Working with Brick

This story shares basic bricklaying techniques and tips for working with brick in specific circumstances.


A certain romance comes with building with brick -- not only because of the beauty of the material but because bricklaying techniques haven't changed much over time. Gaining command of the technique takes a little time. It's not something you learn overnight, but with practice you'll get the hang of it.

It will help to understand bricklaying terminology. A stretcher is a brick laid so its long edge faces out. A header is a brick turned so its end faces out. A course of bricks is one horizontal row. Wythe refers to how many bricks thick a wall is (freestanding walls are usually two wythes thick). Bond does not refer to the bond mortar makes between two units but to the overall pattern in which the bricks are laid. Three common bonds are the English bond, Flemish bond, and running bond. Workable is a mason's word for a mortar that is mixed just right.

Working with mortar
Mortar is the critical element in bricklaying. If mortar is the wrong consistency, laying brick is difficult and the faces of the courses will be erratic.

Select the correct mortar strength for your project. Although you can mix the ingredients yourself, it's best to buy premix. The key to making mortar workable is getting the right amount of water in it, and premixed bags take the guesswork out of mixing it. Simply use the amount of water specified on the bag.

Always mix the dry ingredients thoroughly before adding water, then add the water a little at a time.

Mix enough mortar in a mortar box for an hour's work -- perhaps 1/4 cubic foot for 20 or so bricks to start. As you get faster at laying brick, mix bigger batches. Put the box at a height you won't have to bend to reach.

After about 30 minutes, the mortar will start to thicken because some of the water has evaporated. You can retemper the mortar by adding more water, a little bit at a time, until it resumes the proper consistency.

Depending on the weather, this may occur a few times. But after about 2 hours, mortar starts thickening as the chemical reaction of the cement causes it to harden. If this happens while you're still working, mix a new batch.

You can usually retemper the mortar mix safely within the first 1-1/2 hours, though hot weather can shorten the time. Always replace mortar that's more than 2 hours old.

Laying the brick
If you've never done this before, there's no getting around the need for practice. You'll save yourself a lot of time and frustration if you practice on a mock-up wall rather than the real thing. Set out a row of three or four bricks on a plywood square and practice throwing the mortar until you can get it to stick correctly on at least two bricks.

This will get you started. From there, your skills will increase with repetition. Speed is not critical in amateur bricklaying. Straight courses and clean joints are.

If you set a brick too low, lift it out, add new mortar, and lay it again. Don't simply adjust its position; doing so could leave a gap in the mortar where water could enter and cause damage.

Throwing Mortar: Step 1

Once you have the hang of getting the right amount of mortar on the trowel, don't try to lay the mortar on the brick. Throw it. Tilt the trowel, and sling the mortar onto the brick bed, pulling the trowel toward yourself in the same motion. You want the mortar to slide off the edge of the trowel and land firmly along the brick. Throwing helps adhere it to the bed. In the beginning, try to cover two bricks with one throw. Then try for three or four bricks.

Throwing Mortar: Step 2

Spread the mortar to an even thickness of about 1 inch, and trim the excess from the edges with the trowel. Then lightly furrow the center of the mortar bed with the tip of the trowel. Don't make a deep furrow, which might leave an air gap under the brick. Set the corner brick in place, tap it gently, and check it for level.

Throwing Mortar: Step 3

Butter the end of the next brick by holding it in one hand and tipping the end at a 45-degree angle. Place a small amount of mortar on the trowel and slap it onto the end of the brick with a sharp downward scraping motion. Form it with the trowel into a four-sided pyramid.

Throwing Mortar: Step 4

To set a brick, place it on the mortar bed and push it firmly against the adjacent brick. When done correctly, mortar will push out at the sides and top of the joint, and the joint will be about 3/8 inch thick.

Throwing Mortar: Step 5

Skim off the excess with the trowel, and butter the end of the next brick with it. Rap the placed bricks with the end of the trowel handle to set and level them.

Cutting Brick in Batches: Step 1

Any place in the layout where many bricks must be cut the same, use a framing square to mark several of them at the same time. Clamp the bricks with bar clamps to keep the marking accurate and prepare them for cutting.

Cutting Brick in Batches: Step 2

You won't be able to cut clear through standard brick with a circular saw equipped with a masonry blade (the blade won't cut that deep), but you can score several bricks at the same time. Use a rip guide to get a more accurate cut.

Reinforcing Brick

Though a two-wythe wall is the preferred width, your wall will be even stronger if you tie the wythes together with reinforcements. Corrugated fasteners or Z-shape ties will help strengthen a wall. So will rebar inserted in the cores of modular brick made with holes. Neither of these reinforcements, however, is a good substitute for strong, well-thrown mortar joints.

Using a Brick Splitter

One of the advantages of using a brick splitter is that you don't need to score the brick. Just mark the cut line, set the brick with the line under the cutting blade, and pull down sharply on the handle.

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