Becoming A Mason — Building A Brick Wall

So, after a MONTH of work, I finally finished this brick wall. Initially, I was planning to be all done on the BIG WEEKEND, President’s day, and my aim was to BUILD THIS WALL! Alas, I was seriously over-optimistic about the time it would take. (Really?) It turns out that masonry is pretty much a ball-buster, and I’ve been pouring all of my spare time into finishing the job.

Day One (2/13/15):

This was pretty much a “set up” day. I took the advice of my online mentor, Mike Haduck, and laid everything out dry. This was helpful because I found out where all the “warts” were and I had to  make some adjustments. The biggest goof was that I did not align my electrical conduit with the rebar. So I had to do a lot of cutting. I hope this will not weaken the wall too much. I also had to set up my workstations: where I would cut, where I would mix the mortar, and also figure out how to get materials from the workstations to the area of the work. This turned out to be pretty involved because I don’t have a lot of room to work with, especially when the building materials are taking up so much space. I ended up locating the brick cutting and mortar mixing operation on the opposite side of the driveway because it allowed me good room to cut the bricks, and a place to dump the water that I was using to keep the mixer clean between batches. The only downside was that I had to walk over every time I needed to cut a brick.

MIXING STATION. Moat catches water for drainage.

MIXING STATION. Moat catches water for drainage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Handling the mortar turned out to be tricky. Never mind that the sacks of mortar mix weigh 94 lbs. It is possible to heft these bad boys into the mixer, dump the bag in, and then reach down and poke the bag with you brick hammer or trowel, and then extricate the paper sack. Get the mixer going and add water until you get a nice slump. Now the tricky part. You can’t just dump this into a bucket because it goes all over the place. So the sequence is: dump the mixer into the tub, use the trowel to scoop the mortar into a bucket, and haul the bucket to the area of work. From there, you can put the mortar onto your mortarboard, and get to work. Before I laid any brickwork, I rinsed out the mixer because I didn’t want the leftovers to harden up. A professional crew will have the mixer going all the time, and the apprentices will be hogging the mortar, which will be used as fast as they can make it. Not so with me, and I daresay any DIY working alone. Mortar has  approximately 2 hour working time, and I used all of it for the one bag. Actually, it was less than one bag, because I used some of it to make my lintel. But that was just as well because I had to work on buttering technique, and had to deal with uneven surfaces and pay a LOT of attention to laying that first course. If that is messed up, then all subsequent courses will have the same problems.

DRY LAYOUT

DRY LAYOUT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day Two (2/14/15):

I started working at 7:00 AM and worked until 6:00 PM. Although I didn’t get to actually laying brickwork until 8:00 AM, due to some setup time and the fact that I had to extend a couple of rebars to the height of the finished wall, it was a long day of work. I finally learned the correct technique for buttering a brick. You have to hold the trowel at an angle to the edge, maybe 30º, but it is upside down! That is why settling the mortar on the trowel is so important — because it won’t fall off when you turn it upside down. I tried the wrist snap method, but alas, my forearms are too weak. So I started to bang the trowel onto the mortarboard, and that seemed to work. In addition, it is important to wet the end of the brick that you are trying to butter. The mortar won’t stick if the brick sucks out the water. Maybe that’s because I live in an arid climate. Nevertheless, Mike Haduck’s advice about having mortar stick to wet surfaces is germane.

Now, to laying the brick. It is extremely important to lay the brick down gently, and to have enough mortar to have the brick settle above and farther away than what will be the final position. You then jiggle the brick back and forth to settle it in the mortar, and then take some measurements. Is it level in both directions (longitudinal and side-to-side)? Is it aligned with the course (or line) below? Is it aligned with the course below to produce a running bond (meaning each course is spaced by 1/2 the length of the brick)? Now, I take a soft-headed hammer and gently tap the brick into its final position. Pro masons use the butt of their trowel, but I found that I always had mortar detritus that sticks to the trowel splatter over my nice clean bricks, so the hammer was a better choice (for me). I scraped off the excess on the outside, and returned that to the mortarboard.

After laying a few bricks, I went back and sponged off  the excess mortar and used a jointer tool to make nice concave lines in the joints. It’s important to keep up with this as you go along because the mortar tends to set up fairly quickly, so you only have a short amount of time to clean up and finish the joints nicely.

