How To: Repoint Historic Mortar

By Scott Sidler December 5, 2016

how to repoint historic mortarLearning how to repoint historic mortar is an important part of maintaining any masonry structure. Whether it’s built with brick, stone, or block, any historic masonry building with lime mortar will need some amount of repointing during its life.

When repointing, it’s also important to understand the differences between lime mortars and portland cement mortars, because they are very different and cannot be used interchangeably. In this post,, I’ll walk you through a brief history of the different types of historic mortar, how to pick the right products and tools, and finally the nuts and bolts of how to repoint historic mortar.

 

Lime Mortar vs Portland Cement

Up until 1871 in America, nearly every masonry building was made using lime mortar. Lime mortar is a slow curing, easy to work with, very versatile mortar that is made very simply of lime putty and sand. Lime mortars and natural cements were used in a variety of ways until portland cement came on the scene in 1871 when the first manufacturing plant was opened in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania.

Portland cement could achieve much quicker setting times than lime mortar, though in the early years its strength was not much more than the natural cements available so the market for it was initially small. From the early 1870s through the 1920s portland cement proportions grew rapidly in mortar mixes eventually replacing lime completely. Eventually, manufacturers were able to improve the workability and strength of portland cement in major ways making it up to 10 times as strong as traditional lime mortar!

These interim years of 1871-1929 are associated with a mortar that had progressively more portland cement and less lime as time progressed, making mortar analysis important if you want to get the same mix that was originally used. If mortar analysis is not feasible, then it’s best to err on the side of lime mortar so that mortar isn’t too hard for the brick.

Its increased strength and fast set time helped make portland cement the standard for construction today so that we can build the huge skyscrapers (and parking garages) that are a part of our modern lives. While it is an extraordinary material for modern construction, it is a terrible choice for historic buildings for a couple big reasons.

 

Old Masonry & New Mortar?

Just like mortar has changed from soft lime mortars to harder portland cement mortars over the last century, masonry units like bricks and blocks have gotten harder as our kilns have gotten hotter. The rule has always been this:

“The masonry unit must be harder than the mortar that holds it in place.”

Using portland cement mortar with historic masonry does not follow this rule and here’s why:

  1. Too Hard: Portland cement is too hard for historic masonry. These soft bricks can be completely destroyed by hard, unwieldy mortar. Pointing old brick with portland cement mortar can cause the faces of the brick to crack and fall off and literally turn to powder, a condition known as “spalling.” The extra hard mortar doesn’t allow the brick to expand and contract with seasonal changes and its tight grip is what causes the spalling.
  2. Not Breathable: Historic masonry is not a waterproof material. It takes in moisture and lets it back out again as does the lime mortar. But portland cement is not breathable. Repointing with portland cement will trap moisture in the wall and cause efflorescence and premature failure of the brick. Not to mention the building is not able to sufficiently breathe to expel the moisture that inevitably builds up indoors in the winter.

So, now that you understand why you should only use lime mortars on historic masonry, let’s get into the nitty gritty of how to repoint historic mortar.

 

How to Repoint Historic Mortar

First thing you need to do is find a suitable mortar. You can make your own mortar with slaked lime putty and sand by mixing in a 1:3 proportion of lime to sand if you want to be super old school. You don’t need any water in the mix, other a slight amount to “bulk” the sand initially.

Usually, it’s most efficient to buy a pre-package mortar like Ecologic Mortar from Limeworks.us. They make several different colors and textures to help you find a match for your project, since color matching is so important. You can even send them a sample and have them make you a custom blended mortar that matches yours exactly.

For repointing, your mortar mix should be very thick. Your mortar is mixed properly if you can take a handful of the mortar and ball it up in your hand and it will hold its shape.

