Repointing – Lime Putty Mortar Placement

Lime putty mortar repointing, ca. 1850 after cement ribbon joints were removed

As I sit and write this blog I realize I am writing about style and approach to a specific task that many of you have been doing for many years. So I will start with this disclaimer – I will share my experiences with you on many successful repointing projects that involved lime putty mortar and most required no washing after wards except an occasional vinegar quick rinse to remove the white film from red brick units. I have made mistakes along the way and worked over the years to attempt to figure out what is the best practice approach to this task of mortar replacement called repointing.

Repointing, unlike tuckpointing, requires the full preparation of the joints to a depth of 2 to 2-1/2 times the width as discussed in yesterdays post. The American version of tuckpointing is only a skim coating of cement-based mortar over the top of existing mortar joints without the removal process (Chicago). The British version of tuckpointing is where a mortar joint is actually made to the same color as the units and a grapevine line is established in the center of the joint and tucked with a different color and mixture of mortar – true tuckpointing. This true tuckpointing is remarkably difficult to learn but in the end it makes brickwork appear straighter and rubble stonework look like it was laid up in ashlar units.

Mixing lime putty mortar is straight forward. You mix the putty into the sand placing the sand in the wheelbarrow first. Create a hole in the sand for the putty and place the putty into the hole and start to twist and knead the material together. What is interesting is that you do not need additional water during the mixing process; there is enough water in the lime putty to give you a good brown-sugar consistency for repointing. If you are laying brick you can add a small amount of water to create a spreadable mortar. A good repointing mortar should not be able to be spread with a trowel, if it is, than you have too much water in the mixture. If this occurs all is not lost, simply set the material aside on a dry sheet of plywood and allow the excess water to run off (be absorbed into the wood) until you get the desired consistency. This may take several days.

Pre-soaking the joints with water prior to mortar placement

Pre-soak the wall with water. Be sure to get the water between the units and back into the existing original mortar joints. I have had projects where the water pre-soaking process never made it back into the joints – the sprayer was held too far away from the wall surface and while the unit faces received water the joints remained dry – especially the tighter joints. To ensure that you are getting the water back into the joints run the sprayers right on the walls and into the joints filling them with water. Allow the water to absorb into the wall materials and become Saturated Surface Dry (SSD) – no standing water to the touch, no drips, no glistening or shining if viewed from an angle – usually takes 8 to 10 minutes depending on the rate of absorption. You are now ready to start placing the mortar material.

It is most important that your repointing tools fit between the masonry units to enable you to compress the mortar back to the original material. If your repointing tools are too wide you will stain the face of the masonry as you attempt to get the material back into the joint and you will not get the necessary compression required for a good job. You may need to alter your tools by using a bench grinder to create thinner repointing tools. Most big box stores only carry 3/8 inch size even though ¼ inch sizes are available. Work from a hawk. If you are right-handed, work from right to left, on a slight angle, leading with the tip of the repointing tool. Overfill the mortar joints past the surface of the masonry units at least ¼ inch. Allow to dry and become thumbprint hard. Scrap away the excess mortar using a margin trowel and follow the contours of the masonry edges if required. Match the mortar joint profile of the original work. Stipple brush finish the joints by beating the faces with a churn brush – opening up the surfaces to expose the aggregate and create a texture that will encourage prompt evaporation of water and rapid carbonation as the mortar cures.

Protect the mortar for the first 24 hours after placement from wind driven rain and direct sunlight. Keep the material moist – spraying the entire wall with water three times per day for the first three days after application. The material carbonates as it goes through wetting and drying cycles – a minimum of at least nine (9) cycles. Do not allow the mortar to dry out too quickly. Repointing into hot or warm masonry units (south elevation) during summer months is not recommended. The masonry units simply will draw out the water from the mortar to quickly as the temperature rises reducing the chances for proper curing and carbonation to take place.

Repointing tools are available at: http://ushg.macusa.net/heritagedetail1.1.php?Current_Name=Restoration%20Pointing%20Iron

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  1. #1 by Keith Boyd on October 21, 2011 - 1:31 pm

    Hi John, good article. Yes ‘real’ tuckpointing is difficult, but doable nontheless. If only masons in the US would have the patience to learn how to do it!!

    I’ve always been taught to get as smooth a joint as possible in any pointing to give the surface more of a weatherproofing ability. The practice over here in the USA is for masons to brush the surface of the mortar joints. The only reason I can see for this practice is to give a consistent finish because they don’t have the patience or the ability to make a proper weathered joint. So I’m surprised to see you advocating the practice over here?

    • #2 by John Speweik on October 22, 2011 - 12:02 pm

      When dealing with lime putty mortar we found that opening up the texture of the surface of the joint provides the best condition for rapid carbonation of the material. In a sense, we are creating a very tight lime mortar joint and durable at the same time. The weatherproofing smooth joint you describe is recommended for cement-based mortar formulations as the material does not rely on the carbonation process (absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere) to cure.

  2. #3 by Patrick McAfee on October 25, 2011 - 10:09 am

    Just to concur with John, the joint surface (on rubble stonework in particular) is beaten (rather than brushed) with a stiff churn brush to increase the surface area and induce carbonation. Another reason this is done is to expose the sand particles/aggregate in the mix in order to match new work with existing weathered joints. The beating process also closes or compresses joints that have a tendency to shrink. Another bonus is that it creates an overall even finish.

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