Don’t Muddle Up that Historic 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.

This historic brick face has been exposed to the elements to over 100 years. While brick holds up for that length of time fairly easily, mortar can start to show the effects of weathering after about 25 years. to show damage. Note the erosion of the mortar here and the developing holes.

Have you ever seen a historic brick chimney or wall in 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!

Actually, a large body of knowledge exists on the subject of brick repair and tuck pointing in particular. Who knew?

So here’s a little basic knowledge about the subject. “Tuck” it away for later. Or, if your historic home could use some TLC in this arena, hopefully this will help you on your brick repair journey…

The Jargon

The terms pointing, repointing, and tuck pointing are often used interchangeably in the U.S. As you can imagine, this leads to not an insignificant degree of confusion in the brickworking industry. Which 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. 1) Point – to place mortar into joints to correct defects or to fill joints in new brickwork;
  2. 2) Repoint – to place mortar into cut or raked joints to repair mortar joints in old brickwork;
  3. 3) Tuck point – to place 2 contrasting colors of mortar into joints, with 1 color matching the bricks to give the illusion that very fine joints have been made.

The National Park Service also has plenty of information in their technical brief on repointing mortar points here.

An example of tuck pointing.

An example of tuck pointing.

A (Very Brief) History

How did we get to this confusion of “the points”? 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?).

Don’t Muddle It Up!

With this 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 the Do-It-Yourself type for the Hampton Court Palace, UK stacks!

 

References

1991 Shellenbarger, MIchael

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