Better Know A Brick: Part 3

Anatomy of A Rowhouse, Bricks
In Part 1 of Better Know A Brick (BKAB), we went over some basic brick terminology. Now that you can separate your stretchers from your headers and you’re comfortable that you’d never confuse a soldier with a sailor, let’s talk wythes and courses.
The toughest part about wythes is settling on how the word is pronounced- some folks say the word so that it sounds like “width” which is essentially what it means. Other folks pronounce it with a hard “i” so it sounds like “Blythe”. Those truly in the know pronounce it somewhere in between so they can never be wrong.
A wythe is a vertical section of masonry that is one unit thick. It’s easier to illustrate than to define:
Brick-terms-1The photo below shows the back of one of our houses after we removed the rear wall. As you look at the party walls, you can see that they’re essentially two bricks wide- in brick speak, you’d say they’re two wythes thick.
We already made a course pun (better than a coarse pun) in last week’s post about belt courses, so we’ll spare you here: a course of bricks is a horizontal layer one unit high. If you imagine yourself laying a brick wall, every time you make the wall one brick higher, you’re adding a course.
Next up in BKAB: with courses and wythes sorted out, it’s time to talk about…Bonds. Brick Bonds.

Happy Holidays From Eager Street


Image courtesy of Google Books

Two brick-lit posts in one week? What a gift!
In the October 5, 1920 edition of the Brick and Clay Record, the editors suggested that December ‘twould be the season for spreading holiday cheer through brick-themed Christmas cards. “Officials of the association have put their heads together, and produced a fine set of Christmas cards…All winter scenes are used, each typifying an important use for brick.”

Image courtesy of Google Books

Below are some close-ups of the cards, 25,000 of which were made and sent out to the “building public.”


“May your home be invaded at this season with that good cheer that comes from the warmth and security of walls that exclude all unfriendly elements.”
“If it was not for brick, there would be no fireplaces. If there were not fireplaces, there would be no Santa Claus.”
Here in Baltimore, the Champion Brick Company (a relatively small outfit on the East side of town) put out their own Christmas card in 1947. Happy Holidays from bricklaying Santa and all of us on Eager Street.

Image courtesy of the Enoch Pratt Free Library


You Still Don’t Have to Take Our Word For it

We’ve already had Charles Varle tout our bricks as being both bold and beautiful, but his rave came from 1833. For a more recent review, we now turn to George Washington Howard, who wrote all about Baltimore bricks in his 1873 sketch of the city titled, “The Monumental City: Its Past History and Present Resources”.

Image courtesy of Google Books


“The clay in the vicinity of Baltimore, the finest in the world, is peculiarly adapted to the manufacture of Brick…The quality of Bricks made in the City is unsurpassed by that of any made in the world, as is evidenced by the fact that they are shipped to all seaport towns and along all the different railroad lines leading out of Baltimore.”


It’s true. As early as the mid 19th century (when high transportation costs meant that brickmaking was largely a local enterprise), prized Baltimore bricks were shipped to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. We’ve picked, cleaned, and palletized about 75,000 bricks so far, so we can assure you that our bricks are every bit as solid as GWH’s endorsement.

Check Out This Wonderful Old Brick Brochure

I wanted to start this post by saying that bricks get a bad rap, but that’s not entirely true. It’d be more accurate to say that bricks get no rap; they’re so ubiquitous that they’re hardly noticed. On Eager Street, we notice bricks- we’ve salvaged about 40,000 of them so far. Every brick we handle was produced by the Baltimore Brick Company. A larger post dedicated to the BBC is forthcoming, but we thought we’d share this gem we found in the Vertical Files of the Enoch Pratt Library.
The Baltimore Brick Company was presented with the dilemma of fully acknowledging the prosaic and, frankly, boring nature of their product while, well, trying to sell that product. Behold their masterpiece:
“The lowly brick. And yet…A mighty factor in the Progress of Baltimore.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
The building in the illustration is what we now call the Bank of America building, but it was called the Baltimore Trust Building when it was built in 1929. The words “built in 1929” usually spell trouble: the massive cost of construction (around $3 million) collided with the Great Depression, resulting in the eventual bankruptcy of the Baltimore Trust Company. The building was largely vacant within a year.

The Bank of America Building as it stands today. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually the building achieved steady occupancy and became the iconic member of the Baltimore skyline you see in the above photo. It also became a shining 34-story advertisement for the quality product of the Baltimore Brick Company, the same folks who made our bricks on Eager Street. Next up for the copper-peaked beaut: it’s being turned in 445 luxury apartments.

You don’t have to take our word for it…

We like to talk a lot about how great our bricks are, but we’re going to start letting other folks do the talking for us. First up, Mr. Charles Varle, who we couldn’t interview because he died roughly 150 years ago. Nonetheless, here is his take, as recorded in his 1833 monograph “A Complete View of Baltimore”:

Image courtesy of Google Books


The best bricks in the US are manufactured in Baltimore, and the exportation of that branch of industry is now considerable.”


Thanks, Mr. Varle! We couldn’t agree more.




Better Know a Brick: Part 2

In this installation of BKAB, we’re going to talk about spalling.

Appalled: a spalled wall. NOT from Eager Street!

