renovation home
our projects
brick houses
getting on TOH
tin ceilings
water problems
old house worries
Phouka Home

"A Doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines" - Frank Lloyd Wright

Your Brick House....

Since I can only speak from experience, my own house is an 1884 Brick story and a half house. It has the elaborate gingerbread work of a Queen Anne, but lacks the turrets or fancy windows that seem the basis for that style. We're always at a loss to decide what style it really is. It does have a fabulous wrap around porch, and multi-shaped shingle siding on the second story gables. So, here are a few things that I've learned about brick houses since we started living in this one eight years ago.

Basically, brick is durable and long-lived as long as the mortar joints are sound. Brick houses are susceptible to moisture -- more so than wooden framed houses -- but require very little maintenance.

Fewer new houses are built of brick, since the cost is truly exorbitant for anything other than a brick facade. Surprisingly, a brick facade or skirt seems to be the sign of a custom or semi-custom home here in Colorado, and whole crops of new houses are thinly sheathed in brick (or sometimes "fake" brick). I'm lucky enough to have a full 15" thick double-brick-with-airspace wall: fine rubbed brick with tiny butter joints for the exterior, and larger rough brick for the interior of the wall. The airspace between is for insulation.

A couple of Don'ts for brick

  • Don't assume that old mortar needs to be replaced - don't repoint or tuckpoint unless you really need to. Old mortar is usually of a higher lime content (hence the term lime-mortar) than the newer replacement mortar you are likely to find to repoint, and the high portland cement content of new mortar can damage old walls beyond repair.
  • Don't seal bricks with a water repellent (i.e., water seal) - it can mean that any moisture that is already in the brick stays in the brick, and interior moisture may not be able to escape. Remember that moisture is the bane of any brick structure, and allowing the bricks to breathe is important.
  • Don't use hydrochloric acid (muriatic acid) to clean brick, it can cause discoloration or mottling that is permanent. See some hints below on how to clean discolored bricks.
  • Don't clean limestone or marble with an acidic cleaner, it will discolor the stone.
  • NEVER sandblast old brick! Sandblasting can damage the hard surface of fired brick and open the bricks up to water damage. Not to mention that fact that it can turn beautifully rubbed facing brick into dented, pitted clinkers, and can blast out softened mortar joints. Sandblasting can irretrievably ruin good buildings. Yes, I know that you've seen building sandblasted and they've been just fine, but do you want the wonderful turn-of-the-century house you just bought to be the example that crumbles away? I wouldn't. Don't do it.

    That said, there are alternatives to sand-blasting that could be used if the brick is heavily soiled or stained. Some other options include rice-hulls, styrofoam balls, nutshells, etc. All of these options are easier on brick, althougn still risky. They require far less pressure, and may be safer. Still, the only surface really suited to sandblasting is metalwork.

  • Never use expansion joints in historic masonry - they can pulverize brick and ruin mortar joints. Many old brick exterior walls are built with wooden beams (ledger boards) embedded in the brick that are used to attach porch roofs or other exterior structures. Inside, we have made do with picture rails and carefully pre-drilled screws when we absolutely have to. For the most part, anything hung in our house is hung on a screw or nail that was already there! Crown City Hardware and other mail order vendors sell reproduction hooks that are used with picture rails.

Cleaning Brickwork

For normal dirt and grime, simply use plain water, rinsing with a hose and scrubbing with a stiff bristled brush. For stubborn stains, add 1/2c ammonia to a bucket of water. Rinse well. Don't use a powerwasher except as a last resort - if you have a crumbling brick problem, this will make it worse (not to mention old windows don't stand up to high pressure water very well).

We've found that simply spraying with a hose now and then to rinse of any dirt that is spattered on the house from sprinklers or rain is all we need.

Removing Organic Growth

If brick has been continually moist, it will often start to grow a variety of molds and mosses. This is the same problem that can plague shake roofs, which often start to look green and fuzzy after a few years. This bespeaks of an underlying water problem, but it fairly easy to remedy.

First, scrape the moss or mold off the surface with a non-metallic spatula (the same kind you'd use on Teflon), and then apply a wash of 1 part bleach to 4 parts water to kill the spores. After a couple of days, scrape again and rewash. It will probably take a few applications to kill everything off.

Of course, you need to address the underlying moisture problem, or you'll be repeating the process for years.

Painting Brickwork

As far as I'm concerned, there really is a special place in hell for anyone who paints facing brick. They must spend eternity picking paint out of the pores of old brick with toothpicks.

However, some older brick houses were meant to be painted. They are constructed of rougher bricks, or seconds, and were designed to be painted to seal them from the elements. Often they were whitewashed, or painted with fanciful colors to mimic stone work.

If the house was painted originally, then by all means repaint it after doing the appropriate prep work. If you do paint, make sure you use a paint that is formulated for masonry, usually 100% acrylic latex.

Problems with Brick

  • Dirty or stained brickwork can be caused by moisture, time, dirt kicked up against the wall by rain or sprinklers, etc. Clean with a stiff brush.Deteriorated Pointing affects many old houses. Mortar starts to disintegrate between the bricks, which can cause the entire wall to collapse, or single bricks to crumble. This is one of the most serious things to look for. It can cause cracking, spalling, water damage, collapse, etc. Repointing is the only solution.

    If you repoint or tuckpoint, make sure to use a mortar that is appropriate. Most new portland cement mortars are too hard for old brickwork and can cause other problems because they expand and contract at a different rate than the high-lime mortars used a hundred years ago.

  • Cracked brickwork usually results from mortar joints deteriorating, or some misguided attempt to move a brick building (like mine!). Repoint or replace pointing entirely, and replace the broken bricks where necessary.
  • Eflorescence results from bricks getting wet, which leaves deposits of salts that are drawn out of the masonry as the moisture evaporates. Clean the brickwork and find the source of the moisture.
  • This is not terribly serious if it is a small area, or it has an easy to identify source. It if continues, you have a moisture problem that needs to be solved. We had a cracked pipe in an exterior wall that seeped moisture into the wall for over a month before we realized it was happening. Even though the source of the moisture is now stopped, in wet weather, the outline of the original stain can be seen on the bricks, eight years later. Moisture is insidious.
  • Spalled brickwork is also common. Once bricks have been wet, the expansion of freezing water breaks off the top surface of the brick, leaving the inner surface exposed. After a time, most of these bricks will crumble completely.
  • The porous interior of bricks are often exposed when the bricks have frozen and spalled, or the hard "fired" surface has been breached, leaving the inner surface, which is not fired, exposed. The surfaces have opened up to water, and they will act like big red sponges. They will eventually crumble -- water and bricks don't mix. Replace these bricks if at all possible.
  • Deteriorating wood trim is also a problem in brick houses. Just like any old house, weather and time take their toll on woodwork. Gutters, gingerbread work, fascia, and porch posts are all susceptible to water and the seasons. In most cases this damage can be repaired, and if not, reproductions of the damaged elements can be made.


Tri-State Cut Stone & Brick Co.
Acme Brick Company
Brampton Brick Limited
Brick Institute of America -technical notes
Canada Brick
Church Brick Company
Glen-Ger Brick a guide to brick design.
Industrie Laterizi Riunite
Redland Brick, Inc.
Robinson Brick Company
Universal Thermo Brique Inc.
US Brick


Send me a comment or question
All content ©1998-2009 R. Fingerson
Last updated 03/05/2009