Sunday, November 24, 2013

"Reconstructing" Bricks

As I’ve mentioned before, when bad bricks have to be dealt with, there are, within my own methodologies — and also within the restoration industry — two ways to approach the issue.
For one, replacement bricks can be procured, as was discussed in this blog post.
Another method is to “refurbish” the bricks using a proprietary material, for example this one, which is a single-component, cementitious, mineral based mortar specifically designed for the restoration of brick surfaces. Furthermore, it is vapor permeable and contains no latex or acrylic bonding agents or additives.
As with any bilateral course of action, there are proponents on both sides of the debate.
In the Fall 2006 issue of “Traditional Masonry”, a former trade publication, there was an article by Loretta Hall, titled “ To Repair or to Replace — That is the Question”. It begins with the statement: “‘Solid as a brick wall’ is a nice metaphor, but historic buildings are often peppered with spalled, broken, or missing brick. Restoration experts must make a few important choices. Are damaged bricks repairable, or should they be replaced? Missing bricks do have to be replaced, but with what — vintage, salvaged brick or new, custom-made replicas? Not surprisingly, opinions differ on the relative merits of each option.”
Another tidbit of interest from the same article:
“Damaged or deteriorated brick can be rebuilt using mortars formulated to match the original material in both appearance and physical properties. “Physical compatibility will give you a long-term, guaranteed repair that’s not going to change in 10 or 20 years,” says Rude of Cathedral Stone Products. He stresses the importance of matching the repair material to the original brick.”
The entire article is worthwhile reading for a more complete perspective.
So “rebuilding bricks” is a bonafide method of approaching brickwork restoration, and one that we, at Invisible Tuckpointing Ltd. in Toronto, have seriously relied upon for years.
The picture below exhibits a typical example of our brick rebuilding process / result. The two bricks on the right have been reconstructed, while the unit on the left is original.
Heritage masonry is more art than science, I personally believe, and so my best advice in selecting the right mason for you is, in addition to integrity, to look for the creative type.
These two qualities will largely help ensure your overall satisfaction.

Contact me:
Toronto residents: www.invisibletuckpointing.com

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Brick fabrication

At times, it would be nearly impossible to procure a specific type of brick which is nevertheless required to properly perform restorative work on a particular building. In this case fabricating the brick may be the best option. This blog post discusses how we have done this for a house turret which required rounded bricks for a heritage masonry restoration project in Toronto, Canada.

As you can see, this brick, original to the building, is slightly rounded — just enough that it would not have looked harmonious to use a replacement unit of regular shape. [The next two pictures are of the original brick.]

We’ve fabricated the replacement brick ourselves.

As you can see in the two following pictures, it is rounded, just as the curved original Toronto brick is, and has the same texture and appearance and will fit harmoniously with the entire repointing (tuckpointing) project.

And two additional pictures.

The final result is harmonious, due to having been able to produce an adequate replacement brick. All too often, poor brick selection undermines the project’s overall success.

Contact me:
Toronto residents: www.invisibletuckpointing.com

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Customer elation

This certainly applies to any business, but I believe in not aiming in merely getting the customer to the point of being “satisfied” when delivering a service to her.
My personal motto is “I don’t want satisfied customers: I want them … elated.”
This is at the core of my business philosophy.
I price the jobs in such a way that I want to do them, but then I deliver 110%, and you get what you pay for. And everything is legal and above-board, as I’ve factored all my costs into my price.
In order to do this, I personally find that I need to focus on the entire experience, but the main areas are punctuality, delivering what was promised, respecting the property, maintaining good communication with the owners as well as the neighbours, and superlative cleanliness of the site and adjacent properties.
I believe the best marketing strategy to be the Golden Rule.
If you’re a masonry contractor reading this, think about what I’ve just said. In my experience, it’s the most rewarding path.
If you’re a homeowner, no matter where you live, if you can identify a contractor who, by all evidence, seems truly customer-oriented — and if your gut feeling turns out to have been correct — it will make getting your project done a lot more enjoyable.
Contact me:
Toronto residents: www.invisibletuckpointing.com

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lobbying for mandatory recycling of heritage bricks