I also discovered that I had no concept of the size required for mortar joints between the bricks. This required me to make a few extra cuts to bricks which I had previously crafted due to a faulty dry layout. Alas, part of the learning process,

The other thing I discovered was that as the 2 hour limit approached, the mortar really started to set in the bucket. The solution was to finish whatever course I happened to be working on, and then dilute the remaining mortar with some water to give it some fluidity, and then dump it in the cells with the rebar. Those cells have to be filled up anyway, so use up what you have! I finally built up at least one course on each level and I anticipate that the work will go faster because (a) there are fewer obstructions (misplaced rebar and conduit), and my technique is improving with practice. One thing that I did NOT skimp on was accuracy. I take my time with each brick, making sure that is level and square, and then I check the line with my 6′ level to make sure that I’m not slowly going out of whack. Then I sight down the line, using my human ability of stereoscopic vision to see if everything is lined up straight. Never underestimate the accuracy of your eyes. They’re simple to use, and you can see if everything lines up if you take a few steps back.  It may be slow going, but nobody will care about how long it took, because they won’t know. If I were doing this for money, then I would be out of business pretty fast. That’s why pros can do in a day what will (likely) take me several more days. But I’m confident that my results will be professional grade. So far, it looks pretty good!

FIRST COURSES

FIRST COURSES

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day Three (2/15/15):

I’m beginning to really feel the strain. Masonry is hard work! There’s lot’s of lifting involved, and lots of repetition. That said, I’m finally developing a rhythm with mixing the mortar, cleaning up the mixer and the plastic tub I dump the mortar in after I mix it, putting the mortar in a 5 gallon bucket (it fills it up perfectly, so maybe that’s why it’s a 94 lb bag), and hauling the mortar out to where I’m going to work with it. I’ve come up with a sequence of using water which makes multiple uses of water to rinse out the mixer and various vessels so that I don’t use any more water than I have to. I’ve also discovered that the mortar needs a few minutes of mixing, so I let the mixer run while I pull the next set of blocks and lay them out so I’m not constantly walking back-and-forth to the pallet.

Finally, I decided to figure out a way to set up the mason’s line. What a difference!!  I couldn’t find a “how to” on YouTube (at least very easily), so I made my own video, and you can see it at the end of this blog post. At any rate the  mason’s line practically eliminates the necessity to carefully tweak each brick and use a level multiple times. That being said, there is still a lot of work to be done after the brick is put in place. You have to use a jointer to clean up the excess mortar in the joints, and then go over all the bricks with a sponge and a wire brush, wetting the bricks generously, to get off the excess mortar. Turns out that you swipe some mortar down the side of the bricks when you butter the bricks with your trowel. Cleaning it up after you finish the bag of mortar is easy because, although the mortar has set up, it’s still readily removed with water, a sponge, and a little elbow grease.

Day Four (2/16/15):

Although I was very motivated to work this day, I was totally beat. I listened to my body and took the day off. Alas, my work was only partially complete and I knew that a few weeks of work lay ahead, based on what I was able to accomplish. Because I am a numbers guy, I found out that the maximum I could produce in a single, dedicated day, was 4 bags of mortar mix, which roughly equated to 2 courses of brick. Seeing as how I had to make at least 8 courses, that means that I had another 3-4 courses to go, meaning at least two more weeks. So much for finishing the wall during this long weekend. That’s OK. Taking on a project in which I had minimal experience in the trade would naturally take more time, and my original schedule estimates were based on optimism instead of experience. But now I know better and I now have the experience to do a better estimate and work more efficiently. Yes, there were some quality issues which I had to work through, but the quality improves with each course, and, being a long-time DIY, I know how to recover (i.e., hide) my mistakes. Only I will know. And you, who read these words. Those who have seen my work in person are quite complimentary, and I’m fairly sure that you would agree. It looks pretty good. And I’m my worst critic.

Weekend #2 (2/20/15-2/22/15):

With rain in the forecast (God knows we need it), I was only able to get a few courses done on Friday. Even with my new-found skills, the best I can do is about 1 bag of mix in 2.5 hours, which means that I can only lay 2 courses (4 bags) today. However, that’s progress, and I’m getting more skilled and gaining confidence with each brick. The mason’s line makes the actual bricklaying go fast, and it’s rock-solid level and straight. Still, the scut work of dealing with mixing the mortar and cleaning up, and the detail work of finishing the joints and cleaning the excess mortar from the bricks still takes what seems forever. Still, I like the result. And apparently so does everybody else. I’ve been receiving a lot of compliments!

END OF WEEK #2

END OF WEEK #2

 

I spent Saturday making up the new mailbox assembly (2 mailboxes on a post).  Although there was rain in the forecast, it was very spotty and I probably could have done some more bricklaying, but I did get the mailboxes done, so it was not wasted time.