Water is an enemy of masonry, and this relentless and ubiquitous foe can can cause bricks to spall. Spalling describes the gradual process of brick erosion stemming from moisture trapped and released during freeze/thaw cycles. This moisture can come from contact with the ground, or it can seep through overlaying layers of plaster, or it can be the result of direct contain with rain. When most people think of porosity, a brick is likely to be among the last things that come to mind, but bricks are indeed porous, with some bricks being much more so than others. When the moisture absorbed by a brick freezes, it expands, creating slight fractures in the brick in the process. During a thaw, the moisture is released, along with the tiny flakes of brick created during the freeze.

This brick is a shell of its former self after experiencing countless freeze/thaw cycles

Not all bricks are created equal, however. Bricks fired at higher temperatures for longer are generally less porous, so they are less susceptible to spalling. Take the bricks on Eager Street, for instance. The bricks we’ve harvested are not nearly as porous as many others, and for this reason we’ve seen practically no spalling. In fact, the foundations of the houses on Eager Street are made of brick, which some folks see as a no-no because contact with ground moisture could cause deterioration. But the foundation bricks of the Eager Street houses are super hard with very little porosity, fired high and long to that beautiful purple color you’ve seen in some of the photos.

Josh and Dave chip away at a foundation wall to salvage brick. The foundations of our houses are made of hard, dense brick with low porosity.


Powdery bricks called “salmon bricks” because of their telltale color were intended for interior wythes and were not designed to withstand the elements. But what happens when a rowhouse is demolished, leaving its neighbor with an exposed party wall that might be composed of weaker bricks? If left exposed to the elements, the bricks would likely crumble to dust. Such walls are generally plastered over with an impervious material, but cracks or leaks in this surface layer might actually create channels for moisture to seep in and become trapped! While salmon and water mix just fine, salmon brick and water don’t. See the photo below for proof.

Salmon brick dust



Better Know A Brick: Part 1

There’s more to a brick than, well, a brick. In this first installment of Better Know A Brick (BKAB), we’ll go over some brick lingo.
The photo below shows a brick as it is typically laid in a wall. The bed of the brick would receive the mortar. The face is what we call the part of the brick that remains exposed in a wall; when it’s the long narrow side, it’s called a stretcher. The shorter narrow part is called a header. The arris is simply the corner or edge formed by the intersection of two surfaces.
brick1 copy
Now it gets a bit tricky. Let’s say the brick was oriented as in the photo below, laid on its narrow long edge (what we’d usually call the face). A new orientation means new names: if the broad surface of the brick (the part we’d call the bed if it was laid flat) is showing, it’s called a shiner. Laid on edge rather than flat, the end of the brick is called a rowlock.

brick2 copy

One final orientation: if the brick is laid on its end with the wide part exposed, it’s called a sailor, and if it’s laid on its end with the narrow edge exposed, it’s called a soldier.
brick3 copy
For next time: courses, wythes, and bonds!

Bricks: From the Pile to the Pallet

Bricks, Reclaimed Bricks, Salvage
The first seven rowhouses on Eager Street have now been reduced to piles of bricks and mortar. Our job for the past week or so has been to take these piles and organize them into neatly stacked pallets of beautiful Baltimore brick. Before we began pulling bricks from the piles, we separated any wood matter so that it could be recycled.


With our operator Reds’ help, we then transformed our massive pile of bricks into several slightly less massive piles of bricks. Reds scooped up shovelfuls of brick and deposited them in three processing areas.
We then began the laborious (but very Zen) process of sorting through tens of thousands of bricks and identifying the ones we can salvage. On our site, brick processing follows a three part rhythm: pick, clean, stack.


During the first step, picking, there are a couple basic things we’re looking for:
1. Complete bricks: no partial bricks allowed.
2. There must be a clean face with minimal to no chipping.
cleanfacesOnce these very basic standards have been met, we begin the process of cleaning the bricks. The idea here is to remove any mortar left clinging to the brick. The bricks from Eager Street were laid with lime-based mortar, which makes our job infinitely easier than if we had to remove Portland cement-based mortar. Portland cement became popular during the late 19th century, and by the 1930s it had supplanted lime as the primary binding agent in mortar. Portland cement mortar sets quicker and harder than lime mortar, which has made it a preferred construction material. For folks involved in deconstruction, it’s something of an arch nemesis; it’s just not practical to chip it away, tiny piece by tiny piece. Lime-based mortar, on the other hand, flakes away relatively easily and can be removed without too much trouble.
The photo below shows some of the tools we use. From the left, they are: a) a wire brush for removing bits of weakly adhered mortar, b) a brick hammer (sometimes called a mason’s hammer) that can be used to knock off chunks of mortar,with either the traditional hammer end used against a separately held chisel, or the chisel end used directly against the mortar, c) a mason’s chisel that can be used to break away chunks of mortar or as a beefy scraper, d) a 5-in-1 scraper tool to remove any stubborn bits of mortar from the brick’s surface, e) a smaller “beater” chisel that’s good for removing large chunks of mortar when placed just so, and f) a wire welding brush with slightly tougher bristles.


Once the bricks are cleaned, they’re tossed to a stacker who arranges them on pallets in a basket-weave pattern. We stack our pallets 13 courses high with 40 bricks per course for a total of 520 bricks per pallet. We then shrink wrap them and, voila!, a pile of century-old rubble turns into a gorgeous arrangement of reclaimed bricks, ranging in color from pomegranate (thanks to crew-member Reggie for the naming suggestion) to cherry red to a dark salmon hue.