I have been sourcing vintages bricks for years (to be used in my restoration work on Victorian and Edwardian brick homes), and even though I have been successful enough at it, it is tedious and difficult every time I manage to do it, predominantly due to the insurance regulations and time constraints imposed on demolition companies; who consequently prefer throwing old, precious, salvageable bricks away (more precisely, in Ontario Lake in Toronto!) In this day and age of green consciousness and recycling, this practice does not seem sensible to me.
Using modern bricks to restore heritage buildings with, in my opinion, generally looks too incongruent to yield a harmonious result when mixed with vintage bricks, largely due to modern manufacturing processes which can’t replicate the firing process of times gone by, due to liabilities inherent with the inconsistent strength across batches which would ensue.
So I’m taking steps in an attempt to get a by-law enacted in my city, which would force land developers and demolition companies to offer the bricks for auction to the highest bidder; and only throw them away when there is no buyer.
If you share a passion for vintage brickwork, and think this would be a good idea in your area, contact your city councilor — whatever town you live in — and suggest it to her. It's a long shot, I know, but can’t hurt.
Contact me:
Toronto residents: www.invisibletuckpointing.com

Friday, October 25, 2013

All sales pitches are not created equal -- doing your research matters!

We’ve all heard the expression “You’ll get out of it what you put into it”.
This cliche very much applies to how carefully you make choices when it comes to restoring the old brickwork of your home. A mistake there can be subsequently hard to reverse — for you, or for someone else in the future.
Not to mention that the financial pressures of everyday life can present the temptation to settle for a lesser job in view of everything that one needs to pay for.
Or sometimes it’s just the idea that this type of work should be cheap no matter what.
But the fact remains that historic masonry gets rarer and rarer as time goes on, due to the simple fact that the methods required to build it are no longer in use.
Less and less of these structures will remain in sound condition.
There is no modern brick, in my opinion, which can match the timeless beauty of older brickwork.
So, if you are predisposed to preserve or restore the harmonious appearance of your home’s vintage masonry, be prepared to do some research.
Making use of the word “heritage” does not automatically turn a mason into an artist! In the pictures below, you see a project performed by a “less expensive” company in Toronto, Canada. While lime and old bricks may have been used, in my opinion, the result exhibits a lack of artistic judgement, resourcefulness and restorative know-how.

Contact me:
Toronto residents: www.invisibletuckpointing.com

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Harmonious brick replacement

My original intention when starting Invisible Tuckpointing Ltd., in Toronto, was to specialize in repointing, namely the replacement of the joints one can see between masonry units.
The focus was to perform “brick mortar replacement with perfect colour match”.
There was also the corollary, however, that bad bricks had to be dealt with.
There are two ways to approach the latter.
Replacement bricks can be procured.
Or the bricks can be “refurbished” using a proprietary material. This topic will be the subject of a subsequent blog post.
There are issues with procuring bricks, and they are as follows:
- Bricks are no longer being manufactured like they used to, therefore the amount of effort / research that would be required to locate an artisan with a kiln, the skills required and the right type of clay in order to produce a close-enough match is too great to be realistic.
- Even imported units (“bricks from England” is something I frequently hear these days in Toronto), if they are modern bricks aimed at imitating old ones, will still tend to look incongruent and out of place, in my opinion. It should still look like an old house when you are done, not a new one.
- Finding the right salvaged brick for a project ranges from “not-so-easy” to “near impossible”.
My personal conclusions on the topic are that, if one is to endeavor to replace existing bricks, then the required effort should be expended in order to procure matching salvaged units which will work well for the particular building they are intended to be used on.
I personally am always on the lookout for buildings which are scheduled to be demolished in Toronto, and make contact with the individuals involved so as to be able to procure (read “purchase”) good salvaged bricks, and even stones.
The trick is to be able to hand-pick the good ones, as many will be broken in the demolition process.
Sometimes, a building is demolished slowly, in other words, carefully, and that will yield a much better “good-to-bad-bricks” ratio.
It will rarely work out that a building is being demolished exactly when its bricks will be needed by a mason for a particular project, and so once acquired, the salvaged pieces will need to be warehoused, which can become a monthly expense for the mason.
Here is a portion of my inventory. I sort the bricks by type over many piles; some of the categories being red, orange, yellows, 1850’s, 1870’s, 1890’s, turn of the century, “A”, “B” and “C” grades, etc..
Case Study #1:
The next two pictures are of a particular house I couldn’t initially find any bricks for. This was in November of a given year, getting ready to perform the project the following spring.
I had an artisan in the United States make me some custom brick samples, and had them sent over to Toronto. Twice. No joy.
Eventually, I had the good luck of telling a former customer of my quest, and it turned out that his mother had a pile of likely matching bricks she had carefully preserved during a prior renovation project.
He gave me the address and I went to see her. They were very good, but she wouldn’t sell them to me (at first).
I finally offered her a substantial amount for the coveted pile and she finally said, “if you want them so bad, you can have them”.

