I’m sitting on the front porch enjoying the roses and watching the occasional carpenter ant march in and out of the house through gaps in my ornate front door frame (a significantly less enjoyable experience). The masons are here, and Dan is helping them out while I take a break from clearing more debris from the wall where we took down the trees. The brickwork has really come along.
As I mentioned in a previous post, masonry work on historic buildings can be tricky business. Old brick and mortar buildings almost act like lungs, breathing moisture in and out of the house. Mucking this system up can cause a host of problems on the interior and exterior walls, like water damage, peeling paint, and crumbling brick. I did ultimately decide on a natural lime mortar, which is about three times the cost of the portland cement mortar you can pick up at Home Depot. This sounds like a lot, and will add up with the amount repointing the cottage needs, but the difference is $11 a bag instead of $4, and I can deal with that for the right stuff.
Our mason, John Anderson, has been doing brickwork all his life. He’s a close family friend and Dan calls him UJ (short for Uncle John). He and his son started out by concentrating on problem areas that needed more attention than just repointing. Dan elected to do the unenviable task of grinding out the joints after a short tutorial. When filling the joints between the brick with mortar, you must remove the old crumbly mortar (or in our case, some bad repair jobs) first. In hindsight, the guys were glad I was out of town for this decision. A power grinder is a no-no for restoration work, especially for a novice. The house has extremely soft hand-made bricks, and, to do the job properly, the mortar should have been chiseled out by hand to prevent damage to them. New apprentices often grind into the brick on accident, especially when cutting the vertical joints, and it’s not only aesthetically unpleasing, but can increase moisture in the wall and cause weak points.
You can think of bricks like home-made bread. The outer crust is baked hard, but the interior is much softer and more absorbent, so you never want to break the crust. And these bricks are already thirsty. UJ gave us all a laugh by repeatedly putting a brick in a bucket of water (which bubbled endlessly) and then pulling it out to watch it dry like magic in two seconds as the brick sucked the water in.
When I first saw the grinding, Dan and I had a serious chat (after I had a private freak-out). He wasn’t being cavalier with the job, but experience doesn’t appear overnight, and he had inadvertently damaged a few bricks. He explained that UJ offered to either charge $25 an hour to grind the joints himself or he’d teach Dan to do it for free. Dan thought that we didn’t have the time, manpower, or money to chisel the whole building, and given that the grinding was already more than half-finished and his skill was improving, we should just stay the course. I very reluctantly conceded, but requested UJ’s son, also an experienced mason, handle the areas that had been repointed by the previous owners since this mortar was much harder and the grinding job more difficult. Ugh, compromise…
While all this was going on UJ took apart the front corner of the house. There was a large conspicuous bulge here where the collapsing sister house next door had started to pull my house into its basement. The previous owners had hired someone to repoint the corner, but it really needed to be completely rebuilt. The brickwork is now flush and beautiful. Once the mortar has cured and the wall is strong, UJ will take a look at the stone foundation here and see what needs to be done to get it solid.
After this repair, UJ moved to the ell near the rear of the house, where a window had been installed in place of a door and very poorly bricked in. The edges of all of the bricks around the window had been chipped off and the mortar job below the window sill was, well…this:
Anyway, now it’s gorgeous!
A lot of this work occurs while I’m at the office or out of town, so coming over to the house is a pleasant surprise every time. Well, for the most part. As UJ works his way around the house, he is identifying other problem areas, and each repair adds up. While repointing above the same window, he found that the bricks immediately below the top plate of the rear addition were not even attached to anything anymore. The mortar had turned to sand and they were just sitting there looking pretty but doing nothing.
Dan washed the plaster off of the back of the house and also tried his hand at some repointing. It’s not terrible, but I did noticed it immediately without him telling me. UJ says it’ll turn out fine when we wash the wall after all of the repointing is done, but I really wish they’d had lessons in a less conspicuous area than in the center of the long wall at eye height…
So far we’ve only spent about $2,000 total on house repairs. The masonry work will ultimately cost somewhere between $6,000 and $10,000, as we’ve committed to rebuilding the entire front wall above the windows where the collapsing porch jacked it outward. Fortunately, we’ve just closed on financing! We now have the funds to get Little Red up and running again and it’s a great feeling, so cheers to that!