 

lime-mortar-removal
Removed Damaged Mortar
Step 1 Remove Damaged Mortar

Lime mortar is usually soft enough that unless you are doing large projects, removal is best done with a cold chisel and hammer. For larger jobs, it may be beneficial to get an Arbortech Saw like in the picture. These make short work of lime mortar removal and can even allow you to remove whole bricks without damaging the surrounding brick. Check out this video.

The mortar should be removed to a depth of 2 to 2 1/2 times the width of the mortar joint. For example, a mortar joint of 3/8″ wide should have the old mortar removed back to between 3/4″ and 1″. All mortar in that area should be completely removed from the brickwork so that you are down to clean masonry with a flat squared off back in the cleaned mortar joint.

 

Step 2 Vacuum Joint Clean
wet-mortar-joints
Wet the Joint

Once the mortar removal is complete, throughly vacuum out the joint so there is no more debris. Clean is the word here.

 

Step 3 Wet the Joint

Using a spray bottle, gently wet the joint. Don’t drench it, but every surface should be misted. Some old bricks are particularly thirsty for moisture, so you may need to add a lot of water initially and let it soak in. Just make sure that the surface is damp, but not glistening wet when you begin repointing.

 

Step 4 Fill the Joint
repointing-historic-brick
Fill the Joint

With your mortar mixed and ready to go, it’s time to pack the joint with mortar. Using a pointing trowel that is slightly smaller than the joint width you are working with, fill the joint completely and pack the mortar tightly all the way to the back. If you have trouble getting the mortar to stay on your trowel, you can hog it into the joint right from the hawk like in the picture. This method can be much easier for filling very large joints.

It’s very important to pack the mortar tightly and actually overfill the joint just a bit. Also, be sure to keep the mortar off the face of the brick to avoid staining it with the lime.

 

Step 5 Tool the Face
tooling-mortar-joints
Tool the Joint

After the mortar has had time to setup and is thumbprint hard, it’s time to tool the face of the mortar. Thumbprint hard means that when you press your finger on the mortar, it doesn’t mar the mortar or leave wet residue on your thumb. Once it’s ready, use your pointing trowel or putty knife to lightly scrape the joint back to almost flush with the surrounding mortar.

Your goal is to gently get the new mortar to a level just a hair fuller than the existing mortar in the area so we can finish it, flush and allow it to blend in as closely as possible. It’s helpful to take a pass on each edge and then come back and scrape the center flush with the edges.

 

churn-brush-repointing
Finish the face
Step 6 Finish the Face

Using a churn brush, slap the brush against the face of the mortar a few times. This serves to compact the mortar even more, bring more aggregate to the surface, and age the surface so it looks similar to the other aged mortar in the area.

 

Step 7 Proper Curing

Lime mortar cures by a process called carbonation, which means it pulls carbon dioxide from

after-repointing-historic-mortar
The Finished Product

the air as it expels water. Over the next 30 days, the mortar will gradually harden, but in the first 3 days it’s imperative to mist the mortar at least 3 times daily to aid in the curing process. If this step is skipped, the mortar may not cure properly and may develop stress cracks.

In warm weather or direct sunlight, misting more often may be required. You can also attach burlap over the surface to help slow the curing process in hot and sunny conditions.

 

I hope this post has helped you understand your old masonry a bit more. There is also a great Preservation Brief on History Masonry co-written by my teacher John Speweik that you can read for more details and ideas.

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17 thoughts on “How To: Repoint Historic Mortar”

  1. We moved into an old house that had been flipped about 5 years ago. Problem: the flippers painted the fired limestone foundations walls with dry-lock to make it look more appealing to buyers. Our experience: bubbling paint and crumbling mortar behind the paint, causing a big mess. I started getting the paint off the area with the biggest concern, some of the mortar is really hard but it’s all gritty. I don’t really know if they patched with newer mortar or not. Some of the mortar patches look like they are just going to break off on the outside of the house though. Will have to look for some soft mortar and try my had at repointing these walls

  2. Can you duplicate the mortar bonding cement by us sending you a sample of the old joint. The mortar bonding cement need to be exactly the same as the original to make a good bond. Please correct me if I am wrong.