Sunday was a total rain-out. I spent the day going to church, relaxing, and making a nice Sunday dinner for everybody (main dish salad with butter lettuce, white wine dijon vinaigrette, oven roast chicken with zaatar and olive oil, fresh (home-made) pitas, and white bean hummus), and drinking beer. Not necessarily in that order.

Weekend #3 (2/27/2015-3/1/2015):

The weather is clear and I am cookin’ with gas! The routine is down, the skills are learned, and I’m building a wall like a mason! I still have to perform all of the tasks that the apprentices and journeymen do, and since I am definitely NOT a master mason, I guess that’s all there is. Come to think of it, if you’re a master mason, then you probably have your own business, so you’re probably not slinging mortar. You’re busy doing other things, like getting more jobs, dealing with all the paperwork and bureaucracy, hiring and keeping skilled employees, and providing quality control and experienced advice for those “tough” situations. In general, it sometimes sucks to be the boss. Still not “quite” done, but we just switched to daylight savings time, so that means that I’ll be able to work weekdays when I get home, and I intend to make the most of that!

ALMOST DONE

ALMOST DONE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cooked Sunday dinner again. This time we had beer can chicken (my signature dish) with Meyer lemon-rosemary-garlic butter baste, oven roast yukon gold potatoes, and hobo-pack asparagus. For dessert, we had Meyer lemon upside-down cake. There was a really cool recipe in the latest Sunset magazine that had a whole section on what to do with Meyer lemons. We have a Meyer lemon tree, and it is chock-full of nice ripe fruits, so I wanted to take advantage of the season. The cake part was made with cornmeal, in the style of an Italian polenta cake. Man, with some sweetened whipped cream, it was awesome. As I mentioned in my previous post on kitchen design, I have the best restaurant in town!

Week #4 (3/9/15-3/13/15)

Daylight savings time is here, and I’m going to take advantage of it! I had time on Monday and Wednesday, and I was able to get 1 bag of mortar worth of bricks done each day. I’m counting in bags because that defines a set time (2.5 – 3 hours) and a set amount of bricks (~16) to finish. I was finished with the main wall on Monday, and on Wednesday, I finished all but the caps of the wall that separates me from my next door neighbor. On Friday, I capped off that separator wall, and then turned my attention to fixing a broken wall that our Home Owner Association owned, and that one of the board members requested me to try to fix it. What the heck! I had leftover bricks and all I had to do was buy $5 worth of mortar mix. NBD.

FINISHED WALL

FINISHED WALL

SOUTH VIEW

SOUTH VIEW

 

NEW MAILBOXES. This is what I spent a "rainy" Saturday putting together. Gotta wipe off the grinding dust from my brick cutting operation.

NEW MAILBOXES. This is what I spent a “rainy” Saturday putting together. Gotta wipe off the grinding dust from my brick cutting operation.

BROKEN HOA WALL

BROKEN HOA WALL

FIXED HOA WALL

FIXED HOA WALL

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nice Finish!

Nice Finish!

 

DEAD-ON

DEAD-ON

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some parting thoughts:

  1. I am NOT a mason. I just happen to have learned some masonry skills. I am a DIY guy. Masons are professionals.
  2. Professionals have tons of experience through thousands of hours of work. I probably have seen precious few of the array of problems that professional masons have to deal with. A good example is when I was trying to sandwich a brick between two others that were on the top and bottom because I was doing a repair instead of simply building a new wall. I have no idea how to butter (get the mortar in)  between both the bottom and top of the brick I have to insert. I ended up shoving in some with my fingers. I’m sure that there are better ways, but I only had 4-5 do to, and I’ll probably never do it again. Still, I’d be interested in figuring out how to do this.
  3. “Professionals” can make mistakes. The pressure to get the job done fast sometimes causes quality problems. In my case, I was capping off the wall that separates me from my neighbor, which was built by the original contractors. When I set up the mason’s line, lo and behold, the wall was not straight! Lesson: don’t be intimidated by “professionals”.
  4. I like the result. The epitome of being a DIY’er is that you can step back and take some pride in what you have created. The compliments from my neighbors are frequent and very welcome, but looking at it, as a manifestation of my creative efforts, gives me very deep pleasure.
  5. The other reward is that I’ve learned a new skill. Granted, I already have some basic building skills, and I learned a lot up front from my Internet studies (thanks Mike Haduck). But I had to make the effort and take the risk. I have a beautiful new wall, I am deft with the trowel, and I have an appreciation for those hard-working apprentices. I call that progress.

Here is my video on how to string up a mason’s block.

 

2 thoughts on “Becoming A Mason — Building A Brick Wall

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