Don’t Muddle Up that Brick Repair

Upon close inspection, this 1890s chimney is missing a lot of mortar in the joints!
1890s chimney needing both repointing as well as correction of poor repair work.

Have you ever seen a brick chimney or wall in Cincinnati sorely in need of repair and restoration? And then right after that did you wonder what the difference is between pointing, repointing, and tuck pointing in brick repair? You are not alone!

A large body of knowledge exists on the subject of brick repair and tuck pointing in particular. According to the Better Business Bureau website there are even tuck pointing accredited businesses in Cincinnati.

Who knew?

Actually, the terms pointing, repointing, and tuck pointing are often used interchangeably in the U.S., leading to a not insignificant degree of confusion in the brickworking industry. This of course, filters down to the historic home owner desiring to do some good ol’ brick repair. To clarify based on historical precedents (check out M. Shellenbarger’s journal article on tuck pointing available on JSTOR, citation below):

1) Point – to place mortar into joints to correct defects or to fill joints in new brickwork;

2) Repoint – to place mortar into cut or raked joints to repair mortar joints in old brickwork;

3) Tuck point – to place two contrasting colors of mortar into joints, with one color matching the bricks to give the illusion that very fine joints have been made.

An example of tuck pointing.
An example of tuck pointing.

True tuck pointing was developed in England during the eighteenth century as a way to give the impression of narrow-jointed brickwork when the bricks themselves weren’t regular enough in shape–bearing in mind that it wasn’t until the previous century that uniformly-sized bricks became available. Sure enough, when tuck pointing was all the rage in England, it wasn’t done on publicly prominent buildings or those owned by royalty or the very wealthy. Tuck pointing was popular during the nineteenth century mostly with the middle class as a way to “fake it” or approximate the presence of finer brickwork. The process of tuck pointing was imported to the U.S. but wasn’t used much past the turn of the twentieth century as regularly-sized bricks were already the norm and fashions in masonry joints changed (again, who knew?).

While this is a whirlwind overview of the subject at hand, we can leave you with two very basic “no-no’s” if you find yourself about to embark on a brick repair journey with your historic home:

a) Don’t end up with mortar of a different color;

b) Don’t end up with mortar joints that are larger than they were originally.

These may seem like simple things but, if you really start to look at the brick buildings around town, they happen more than anyone would care to admit. Preventing them is easy. First off, make sure your replacement mortar is compatible with your historic mortar. Traditional lime mortar, for example, allows masonry to move with changing environmental conditions, giving new life to historic brickwork. Secondly, take care to not fill out the mortar too far. And for chimneys–where it seems the majority of sloppy repair jobs are found–don’t be too hesitant to explore the “re-build” option, using historic/salvaged bricks, if the bricks are a bit too far gone erosion-wise (such that they would be actually be candidates for true tuck pointing!)…

Repair work is definitely not DIY for the Hampton Court Palace, UK stacks!
Repair work is definitely not DIY for the Hampton Court Palace, UK stacks!

 

1991 Shellenbarger, MIchael

Tuck Pointing History and Confusion. APT Bulletin 23(3):38-47.