  3. We have a very old building that is a stone facing. The mortar between the stones is deteriorating badly. It appears that the original mortar was mixed inappropriately (proportion-wise). You can wipe the joints with your finger and remove layers of mortar. I do not know the age of the building, though I would estimate it at around 1910. Since it is stone, and has been painted, we intend to have the wall sandblasted and refill the joints and stucco the wall. In some places the joints between stones are clear through the wall. Since the wall is stone, would it be appropriate to use portland based mortar and stucco? The stones should be harder than the mortar, and similar stones are used now, and obviously, are laid with portland based mortar. I would rather not use the lime mix, since the original joints are lacking in strength in the first place. I expect the sandblasting to remove a substantial portion of the existing mortar, allowing the new mortar to take over the general strength of the structure.

  4. Hi Scott,

    I just moved into a 1927 Craftsman in the Pacific Northwest. The inspector ‘pointed’ out that the top of the brick chimney needs to be repointed. Checking out websites of highly Yelp-rated masons and chimney repair people, I saw that several recommended waterproofing the chimney (with a product from ChimneySaver, for example). That seems to be in contrast to what you and John Speweik are saying. Is this something that might help extend the life of a repointed chimney, especially in the very wet climate of the PNW? Or would it interfere with the way my old chimney is supposed to work?

    1. By 1927 you likely have a decent amount of Portland cement in your mortar. If the brick is still in good shape and after ninety years the only thing needing help is some missing mortar than I think the waterproofing is a none issue. Just repoint and have your grandkids repoint it again in 90 years.

  5. Our five generations Victorian c 1868 in California..yes, unusual . It has survived many earthquakes…only 60 miles from San Francisco. The foundation-bASEment is about 3 ft below ground level and about 5 ft above ground level giving us about an 8ft high walk in basement. About50 years ago, all the exposed brick, inside and out, was covered with some kind of plaster which seemed to have saved it for this period, but now, it is really starting to deteriorate. Foundation company wants to build an interior footing with helical piers and other bracing .The concrete footing will be about 3 ft high and then with wood. The bricks will be perserved for historical accuracey , but nothing has been offered to keep the bricks from failing more. suggestions? Thoughts?

  6. your article is very helpful, however a house we are considering has a stone front not brick. Is it safe to assume a lime mortar with the stone?

  7. I have and old English basment , It seems like the brick is disintegrating, leaving red dust on the floor. Is there anything I can do to stop this.

  8. I have some safety questions.

    My New/Old house (1900), has its entire basement constructed of brick. I removed some old 1950’s paneling and found that the mortar behind had deteriorated extensively. In some areas, the bricks have begun to bow out slightly. Is it safe to work on this or do I need additional support above on the basement ceiling? I will wear a hard hat.

    I also have found areas where the original mortar was repointed with portland cement and the bricks are flaking apart. Do I need to replace these bricks? I know I must replace the ones that have split.

    I have also found areas that have been repointed with Plaster of Paris! Every time I brush a broom across the bricks I get clouds of white dust. I know its plaster of Paris because there are two solid bags of it that were left on the floor. Does this need to be repointed with the proper mortar?

    1. For a 1900 house Portland cement is likely not in the mortar mix so replacing those sections as well as the plaster of Paris with a lime mortar would be better. If it’s just repointing then that is safe to handle but if the wall is really bowing out of plane then an engineer or mason familiar with historic lime mortar would be best to at least consult with prior to starting work.

      1. Thanks for the reply!

        I figured as much. I will get a pro to come in and look at doing the tricky section and I will do the rest of it as it is dissolving all around the foundation on the inside.

        I understand that there is a variety of lime mortar that is hydrostatically reactive, where it gets firmer when exposed to moisture?

  9. Through the years our fireplace had areas tucked with Portland cement. How can I remove it? I was wondering if Muratic Acid would work.

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