Don’t Duck the Problem

Tuck-Pointing Made Easy

The DC Historic Preservation Office requires mortar be an approved historical color, so contractors test different colors before starting the job. Photo: Rindy O’Brien

With all the April and May rain, homeowners may be seeing wet walls and fearing that the long-delayed decision to tuck-point their historic bricks has reached the point of no return. Just the mention of removing and replacing old, crumbled mortar between bricks, a process known as tuck-pointing, can alarm a homeowner. There are horror stories of botched jobs, permitting nightmares, dust covering everything you own, and expenses that empty out your bank account. It is not a surprise that we put the job off until we see signs of trouble like deteriorating bricks or water seeping through the walls.

The Capitol Hill Restoration Society held a Preservation Cafe session on April 21 exclusively devoted to the topic of repointing mortar. Architectural conservator Justine Posluszny tackled the fundamentals of preserving the brick homes in the Capitol Hill historic district. Posluszny explained that while the job is probably one of the more expensive projects a homeowner will tackle, it is one of the best long-term investment a property owner can make. A good tuck-pointing project will last 85 years or more.

Posluszny also emphasized the importance of working with a contractor who knows the local laws, especially special permit requirements in the historic district. “This is really a job requiring expertise,” she cautioned. Luckily a number of companies have developed a specialized business of tuck-pointing Capitol Hill’s historic buildings. Bricklands and Renaissance Development are two of the longer-running companies. Other Hill contractors are R. Thomas Daniel, George Halliday Masonry, and Sundance Contracting.

What Makes It So Hard?

“There are really three parts to the project of tuck-pointing,” says Gerson Amaya, Bricklands’ project manager. Gerson’s father, Julio C. Amaya, started Bricklands more than 25 years, one of the first companies dedicated to tuck-pointing. After permitting is granted, “the job is to remove the old mortar, then replace it with new mortar, and thirdly clean the bricks and mortar.” When you put it that way, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming.

Each layer of brick is sandwiched between mortar both horizontally and vertically. Weather, water, and environmental degradation eventually occur, deteriorating the glue-like substance. Sometimes we see mortar flaking, shrinking, and disappearing. But often the deteriorating mortar lets water in and eventually we see the water damage inside our homes. 

Christina Wilson, founder and president of Renaissance Development, has been helping homeowners with tuck-pointing on Capitol Hill since 2004. Using her extensive academic knowledge of architectural history, she specializes in the restoration of historic-district homes on the Hill and throughout DC. “I always advise homeowners to take a holistic approach to tuck-pointing,” Wilson says.  “Often homeowners see one hole and think that spot tuck-pointing will do the trick. Unfortunately it is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Renaissance Development does not provide the service of spot tuck-pointing, because it simply doesn’t fix the problem. While tuck-pointing is an expensive maintenance project, it really is a long-term investment and adds value to the home.”

Getting the old mortar out of each layer is the time-consuming element of the project. For historic homes the job is even more arduous because much if not all of the work needs to be carefully done by hand, not with grinders that can cut or scar the brick. “In the hands of a professional mason,” Bricklands’ Amaya says,” the combination of starting with a diamond drill to get the first cut made and then using hand tools can be highly successful. But it really needs to be done by an experienced worker.” For that reason the DC permitting office will often not approve use of grinders in an historic district. 

The work is dirty and produces a lot of dust. OSHA requires that workers wear masks while working on mortar removal. Netting around the scaffolding can help reduce the amount of dust flying around the site. Homeowners can also put painter’s tape (yes, the blue kind) around the windows and doorways and seal the windows with plastic to reduce the dust. Grinders, of course, create even more dust than handwork.

The professionals caution that mortar needs to be taken out probably an inch or more, and not just cosmetically removed. Renaissance Development’s Wilson says that her company removes anywhere from a half inch to two inches of mortar in the first step. “Often we start by undoing the mistakes of past tuck-pointing efforts, and have found cement, Styrofoam, and rags stuck into the joints,” Wilson notes.

Chemistry and Color Matter

After the old mortar is filed out, the contractor has to replace it with new mortar that meets the requirements of the DC Historic Preservation Office, if the home is in the historic district. “Lime is the ingredient that makes the difference,” Amaya points out. There are different degrees of toughness in mortar, and for the older Capitol Hill brick you don’t want to use industrial-strength cement mortar. The mortar has to meet a complicated chemical formula of lime, sand, and cement.

Renaissance Development decided to find a source of historic mortar, and after much research located a product that meets the city’s standards. In an effort to use local businesses, Wilson worked with Frager’s Hardware to carry the product so that they are always assured to have the best mortar for Hill homes. 

The Historic Preservation Office wants to ensure that the new mortar represents a historically accurate color, preferably close to what is currently found on the house. Sometimes previous tuck-pointing repairs make that impossible to determine. The contractors stress the importance of working with local tuck-pointing companies that have experience and have built up trust with the preservation office, especially when it comes to permitting issues. Both Renaissance and Bricklands include the permitting process in their bids. 

The last step is cleaning the bricks and mortar. It sounds simple enough, but once again, the use of power washers or abrasive chemicals can make a huge difference in doing the job correctly. Homeowners need to make sure the contractor is following the preservation guidelines. Too much water or chemicals can cause great damage to the bricks.

Brick by Brick

Thankfully the bricks rarely need to be replaced if the mortar is holding up well and the maintenance work has been performed correctly. Amaya says 99 percent of the bricks in any given job will be found to be solid. When replacement bricks are needed, finding them can be a job for a seasoned detective. Using companies like Bricklands or Renaissance, which specialize in tuck-pointing for Capitol Hill bricks, can save a lot of time and cost, because they know where to find the right replacement brick.

The last word on tackling tuck-pointing is to do a little homework before getting started. Plenty of resources are available. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society has prepared a 12-page guideline document by Judith M. Capen, AIA, “Red Brick, Brown Brick, Pressed Brick and Common: Capitol Hill Brick.” It is especially helpful in demonstrating the pitfalls of bad tuck-pointing and provides a great review of the types of bricks used on Capitol Hill. The other must-read is the US Department of Interior’s technical “Preservation Briefs,” available online, www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs.html. They cover every aspect of the project and will help avoid making poor and costly decisions.

Also, ask your neighbors about their experience with local contractors. The average cost for a small Capitol Hill home is $7,000 to $20,000. But remember, the longer you procrastinate, the more expensive the job becomes. Eventually it must be done or your house will become structurally unstable. Amortize the cost over the 85-year lifetime of the mortar, and it really is an investment worth making.

OSHA requires workers to wear masks when grinding and removing old mortar. Photo: Bricklands
Gerson Amaya, project manager for Bricklands, points out the layers of mortar on a Capitol Hill home. Photo: Rindy O’Brien

Rindy O’Brien is a writer and photographer on Capitol Hill. She can be reached at rindyobrien@gmail.com.


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