Home Improvement – KD Tackles Masonry

So our basement has an old chimney base that’s perfect for a wine cellar.  The base is a series of brick walls which are basically 1 course of bricks thick.  The problem is that the bricks are probably original to the house (more than 200 years old) and the mortar had literally crumbled to dust.  To make matters even worse, someone had done a horrendous job trying to fix the problem at some point in the past – getting mortar all over the faces of the bricks on several of the wall faces.  In the picture below you can see all the white mortar/plaster on the faces of the bricks.  I didn’t even try to fix that – it would be a major project to grind and chip all of that out.  Instead, I focused on the “eroded to dust” faces, which you can also see in this picture below.
A closeup of the bricks looks like this:
You can see how the mortar between the bricks is almost completely gone.  You can probably even make out the dust texture of the mortar.  On one face of the wall, I could have actually taken apart the entire wall if I wanted to – but most of the faces were still stable enough that the bricks were attatched.
So, I got myself a mask, some safety goggles, a dustpan brush and a wire brush, and I set to work dusting/scrubbing out the old mortar.  It was part archeology project – as if I were excavating – dusting with the dustpan brush, and then part elbow grease, where I actually had to scrape out remaining crumbling mortar using the stiff wire brush.  When the mortar was removed, it looked like this:
Note the deep, clean grooves between the bricks.  But there were other problems – some bricks themselves were largely eroded:
One more before picture for good measure:
Now came the hard part – the masonry.  I went to Lowes and picked up some Quickcrete mortar mix.  A ten pound bag.  Now, in the hands of an experienced mason, this ten pound bag might get a full face section of my wall done.  I am not an experienced mason.  The first challenge is getting the mortar to the right consistency – it’s just mix + water, and it’s supposed to be like wet sand – or so I thought.  I think my mortar was probably a little too dry.  Although professionals make it look super easy, I found it nearly impossible to get the mortar into those cracks.  I was using a trowel, a spade, and rubber gloves.  I quickly realized that it was much easier to just take the mortar in my hands like clay and mash it into the grooves. My father in-law later told me that the mortar is supposed to be “creamy”  – but that made it even harder to work with, so I went back to the more “clay-like” water ratio.
Now, it’s quite likely that I wasn’t getting the mortar all the way into the grooves, and that my mortar was too thick – but this project wasn’t structural – it was visual.  Anyway – I would smear the mortar on, grab another handful, and smear some more.  Then, after 10 minutes, I’d take my wire brush and scrape all the mortar off the brick faces, leaving it in the cracks.  It worked like a charm.  Of course, this also meant that I wasted probably 2/3rd of my mortar – as it ended up on the ground.  I tried re-using some of it, but most of it had too much brick dust and floor dust in it to be of use.
So my 10lb bag of mortar mix quickly disappeared, and I picked up the 50lb bag the next time I was at Lowes.  I mixed up another batch of mortar, trying to make it wetter, but had similarly no luck getting it into the cracks with the intended tools, and I quickly resorted to the patented Kid Dynamite Grab and Smear school of masonry.   The wire brush was my best friend, and cleaned up the bricks nicely.
The project took me several hours on each of several different days, and I think I did 6 or 7 wall faces in total.  I think I used a total of 130lbs of mortar!  I don’t know how far that much mortar would usually go, but I’m guessing it is supposed to cover a lot more than the 150 or so square feet I did.  I had another issue with cleanup each time:  I have a septic system, and certainly don’t want to be washing cement down my drains, so I’d have to carefully clean up using a bucket of water outside and throw it in the driveway.  Here’s an “after” picture:
You can still see how old the bricks are, and in the second row from the top you can see a brick that was almost entirely rebuild from mortar.  The edges of most of the bricks don’t look “crisp” because they aren’t – they are 200+ years old!  Many of the bricks (the reddish ones near the bottom) that look like they have mortar on their faces are actually patched with mortar.  I was trying to avoid covering the entire brick face, but needed to fill in parts of it.
So here’s a video of the “finished” product.  You will notice that there are many wall faces I didn’t touch – those were the ones I referred to earlier that had been previously brutalized with mortar/plaster all over the brick faces.   The wall faces I rehabbed are on the left on the outside of the room (:02 seconds), and just inside the room to the left (:13 seconds) and straight/left (:17 seconds).  You can see a wall I didn’t touch in between those two wall faces (it’s more white, instead of gray), and I didn’t touch any of the walls to the right, above where most of the wine on the floor is. There are also a few more faces on the outside of the room that aren’t visible in the video:
Now – here’s where you, the reader, come in. You can see some of the wooden wine crates I have on the ground.  My goal is to make them my storage medium for my wine, and to get them off the ground.  I don’t really want to mount them into the walls – which are still fragile – but I do want to build some sort of shelving system that will be able to hold the wine crates (with the wine bottles in them).  Note, that I am not a superstar when it comes to projects like this.  In our house, Mrs. Dynamite is the tool wizard  – she just finished installing some cabinets in our laundry room (and patching and painting the laundry room too) while I spend my time working on the garden or cooking.  Yeah – role reversal, I know.
So if anyone has any good, easy to implement ideas about how to create some sort of shelving system for the wooden wine boxes, I’m all ears.
blog update:  I will be out of town for the next several days.  make sure you read my prior post “It’s not a homeowner bailout – it’s a bank bailout” if you haven’t already, and sign up to follow me on twitter:  kiddynamiteblog
-KD

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