Likes to get her fingers dirty (with mortar)…

A couple of weeks ago I started my big summer project (big being a very relative term as it definitely is not as big as, say, a badass pergola), which, in case you missed that post, is to rehab the entryway of my darling 80 year old house.


Step one in this process was to remove the crumbled-to-shit iron railing, which, obviously, had seen better days.

Step two? Taking care of this mess that the previous owners left me.


It’s hard for me to talk about what was done here without steam pouring out of my ears or using the f-word excessively… but I’ll try. It appears that there were at least three attempts to patch the mortar around these stones. The first resulted in that fun border of mortar you see decorating the bricks at least an inch away from the actual place that needed patching. Why? Who the heck knows? However I have to give the previous owners some credit for actually using mortar in this instance, because as you can see on the second attempt some sort of plastic runny mystery substance was dripped around the stone. At least, I assume this was an attempted patch job… one in which they expected this gray slop to defy the laws of gravity and just stay in the crack. Can’t imagine why that didn’t work.

The third attempt actually managed to seal off the cracks, because they used a clear silicone caulk. Um. Seriously? I know I am the queen for not using tools and/or building supplies for their intended purpose… but, bathroom caulk? (Then again, I’m talking about people who patched holes in the walls with scotch tape, so I cannot even imagine why I’m surprised.)

So, lets talk about mortar.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a mason. I know some things about concrete, mortar, grout, and cement by virtue of the fact that I worked in the concrete industry for a few good years, but I’m not an expert, and certainly not a tradesman. What I am (and you all know) is fearless about taking on projects around my house, mostly because no matter what I do, it will never be as screwed up as what the previous owners have done. So, the information and pictures that follow will likely make a seasoned mason cringe right down to the very depths of his soul. However, this cost me $7 in materials and it worked, so I’m still going to share. 

The first thing I did was cleaned out as much of the old mortar as I could, using my favorite tools of destruction: A hammer and screwdriver.

Near the bottom I found something that made my eyeballs roll all the way back into my head:


I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry… but I have to say it just this once.

What. The. Fuck.

Obviously this chunk fell out at some point, but then another piece of stone was inexplicably glued to the back?? And shoved back in the hole??? Because… I mean… I can’t even think of a plausible explanation for this. Like the toothpicks in the screw holes upstairs were somewhat understandable, but… I don’t even know what to say. This is me. Speechless.

It’s not pretty, but this is as clean as I could get it. (And notice me still leaving room for mortar joints around the chunk.)


So, here we are, fairly cleaned out:


I think I chipped a little bit more of the side mortar out about half-way up, and then used a paint brush to clear out any dust/dirt/chunks-of-mystery-substance. Unfortunately there wasn’t much that could be done about the inch of mortar colored outside the lines there without damaging the brick, so I’ll live with it.

I found these little $7 bags of mortar for patching at Home Depot, and while leary about the add-water-and-squish method of mixing that they recommend, I gave it a shot.


(Yes, I’m barefoot and sitting indian style.)

Here’s my recommendation, pour the powder into a bucket first and then add the 7 oz. of water, and stir it up with that fun little yellow putty knife they give you. The squish method did not work so well. Also, resist temptation to add more water… mortar is about right when you can scoop out a 3/8″ thick chunk, then hold the trowel (or yellow plastic thing) vertical, and the mortar holds.


I don’t have picture of the next step because MysteryMan was nowhere to be found and I wasn’t touching my Nikon with fingers full of mortar. Suffice it to say I reached into the bag of mortar, pulled out a handfull and smushed it into place with my fingers. Cringe away masons!

I know that cement it corrosive. Believe me. And if you do this you should wear gloves and blah, blah, blah. And shoes, probably. But, hey, this is why I love being a DIYer and not a professional builder of things. I can do it my way.

Let me just say this about getting the mortar in the crack… It’s not sticky. Mortar is basically sand, water, and a really fine powder (thats the cement). What you’re aiming for is kind of like suction. You really need to get the mortar packed in there, and that’s what makes it stay.

Here’s another thing that will make a mason have an aneurism. They sell tools for striking the mortar (giving it that nice grove) and I even own one, but I wasn’t exactly sure where it was located within the 17 different spots in my house/garage where tools amass… so I just used the end of a paintbrush, which worked just as well for me.


After all of that was done (and here’s my mortaring trick) let the mortar dry for about 10 minutes or so, and then come back with a wire brush and clean of the excess which will have gotten all around the spot you actually wanted the mortar to go. I have one of those wire brushes (that looks something like a toothbrush) but it was off somewhere partying with the striker. So I dug this out of some closet.


It worked okay, but not great. And my knuckles got scraped to shit. If you’re ever going to attempt this, definitely get a wire brush.

Then I like to spray the joints (and stuff that just got scraped away) with a water bottle… it helps reduce shrinkage cracks… and come back in another 30 minutes or so and give it another go with the brush.

Which is how we go from absolute crap, to nowhere-near-perfect-but-way-better-than-before mortar joints. (And there are no longer gaping holes leading to the interior of my house, which is a bonus.)

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Everything is a little fuzzed out from the mortar, but with a couple of good rains (or blasts with the garden hose) I expect the gray residue to fade off of the brick and stone.

With that, step two, complete.  

(Also, if you did this with your fingers and no gloves… go slather about a cup of lotion on your hands because in 30 minutes there will be no moisture left in them, and your fingers will start to bear a strong resemblance the terrain of Death Valley.)

9 Responses

  1. i love that your house entertains me. well you are doing the entertaining with the color commentary, nevertheless, i am entertained.

    and glad to see you use the real mayo in the tator salad. that’s important to me.

  2. “Which is how we go from absolute crap, to nowhere-near-perfect-but-way-better-than-before mortar joints.”

    Excellent Line!!!

  3. Yanno, the project looks like a success to me, though I’m compelled to offer one tip–rubber gloves.

    We keep boxes of them on our site. Latest use was working with thinset but right before that it was doing brick and stone work. The Missus PREFERS to use her fingers when setting bricks and doing patches.

    Anyway, I consider rubber gloves a tool. They’re cheap, too from Big Lots.

    Nice work. Keep it up.


  4. Nice job with the nailbrush. LOL

    There are those that have to have the exact tool, and the next step up is those who can see they need something just a little bit different, and aren’t afraid to experiment to get the tool they need.

    The finished product looks great. Keep up the good work.

  5. Wow! Great work – it looks so much better. I think we bought our house from the same people you did:)
    Oh – but toothpicks in screw holes is a standard solution for stripped screw holes. It’s totally acceptable. So they weren’t being too weird on that one. The caulk instead of mortar, however, is tragic.

  6. I had an awesome guy do my house. I learned a couple of his trade secrets. One, use a thing he calls a “cake bag”. It serves the same function as the bag people use to decorate cakes. It’ll keep the mortar from over flowing.

    After striking (running the metal guy over the joints) he brushes it with a “soft brush”. This takes streaks out. I think he said he waits about 20 minutes. I could be wrong.

    To get any excess off or haze, they wait until it dries and they spray it with some kind of acid and then brush it off with brooms.

  7. I know this post is from a long time ago, but…Ever consider a little stucco paint and a small brush to minimize the extra gray on the bricks? Once upon a time my mother-in-law helped me prep my house for sale by meticulously dabbing the decorative interior bricks with a tiny paint brush to undo the damage that was there.

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