Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Why are there red lines over the original yellow mortar of my Victorian house?

Sometimes I meet prospective clients who own a Victorian house and who ask me why there is some sort of combination of red and white (and sometimes black) lines on top of the yellowish lime mortar with which the brick walls were constructed.
Many people assume that it must have been done after the fact.
It wasn’t. What they are looking at are the remnants of true tuckpointing.
I say “true tuckpointing” as opposed to simply saying “tuckpointing” because there is a confusion about the correct nomenclature.
These days, when people say, “tuckpointing”, they usually mean “repointing”.
In Victorian times, they were very different things.
This is tuckpointing:
And this is repointing:
Here are the proper definition for each of the related terms, taken from an article I wrote for Masonry Magazine over 10 years ago:
“Jointing” referred to the process of finishing the joint as the brickwork was erected. Jointing is what all bricklayers do today.
“Pointing” denoted the placement and careful tooling of a mortar joint between bricks or stones. In contrast to jointing, pointing was the process of raking back the mortar joint a few days after the completion of the brickwork and was usually done by a different crew that was skilled in delivering a high-quality, consistent decorative finish to the joint. Also, jointing was performed at the rear and sides of a building, with only the front façade being pointed.
“Repointing” referred to replacing a mortar joint when it had failed, on average about once a century. This was typically the type of restoration work completed on older mortar.
“Tuckpointing” is an interesting one, which will need further explanation.
The word “tuckpointing” once referred to a specialized application of pointing that consisted of first sanding the bricks to a smooth, even surface, then masking the original mortar joint with a thin one that matched the brick in color, usually red. One would have created — up to this point — the illusion of looking at a solid wall of clay, as opposed to a wall consisting of individual bricks. Then, after having rubbed the red mortar with a piece of jute and dying the work to a uniform color, fine lines were cut with a knife into the “masking” mortar while it was still soft, in a rigidly symmetrical fashion to produce a perfect geometrical outline of each brick. At that point, a fine, usually white, lime putty mortar joint was tucked over the lines and meticulously manicured, you might want to say, so as to create the illusion that the wall had been laid with perfectly rectangular bricks in a mortar bed as thin as 1/16th of an inch!
Tuckpointing originated in England in the 17th century as a cheaper alternative to gauged brickwork — which was the ultimate method of laying bricks, consisting of rubbing the stones to exact dimensions and perfect edges, then dipping them lightly into lime putty, providing a true 1/16" joint. Tuckpointing subsequently became the pointing style of choice during the Georgian and Victorian periods, minimally for the front façade of brick buildings.
So now you know what these red lines were and why there are there.
In most cases the tuckpointing has mostly come off over the years, and most of the white (typical) or black (less common) ribbon is gone and what you have left to a varying degree is some red mortar over the yellow mortar.
Knowing what to do with that is important in my opinion.
Some people repair the failed mortar with a yellow mortar, which makes a strong, unsightly contrast. Others use red mortar to perform the repair, which doesn’t look quite right either.
Removing all the mortar so as to repoint the entire wall is not recommended either as the original character will be lost.
So what is one to do?
What I do is I perform the repointing work, matching the mortar to the original yellow mortar on the house, and then I run a thin red line in the center of it so as to blend the work and eliminate the offensive contrast.
This is an example:

Another possibility, although all-too-often prohibitively expensive, is to remove all the mortar and redo the true tuckpointing.
In Toronto, at this time, I don’t know of anyone who can do it to a high level. It is a lost art. It took me 13 1/2 years of research and practice to arrive at a point where the result is good. Not exceptional, just good. And I’m still learning. Workers were surprisingly skilled back in the day…
Here is an example done by another contractor in Toronto who claims the ability to perform tuckpointing:
As you can see, if not done properly, tuckpointing can appear messy and ghastly.
Here is a job I’ve just completed last week:

Here is a short video that shows it in action:

