Brick Structures
Oh What Damage We Do Inflict
by Gary Kleier

There was a time, many years ago, when I thought water was the most deadly enemy of any historic masonry building. That naive notion died within the first hour on my first rehabilitation project. The most deadly enemy is man and what he does in the name of maintenance and rehabilitation. (We will ignore, at this time, those who think "Old Buildings" should be demolished in the name of "progress" - may they all be shot at dawn!)

Most of our historic structures, even some of the most elegant, have experienced the cycle of decline and neglect, eventually winding up in the hands of people incapable of maintaining the building, that feel cheaper is better, or simply refuse to spend any money on the building unless forced to. Whatever the reason, the maintenance, if any, was probably more damaging than helpful. However, through sheer luck and the inevitable cycles of time, many of these buildings survive long enough to wind up in the hands of people who feel they are worth rehabilitating. But that doesn't mean they are saved. It takes more than good intentions.

Kleier's first law of Rehabilitation: Do No Harm.

Twenty-five years ago, when I first began to work in this area of architecture, there was probably no one who could write the things you will read here. We didn't know! By my present standards, I should have been executed for violation of the first law.

Whether through ignorance or for the love of money, all manner of incorrect, incompetent, inappropriate or destructive measures have been inflicted upon older masonry buildings, all to frequently by those of us with the best of intentions. This short article is intended to give you just enough of what we have learned in the last quarter century to make you dangerous..... dangerous, that is, to those who choose to remain ignorant or just want to separate you from your money.

What do you need to know to be dangerous?

Kleier's second law of Rehabilitation: It is always less expensive to do it right the first time.

Treat the cause, not the symptom: Most of the problems associated with historic masonry buildings don't begin with the masonry itself. They are the result of the failure of some other component of the structure. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problems I see are related to water. This may be roof leaks, flashing failures, failures in the gutter / down spout system or failure to remove water at ground level. Unless these problems are corrected first, any treatment of the symptom is doomed to failure.

Myths and the Charlatans

Waterproofing will solve the problem of wet walls: All too frequently we have salesmen spraying water on the side of a house and showing the unsuspecting home owner how his brick wall is soaking it up. Obviously, it needs to be waterproofed! How do we treat this person? Grab the back of his collar with one hand and the seat of his pants with the other and don't let go until he is sailing out your front door. He is definitely after nothing more than your money.

Without getting into the whys and wherefores of historic bricks, let it just be said that water absorption is a characteristic of the material. Because of the methods of brick construction a hundred years ago, it was not a problem then, and it is not a problem now. But Waterproofing Is!

Historic brick and mortar breathe - a lot. Apply a waterproofing to keep the water out and you trap it inside the wall just as well. Unlike modern construction, historic brick walls really are brick all the way through. Water entering the wall, whether from the outside as liquid, from the inside as water vapor, or from the top as in a roof leak, will migrate to the exterior and escape unless you do something to prevent it...... like waterproofing. Brick wall construction is a system that has worked for as long as man has been making bricks, and that's a lot longer than we have been making waterproofing.

Another of Kleier's rules: Don't trap water in the wall.

That leads us to the next problem, painted brick. If your painter or paint salesman tries to convince you that oil and latex paints breathe, stick his head in a plastic bag and ask him to breathe. That is how your painted brick wall will feel. Compared to older brick, paint is like a plastic bag. If you think paint will solve the problem of a wet wall, the only thing you will have is a wet wall with pealing paint, and a much smaller bank account.

Another problem that you need to be aware of involves landscaping. I recently had a client with a brick house and a mildew problem. In one area of the house, mildew was growing behind several ceramic items hung on the inside of the front wall. The cause of the problem involved two things, badly deteriorated mortar joints that were allowing excessive water into the wall and a fir tree that had grown up immediately next to the house and was blocking the sun and air from reaching the wall. As I have said, brick does absorb water. In this case, more that it should have. However, the only place water vapor was reaching the interior was directly behind the fir tree. The tree was preventing the wall from drying and water vapor eventually reached the interior. But even then it was such a small amount that it created a problem only where escape was blocked by the ceramic wall hangings. 

Yes, landscaping is a beautiful part of our historic environment. Just be sure that there is sufficient room for air to circulate. Taking that one small step further, ivy and other plants growing up a brick wall look beautiful, but they can be damaging your brick. As beautiful as it may be, it really is best to remove them.

Now lets move on to the walls that really do need some help and the next class of people that need to be shot at dawn.

Until about 1930, the mortar used in masonry construction was composed almost entirely of lime putty and sand. It was relatively soft and worked very well with the softer, more porous bricks of the time. Unfortunately, over time the exposed area of lime putty mortar can be eroded and pointing, refilling the mortar joint with new mortar, may be required.