Case Study #2:
This time again I couldn’t find a replacement brick I was happy for this prominent section of the house you see in the pictures below.
I could have contended with trying to find something good enough.
But instead, I pulled bricks from a small rear addition which the owner intended to take down a few years later.
Shown below, we’ve removed the bricks (and the mortar of the foundation as well). [As a side note, the mortar above the missing bricks has not been removed. In the next post, you will see how we were able to match it.]
You can see here, by matching the mortar as well as the bricks very accurately, how harmonious the overall result becomes.
This is the rear addition that the bricks were obtained from. I still used only vintage bricks to put it back together, even though the orange ones were not quite as nice as the originals.
This main point I want to make here, is that it is hard to find salvaged, matching bricks for heritage masonry. But making the effort to do so is better than the alternative, if you want the most aesthetically pleasing result, in my view.
Your priorities, when evaluated against the available resources in your area, will dictate how far you take it, of course.
Contact me: Toronto residents: www.invisibletuckpointing.com 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

What is meant by matching mortar

What I set out to do in 2001, when starting my company, Invisible Tuckpointing Ltd., in Toronto, Canada, was to achieve brick mortar replacement with a perfect color match. This, in fact, became our slogan.
At the time (and mostly still now) what other companies were doing in this regard ranged from inadequate to atrocious.
There was a prevalent misconception circulating that one “cannot match old mortar”.
This had opened the door for all kinds of visually displeasing work getting done (and paid for!). It was also causing, by all evidence, architects and others to specify the removal of all the mortar joints on a given wall, so as to achieve uniformity; but all too often at the cost of losing the vintage character of the building.
My premise was that one should only remove the mortar which had either failed, fallen off or had been so poorly executed in a prior repair by another company that it looked too ghastly not to remove.
And this view is supported in the “industry standard” documents than I later studied.
My initial focus was on the color only, but I quickly came to realize that, as imperative as it seemed that the correct color be reproduced, there were two other — even more crucial — elements, namely the texture and the composition.
By “matching the texture” is meant how well the applicator reproduces the finished mortar joint so it is congruent with the surrounding, original mortar that shall not have been replaced, as it’s still serviceable for generations to come.
By “composition” is meant what are the raw materials in it and their ratios. In matching mortar, composition is closely related to texture, as using the wrong type of sand or incorrect ratios of ingredients will lead to a different appearance, no matter how careful the application is being carried out in order to achieve an acceptable texture.
Eventually, as my personal discoveries evolved, I decided to focus on older buildings; however, the principles of matching mortar apply equally to new structures.
Often, to achieve a particular mix, several attempts are made, progressively getting closer to the original mortar, as you can see in the pictures below which feature a personal example of mine.
It’ s not good enough, in my opinion, to simply make a vague, wishy-washy trial and then simply ‘go with it’, just so one can that claim that their company matches mortar. I persevere at the task until there truly is a match.
At times, it can take over a day to get the mix right, although now, with years of experience, it usually takes me under two hours. Having the customer pay for a lab analysis (up to $3,000) is impractical in the residential market and not as effective, in my experience, as researching the various stages of development of a city, and gaining first-hand knowledge of the ingredients and ratios involved, and taking the time to source these materials to a “good enough” point, so the result will be harmonious.
The vertical joints to the right of the tape in the 1st and 2nd pictures show a better reproduction than most other companies out there would take the time to achieve, but the joint to the left of the tape on the 3rd picture shows a true match. In this particular example, I have used a pure calcium lime and sand mix.

The next picture exhibits the prepared wall, in which either the failed or unsightly mortar has been carefully removed to the proper depth in such a way so as to not damage the bricks. The original mortar that was still in good condition has remained as-is.
And the last two pictures show the finished result. You cannot tell the difference between the new mortar and the original, which is still in situ and has not been replaced.
That’s the level of accuracy I’m referring to when I say I match mortar. As the old adage goes, the proof is in the pudding.
If you are a homeowner somewhere in North America and are looking for someone to perform some repointing work for you (as we call it), I’m hoping this blog post will give you enough of a reference point so you have a sense of the type of mason you will now be looking for.
If you are a mason yourself, perhaps you do it as well as, or better than I do it. If not, strive for perfection, within reason, and you will notice a definite reaction in your customers: it is call elation.
Contact me: Toronto residents: www.invisibletuckpointing.com For anyone else: www.brickworkpreservation.com