With practice, it would come closer to perfection, but the issue is that virtually no one is prepared to pay for it, and so my approach of putting a red line over the yellow mortar has been seen as a great solution by essentially all the homeowners for whom we’ve done it.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The lowest price

We all want the lowest price when we buy something, but here’s the clincher…as long as it’s for the same value on offer.
It’s obvious in the case of products. I recently went to a large furniture retail chain outlet to buy a bar stool. The one I liked was $99, with the option to buy a second one at half price; but I only wanted one. I asked the salesperson whether there was any wiggle room, and there wasn’t. I drove across the street to a Walmart and bought the same exact stool for $49.99.
But services are a different matter.
If a handyman (or woman) offers to fix your brick and spread cement over it with a spoon, it’s pretty obvious that would be a bad move.
But what about a mason who has many positive reviews on Homestars who offers a low price?
Is that a good deal?
How about a concrete (no pun intended) example?
I’ve had the same price structure since 2006, with only incremental increases until 2009, at which point I froze the price. So I’ve been charging exactly the same since 2009. Back in 2007, 08 and 09, I was booked up to a year in advance, so I couldn’t have been perceived as being priced outside the market then, could I?
Fast forward to a typical scenario today:
Me: “The price is $14,500.”
Customer X: “Ouch!”
Me: “Your friend who has recommended you to me has paid even more for a comparable amount of work back in 2009. And she’s had even more work done in 2012 at the same rate.”
Customer X: “Actually, I know, and she’s very happy with it. Fair enough, we’ll get back to you.”
Two weeks later.
Customer X: “We have no doubt at this point that you are the best in the city, the only problem is the price: one contractor came in at $7,000 and the other two came in at $4,500.”
Me: “It’s going to look like shit”.
Customer: “I’’m not so sure, they all have good reviews on Homestars.
Me: “Go see the work in the flesh.”
Customer X: “We plan on it.”
Another two weeks went by.
Customer X: “We went by to look at your work once again, as well as the other people’s work, and we didn’t like the two lower quotes at all, the $7,000 was not bad actually, but we loved yours, can we workout something?
I did have to make a concession in view of the current market realities, but I did get the contract at the highest price, and by a long margin to boot.
So what is happening?
For one thing, it’s obvious to me we are going through a recession, even though Harper doesn’t seem to have the balls to say so.
Consequently, it’s a buyer’s market right now. When the economy is rolling, prospective customers are typically complaining that contractors aren’t even showing up to provide an estimate, and they are generally thankful when someone shows up at all. Not now. No one is currently voicing that complaint, and it is evident that prospects are getting plenty of quotes (that they sure are glad to bring up in a negotiation).
As far as I’m concerned, I’ve selected to remain true to a high standard of accurately matching the existing materials so that the work, when finished, will have a time-kissed look.
It is easy to cut corners when doing brickwork restoration, and so I am in a niche market by sticking to a longer, considerable more involved process.
But there is a visible difference in the result, although not every potential customer can appreciate it.
And so it is only a buyer’s market as long as one doesn’t notice or care about the difference.
Customer X was probably surprised that I never called her back to follow up and try to close the job.
The reason I didn’t follow up is that if she and her husband couldn’t tell the difference between my work and the work of the $7000 guy, then the latter would have deserved the job, as far as I’m concerned; and I didn’t want to be pushing to take the project away from him, if in fact he would have been better-suited to do it given the circumstances and the prospect’s obvious priorities — he has a right to make money too.
On the other hand, if someone is a stickler for as close to a perfect mortar and brick replacement match as can possibly be done, then my company becomes a very viable option indeed.
I therefore find it important that we maintain our position as the premium choice when it comes to brickwork restoration / repointing, so as to satisfy that currently small cohort who sees the value in it for themselves.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The places where a masonry contractor can cut corners when repointing

