to come.
Horizontal surfaces, such as driveways and patios tend to be more challenging due to the constant use and the wear on these surfaces. Keep an eye on any issues that are developing. If you detect a potential problem get it looked at in short order. If you ignore it, the problems will only compound with time.
7) How does the age of brickwork impact stability?
Like all materials, in particular, those man-made, there is a lifespan. The extent of which is determined by all the factors that I have stated throughout. Brick has always been a very enduring material over the ages. There are brick buildings that have withstood the elements for hundreds and even thousand of years. But when brickwork deteriorates, for whatever reason, it becomes very unstable and a potential danger to the structure and all those in and around it. But age alone is by no means the all determining factor. Brick, in general, is a time proven material.
8) What time of year is best to conduct masonry repairs or rebuilds?
Repairs to masonry work should generally be carried out during milder, more stable conditions, such as spring, summer, and fall. But even then, there are variants to consider.
You still need to protect from the elements and cover your brickwork from rain, excessive cold and heat. Repairs are possible over the winter months even in colder climates but hording (cover and heating) is usually in order. Winter is the least desirable time to undertake masonry work, particularly in cold climates.
On the rainy West coast there is a saying: “If you don’t want to work in the rain, you’ll not work much around here!” It’s best to consult your local masonry expert to discuss the best season to do the work, as Canada has such varied weather from coast to coast.
9) What is the most common masonry repair you deal with? What can a homeowner do to prevent this from happening to their own home?
Re-pointing is by far the most common masonry repair. There’s really not much a homeowner can do to prevent this other than to be vigilant and keep an eye open for potential problem areas. Address those sooner rather than later to save yourself money and headaches.
In some cases, an application of a good water repellent may also be of benefit. A repellent, not a sealant! You want the wall to be able to breathe and if you seal it you are only intensifying the issues by sealing moisture in allowing the brick to rot. Thin veneer applications have their own issues. The sub-surface, usually cement scratch coats, absorbs moisture and this can in turn “peel” the brick slices off of some installs. Some masons will point out that the brick slices, in most cases, are already treated and that is correct, but it still leaves the joints and sub-surface unprotected.
10) Does the colour of bricks fade? How can I clean them?
Yes, with time the colour of brick will fade. Just how excessively is determined by the exposure to the sun and the elements in general. Not all sides of a structure fade uniformly. Re-staining brick is possible if you want to spend the money.
Cleaning brick depends on what caused the discolouring in the first place. A dust build-up can easily be taken care of by just a good soaking and a hard spray of water from a garden hose afterwards. You may be amazed by just how much dirt will be removed by this simple method alone.
For all other purposes and heavier staining, an acid wash may be required. Muriatic acid, the kind you’d use in pool maintenance, is one, but there is a number of better options that are formulated especially for this purpose. They are more costly but are far more gentle on the surfaces. In any case, I would not recommend for the average homeowner to undertake this procedure by himself for it’s not without its inherent dangers. Try the soaking first, you may be pleasantly surprised.
11) Will ivy growing on brickwork affect the brick?
We all love the appearance of our old universities and churches, all overgrown with ivy and other climbers, Alas, the damage that is caused to the masonry work by these climbers is enormous! Their little suction cups and tentacles literally “eat” the mortar out of the joints and even damage the brick themselves. To remove such growth is quite the undertaking. If you feel so inclined as to have plants grow over your masonry surfaces, we seriously suggest you re-think your strategy.
When making your decision about who to hire, keep in mind that bricklaying and masonry is an ancient and highly skilled profession that requires significant training. Masons attend trade schools and/or serve apprenticeships which teach them how to protect homes from humidity or water ingress, know about thermal insulation, and know about the science of construction material and occupational health and safety.
This is why it’s important to hire a trained professional and to research their credentials before engaging. Start your journey by reading reviews of skilled professionals in your area, and then ask for multiple quotes through our Get A Quote system.
Good luck with your home projects and when you finish a job, please leave a review. It helps the whole community! Also, if you’re curious about the types of projects you can take on, here are 5 homeowner-approve stone projects!
Photos courtesy of B&B Masonry
Article Updated June 2022.