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.
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.
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.
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.
My name is Mario Cantin. I’ve been performing brick and stone work restoration in Toronto, Canada. I’ve established my company, Invisible Tuckpointing Ltd., in 2001 to serve my local area. I’ve been working in the trades since the 80’s.
I also have been offering my services as a consultant throughout North America since 2003.
I have experience in dealing with buildings constructed prior to 1930, an era which marked the end of a particular choice of materials which had been prevalent up to then.
I also offer a perspective which is uniquely my own. I like to do my own research and think things through, as opposed to simply let information get shoved down my throat.
I deal largely with homeowners who pay out of their own pocket to maintain their 100-year-old brick home without government subsidies. In that regard, I can provide insight which could prove useful to residential homeowners, as it is based on a combination of empirical experience and research. The blog posts will start by showing some of what I have been doing in my capacity as the owner of a small heritage masonry company in Toronto, Canada.
Then I shall proceed to explain what I believe the big question is when applying masonry preservation concepts to the residential market.
I’ll also examine concepts such as “purism” as it relates to how far should one take restorative masonry work on residential structures; and also “intrusion”, meaning how much of a mess does one need to live with while the work is carried out, and how much disruption needs to occur.
Furthermore, I’ll discuss techniques for restoring institutional heritage masonry I’ve adapted to the residential market in such a way so as to create leverage — in other words, to create “more bang for the buck” — as well as reducing intrusion, as alluded to above.
I’ll also outline multiple standards for restoring the same property, based on its heritage status within the community (and even within the country), and modified by how far its particular owner wants to take it as far as rehabilitating her brick or stone structure.
Also occasionally included will be predictions and commentaries of relevance or interest, made by individuals during the Victorian or Edwardian periods and originally published then as well, which I came across in my various readings.
I welcome comments, and can as well be reached by visiting the first two links in this post — the former for Toronto residents, and the latter for all others.