Here again enters modern man with his miracle product, caulking! "Lets just squirt these joints full of caulking, particularly in the areas under bad gutters where water is a constant problem. After all, caulking will keep out the water, it is easier to do than pointing and certainly much cheaper than fixing the gutters, right?" If you believe this, go back to the beginning and pay attention to what you are reading, or join the next group waiting for dawn!

First, lime putty mortar breathes even more than the brick. When you seal the mortar joint with caulk you once again create a barrier to water escaping from the wall. Instead, fix the real problem that is allowing the water to get into the wall. (Rain falling on a wall is seldom the problem.) Then, if necessary, have the wall repointed.

Second, the person who believes this is cheap does not understand proper caulking methods and is doomed to another failure before he even begins. Two of the most important things to know when caulking a joint are: the depth of the joint must never be greater than the width of the joint; and the caulking must adhere to both sides of the joint but never the back of the joint. To caulk properly you must first cut the joint to a depth about one and one half times as deep as the joint is wide and install a backer rod to prevent the caulk from sticking to the rear of the joint. If you don't, your cheap caulk joint lasts about a year before it pulls itself loose from one side of the joint or cracks in the middle. Now you have a deteriorated mortar joint full of useless caulking that looks ugly, leaks and will be an expensive pain to remove when someone finally decides to do the job correctly.

Efflorescence: This is the white, powdery substance that is occasionally seen on brick exteriors. It really is not harmful in itself, but can be a symptom of harmful things that are happening. Efflorescence is nothing more than naturally occurring salts that dissolve in water, are carried to the surface and are left behind when the water evaporates. It can be removed by brushing with a stiff bristle brush followed by a light detergent wash. If the wall has not been pointed and the joints have not been caulked, this usually indicates that too much water is getting into your wall. Before you spend your time cleaning, look for the cause and correct it. If you don't, the efflorescence will come right back.

Lime putty mortar breathes more than the brick, so most of the water in the wall will migrate to the mortar and evaporate at the joints. However, an improper pointing job or caulking of the joints can stop this, forcing the water and the salt it carries into the brick. If the water evaporates before it reaches the surface, the salts (the same thing that causes efflorescence) are deposited inside the brick where they expand and exert pressure on the surface of the brick. This, along with freezing temperatures, will cause pock marks to develop in the face of the brick and chipping to occur adjacent to the mortar joints.

So far the things I have discussed are pretty straight forward and easy to understand. The last topic, Repointing or simply Pointing, is more complex and not even understood by many brick masons. No, that is not a comment on the quality of contemporary brick masons. It is only a recognition that there has been a significant change in the way we do things and many brick masons have never had reason to become experienced in historic means and methods. (By the way, the term "Tuck Pointing", although widely used even by those of us who should know better, refers to something totally different than what we are discussing here. Remove that term from your vocabulary until you read the articles mentioned at the end.)

Lets start this section with a short discussion of materials:


Older brick may look similar to contemporary brick, but as a result of the way it was made, it is generally much softer and absorbs much more water. Also the face of the brick is considerably harder than the interior.

Like all other materials, bricks will expand and contract with temperature and humidity. This movement is very small when you are looking at an individual brick, but adds up to something significant when you build a wall. The point is that brick walls move. You may not see it, but unless this is considered when the wall is constructed (or pointed), you will see the resulting cracks.


Prior to 1930, mortar was usually composed of lime putty and sand. This mortar was relatively soft and remained slightly pliable throughout its life. This mortar "cures" or hardens by a chemical process that requires the presence of carbon dioxide, not by drying out. Because of the slightly pliable nature of the mortar, it can move with the expansion and contraction of the brick and small cracks can actually repair themselves. The presence of a small amount of water in a wall is required for curing and actually beneficial in maintaining the flexibility of the mortar.

Contemporary mortar contains hydraulic cement as well as lime and sand. Hydraulic cement is the major component of concrete and cures in the presence of water (hence the name hydraulic). This mortar is considerably harder than lime putty mortar, has no flexibility once it cures, is very impervious to water when compared to lime putty mortar and actually shrinks slightly as it cures. If there is insufficient water, this mortar will not cure properly, losing adhesion and becoming slightly powdery. When building a wall with this type of mortar, control joints (joints that allow for movement) must be installed at regular intervals, both horizontally and vertically, to accommodate the movement.

The wall:

Important information: The mortar must always be softer than the masonry unit (brick or stone) to avoid damage. 

