Q: I have an old brick house from about the 30′s and it seems like the brick work could use a little work. There are places where the mortar has worn away excessively and some bricks are a little loose or worn. How can I go about fixing the brick work to make it look good as new, or close to that?
A: It certainly sounds like your brick needs some repair work. The most pressing issue seems to be repairing the mortar, or repointing, as it’s called. Brick will last for a very long time, as evidenced by the home in question, which has made it 80 years before repairs became a necessity. Yet repair time has come.
#1 – Repairing the Mortar
First, the worn-away mortar must be replaced. It’s important in most cases not to use Portland cement, which is readily available but potentially damaging. It’s too hard for most brick and will only accelerate the breaking up, or spalling, of the bricks. Instead, use a mason’s chisel to extract a small sample of the existing mortar, crush it, and pour some household distilled white vinegar over it. This will separate the lime from the sand. The lime will pour off with the vinegar and the remaining sand can be dried out briefly and taken into a mason to be perfectly matched for repointing.
#2 – Check for Cracking
It is also very important that you check for cracking in the brick wall. Passive cracks—those which are not expanding or growing lengthwise—can be repaired by replacing the cracked brick or bricks. However, cracks that are active may represent a more serious problem, such as a pressure point or structural weakness in the wall. The only real way to identify an active crack is to monitor it over a long period of time. Another option, and probably the best one if cracks are evident, is to contact a structural engineer. To fix active cracks, the cause must first be addressed and then the bricks replaced.
#3 – Distressed Look vs. New Brick Finish
As for making the wall look new, this is a matter of aesthetics. While many homeowners are working to make their brick look new, the other half are distressing their brick to make it look old. Still, if the new look is desirable, then a concrete or brick stain is probably your best option. There is a variety of options, so choose carefully with the help of a local paint, masonry or restoration expert
Bear in mind that some sealants form an impermeable layer over the brick (typically providing a more glossy finish) that won’t allow water in, but also won’t allow the brick to breathe or expel any of the moisture that may be inside. This can lead to problems and the further breakdown of the bricks. However, there are sealers that penetrate the brick, protecting against exposure to the elements but also allowing the brick to breathe. However, these finishes typically have a matte finish and may not make the brick look as new as you might want.
Best of luck to you, and thanks for writing in!