Yesterday, I wrote a post titled, “Dear potential client, please don’t lie to yourself”.
I want to follow that with a minimalist breakdown of the various steps involved in doing a repointing project so it can hopefully be better appreciated where an individual can cut corners when performing this type of work.
The Process
1 — Identify.
The person doing the work has to be able to identify which mortar joints need to be done.
It sounds simple, but you would be surprised how ineptly this can be done.
When I hire a new operator, this is always the first challenge I encounter.
I can’t yet have them apply the mortar itself and if I don’t want them to simply stand around and perform menial tasks such as cleaning up and providing me with the odd tool, then I want to start them with removing the old mortar and prepare the joints.
The problem is they have no idea which joints to take out.
They either leave too many joints that were supposed to be removed or they go overboard and remove joints which didn’t need to be touched; or worse, they do a mixture of both — a scenario of too much over here and not enough over there.
The problem is that they don’t have the mental framework to guide them along. They are confused and therefore they guess.
And I all too often see the same thing in the work of other contractors as well.
Sometimes a contractor insists on removing all the existing joints and do a full pointing job, which I describe as going to the dentist and removing all your teeth instead of simply fixing the cavities. Hey, it has happened to both my parents and many other people, as it was the fad in the 60's where they lived.
When approaching a potential client, there should be a clear determination of exactly what types of joint will get done, for example:
All the joints which are missing, in other words, there’s just a hole left.
All the joints beyond a certain depth.
All the joints which have failed by being clearly separated from the brick, cracked, turning to powder, etc.
Possibly all the joints that don’t match from previous mis-repairs, etc.
Very small holes and cracks are left alone.
Everything else stays as-is.
If I see a long hesitation in an operator when trying to decide whether or not he or she should remove a particular joint, I immediately stop him or her, and find out what they don’t understand.
You can do the same when you interview a contractor.
Ask, “Please look at my wall here and show me exactly which types of joints you propose to remove and which ones you would leave?”
If he or she can’t rattle it off quickly, then you know that individual can’t even accomplish the first step correctly.
If he or she starts to propose doing the whole wall, as in 100 percent, think “fraud”, and stay away. There are very few exceptions to this.
A contractor can cut corners with this step by being vague about what gets done and do much less than is necessary, and the client, not really knowing, will now be able to tell themselves a lie that they got their wall repaired and that they can now not worry about it.
But it’ll be a shit show.
2 — Joint preparation.
This steps consists of carefully removing the mortar that needs to come out without damaging the bricks.
It is easy to cut corners there — literally! — by being over-aggressive with the cutting saw. The result is an artificial joint line which looks very ugly.
When this happens in a substantial way, the house has typically been damaged beyond repair. It gets very difficult, not to mention costly, to subsequently reverse the situation.
3 — Accurately matching the mortar.
This step requires skills, but above all, a willingness to take the time.
My experience with contractors and subcontractors is that they are of the mindset that matching the existing mortar should be done quickly. If it takes for than a few minutes, they’ve wasted time and they need to move on.
It is safe to say that it is not part of their business model.
On the other hand, I have made that feature my business model.
We are called Invisible Tuckpointing Ltd. because we match the existing mortar.
It is for this very reason that, even if a masonry contractor tells you that they match mortar, it is most often lip service, as I would describe it, and I as I've observed it.
There have been instances when I’ve had to work hard to produce a good color match. Like the time I had to make 13 separate sample batches to get the perfect match.
Or the time that I just couldn’t get the color right on a Friday. I returned on the weekend to work it out until I had the right mix ready for Monday.