A brick structure of 100 years ago would normally have walls composed entirely of brick. The outer layer or wythe (pronounced "with") of brick (the "face" brick) was harder, with a face more impervious to water. The inner wythes were normally composed of softer bricks called common brick. The mortar was lime putty mortar. The thickness of the walls was determined by the load the wall would carry and the stability requirements. Houses would normally be three or four wythe thick, while taller buildings could have walls considerably thicker. It was very common to reduce the thickness of walls as one progressed higher in a structure because the load was reduced, and this also provided a shelf upon which to set the floor joists. The use of lime putty mortar greatly reduced or eliminated the need for control joints because of its flexibility.

Contemporary "brick walls" are usually composed of a structural frame covered with a skin or veneer of brick. The brick no longer has a structural function. It is there to look good, stop water from getting to the structure and reduce maintenance. The bricks and mortar are much harder, they are both very impervious to water and the walls must have control joints to prevent cracking. As you can see, the methods of construction are very different.

Repointing or Pointing (remember, not Tuck Pointing):

This is the process of removing some of the mortar from a joint and replacing it with new mortar. This is usually done when a considerable amount of the mortar has been lost from the face of a joint or because cracking has occurred. Just because a joint appears to be soft does not mean it needs pointing.

Now that you understand these elements, lets talk about pointing an old wall and see what can happen. 

First, the mortar didn't just decide to fall out or crack. There is a reason the wall needs pointing. Fix that first. Then find yourself a mason that is experienced in historic work. If you know more than he does, you are already in trouble.

Normally an entire wall does not need pointing, only those areas that are bad. If your mason says the entire wall is deteriorated, get a second opinion. I recommend using a knowledgeable consultant or architectural conservator because he has nothing to loose by telling you the truth.

Next, what kind of mortar is to be used? There are two things to be considered here and both are related to the composition of the mortar. First, what is the mixture; how much lime, how much sand, is there any cement in the mixture? Second, what type of sand was used. This is actually a major element of the color of the finish. Unless the project is large or very important (with a budget to match), lab testing of the mortar may be too expensive. Normally the mason used local sand, so an examination of the original mortar will probably give you all the information you need about the sand. Then I recommend making several test samples using slightly different mortar mixes. Cure them properly for several days and compare them to your existing mortar. The new mortar should be softer than the original and slightly darker because it will lighten with age. One of the most common historic mixes was 1 part lime putty to three parts sand. Sometimes powdered limestone, ground sea shells, brick dust and other seemingly strange elements were added. Starting in the late 1800s, cement was occasionally added in small amounts. Another mix that seems to be common in rehabilitation work today is two parts lime putty, two parts Type N masonry cement, and eight parts sand. Unless you want to spend a little time creating your own formula, this is what you will probably get.

Of major importance, and frequently overlooked, is how the mortar will be removed from the joints. This is one of the most time consuming and definitely the dirtiest part of the job. If your mason says he is going to grind the joints, find another mason. The best way to remove the mortar is by hand with a chisel or brick rake. On occasion I will allow the mason to use a thin diamond blade to cut a small line down the center of the bed joint (horizontal joint). This is called a relief cut and allows the mortar on either side to be removed easily. However, you only do it in the horizontal joints. In the head joints (the vertical joints) the blade will strike the brick at either end of the joint before it cuts to full depth. This will notch the brick on the top and bottom of the joint. On occasion the joints are so narrow there is no power tool that can be used without widening the joint or damaging the masonry. Frequently the mason will try to tell you that the joints will look better if he can widen them and that it is the only way to get mortar in the joint. Don't wait for dawn. Call the firing squad immediately. 

Why is this critical? First, the interior of the brick is softer than the face. Once the mason hits the brick with the grinder, your first line of protection against water and dirt is gone - forever. Secondly, the character of the wall is forever changed. Remember, you are paying for an historic building and that building has a certain character that is forever destroyed when the joints are damaged.

Placing the Mortar: Of critical importance, before the placing of the mortar begins, the wall must be thoroughly wet to avoid drawing the moisture from the mortar. The mortar is then packed into the joints with a narrow trowel in thicknesses of 1/4". Attempting to fill the joint with a thicker amount of mortar makes it difficult to properly compact the mortar into the joint and leaves voids where water can accumulate and pop the joint in freezing weather.

Pointing mortar should be mixed in amounts that can be used within an hour. If the mortar becomes stiff, it should be discarded. Do not add more water. 

Striking the joint: Striking is the method of finishing the mortar joint and compacting the surface to make it shed liquid water better. The best way to determine what was originally done is to find an area of the wall that has been protected from the elements and see how it was struck. The joints are going to be struck in some fashion, why not the original? Under no circumstances should it be "rod struck" (a round rod is used and produces a concave joint that looks like this parenthesis). That is a contemporary method and would never have been used on your wall. If the edges of the brick have been damaged or have deteriorated, consider recessing the joint just slightly. This will prevent the mortar from filling these damaged areas and emphasizing the damage.

