Most people don’t realize that lime particles are said to be some 500 times smaller than portland cement particles. This might explain, in part, why some lime mortar applications for repointing get so messy with mortar on the faces of the stonework – and yes, very difficult to remove especially the longer the lime mortar sits on the stone. The key in delivering a clean project, one that needs minimal cleaning (just with a small brush and water at the edges of the stone) is water content of the repointing mortar when being applied.
The consistency should be like that of stiff compacted brown sugar like you find in the kitchen cabinet. Yep, just like that. The feeling, the moisture content, and the compaction power. Mortar made to this consistency will not stick to the surfaces of the stonework and cannot be dragged along the top causing a stain from the hawk being pressed against the wall. You get a cleaner wall and the chances of shrinkage cracks are reduced as the mortar cures.
But moisture is important when repointing a wall. Bond strength is delivered during the application when a thoroughly soaked wall (with water) is allowed to partially dry-out and become surface-saturated-dry or (SSD). The SSD condition gives the dry mortar a bond potential with the advancement of each masons pressurized push against the material to the back of the joint. This is why it is so important that the masons repointing tool be sized to fit within the joint to allow for this compression.
I have seen a trend in recent years to rely on washing down the repointed walls with a light solution of an acid-based cleaner to remove the mortar stains from the stone surfaces. Problem is that the cleaner also cleans the mortar and dissolves the binder paste from the surfaces. While some in the industry call this aging the mortar, because it exposes the aggregate and gives the appearance of an old mortar joint. Well, you would get that appearance anyway if you waited 10 years as the lime paste naturally wears off the surface of the aggregate particles.
So, in fact, what you are doing in washing the wall down is giving the customer a used wall – a clean wall, but a wall that has been exposed to accelerated weathering is how I look at it. I figure you rip off at least 10-15 years of life cycle performance from the face of a mortar joint by washing it down with an acid-based cleaner. Seems the evidence is clear that the lime mortars do not withstand a cleaning as well as portland cement-based mortar mixtures. What makes things much worse is that lime mortar is very absorbent to water by its natural ability to transfer water in and out through evaporation which often causes the cleaners to penetrate deeper into the joint surface weakening the material even further.
The story I tell in my masonry seminars is a fun one to illustrate the point. It would be like selling someone a brand new set of tires for their truck and make them pay full price for them, but just as they are ready to drive away, you tell them, “Let me use your tires for say 20,000 miles first, then I will give them back to you” – essentially selling them used tires for the price of brand new ones. Don’t sell used lime mortar.