Or countless others.
Most people aren’t willing to make that kind of investment, and so another corner gets cut.
4 — Matching the joint profile and texture.
Taking the time to reproduce the original joint finish when applying the mortar is also of paramount importance.
What would be the point of having achieved a good mortar mix that matches the original if, when the mason applies it, the texture and the profile of the joint clearly don’t match the original?
This misstep is yet another common way that a mason can cut corners when doing a repointing job, as it is much, much faster to take a rounded steel rod-type of a tool and simply run that along the joint so as to “finish” the joint at blazing speeds.
And so we’re back to the shit show description.
It takes much, much longer to properly “manicure” the joint, as we call it at my company, with an array of tools outside of the conventional "slicker".
5 — Working cleanly and sensitively.
Not damaging the property or the neighbors’ and keeping the site clean during and at the completion of the project takes thoughtfulness and time.
For example, at Invisible Tuckpointing, we make liberal use of tarps to protect, driveways, decks, fences, patio furniture, etc.
We also make liberal use of painter’s tape and plastic to cover window sills, lamps, etc.
More importantly, we take the time to look around and think ahead of time about the environment we’re in so as to protect it, including flowers, garden bed, etc.
We even collect the mortar cutoff from the joint into a dust pan so we minimize the mess we make on the ground, which facilitates our cleanup efforts.
We take the time to co-ordinate with neighbors so we won’t aggravate them, and more.
And we air-blow and rinse everything clean and leave the site immaculate when we depart; and we often do this at the end of each work day, so the owners can enjoy their property in the evening.
But the above requires cleanliness and sensitivity. And it’s easy to cut corners there too.
That’s the gist of it.
If you want more information, take a look at the Industry Standards page on our company website; as well as our Portfolio page which exemplifies some of the criteria I’ve discussed in this post.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Dear potential client, please don’t lie to yourself

Having recently done an estimate for a prospect who seemed interested in doing business with me, I followed up a couple of weeks later.
The job was already done by someone else.
I asked whether he would be willing to provide me with some details so I could better understand where I sit in the market currently.
He gracefully obliged. And I'm thankful that he did, even though I will come across as a little harsh if you keep reading.
He told me that although he knew I would do the best job, he went with a cheaper option as it fitted with his current budget better; and should he have owned a Victorian house, he would then definitely have retained my services and not have taken any chances.
I was at $4,350. One quote came in at $1,500 and the other at $1,600.
He had no faith in the $1,500 one and so he went for the $1,600 one.
I asked whether he was happy.
He said he was moderately happy and at least he didn’t have to worry about it anymore.
I asked how long it took the guy to do the job and how many people were on the job.
He said, “Only him, one day, nine hours”.
I said, “Wow, I priced this so we would be two of us for three days. I would obviously have done much more work than he did, and so I’m actually cheaper.”
He was surprised.
I passed by a couple of days later, and what I saw actually made me angry.
I can’t even think with it.

The job is an abortion and all I my instincts were telling me was to remove what had been done as fast as possible and redo it properly.
It was so ugly it disturbed me.
And it disturbed me that the customer was “reasonably happy” with it.
That customer has just burned $1,600.
It’s not a proper outcome.
It’s not a proper product.
It’s wrong.
That customer didn’t take the time to do his research and his due diligence.
The house may not be Victorian, but it is nonetheless getting close to be 100 years old and it deserves better.
That customer has told himself a nice little story about how now the ants can’t crawl in and there are no holes and he can now sleep better and that he’s made the best choice based on his particular financial situation.
Blah blah blah.
It’s a lie.
You’ve just told yourself a nice lie.
There are many areas which have been missed which still need proper attention; for example most or all of the window sills needed to be addressed, but they weren't.
Furthermore the house is now defaced until someone, someday, hopefully reverses the poor workmanship.
If I were more religiously inclined, here is how I would pray:
Dear God,
In this Information Age,
Please make sure that my prospects use Google.
Please make sure they are not too lazy to do their research and due diligence.
If they don’t want to use me, that’s fine.
But please don’t let them butcher older homes they temporarily own through neglect and poor decisions, as someone else will live in those houses after they’ve eventually moved out of them.
When someone lives in what constitutes a part of our collective heritage, please make sure they contribute to the legacy instead of working against it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

An open letter to all Toronto owners of vintage brick homes in need of restorative masonry work in the upcoming future