Cleaning: If the mason is careful, little cleaning is required. After the joint is struck, the use of a soft bristle mason's brush will remove most of the surface mortar. If this doesn't quite do the job, larger tags of mortar can be removed with a wooden paddle. Additional cleaning with a stiff bristle brush and water can be done after the joints are sufficiently set to avoid damage. Muriatic acid should never be used on historic masonry. Some masonry cleaners are available that will help clean without doing extensive damage to the new mortar joints. Several masons have suggested the use of vinegar as a safe, natural, bio-degradeable solution for removing the white film that may remain. If a chemical solution is going to be used, including vinegar or detergent, the wall must always be thoroughly wetted prior to the process. Otherwise the cleaning agent will be drawn into the brick.

Curing: Because older bricks absorb water readily, they will quickly draw the moisture from the mortar. Proper curing requires that the wall be kept wet for three days or more. Depending on the temperature, humidity, wind and sun conditions, this may require hosing the wall down every hour or two during the day.

A lot of masons will tell you this is all unnecessary. The use of contemporary mortars will do a better job for less, the mortar sets up so fast that wetting the wall is not necessary and no one is going to care how the joints are struck. (This guy is the next candidate for the firing squad.) So, to make you more knowledgeable than him, here is what you need to understand.

1. Contemporary mortar is impervious to water when compared to lime putty mortar. We are now dealing with the same problem we discussed earlier about caulking and efflorescence. 

2. Contemporary mortar does not move and your wall does. Cracking will definitely occur. Frequently this will be adjacent to a window or door where the wall is weakest and now you have a structural problem.

3. Contemporary mortar (even Type N which is 50% lime putty) is very hard compared to lime putty mortar. When the wall moves the lime putty mortar will have some give and the contemporary mortar will not. This places extreme pressure on the outer edge of the brick (where the pointing has occurred) and can actually spall (split) the face right off the brick. (Look at the brick in the middle of Figure 1.)

4. Contemporary mortar, even more than lime putty mortar, requires water to cure. Just because it feels hard in a short time does not mean it has cured. It will take seven days to reach 90% of its eventual strength it is cured properly.

5. Contemporary mortar is not the same color as your lime putty mortar and this will be obvious.

Remember, you are the one who must live with this and pay for this, not your mason.

There are probably a dozen other things that can be discussed in relation to historic brick masonry, but these are the most critical. If you want more information, I have included links to other web sites where you will find more detail.

Now there is only one more critical element to discuss, the value of the preservation work. As I described early on, most of our historic properties entered a downward cycle at some point in time. If the property is fortunate enough to survive, it will probably enter an upward cycle eventually. This usually occurs when the property reaches a purchase price low enough that the buyer can begin to invest some money in it. This begins the upward cycle where buyers will eventually value the property for its esthetic qualities and historic significance. Somewhere in this cycle the buyers begin to bring in not just the building inspector, but the architectural conservator to evaluate the correctness and quality of restoration work. The value of the building is no longer just dependent on those factors the appraiser normally evaluates. Now, like an antique, the value depends on quality and correctness. 

When we reach this point, the second law of rehabilitation changes to read: It is more valuable when done correctly.


Learning the hard way about softer mortar;
The keys to proper restoration work.  

National Park Service,
Department of the Interior Preservation Brief 2,
"Repointing Mortar Joints in Historic Masonry Buildings" 

National Park Service
Introduction to standards and guidelines  

National Park Service
Technical Preservation Services for Historic Buildings 

2000-2002 Gary Kleier,

Webmaster's note:
Gary Kleier is our resident Old Louisville Architectural Conservator.  He lives on Floral Terrace and is one of those folks who was instrumental in the landscaping and beautification of that little jewel of a walking court between Sixth and Seventh Streets.  Gary specializes in restoration architecture and architectural forensic services and has a wide range of  talents which are described on his own web site at  You can reach Gary by email at

Other articles in this series:

Brick Structures - Oh What Damage We Do Inflict "The most deadly enemy is man and what he does in the name of maintenance and rehabilitation."

The Vinyl Lie  "Every day unsuspecting owners of historic homes, believing they are actually making an investment in their home, succumb to the vicious lies of an unscrupulous industry....."

A True Story  "The next time you are thinking about doing something to your "old" house, think about this true story."

Brick Sidewalk Repair  A quick primer on repairing your brick walkways.

Brick or Concrete?  An illustrated discussion on the advantages of both brick and concrete sidewalks.  You decide.


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