Below is an open letter I’ve written to all owners of vintage brick or stone homes in need of upkeep.
If you are here because you have received a hard copy of it in your mailbox (You have therefore already read it) and want some additional information, I propose you read the following previous blog posts I’ve previously published: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 & 10. They were intended to inform, whether you live in Toronto, somewhere in North America, or anywhere in the world, even.
If you have arrived here via le web, then the open letter might be a good place start. Here it is:
“My name is Mario Cantin I am the owner of Invisible Tuckpointing Ltd., a brickwork restoration company.
First of all, as much as I welcome the idea of getting new business, the primary purpose of this letter is to inform consumers.
My immediate goal is to leave you with a thought and hopefully help you in your decision process, even if you end up going with a different contractor.
The way homeowners hire a brickwork restoration specialist today has changed in Toronto over the last five years or so.
I was early on the internet (2003), endorsed by Masonry Magazine and providing written documentation that explained my process, which is to match old bricks and mortar with a particularly high of level of aesthetic quality, while the bulk of my competition was still offline.
This made it easy for a search-oriented consumer to browse the web and find me and subsequently decide whether or not what I had to offer was what they were looking for, or whether it was just plain overkill for them.
Two things have happened since:
a) the move away from traditional advertising channels and toward the internet, in general — and the advent of Homestars, in particular.
b) the commoditization of “heritage work” through the now widespread availability of lime products and better imitation bricks than what had previously been on the market. I used to have to import some of my materials from England in 2002. Now there are suppliers in Toronto who carry European imports. While this is a good thing in general, I’ll say that better paint doesn’t necessarily make a better painter.
The net result is that you now have a buyer’s market full of contractors who presumably can do restoration work with deflationary economics, and they mostly all have positive reviews on Homestars.
So if your goal is to save money fixing your brick home, now may be a great time for you to do so and be reasonably happy if your expectations do not exceed a certain threshold.
The other side of this is that, if you are a stickler for perfectly matching mortar with well sourced vintage bricks, it is now harder to go online and find someone who can really perform up to your expectations, as there is simply too much “me-too’ism” and too much advertising clutter.
For example, the owner of one of the last jobs my company performed in 2014, on Palmertson Blvd., had been most unsatisfied with the first three or four contractors she had asked to bid on her project after carefully taking the time to review some of their past efforts by physically visiting the addresses they had given her as references, even when they had “restoration-sounding” business names.
So she kept getting more and more quotations.
I was the ninth or tenth contractor she called.
She ended up hiring me even though I wasn’t one of the low quotes.
Because she wanted the repairs to blend harmoniously and she wanted the overall result to be very artistic. And she was acutely aware by then that those are rare skills.
She was also willing to take the time to do her research.
What all-too-often happens is that someone gets hired after the first three or four quotes that a consumer gets.
Or take the example of the individual on Shaw Street last June who had no idea who to hire, even after searching the internet. He ended up walking up and down Cabbagetown with his wife on a Sunday afternoon and eventually asking a prominent general contractor there who he should trust to restore his Victorian brickwork. The contractor kindly pointed to me (thank you Joe).
My aim with this letter is solely to connect with the highly-precise, exacting individuals who are seeking a company that will match materials to the levels that I have taken that skill to. These individuals would be unsatisfied with a run-of-the-mill product and would be disappointed in the outcome, not having found what they were looking for. It would be in our mutual best interest for such customers to have my company perform their work. And hopefully I’m not coming across as conceited.
On the other hand, there are many people who do not feel they need a profoundly accurate brickwork restoration repair, such as I offer. For these individuals, there will be no regret in hiring most well-reviewed contractors on the internet. They will feel they have derived good value from it indeed.
I have made some resources available for more information about the brickwork restoration trade in general, and about what is that I do exactly.
My company website is: www.invisibletuckpointing.com
I also have put a blog together: www.mario-cantin.com (don’t forget the hyphen!) I would recommend going to the blog archives on the right-end side of the page and start with the oldest post (Friday, October 18, 2013) and move forward toward the present until you’ve read enough to satisfy your curiosity, essentially.
Call me if you have any questions.
Mario Cantin
Invisible Tuckpointing Ltd.